The Book Club

Discussing Nabokov

Dear Richard,

It is a delight to be corresponding about Nabokov, a writer I love, ambivalently. Perhaps most readers have this rather mottled experience in reading Nabokov; we tend to select from that gorgeous prose what we like, as if playing only the white notes on the piano, and benignly pass over what seems precious, fussy, cold, and sometimes didactic. Indeed, we are often very generous, as readers, toward the preciousness: There is a way, isn’t there, in which we read Nabokov against himself, determined to find in the neurotically perfected enamel of his prose the little chips and fissures of his personal anguish. (There–his style is contagious; after a day of re-reading Nabokov I am imitating him …) Thus, it is a commonplace that Nabokov’s aestheticism of detail–a kind of religion of retrieval, in which the writer must hoard and worship the tiniest noticings, for fear that they will disappear–is related to his own lost childhood, and the country that was taken away from him forever in 1917. Lavishing on Nabokov a Freudianism he would have hated–he attacked Freud whenever he could–we read him psychoanalytically, seeing in his style an enormous, and tragic, effort at “denial.” His work is, indeed, a beautiful struggle to fight his way back toward Eden, the Eden of a magical Russia–but how loyally everyone points this out! (As I am now doing.)

I suppose I am saying that we forgive Nabokov’s aestheticism in a way we do not always forgive other writers’ aestheticism, because we ourselves worship at the shrine of Nabokov; he is so powerful a writer that he has softly induced us to worship the same things he worships. When he writes in Speak, Memory (a new edition of which has just been published by Knopf/Everyman Library) of “the harmonious world of a perfect childhood” we tend either to take him at face value; or, if we are suspicious, we “forgive” him psychoanalytically, saying to ourselves that it was natural that Nabokov should so fiercely clutch at this invented Eden, given the historical eruptions that shattered his life, and then we proceed to notice that the entire edifice of his work is tremblingly built on this beautiful Freudian denial–on Nabokov’s very Freudian refusal to admit to his own Freudianism. But we rarely resist Nabokov hard enough; and there is a little part of me that, like Nina Berberova, wants to say “Enough, please, Vladimir, about the perfect childhood.”

So, I am inclined to discuss Nabokov without reverence, to praise him where he is wonderful, and to point out that he is often melodramatic, sentimental, even empty: His novel Glory, for instance, is an absolutely ravishing Bildungsroman , but it must be one of the most idea-free novels of its genre in literature. Nabokov writes, of his hero Martin, that “to listen to Moon’s rich speech was like chewing thick elastic Turkish Delight powdered with confectioner’s sugar.” That is rather one’s sweet, obstructive experience of reading a book like Glory. It is a long corridor of intensified sensations; in this respect, Nabokov was the last living embodiment of Valéry-fed, fin de siècle aestheticism, and I have absolutely no patience for his negative judgments about more intellectual or essayistic writers, like Thomas Mann, whom he hadn’t really read anyway. (Nabokov’s influence in this regard has been a very bad one: He convinced all kinds of writers that the novel has nothing to do with ideas. But we can return to this in a later exchange).

Speak, Memory yields any number of sentences that don’t read like English, but which seem to have been penned by a brilliant lexicographer with a fondness for hoaxes:

the distant meadows opening fanwise, the near trees sweeping up on invisible swings toward the track, a parallel rail line all at once committing suicide by anastomosis, a bank of nictitating grass rising, rising, rising, until the little witness of mixed velocities was made to discharge his portion of omelette aux confitures de fraises.

Such passages have the anagram-scented aspect of a mathematical puzzle. Do you agree? Nevertheless, lest I should seem unfair, I must select a very beautiful sentence from the same chapter of Speak, Memory, Chapter 7. Nabokov is describing the family party (“eleven people and one dachshund”) that traveled to Biarritz from Russia in 1909:

The odd one of our party, my father’s valet, Osip (whom, a decade later, the pedantic Bolsheviks were to shoot, because he appropriated our bicycles instead of turning them over to the nation), had a stranger for companion.

Well, what a breathtaking parenthesis that is! The highly ornamented understatement works so well. Osip was shot because, once the Nabokovs fled, he kept the boys’ bicycles. Nabokov enjoys the irony of the pompous verb “appropriated” (the kind of verb the Bolsheviks might have used). But the wonder, and compassion, of the sentence lies in his description of the Bolsheviks as “pedantic.” Here, Nabokov’s aristocratic dilettantism is perfect, because he uses it to flick off the Bolsheviks as if they were nothing more than clumsy servants–overzealous, pedantic, too eager. This is moving because we learn, three words after “pedantic” where their pedantry ended up: They shot Osip dead. And this word gains an extra strength from our sense that Nabokov is himself being pedantic at this moment. He is being pedantic for insisting on using the word “pedantic”! His very precision of language is deliciously pedantic. And so Nabokov’s sympathetic pedantry vanquishes the murderous pedantry of the Bolsheviks, and, in the space of this sentence, art does truly triumph over history, and style over content.

Yes, at moments likes this, Nabokov is a master of the most beautiful pedantry, the only one that, artistically speaking, counts.

James Wood

P.S. Did you see the Adrian Lyne film of Lolita? Wasn’t it an atrocity?