Vladimir Nabokov
Vladimir Nabokov; drawing by David Levine

Andrew Field’s critical book, Nabokov, His Life in Art, published ten years ago, still stands out as an inquisitive, catholic, and satisfying study of a macabre and lyrical grammarian of genius, the pages of whose novels blister the hands as one turns them. His intellect has the fever of the classic Russian gambler. The game is sometimes cards—he writes his books on index cards, and even talks by them in formal interviews—but mostly chess, played to prosecute and win.

Now, in attempting a portrait or a “Life in Part,” as he rather nervously calls it, Mr. Field has discreetly joined in Nabokov’s game. He arrives at the famous hotel in Montreux with tape recorder, pencil, and notebook, to work on a “first biography” of the novelist whose charming wife looks on as the players sit opposite each other. Curious that a novelist who has put on autobiographical masks in his writing, who strongly believes that a writer’s intimate life is in his works, and who has exposed a persona in Speak Memory, should want his biography to be done now. Perhaps Speak Memory has left him with the irritating sensation—which all autobiographers know—that the memoir has the half-vacant stare of a premature tombstone; perhaps he is tired of the gaps and the flattening, telescoping tricks of recollection, and can’t bear to think of things he forgot at the time.

But, as Mr. Field says, Nabokov is above all a professional. Both husband and wife, for all their deep privacy, are aware that a first biography of any famous person sets a tone for its successors. The odd thing is that Nabokov, who is something of an actor and intensely aware of projected selves and double natures, who knows that one lives in other people’s lives as well as in one’s own, showed alarm when, for example, Field revealed that he had questioned others already, including Nabokov’s sister. The large Nabokov family is an empire and thinks of its anecdotage as a closed shop. One really does not want to become an anecdote outside the circle, but fears that this is what biography means. There is no special vanity in this: one is entitled to contradict one’s brother, sister, aunts and uncles. One is not even necessarily vain: an imaginative man hates to see his “pleasing, anxious being” wasted in mere family gossip.

What about Field, the competitor (as he calls himself) in the game of biographical chess? The opening chapters are really a defensive examination of the biographical maneuver and in this are highly Nabokovian. There is even a comic incident. Arriving one Sunday for lunch at the perfectly out-of-date and grand hotel in Montreux, Field wore an open-necked shirt and no jacket, thinking that he was going to eat in the Nabokovs’ vast apartment. But on Sundays they eat “hotel food” in the restaurant and Mme Nabokov tactfully suggests that he wear one of Nabokov’s jackets. It fits admirably and Field has the teasing Nabokovian sensation of Nabokov looking at a surrogate Nabokov. This nuance has an additional aspect: since they have left America for long periods and settled in Europe again, the Nabokovs have become European once more. Even before the flight from Russia, the Nabokovs belonged to the cosmopolitan class whose members spent a good deal of their lives abroad. Nothing could be more European than the Nabokovs bickering together with the waiter about the wine and sending it back.

More serious questions arise as the biographical sketching proceeds. We are in that now well-known house in St. Petersburg and the rich, happy childhood: Russians concentrate on childhood—see Oblomov’s dream and Aksakov—knowing that calamity is usually the Russian fate later on. Are the Nabokovs, with their distinguished legend going back to the southern prong of the Tartar invasion, and their later connection with Baltic barons, aristocrats? Not strictly so, by Western or old Russian standards. They are post-Peter the Great, intellectual aristocrats who have served the tsars in armies and high administration; nobles, but in European and American terms an upper middle class with more “glamor,” from which the Russian writers and thinkers had always sprung. They are like the Turgenevs and Tolstoys. There were reactionary, acerbic Nabokovs who were outraged by Nabokov’s father for being what they called a “Radical” or a “Red” (really a liberal) and not anti-Semitic. Loving to exaggerate, the reactionaries claimed that the father had fifty Jewish servants in his house.

The full portrait of Nabokov’s father is moving, and suggests a closeness of mind with the son. There is the father’s professional concern with abnormal psychology and crime; he was a passionate lepidopterist, a dandy, capable of fantastically hard work night and day, an insomniac, a close friend of Jews—his son’s wife is Jewish. There is scholarship, great reserve, and great gaiety in father and son, but the father has the gravity of the dedicated public life. When the son grew up he cultivated a moustache exactly like his father’s.


Some of this we know from the novelist’s own memories. More important is the account of the first exile in Berlin after the Civil War. Berlin became a tiny and distinguished Russia. The belief of the exiles that they would soon be able to go back was not entirely silly, although one suspects that such a brilliant intellectual community capable of supporting itself would be prone to self-delusion. Field’s long account of the Berlin years is the most interesting part of the book. Nabokov’s Berlin is not the Berlin of Brecht or Grosz, or what he calls the “vulgar” scene of Isherwood, though in fact the scraping of a living by teaching, translating, and living in pensions is there. The young Nabokov knew little German and refused to learn more. The history of Russo-German personal and business relations is long: but the decisive influences, for Russian professional men among the émigrés in the Weimar period, were that there was a large number of them and that they could find work, especially in publishing and journalism, small theaters, and even in films. (Printing and paper were cheap.) Also, Berlin was preferred to Paris because it was next door to Russia. Some took the risk of return—Pasternak for example.

