Nabokov is the high priest of sensuality and desire, the magus who knows virtually everything about what is at once the most solemn and the most elusive of all our painful joys—the stab of erotic pleasure, that emblem of transitory happiness on earth. As Proust observed, ardor is the only form of possession in which the possessor possesses nothing.
But if passion is the treasure (that is, the absence) that lies at the heart of the great pyramid of Nabokov’s art, he has been careful to protect it from the vulgar, the prying, the smug; he has surrounded his secret riches with a maze of false corridors, of precariously balanced, easily triggered, almost lethal megaliths. These are the notorious traps, the crushing menhirs of Nabokov’s wit, his scorn, his savage satire. Nonetheless I’d insist that passion, not brilliance or cruelty or erudition or the arrogant perfection of his craft, is his master motif, that his intelligence is at the service of the emotions.
In a superb story, perhaps his best, “Spring in Fialta,” first written in Russian and published in 1938, the love between the narrator and the heroine, Nina, is contrasted with—I’m tempted to say safeguarded by—the contempt directed at her husband, Ferdinand. Nina is an impulsive, generous, but negligent woman who has often given herself to the narrator (and to many other men along the way); just as suddenly and often she has forgotten the gift she’s conferred on them. The narrator first meets Nina in Russia “around 1917,” as he says with an eerie casualness, and they exchange their first embrace outdoors in winter:
Windows light up and stretch their luminous lengths upon the dark billowy snow, making room for the reflection of the fan-shaped light above the front door between them. Each of the two side-pillars is fluffily fringed with white, which rather spoils the lines of what might have been a perfect ex libris for the book of our two lives. I cannot recall why we had all wandered out of the sonorous hall into the still darkness, peopled only with firs, snow-swollen to twice their size; did the watchmen invite us to look at a sullen red glow in the sky, portent of nearing arson? Possibly. Did we go to admire an equestrian statue of ice sculptured near the pond by the Swiss tutor of my cousins? Quite as likely. My memory revives only on the way back to the brightly symmetrical mansion towards which we tramped in single file along a narrow furrow between snowbanks, with that crunch-crunch-crunch which is the only comment that a taciturn winter night makes upon humans. I walked last; three singing steps ahead of me walked a small bent shape; the firs gravely showed their burdened paws. I slipped and dropped the dead flashlight someone had forced upon me; it was devilishly hard to retrieve; and instantly attracted by my curses, with an eager, low laugh in anticipation of fun, Nina dimly veered toward me. I call her Nina, but I could hardly have known her name yet, hardly could we have had time, she and I, for any preliminary; “Who’s that?” she asked with interest—and I was already kissing her neck, smooth and quite fiery hot from the long fox fur of her coat collar, which kept getting into my way until she clasped my shoulder, and with the candor so peculiar to her gently fitted her generous, dutiful lips to mine.
When the narrator sees Nina indoors a minute later, he is astonished “not so much by her inattention to me after that warmth in the snow as by the innocent naturalness of that inattention….”
In this passage, the visual memory turns instantly into visual invention, when the lit doorway nearly becomes an ex libris. The seemingly innocent description soon enough resolves itself into an emblem—“out of books,” indeed, since the scene that follows is reminiscent of Chekhov’s “The Kiss”—the same mansion, a similar party, the same passionate kiss between strangers. Moreover, the quality of the narrator and Nina’s intermittent affair is always novelistic and the language used to recount it is invariably the language of literature: “Again and again she hurriedly appeared in the margins of my life, without influencing in the least its basic text.”
If this marginal romance—lusty, a bit sentimental, not quite honest, genuinely moving but also tinged with poshlust—is related by a narrator who is a writer manqué, then the ghastly Ferdinand, Nina’s husband, is nothing but a writer—diabolic, coldly technical. In fact, he is one of those many grotesque versions of himself Nabokov planted throughout his fiction, a sort of signature not unlike Hitchcock’s fleeting appearances in his own films. This particular double is particularly unappetizing, driven as he is with a “fierce relish” for ugly things and woebegone people: “Like some autocrat who surrounds himself with hunchbacks and dwarfs, he would become attached to this or that hideous object; this infatuation might last from five minutes to several days or even longer if the thing happened to be animate.”
