Vladimir Nabokov (1899-1977) is not one of my most favorite writers, but then my most favorite writers are Pope and Swift, Dante and Corneille, Goethe and Tolstoy (not mentioning Theocritus, Vergil, and Marcus Aurelius) compared to whom any modern writer looks rather like a peculiarly dressed dwarf; however, when Nabokov is accused of some artistic or human sin, I always rush to defend him.
The present essay was prompted, in part, by the newest volume on Nabokov by Andrew Field—VN: The Life and Art of Vladimir Nabokov—the volume which generated hostile reviews from people who consider Nabokov one of the best writers who ever lived, and a favorable reaction from those who think of him as but a juggler of exquisite images and intricate words, a snob with eccentric literary tastes, and an unrepentant political conservative.
The controversy renewed my interest in Nabokov. I reread many of his works and tried to formulate my thoughts on who, after all, Vladimir Nabokov was.
In 1923, a year after his father was assassinated, 24-year-old Nabokov wrote these lines to his grieving and devastated mother:
. . . We shall again see him, in an unexpected but completely natural paradise, in a country where everything is radiance and finesse. He will walk toward us in our common bright eternity, slightly raising his shoulders in the way that he used to do, and with no surprise at all we shall kiss the birthmark on his hand. You must live in expectation of this tender hour . . . and never give yourself over to the temptation of despair. Everything will return. In the way that in a certain time the hands of the clock come together again . . .
The real personality of the author of Ada, Lolita, and The Gift, so cleverly concealed in his masterly crafted novels, is laid bare in the lines of this letter.
Nabokov occasionally gave the impression of being arrogant, aloof, snobbish. But this impression was utterly misleading. A great actor, a great inventor, and a great imitator, he liked playing games with our contemporary world. The world in which a jar of liquid labeled “Artist’s Sweat” (probably real “artist’s” sweat) is bought and then exhibited by a major art museum as a genuine art object; the world where music performed in a metropolitan symphony hall might consist of the screech of a grand piano being hauled across the stage and the heavy breathing of the workers pushing it; the world in which some incomprehensible, rambling lines conceived under the cloud of hashish are often hailed as a great poetic discovery.
Elaborately careful not to reveal himself to this world’s cynical sneer, Nabokov played with it the only games it could understand and admire—clever, contrived, and glittering cold. This is why the classical naturalness, refined simplicity, and profound religious conviction of his letter would so rarely find their way onto the pages of his novels.
In his literary tastes Nabokov was a classicist—preferring Tolstoy over Dostoevsky or Turgenev over Maupassant—while as a writer he was, obviously, a modernist. It was because (paradoxical as it may sound) his attitude toward literature was much more serious and profound than toward his own writing. Of course he enjoyed writing tremendously, and, of course, it was the center of his life, but still, writing for him was a game, a puzzle, a chess problem; and he played with it as, in a way, a child would play with an elaborate set of electric trains. He readily admitted it. “I have no general ideas to exploit,” he once said, “I just like composing riddles with elegant solutions.” And here, it is not the words “general ideas” which should alert us (after all, what great writer except, perhaps, the later Tolstoy would openly proclaim his concern for “general ideas”) but the word “riddles.” Because there is no important master who so proudly (and sincerely!) would declare his preoccupation with riddles to be the major thrust of his creative effort. And it is precisely this riddle-ridden texture of Nabokov’s prose which is the source of both its charm and its weakness.
“I think,” Nabokov wrote, “that the meaning of the writer’s art lies in this: to portray ordinary things as they will be reflected in the flattering mirrors of future times, to find in them that fragrant tenderness which our descendants will feel in those far-off days when every trifle of our daily life will become in itself beautiful and festive, in those days when a person who has put on the very plainest sort of jacket that we wear today will be at once attired for a country masquerade.”
This jacket of Nabokov’s, in some nostalgic, melancholic and, I dare say, slightly amateurish way, reminds one of the elegant jackets and exquisite neckties Nabokov’s dashing father liked to wear in the Duma—Russia’s embryonic Parliament—where he, a Duma deputy and brilliant political amateur, gave long, fiery, but irrelevant speeches, while the Bolsheviks—those hard-faced professionals—were digging trenches under the edifice of the Russian Empire.
The linguistic games Nabokov plays are, in a way, like the games played by the small boy Kay from H.C. Andersen’s tale The Snow Queen—the endless games which consisted of assembling intricate sentences from pieces of ice.
Perhaps the most striking contrast to Nabokov’s fiction is the prose of the writer Nabokov-the-critic admired so much—Anton Chekhov. In Chekhov’s stories (not his plays, which are weaker) even the most extravagant and unusual seems absolutely natural, while in Nabokov’s, the most usual and mundane often seems heavily contrived.
Thus in his short story Christmas a father is sitting in the room of his recently deceased son. Shattered, depressed, he sorts out his son’s things, when suddenly he hears a strange sound. His son had been a lepidopterist and now one of the cocoons in his collection hatches, and a beautiful butterfly emerges, flapping its wings.
How incomparably more moving the same idea of death overcome is expressed in Nabokov’s letter to his mother!
Or his short story Bachman, about a liaison between a neurotic pianist Bachman and a lame married woman, Perova. When their platonic liaison is finally consummated physically, Perova dies. The story concludes with the following author’s (Nabokov’s) comments: “I think this was the sole happy night in the whole of Perova’s life. I think that these two, a semi-demented musician and a dying woman, discovered during this night words which the greatest poets of the world have not dreamt of” A passage like this speaks for itself. One can only add that reading it, one wants to crawl under his chair.