The general mood was either politically hopeful or neo-Chekhovian: Nabokov’s was neither. His feeling about freedom was absolute: also, it must be said, he was well placed. His practical and saintly father was there and, before he was assassinated by two right-wing fanatics in 1922, he had founded with others the successful émigré newspaper. (There were Russians with foreign investments although the elder Nabokov had refused to invest abroad for reasons of patriotism and social idealism.) At first the young Nabokov tried working in a bank but he and the bank disagreed about clothes: the bank did not like a young man who turned up in a sweater. Anyway he was serious about writing, as a poet and storyteller. He scraped a living by taking pupils and tutoring by day and writing at night. With luck he could earn four dollars for a poem and thirty for a story. He invented a pseudonym Sirin.

This name was prophetic of a lasting taste for the bizarre and for metamorphoses, as Field points out: the sirin has a mythological connection with Sirene, the harpy-mermaid, but had come to be thought of as an owl with long tail feathers, a man’s face, and a hand of three fingers. It is male but is sometimes given breasts and carries a lyre. This Picasso-like invention is felt also to be magical. It is dead right that Nabokov was translating Alice in Wonderland into Russian while attempting his first stories and his skits for cabarets and that his gifts were noted by the rising German cinema; but his most likely scenario was turned down in the end because the central character had no substance and the theme was too erotic. His serious talents were also noted by the important critics and by the end of the long Berlin period his reputation was made, though it left him and his wife struggling. His own opinion is that he stayed in Berlin too long, for, of course, the expatriate society had lost its verve and had begun to feel the boredom of its limbo. In a way the Nazis did his talent a good turn in awakening him to the danger he, his wife, and his talent would soon be in.

Where does the exile go? To Paris, Cannes; yes, and he wrote his excellent early novel Despair in French. But, as Turgenev and other Russians found, the insularity, the intellectual de haut en bas, and the parceling habits of the French intellect are exasperating. For one who had read, spoken, and written English since he was a child and had been at Trinity, Cambridge, England would have seemed a “natural” choice—but for one of less impatient temper. He reacted against English reserve and self-control, and was too young to notice the safety valve of English eccentricity. It was both shrewd and lucky that Nabokov chose America, for to succeed in England he would have had to cope with the English love of the pressures of social obligation and the deep ironies of the class system, so closely linked with it. A Conrad could be transplanted because he had learned moral discipline as a seaman. Conrad’s badly spoken English was admired. Nabokov would have been admired as a well-bred dog is—and that would have been fatal.


Two other matters which Field does not mention: first, young English writers of talent had a grim time earning a living or getting a hearing in the Thirties and, secondly, Nabokov thrived on anarchy and needed a country which, before anything else, was good for the ego and lived privately by its nostalgias; where a rootlessness and restlessness are opportune, and where the will to compete and win at any cost is the beginning of virtue. Nabokov shows that will in every one of his images and in his ice-skating style.

Field’s American chapters are informative. Like many a new arrival Nabokov became, it appears, a shade boisterous; he stunned his students—those who learned must have learned vastly from him. He worked like the devil, offended some academies—Harvard for example—who detected the artist’s willful condescension. He looks back now with special happiness to Wellesley and the small colleges.

The most amusing pages in the American experience are on the testy comedy of his relations with Edmund Wilson. There was a period of intense friendship, for Wilson’s help was generous: he got Nabokov on to The New Republic and, more important, to The New Yorker. He helped him again and again in his academic career. Both men were pugnacious in argument and, of course, in Wilson’s Marxist period, opposed in politics. They had their pedantries. Part of the strain developed, Field suggests, because Nabokov misjudged Wilson’s arrival at a dominant position in American letters; each of the two contestants inhabited a world of his own. I can easily understand that Nabokov’s mixture of quick anger and wild laughter and particularly his love of ragging and practical jokes would not go down well, for Wilson, who enjoyed his own practical jokes, also had his Johnsonian dignity. There was also, Field suggests, a subtle difference of upper-middle-class status between the two men and both would be privately conscious of it, indeed Nabokov not so privately. Field says:

Wilson was born in Red Bank, New Jersey. His father was a very successful professional man. Something might be explained of the slight but essential difference between Nabokov and Wilson if we momentarily transpose the Nabokov family from Russia. Had the Nabokov family lived near the Wilson family in New Jersey, they surely would not have lived in professional Red Bank but in nearby Rumson, where that part of southern New Jersey’s upper class…lived. Nabokov had many skills which had been given to him in childhood by tutors and governesses, but Wilson compensated for that by the range of his interests, even in comparison with those of Nabokov. There cannot be the slightest doubt that Nabokov looked upon his friend’s efforts at catholicity not without a certain amount of condescension.

That last sentence contains the heart of the matter. They would have been closer when they were boys who both enormously admired H.G. Wells and persisted in that admiration. They fought over Dr. Zhivago and Malraux and Faulkner’s syntax: they loved finding mistakes in that delicate matter, English usage, quotations, and recondite words, and even more in Russian. But the rows about the Onegin translation and Lolita were very serious, not quite at the pitch of the quarrels of Tolstoy and Turgenev, but rather like them. I doubt that Wilson was embittered when he saw Lolita get away with far more than he had been allowed to do years before, in Hecate County, for Wilson was deeply serious in his social investigations: he was not an “ethnic” wit. But, as Mr. Field says, when eventually the full correspondence comes out, other contestants will have cause to join the fight.

It is next to impossible to write a satisfying biography with your subject sitting before you. Field gets around this to some extent by printing the literal spoken words of both Nabokovs in heavier type and then adding his own discursive commentary. This certainly brings Nabokov and his wife into the foreground in a living way, but one really learns more about the novelist and the man in Mr. Field’s earlier, critical study.

This Issue

June 9, 1977