In “Spring in Fialta,” which is just twenty-one pages long, Nabokov manages to generate as dense a sense of lived-through time as can be found in many novels. He achieves this narrative density by two means: a complex but rigorous time scheme; and the juxtaposition of highly contrasted moods. I won’t dwell on the time scheme now except to mention that the story progresses on two planes: connected episodes at Fialta in the present that alternate with memories of past trysts with Nina in many cities over the years. Both the present and the past are told sequentially and the last flashback to be presented is the narrator’s most recent memory of Nina. In other words, these two systems of time converge to produce the final scene, in which Nina is killed when her car crashes into a traveling circus company, whose arrival has been heralded throughout the tale by dozens of tiny details, as at sea the approach of land is promised by a quickening flux of grass, twigs, and land birds. The two time schemes and the payoff of the circus’s appearance at the end tie together everything.
But the actual sense of time passing also depends on the rapid alternation of contrasted scenes, a technique perfected by Tolstoy. These scenes are either satirical or romantic. Some of the romantic scenes are not scenes at all but instead beautifully rendered telescopings of time:
Once I was shown her photograph in a fashion magazine full of autumn leaves and gloves and wind-swept golf links. On a certain Christmas she sent me a picture post card with snow and stars. On a Riviera beach she almost escaped my notice behind her dark glasses and terra-cotta tan. Another day, having dropped in on an ill-timed errand at the house of some strangers where a party was in progress, I saw her scarf and fur coat among alien scarecrows on a coat rack. In a bookshop she nodded to me from a page of one of her husband’s stories….
The tone of these passages is elegiac, tender, and sensual; it is Nabokov’s genius (as one might speak of the genius of a place or of a language) to have kept alive almost single-handedly in our century a tradition of tender sensuality. In most contemporary fiction tenderness is a sexless family feeling and sensuality either violent or impersonal or both. By contrast, Nabokov is a Pascin of romantic carnality. He writes in “Spring in Fialta”: “Occasionally in the middle of a conversation her name would be mentioned, and she would run down the steps of a chance sentence, without turning her head.” Only a man who loved women as much as he desired them could write such a passage.
What makes the narrator of this tale a writer manqué is his uncritical—one might say his uninjured—ease in the world of the sentiments. There is no bite, no obliqueness, no discomfort in his responses, and though he is in no danger of becoming vulgar, he is close to that other Nabokovian sin, philistinism. No wonder he is repelled by the real writer, Ferdinand, the center of the satirical scenes with their passages that send up the culture industry, the fatiguing milieu of art groupies. Ferdinand sounds a bit like a combination of the sardonic Nabokov and, improbably, a naive Western European devotee of Russian communism. But instead of focusing on Ferdinand’s bad politics, let us concentrate instead on his peculiarities as a writer:
Having mastered the art of verbal invention to perfection, he particularly prided himself on being a weaver of words, a title he valued higher than that of a writer; personally, I never could understand what was the good of thinking up books, of penning things that had not really happened in some way or other; and I remember once saying to him as I braved the mockery of his encouraging nods that, were I a writer, I should allow only my heart to have imagination, and for the rest rely upon memory, that long-drawn sunset shadow of one’s personal truth.
I had known his books before I knew him; a faint disgust was already replacing the aesthetic pleasure which I had suffered his first novel to give me. At the beginning of his career, it had been possible perhaps to distinguish some human landscape, some old garden, some dream-familiar disposition of trees through the stained glass of his prodigious prose…but with every new book the tints grew still more dense, the gules and purpure still more ominous; and today one can no longer see anything at all through that blazoned, ghastly rich glass, and it seems that were one to break it, nothing but a perfectly black void would face one’s shivering soul.
