The Book Club

Recovering From Nabokov

Dear James

As I said in our original exchange, I was surprised at how little Speak, Memory engaged me, and maybe some of the reasons are personal–a matter of perspective. Before I go on I should say that I write as a recovering Nabokov addict. In a better world, perhaps, we would be in a church basement somewhere, and each of us in a large crowd would have a tale of Nabokov-induced woe.

I read Lolita late one summer alone in a house in Vermont. I was instantly ruined, to an even greater degree than usual, for anything that required a sense of “reality” (the Master insisted upon those quotation marks). Over the succeeding increasingly autumnal six weeks or so, I would drive to the nearby state college library and withdraw these odd books, more than fifteen of them, few of which I’d ever heard of: Invitation to a Beheading, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, Glory, The Defense. For the entire period I lived in a daze of ci-devant grandée disdain and émigré sadness, and one night when I was in the middle of Ada a gigantic cecropia moth flew into my bedroom, right on schedule, and scared the hell out of me. I killed the moth (Tupperware, icebox), and have it still, somewhere.

However, to read all of the novels, not to mention translations, lectures, interviews, and even some of the endless Pushkin footnotes (and the butterfly articles you can chew on if you’re really far gone), that is, to read Nabokov in any sort of concerted way, is to enter a world of whimsical diktat. We have both made veiled references to how exasperating the man is, and you have noted how his didactic side is not always useful. The opinions are many and freely given: Dostoevsky, Balzac, and Stendahl were hacks. Freud was a charlatan. The spine is the organ of aesthetic appreciation. “Human interest” is vulgar. One must not identify with characters in literature. Much else is vulgar. Daily bathing is essential.

Meanwhile, it is of the utmost importance to know exactly where Anna Karenina was sitting when she takes the Moscow-St. Petersburg Express. (Nabokov’s painstaking sketch of this sleeping car, depicting Anna’s position, as well as that of “Anna’s red handbag” and a “stout old lady” can be seen at a very good exhibition of Nabokoviana at the New York Public Library.) Her name should be written “Karenin.” His own name, moreover, should be pronounced with the stressed middle “o” rendered like that in “knickerbocker.” (To do so, it should be noted, is a clear sign that you would take the poisoned Kool-Aid if he offered it. Any Russian speaker will contradict him and a friend of mine slightly acquainted with the author’s son at one point claims he pronounces the syllable in question as one would the final “o” in “Oreo.”)

Without separating good advice from bad, suffice it to say this streak of papal bull becomes irritating. It begins to entangle you in the novels like the forests of thorns that grow up instantaneously in fairy tales–which is what every novel should be, I remember the Master saying somewhere.

The case of Anna Karenina bears on our discussion. If appreciating the book had anything, actually, to do with the interior decoration of the Imperial Railroad System, Tolstoy would be an unfamiliar name. More important is a moment such as that which takes place when Anna debouches from her sleeping car, having gathered up her red handbag and perhaps taken leave of the stout lady. At the station she meets Karenin and realizes–I can’t remember whether it’s an offending hat or a new haircut that prompts this–that she no longer loves her husband.

Among other things, this is the acknowledgment of a world, a whole potentially Nabokovian anti-terra that could be reinvented for us. It is not so much heart-to-hearts that I missed in Speak, Memory–in fact I didn’t miss those at all–I wanted a sense of emotional valences. This is not to say that it must be a somehow true one. I would be perfectly happy with a false sense of them. In fact, that would probably be better, as you point out in speaking of Lenski. It is the opacity that bothered me. As for Rorty’s attempt to find the humane in Nabokov, it seems pointless, but I suppose there is no other way to appreciate him from a Pragmatist standpoint.

I have horrified a former self by taking this tack, but so be it.

Richard Lamb