The Book Club

Detectives of the Human Condition

Dear James,

I had never read Speak, Memory. It is the most invidious of Nabokov’s books–to be so dazzling an artist and have had such a happy childhood. Enough, as you say. That, of course, is the sort of maddening image Nabokov loved to propagate. Having now read the book, I must say I’m disappointed. I didn’t think it was one of his better ones, as I had always understood it to be. It plays to all of his weaknesses and none of his strengths. He is much better at the sort of rapturously stagy reinvention of a native land, as in Pale Fire, or at poking fun at Eisenhower America as of course he does in Lolita. He is hilarious in the guise of one of his dysfunctional protagonists who tend, especially in the later books, to assume a lordly yet disconsolate tone much like that of Proust’s half-mad and utterly unappeasable aristocrat, Palamède de Charlus, as they flail against a world of Bakelite and solecism. He is less good in a place that once was real and where he was happy, and where he existed among people whom he presumably cared about–although more on that.

I have attempted, in the face of considerable mental resistance, to puzzle out what I found so appealing about Nabokov. Reading any of his novels involves, to a greater extent than with other novelists, a complicated triangular relationship between writer, reader, and protagonist. The latter is often a superficially worldly individual but one at the same time confused by the ways of the world. Usually he is beset by some circumstance that sets him apart: a few, talented bumblers like chess master Luzhin and Pnin the professor, gently. Others are not so lucky. Herman, of Despair, is a psychopath. Kretschmar of Laughter in the Dark is blind. Kinbote of Pale Fire is mad. Humbert Humbert is, of course, a pedophile. One, I believe it is the hero of The Eye, is in fact dead.

None of the books, except perhaps parts of The Gift, which is ravishing as you say, and possibly Lolita, uses the lineaments of personal connection to unfold. Instead, each is full of human information gleaned from objects, documents, phenomena. These are closely examined until they yield up a sort of quiddity or presiding spirit that our hero may draw conclusions from and proceed, still perplexed.

The result is an oddly heartbreaking world, full of detectives of the human condition going around handling artifacts, that they may gain through intricate Holmesian labors a clue to the ways of that curious species, man. Heartbreaking–and very, very funny–because they are men, and gather (hoard, worship) so much shimmering information, and get so much of it so wrong. All this reaches its apotheosis in Pale Fire, a novel in which the reader is efficiently presented with only two things: 1) an artifact, in the form of a poem, and 2) an outrageous misreading of it, in the form of footnotes.

Meanwhile, Nabokov–as has been observed–has a way of seeming to conspire with you over the predicament of these unfortunates. Thus you have the bright pleasure of a sort of reverse Schadenfreude . Yet there is an overarching pathos, for these assorted predicaments are all much too close to the bone, they are closer to your predicament than you would care to admit, and I imagine they were closer to Nabokov’s (that impulse to puzzle out the anguish).

The Adrian Lyne film didn’t spend long in my brain. As I recall, the nymphet displayed a fairly convincing consciousness of her power over Humbert. Jeremy Irons was too brittle. I do think James Mason was perfect in the role in Kubrick’s version. But what no film can replicate is Nabokov’s funny tic of giggling with you over Humbert’s plight. Perhaps this is a good place to point out that while the idea of Nabokov as pedophile is absurd (despite an oeuvre filled with young girls), Lolita might have come to nothing had it not been named one of the three best books of 1955 in the London Sunday Times by Graham Greene–a man publicly accused in his own lifetime of having sex with underage prostitutes.

But enough scurrilousness. You mentioned The Gift, which is generally considered the greatest of Nabokov’s Russian-language efforts. It has always stuck in my mind, too, as the least Nabokovian of his novels, or as representing an approach he moved away from. Did he take a wrong turn?

More on Speak, Memory tomorrow. It is a book I find stranger and stranger the more I think about it.

Richard Lamb