In this remarkable, and remarkably sly, passage, the narrator’s relationship to the reader (and to the writer Nabokov) becomes intricate. We know that Nabokov’s own art is not autobiographical in the simple photographic sense, and we resist the narrator’s assumptions about the sufficiency of memory to art. The narrator sounds too sincere, too Slavic, to our ears, although his objections to Ferdinand are phrased with all the suavity and eloquent conviction at Nabokov’s command. Since we, the readers, know that a figure much like the diabolical Ferdinand has written even this argument for sincerity, our relation to the text is slippery. The nastiness of these passages contrasts vividly with the tenderness of the alternating scenes to produce an almost topographical sensation of traveling though time, as though the landscape below the tip of the wing were either a mountain peak or a shadowed gorge, never a flat plain.
Many writers proceed by creating characters who are parodies of themselves or near misses or fun-house distortions, or they distribute their own characteristics across a cast of characters, and some especially like to dramatize their conflicts and indecisions by assigning them to different personages. One thinks of Proust, who gave his dilettantism to Swann, his homosexuality to Charlus, his love of his family to the narrator and his hatred of his family to Mlle. Vinteuil, his hypochondria to Aunt Leonie, his genius to Elstir and Bergotte, his snobbism to the Guermantes, his Frenchness to Françoise. In this sense (but this strict sense only) every novel, including Nabokov’s, is autobiographical. Indeed the notion of a parallel life that does, impossibly, converge with one’s own may have suggested the concept of two worlds and two histories slightly out of sync—the moiré pattern of Terra and anti-Terra woven by Ada.
But it was Nabokov’s particular delight to invent sinister or insane or talentless versions of himself, characters who are at least in part mocking anticipations of naive readers’ suspicions about the real Nabokov. For all those innocents who imagined that the author of Lolita was himself a nympholept, Nabokov prepared a hilarious response in Look at the Harlequins!, in which the narrator’s biography is composed from nothing but such crude suppositions: “As late as the start of the 1954-55 school year, with Bel nearing her thirteenth birthday, I was still deliriously happy, still seeing nothing wrong or dangerous, or absurd or downright cretinous, in the relationship between my daughter and me. Save for a few insignificant lapses—a few hot drops of overflowing tenderness, a gasp masked by a cough and that sort of stuff—my relations with her remained essentially innocent….” Essentially innocent—that’s the kind of essence that lubricates our villainous society.
Nabokov’s model for inventing such characters, the author’s disabled twin or feebler cousin, mad brother or vulgar uncle, was surely Pushkin among others, for it was Pushkin, following Byron’s lead in Don Juan, who fashioned a distorted portrait of himself in Eugene Onegin, the young man of fashion whose attitudes and deeds sometimes draw a crude outline of the poet’s own silhouette and just as often diverge completely. Of course Pushkin scrupulously disowns the resemblance (I use Nabokov’s translation):
I’m always glad to mark the dif- ference
between Onegin and myself,
lest an ironic reader
or else some publisher
of complicated calumny,
collating here my traits,
repeat thereafter shamelessly
that I have scrawled my portrait
like Byron, the poet of pride….
Before Pushkin establishes their differences he points out the similarities. He tells us that he likes Onegin’s “sharp, chilled mind” and explains their friendship by saying, “I was embittered, he was sullen….”
Wit, scorn, and the parody of romance can be a way of rescuing romance. Just as Schoenberg remarked that only the extreme recourse of his twelve-tone system was able to provide German Romantic music with another fifty years of life, so Nabokov might have asserted that only by casting Lolita into the extreme terms of a Krafft-Ebing case study, the tale of a European nympholept and his gum-snapping, wise-cracking, gray-eyed teen-age enchantress—that only by making such a radical modulation could he endow the romantic novel with new vitality.
That vitality is attributable to obsession, the virtue that is shared by vice and art. As Adorno observes in the Minima Moralia: “The universality of beauty can communicate itself to the subject in no other way than in an obsession with the particular.” The lover, like the artist, loathes the general, the vague, the wise, and lives only for the luminous singularity of the beloved or the glowing page. Everything else is insipid.
