The Book Club

Portrait of the Autist

Dear James Wood,

Forgive my leaping out of the gate. We are all cranks about something.

You are right to point out the importance of the lost glitter. Nabokov is our most glamour-clogged novelist, to adapt what Richard Howard wrote of James Merrill. The devastating effect of the Russian Revolution was not his first experience of history. His family was surrounded by it. One forebear lent Louis XVI the carriage he used in his unsuccessful effort to flee France, just as one of Kerensky’s aides asked Nabokov’s father for a fast car so that the premier of the provisional government could get out of Russia in 1917. (Comically, the family chauffeur had disassembled and hidden the needed car.) This, as well as the manors and sphagnum bogs of the Province of St. Petersburg, form a strange, vanished world, and are part of the pleasure of Speak, Memory.

It was not, however, strange to Nabokov. And it is here, in the tension between familiarity and strangeness that the book, I think–how should this be put?–becomes merely wonderful, rather than great? Strangeness was Nabokov’s stock in trade. He was a master–the master–of a technique in Russian fiction called ostranenie: making strange. He cultivated the habit of seeing the world anew, from cars, to puddles, to people, to countries. Ada (1969) is, among other complicated things, a dream of a Russified America.

There are places in his memoir where he manages to merge the oxymoronic demands of literary inclination to make strange and a desire to recover the familiar. The wonderful image of the local peasantry tossing his father in the air in a jolly-good-fellow sort of way manages both at once. “There, for an instant, the figure of my father in his wind-rippled summer suit would be displayed, gloriously sprawling in midair, his limbs in a curiously casual attitude, his handsome, imperturbable features turned to the sky.” Like Nabokov’s best images, it is cartoonish and crystalline, dynamic and static at the same time: Freud would have said “uncanny.”

The most maddening thing about Speak, Memory, though, if I may usher in the baleful Viennese (I think you mentioned that Nabokov loathed Freud), is the author’s failing to see the object of object relations. He seems oblivious to emotional give and take. Usually Nabokov manages through various sleights of voice to elude this problem to some extent, but here I think it is crippling. He is writing about his family, of whom he purported to be fond. Surely evidence of that is in order? If not Mom, at least we might be treated to a crumb of sentiment for some doddering retainer, insulated safely by noblesse oblige?

Yet, of the pitiable handful of verbs referring to emotion in the book, one is expended in the sentence “Not that I particularly liked Lenski” (a tutor). And when he fears that his father may have engaged in a duel, he avows dustily that there was “a tender friendship underlying my respect for my father.” When his childhood best friend is killed while fighting with General Deniken against the Bolsheviks, he can only nod toward “richer words than I can muster here.” Worst, perhaps, is the suave paragraph he devotes to his brother Sergey’s demise in a Nazi concentration camp.

Like Proust’s Marcel, Vladimir lies miserable in his darkened bedroom, but there are none of the wrenching emotions culled from the everyday that you find in Proust–the crippling separation anxiety of Maman closing the door and padding downstairs. Instead we get–wonderfully, wonderfully–the quality of light coming from his nanny’s door “some 20 heartbeats’ distance” from his bed.

I could not help but think as I read Speak, Memory, that it exhibits, as do all of the works, a sort of virtuoso autism. In fact, I suppose–now that Lionel Trilling’s son is posthumously diagnosing dear old dad with Attention Deficit Disorder, according to the New York Times–that the question may be asked. Was Nabokov autistic?

He has, it must be said, several classic symptoms of high-functioning autism (not to be confused with the extensive disconnection with the world we have come to associate with this condition): extreme verbal facility, childhood obsession with an arcane subject (Lepidoptera), anxiety (four-pack-a-day man into his 40s), a certain sensory neurasthenia (almost 20 volumes of evidence). There is also sometimes a connection between autism and synesthesia–the sensory mingling that causes letters, for instance, to be seen as specific colors. As you know, Nabokov prided himself on his synesthesia.

I was particularly struck by what he offers as a primary memory involving “A big cretonne-covered divan” behind which the toddler Nabokov would squirm in a snug tunnel fashioned “with the divan’s bolsters and [closed] up at the ends with a couple of its cushions.” Here is Temple Grandin, a high-functioning autistic whose work with psychiatrist Oliver Sacks has garnered a great deal of attention: “Many autistic children crave pressure stimulation even though they cannot tolerate being touched. … I was one of those pressure seekers. When I was six, I would wrap myself up in blankets and get under sofa cushions, because the pressure was relaxing.”

You’re right. I guess I was the one who mentioned The Gift. Freud again.

Richard Lamb