But these are Nabokov’s short stories. In his novels, where he has more “space,” Nabokov’s real voice could be heard more often. Thus, in Pnin, whenever Nabokov speaks about something which truly touches him, all the forced humor, all the parochialism of an emigre novel, all “riddles” and literary “chess problems” suddenly disappear, and his voice once again sounds natural and transparent. And you immediately forgive him the neurotic pianist Bachman and a married woman Perova for one sentence when he speaks about Pnin’s first sweetheart—Mira Belochkin.
“In order to exist rationally, Pnin had taught himself, during the last ten years, never to remember Mira Belochkin . . . because one could not live with the thought that this graceful, fragile, tender woman with those eyes, that smile, those gardens and snows in the background, had been brought in a cattle car to an extermination camp.”
And when in a sentence like this Nabokov includes a little wordplay, naming the girl Belochkin (which phonetically is very tender to a Russian ear, and which also means a little squirrel), then all “those gardens and snows in the background” acquire a still additional dimension.
An interviewer once observed that whenever he mentioned to Nabokov Nazism and Nazi atrocities, Nabokov reacted very emotionally. “I will go to those German camps and look at those places and write a terrible, terrible indictment!” he exclaimed passionately. Nazism and Nazi atrocities touched and disturbed Nabokov immensely. But what separated him from many other Western intellectuals was that he felt exactly the same about Communism and Communist atrocities. He saw no real distinction between Nazism and Communism. Subscribing fully to Orwell’s dictum that people who claim there is a substantial difference between Nazism and Communism most often are in sympathy with either one or the other, and that only those who realize that there is no difference between the two are ready to stand against both, Nabokov, the true humanist, stood firmly against both.
At Wellesley College, where he taught off and on between 1940 and 1947, Nabokov openly expressed his feelings toward Stalinism, which prompted the college president—a certain Miss McAffee—to order him “not to make these remarks about Soviet Russia.” Nabokov refused, which contributed significantly to his financial hardship and, eventually, cost him his teaching job at Wellesley, where, as he recalled, he “was happiest of all.”
All his life—from his first emigre days in Berlin to his celebrity years in Switzerland—Nabokov never changed his attitude toward the Soviet Union. Unlike many Western intellectuals of Russian descent, he didn’t change it when, at the beginning of the Second World War, the Soviets were losing to the Nazis; and he didn’t change it later, and always rebutted them, when, at the peak of Brezhnev’s detente, they were making overtures toward him and tried to invite him to visit the Soviet State. “More vodochka (diminutive for vodka) dear Vladimir Vladimirovich?” Nabokov would mock an imaginary KGB operative who, pretending to be a writer (actually, there are quite a few of those in the Soviet Union who are both, and it is hard to say which one is their hobby—writing or KGB work) would try to make him drunk at some party thrown in Nabokov’s honor in Moscow or in Leningrad.
In the West, Nabokov’s unwavering resentment of the Soviet State, as one critic noted, “won him few friends in our literary establishment.” Some attempted to educate him. Thus, Edmund Wilson, who was Nabokov’s true friend till the publication of Lolita catapulted Nabokov into stardom and wealth, presented him with a copy of To the Finland Station with the inscription: “To Vladimir Nabokov in the hope that this may make him think better of Lenin.” With Nabokov, however, such hopes were bound to fail.
Nabokov never truly belonged to the place he lived. He was always a foreigner. But he was a foreigner in the best sense of the word. He was a learned, elegant European for the Americans, an intriguing, mysterious Russian for the Europeans, and he was (and still is!) that romantic, pioneering American for the Russians. He was that kind of a foreigner upon whom the natives look with the feeling of admiration and slight envy. They look at him with envy because they know he was there, where they could never hope to be, and he knew that which they could never hope to know.
Nabokov often signed his books and his letters with a little drawing of a butterfly. For someone else such a habit would have been a pretentious pose—for Nabokov it was a heartfelt gesture.
People who met him often mentioned the amazing childishness of his expressions. It was because Nabokov, till the end of his days, remained essentially that same vigorous and brilliant little boy for whom his parents created a paradise of a childhood which he never wanted to leave. After all, what was this—his hobby, his love, his obsession with chasing butterflies all over the world? Crisp, blue mountains, lush meadows, and multicolored butterflies fluttering over your head. It is childhood in the best of its manifestations. It is paradise condensed into the image of angels dancing on the tip of a needle.
Nabokov was a world authority on lycaenidal butterflies, his particular specialty being butterflies’ genitalia, and he would spend hours vivisecting and examining them—these tiny sclerotic particles—for his scientific papers. And with the same perfect detachment, clinical sterility, and amused interest with which he examined butterflies’ sexual organs, he analyzed the sexual mores of contemporary man. This is why all the seemingly explicit passages in his novels (including Lolita and Ada) are so “clean” and absolutely nonpornographic. In addition, because of Nabokov’s sense of humor and his strong distaste for Freud, in Lolita, for instance, the Freudian thesis of fathers wanting to sleep with their daughters, as F.W. Dupee perceptively observed, “ridiculed itself out of existence.”
In his life Nabokov was guided by a simple principle, which, once again, he formulated in a letter.
“I have reached the original conclusion that if one performs at least one good act per day (even if it is nothing more than giving one’s place to an elderly person on the tram) life becomes exceedingly more pleasant. In the final analysis everything in the world is very simple and founded upon two or three not very complicated truths.”
So who was Vladimir Nabokov? One of the greatest writers who ever lived? Probably not. But a brilliant man infinitely fascinated with linguistic riddles and “chess problems”; a curious lepidopterist who studied men and their idiosyncrasies the same way he studied butterflies under the magnifying glass of his microscope; a profound thinker forever puzzled by many intellectuals’ infatuation with totalitarian regimes; and a highly sensitive writer who understood human follies and who was often willing to forgive them—all these and more, he most definitely was.