Lolita, as all the world knows, is full of parodies—parodies of literary essays, of scholarly lists of sources, of scientific treatises, of psychiatric reports, and especially of the confession and the legal defense. It is also a compendium of sometimes serious, but usually jocular, allusions to key works of nineteenth-century Romanticism, especially French fiction and verse (Humbert’s first language is French, of course, and Lolita is more Gallic than American or Russian, at least in its explicit references and models). But the function of this brilliant panoply of literary allusions is not to disown Romanticism but to recapture it. As Thomas R. Frosch remarks in “Parody and Authenticity in Lolita,”1
In relation to romance, parody acts in Lolita in a defensive and proleptic way. It doesn’t criticize the romance mode, although it criticizes Humbert; it renders romance acceptable by anticipating our mockery and beating us to the draw. It is what Empson calls ‘pseudo-parody to disarm criticism.’ I am suggesting, then, that Lolita can only be a love story through being a parody of love stories.
To be sure, the entire history of Romantic verse and fiction has been self-consciously literary. One could go further and insist that romantic passion itself is literary; as La Rochefoucauld said, no one would ever have fallen in love unless he had first read about it. Humbert and Lolita’s mother, Charlotte Haze, represent two quite distinct romantic traditions, the courtly versus the bourgeois. For the courtly lover love is useless, painful, unfulfilled, obsessive, destructive, and his very allegiance to this peculiar, seemingly unnatural ideal is proof of his superiority to ordinary mortals. As Frederick Goldin has remarked about the origins of courtly love in the Middle Ages:
Ordinary men cannot love unless they get something in return—something they can get hold of, not just a smile. If they do not get it they soon stop loving, or, if the girl is from one of the lower orders, they take it by force. But usually, since ordinary men love ordinary women, they get what they want; and then, their mutual lust expended, they go their separate ways, or else, if they are restrained by some vulgar decency, they mate and settle down. In this wilderness of carnality and domesticity, nobility declines; there is no reason, and no chance, for the longing, exaltation and self-discipline of true courtliness. This is one of the basic creeds of courtly love.2
One of the most amusing paradoxes of Lolita is that the satyr Humbert Humbert becomes the minnesinger of courtly love for the twentieth century. To be sure, before he can fully exemplify the “longing, exaltation and self-discipline of true courtliness” Humbert must lose Lolita and kill his double, Quilty. If Humbert and Quilty have mirrored each other in the first half of the book, in the second half they turn into opposites, as Humbert becomes leaner, older, more fragile, more quixotic, and Quilty grows grosser, drunker, fatter, and more corrupt; the murder of Quilty expiates Humbert of everything base.
If Humbert embodies courtly love, Charlotte comes out of the more recent tradition of bourgeois marriage. It is a sign of Nabokov’s compassion that he is so gentle in his treatment of the ridiculous Charlotte, who in spite of her constant smoking, her bad French, her humorlessness, her middlebrow cultural aspirations, and her cruelty to her daughter he also shows is lonely, touching, decent: “To break Charlotte’s will I would have to break her heart. If I broke her heart, her image of me would break too. If I said: ‘Either I have my way with Lolita, and you help me to keep the matter quiet, or we part at once,’ she would have turned as pale as a woman of clouded glass and slowly replied: ‘All right, whatever you add or subtract, this is the end.’ ” Even Humbert describes her, poetically, as a creature of “clouded glass,” an impression denoting nothing but connoting beauty.
Charlotte has been shaped by reading women’s magazines and home-decoration manuals and popular novels. Her pious expectations of the monogamous and “totally fulfilling” marriage in which sex, sentiment, and even religious faith coincide is at odds with Humbert’s stronger emotions and more desperate aspirations. The best Humbert can do by way of a domestic fantasy is to imagine marrying Lolita, fathering a daughter, and living long enough to indulge in incest not only with that child but with her daughter as well: “—bizarre, tender, salivating Dr. Humbert, practicing on supremely lovely Lolita the Third the art of being a granddad.” Even when he attempts for a moment to abandon his own brand of romantic literature, the script of his courtly and obsessive passion, for Charlotte’s kind of pulp, the attempt fails: “I did my best; I read and reread a book with the unintentionally biblical title Know Your Own Daughter….”
