The Book Club

Hermeneuts of the Invisible

Dear Richard Lamb,

Perhaps we got ahead of ourselves yesterday. (Or rather, I got ahead of myself.) Our readers may be befuddled by how eagerly we assumed their detailed knowledge of the Nabokovian aesthetic, the Nabokovian pathos, and the Nabokovian preciousness. So, I hope you’ll forgive me if, in the interests of those readers, I reverse a little, and begin at the beginning, and attempt to describe Nabokov’s development as a writer.

I found your description of the experience of reading Nabokov very eloquent. His characters are indeed “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.” This is the smothered anguish of all Nabokov’s heroes, and of Nabokov’s writing itself. Nabokov is a kind of detective of his own childhood, and turns us, his readers, into private eyes, hermeneuts of the invisible. (This code-cracking quality is sometimes enthralling and sometimes irritating; but more of that later.) His writing teaches us, quite as obsessively as Henry James’, the morality of attention, the importance of noticing. Detail is always nostalgic for Nabokov, and his writing may be seen as a manifesto for itself, in that it is so often explicitly reminding us of the importance of the kind of noticing his writing does so beautifully. This, too, can be irritating, and verges on the didactic at times.

This elegiac emphasis, no doubt, was partly formed by Nabokov’s devotion to Romantic poetry, and partly formed by his family’s sudden exile at the time of the Revolution. Suddenly, in a single swipe of ideology, everything had gone–the beautiful estate, the servants and governesses, the mushroom-hunting on warm afternoons in Russian woods. And though I sounded crabby yesterday, let us admit that Nabokov’s childhood clearly was special–a good deal more interesting than, say, John Ashbery’s–and that we read his novels in part because of the lost glitter they bring to us, just as we read Joseph Roth’s for their evocation of the lost world of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. There isn’t any reason to be ashamed of such things; contemporary fiction, frankly, would be more interesting for such inherited allure.

Nabokov went to England, to Cambridge University (where, I was pleased to learn when I was an undergraduate there, he never once visited the library), married Véra Slonim (what a good biography of Véra Stacy Schiff has written; perhaps more later), and settled warily in Berlin, where he wrote in Russian, under the pen-name Vladimir Sirin. The Gift, a beautiful book, is the best novel written in the years before the war. (In fact, I mentioned Glory yesterday, not The Gift, but you are right to concentrate on the latter book.) In that book, and in Nabokov’s stories, can be seen the stirring of Nabokov’s desperate nostalgia, which became a kind of mysticism. In “A Guide to Berlin,” a 1925 fragment, the young writer memorializes Berlin–by describing a tramcar, a bar, the zoo. He does this, he says, because he wants “to find in the objects around us the fragrant tenderness that only posterity will discern,” to glimpse “somebody’s future recollection.”

Somebody’s future recollection might stand as a motto for all of Nabokov’s work, particularly its sense of fragility: for what you now visually possess may tomorrow be only an invisible recollection. In The Gift, that fragility is given its proper Russian home. The narrator asserts that “I am convinced now that our life then [in Russia] really was imbued with a magic unknown in other families.” The narrator is flâneur-like, walking the Berlin streets, telling stories about his late father, and noticing such things as “the radiance of a lawn-sprinkler that waltzed on one spot with the ghost of a rainbow in its dewy arms …”

Here, Nabokov gives his aesthetic its decisive mystical formulation, as his narrator confesses to “the constant feeling that our days here are only pocket money, farthings clinking in the dark, and that somewhere is stocked the real wealth, from which life should know how to get dividends in the shape of dreams, tears of happiness, distant mountains.” The reader, of course, knows where this lost wealth is to be found–in a lost Russia, now so magically recessed that it has turned into a mystical cloud, a Zembla of recollection.

In 1940, Nabokov and his wife and son sailed from France for America, and there, on board, he began that perfect little novel The Real Life of Sebastian Knight–in English. An extraordinary feat, and one that never ceases to move me, the idea of this man, now twice displaced, his Russianness and his wife’s Jewishness making the Nabokov family a kind of compacted chronicle of Europe’s woes, abandoning his mother-tongue for an uncertain daughter-dialect (but how amazingly certain it was: in that novel, he writes that a man’s Adam’s apple was “moving like the bulging shape of an arrased eavesdropper.” That he could make a verb out of arras, in a foreign language! Such a sentence does nothing less than throw a gauntlet down to Shakespeare).

Unsurprisingly, it is in The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, his first novel in English, that we feel the greatest pathos of loss, and are most explicitly commanded not to let any detail pass us. The character, Sebastan Knight, is the author of a book called, of all things, Lost Property, in which he writes:

It has always distressed me that people in restaurants never notice the animated mysteries, who bring them their food and check their overcoats and push doors open for them. I once reminded a businessman with whom I had lunched a few weeks before, that the woman who had handed us our hats had had cotton wool in her ears. He looked puzzled and said he hadn’t been aware of there having been any woman at all. … A person who fails to notice a taxi-driver’s harelip because he is in a hurry to get somewhere, is to me a monomaniac. I have often felt as if I were sitting among blind men and madmen, when I thought I was the only one in the crowd to wonder about the chocolate-girl’s slight, very slight limp.

Now, this Nabokov, who told his students to “caress the divine details,” can be too pious for me, and indeed a bit empty: We don’t always save the world simply by noticing things. Sometimes we save it by ratiocination, by intellectual effort. (Didn’t Thomas Mann, whom Nabokov so despised, analyse and preserve a lost Germany in Doctor Faustus, through the beautiful exertion of intellectual comprehension?) This same noticing Nabokov is the writer who could say nothing more of Henry James than that some of James’ sentences had given him an occasional thrill of pleasure. Clearly, then, there is noticing and noticing, and Nabokov’s kind of noticing too easily slides into a fetishism of the visual. And in that “slight, very slight,” we sense Nabokov’s self-flattery; only he can see how slight the limp is.

But I can save my cavils for tomorrow.

Yours sincerely,
James Wood