Nabokov wrote in The Gift that “the spirit of parody always goes along with genuine poetry.” If “genuine poetry” is taken to mean romantic literature about passion, one can only concur, since passion is parody. Don Quixote is a parody of tales of knightly adventure; in Dante the lovers Francesca and Paolo discover their mutual passion when they read “of Lancelot, how love constrained him.” The pump of Emma Bovary’s ardor has been primed by her reading of cheap romantic magazine stories. In Eugene Onegin,
Tatiana is besotted by romantic fic- tion:
With what attention she now
reads a delicious novel,
with what vivid enchantment
drinks the seductive fiction!
But her reading, alas, is different from Onegin’s, for Tatiana reads Rousseau’s fiction and Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther (as Nabokov comments in his notes, “Werther weeps on every occasion, likes to romp with small children, and is passionately in love with Charlotte. They read Ossian together in a storm of tears”). Immersed in her own brand of Lachrymose Lit, Tatiana
sighs, and having made her own
another’s ecstasy, another’s melan- choly,
she whispers in a trance, by heart,
a letter to the amiable hero.
That letter sounds like Charlotte Haze’s avowal:
“I am nothing to you. Right? Right. Nothing to you whatever. But if, after reading my ‘confession,’ you decided, in your dark romantic European way, that I am attractive enough for you to take advantage of my letter and make a pass at me, then you would be a criminal—worse than a kidnaper who rapes a child. You see, chéri. If you decided to stay, if I found you at home….”
and so on. Charlotte’s letter seems a parody of Tatiana’s far more touching but no less fervent appeal:
henceforth I place into your hands,
before you I shed tears,
for your defense I plead…
I’m waiting for you: with a single look
revive my heart’s hopes,
or interrupt the heavy dream,
alas, with a deserved rebuke.
Humbert may fake his acceptance of Charlotte’s avowal, but Onegin rejects Tatiana in rolling Byronic phrases:
But I’m not made for bliss;
my soul is strange to it;
in vain are your perfections:
I’m not worthy of them.
This understanding, fatal to the future happiness of both characters, is not so much owing to character differences as to different reading lists. Whereas Tatiana has read of lovers given to sacrifice, duty, and devotion, Onegin has been coached by Byron’s egotistical and disabused Don Juan:
My days of love are over; me no more The charms of maid, wife…
Can make the fool….
The credulous hope of mutual minds is o’er.
Years go by, Tatiana suffers, becomes stoic, and then one day is drawn to Onegin’s deserted country house. She enters his library, reads the books he once read, and in a stunning passage she wonders whether Onegin might not be “a glossary of other people’s megrims, / a complete lexicon of words in vogue? / …Might he not be, in fact, a parody?” Just as Charlotte recognizes Humbert’s criminal passions for Lolita once she reads his diary, so Tatiana understands Onegin is a fraud once she peruses his books.
The Byronic hero could, in his most degraded form, become coldly indifferent to women and with men murderously touchy on points of honor. If the calculating seduction is the way the Byronic monster approaches women, his characteristic exchange with other men is the duel. Here again Humbert executes a grotesque parody of the duel in stalking down Quilty; this is the final sorry end to the already shoddy, senseless business of the Lenski-Onegin duel.
So it is not surprising that Lolita is a parody of earlier works of Romantic literature, including not only Onegin but much more obviously a succession of French novels devoted to the anatomy of the passions—that line that runs from La Princesse de Clèves through Les Liaisons dangereuses, Adolphe, Atala and René and on to Mademoiselle de Maupin, Carmen, and Madame Bovary—a tradition, moreover, that Humbert specifically alludes to again and again. His mind is also well stocked with French poetry from Ronsard to Rimbaud. Whereas some Russian Formalists (I’m thinking of Tynyanov’s Dostoevski and Gogol: Remarks on the Theory of Parody) 3 argued that parody is a way of disowning the past in an act of literary warfare, in Nabokov’s case we see that parody can be the fondest tribute, the invention of a tradition against which one’s own originality can be discerned, a payment of past debts in order to accrue future capital.
In his treatment of love, Nabokov points the way beyond parody and convention. At their best his characters act out of character, transcend their roles. The most sublime moment in Lolita, of course, occurs when Humbert sees the “hugely pregnant” Lolita after searching for her for several years.
There she was with her ruined looks and her adult, rope-veined narrow hands and her goose-flesh white arms, and her shallow ears, and her unkempt armpits, there she was (my Lolita!), hopelessly worn at seventeen, with that baby, dreaming already in her of becoming a big shot and retiring around 2020 AD—and I looked and looked at her, and knew as clearly as I know I am to die, that I loved her more than anything I had ever seen or imagined on earth, or hoped for anywhere else….
Here the pervert breaks through the narrow confines of his perversion, the connoisseur of le fruit vert looks longingly at the no-longer-ripe apple in a now vanished Eden. Passion—fastidious, tyrannical, hostile—has given way to compassionate love. Correspondingly, Lolita shrugs off her own grudges and forgives Humbert for having taken away her youth; when Humbert asks her to leave with him, she says, “No, honey, no.” In a heartbreaking line, Humbert writes: “She had never called me honey before.”
A similar moment when love transcends passion, when sentiment exceeds sexuality, occurs in Pale Fire. The exclusively homosexual Kinbote—who, had always treated his wife with “friendly indifference and bleak respect” while drooling after “Eton-collared, sweet-voiced minions”—begins to dream of Disa, his queen, with throbbing tenderness:
He dreamed of her more often, and with incomparably more poignancy, than his surface-like feelings for her warranted; these dreams occurred when he least thought of her, and worries in no way connected with her assumed her image in the subliminal world as a battle or a reform becomes a bird of wonder in a tale for children. These heart-rending dreams transformed the drab prose of his feelings for her into strong and strange poetry.
The transcendent virtue of love is seen again in Ada when the aged rake Van Veen is reunited after many years with his now plump and no longer appealing Ada: “He loved her much too tenderly, much too irrevocably, to be unduly depressed by sexual misgivings.” This from the great sensual purist! Of course this very passage, in which love goes beyond its conventional limits, is, paradoxically, itself a parody of the end of War and Peace and the marriage of Natasha and Pierre.
Andrew Field writes, “All of his novels, Nabokov told me once, have an air—not quite of this world, don’t you think?” Field didn’t take the remark seriously; he thought it was just more leg-pulling. But I think the hint that his novels are “not quite of this world” should be taken seriously. After boyhood Nabokov was not conventionally religious, although the poetry of his early twenties continued to rely occasionally on religious imagery. Nevertheless, he retained within his pages a quick, visceral sense of disturbing spiritual presences. His is a haunted world, and to prove it W.W. Rowe recently published an entire volume to that effect: Nabokov’s Spectral Dimension.4 Inspiration itself is such a specter, of course; in The Gift when Fyodor begins to write, he is conscious of “a pulsating mist that suddenly began to speak with a human voice.” Véra Nabokov, the writer’s wife and the dedicatee of virtually every book from his pen, has said that a main theme in all of Nabokov’s writing is “the hereafter.” Of Fyodor’s father, the boy thinks: “It was as if this genuine, very genuine man possessed an aura of something still unknown but which was perhaps the most genuine of all.”
The luminous unknown, this aura of the ghostly genuine, is always bordering the picture Nabokov presents to his reader. The narrator of his last novel, Look at the Harlequins!, is afflicted with recurrent bouts of madness. His perception of space is so personal and so harrowing that at one point he becomes paralyzed. “Yet I have known madness not only in the guise of an evil shadow,” he tells us. “I have seen it also as a flash of delight so rich and shattering that the very absence of an immediate object on which it might settle was to me a form of escape.”
It is in those flashes of delight, which illuminate almost every passage, that Nabokov’s glimpses of another world can be detected. Lolita’s smile, for instance, “was never directed at the stranger in the room but hung in its own remote flowered void, so to speak, or wandered with myopic softness over chance objects.” In The Gift, the hero imagines returning to his ancestral home in Russia: “One after another the telegraph poles will hum at my approach. A crow will settle on a boulder—settle and straighten a wing that has folded wrong.” That straightened wing—the precision of an imagined imaginary detail—is worthy of a Zen master. In “Spring in Fialta,” we encounter “that life-quickening atmosphere of a big railway station where everything is something trembling on the brink of something else”—a phrase that might well serve as Nabokov’s artistic credo (and that recalls Quine’s notion that a verbal investigation of language is akin to building a boat while sailing in it).
Mythology in Nabokov does not (as it does in Joyce’s Ulysses) limit the neural sprawl of a stream of consciousness. Nor is it there to provide a plot (as in the neoclassical drama of Anouilh and Giraudoux). Nor is it there to lend unearned dignity to an otherwise dreary tale, as in the plays of Archibald MacLeish or Eugene O’Neill. In Nabokov the vocabulary of religion, fairy tales, and myths is the only one adequate to his sense of the beauty and mystery of the sensual, of love, of childhood, of nature, of art, of people when they are noble. It is this language that metamorphoses the comic bedroom scene in Lolita into a glimpse of paradise. Once they’re in the hotel room, Lolita
walked up to the open suitcase as if stalking it from afar, in a kind of slow-motion walk, peering at that distant treasure box on the luggage support. (Was there something wrong, I wondered, with those great gray eyes of hers, or were we both plunged in the same enchanted mist?) She stepped up to it, lifting her rather high-heeled feet rather high, and bending her beautiful boy-knees while she walked through dilating space with the lentor of one walking under water or in a flight dream.
Nabokov’s novels are not of this world, but of a better one. He has kept the romantic novel alive by introducing into it a new tension—the struggle between obsessive or demented characters and a seraphic rhetoric. Given his inspired style, no wonder Nabokov chose to write not about the species or the variety but about the mutant individual. Such a subject gives his radiant language something to overcome. In one story, “Lance,” Nabokov relaxed this tension and indulged in his verbal splendors with chilling abandon. In that story the young hero, Lance Boke, ascends into the heavens as his old parents watch through field glasses: “The brave old Bokes think they can distinguish Lance scaling, on crampons, the verglased rock of the sky or silently breaking trail through the soft snows of nebulae.” I like to think of Nabokov himself, the supreme alpinist of the art, ascending those new heights.
He must be ranked, finally, not with other writers but with a composer and a choreographer, Stravinsky and Balanchine. All three were of the same generation, Russians who were clarified by passing through the sieve of French culture but were brought to the boiling point only by American informality. All three experimented boldly with form, but none produced “avant-garde trash,” as Nabokov called it, for all three were too keen on recuperating tradition. In a work such as the Pulcinella ballet score, the baroque mannerisms of Pergolesi are aped, even insisted upon, but baroque squares are turned into modernist rhomboids and scalenes, and mechanical baroque transitions, the yard goods of that style, are eliminated in favor of a crisp collage built up out of radical juxtapositions. Everything is fresh, new, heartless—and paradoxically all the more moving for the renovation. Similarly, Balanchine eliminated mime, a fussy port de bras, story, and decor to make plotless ballets that distill the essence of the Petipa tradition. As parodists, all three artists loved the art they parodied and make it modern by placing old jewels into new settings.
Most important, all three men had a vision of art as entertainment, in the sense of wooing shrewder, more restless though robust, sensibilities. Sartre once attacked Nabokov for his lack of political content, but one could reply to that charge without hesitation that the paradise Balanchine, Stravinsky, and Nabokov have made visible to us is one of the few images of happiness we have, that very happiness politics is working to secure, the promise of harmony, beauty, rapture.
In “Fame,” a poem he wrote in Russian in 1942, Nabokov bitterly echoed the 1836 poem Exegi monumentum of Pushkin, which in turn echoed the poem by Horace and those of many other poets. Whereas Horace and Pushkin could well consider their verse a monument they had raised to their own eternal glory, Nabokov, writing in exile for a tiny Russian-speaking audience that would soon be dying cut, could only imagine a fantastic, garrulous visitor:
“Your poor books,” he breezily said, “will finish
by hopelessly fading in exile. Alas,
those two thousand leaves of frivolous fiction
will be scattered….”
As we know now, and know with gratitude, the prophecy was not fulfilled. More glorious and surprising in his metamorphosis than any butterfly he ever stalked, Nabokov, the Russian master, turned himself into a writer in English, the best of the century.
March 29, 1984