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vladimir nabokov

29 august 2015

Barbara Wyllie deploys an enviable knowledge of Vladimir Nabokov's works and life in her brief "Critical Lives" volume on the great writer. I've been reading Nabokov with great intensity but not much organization for almost 20 years now, and there is a great deal I still don't know; but after reading Vladimir Nabokov I at least have a road map to help orient my next flurry of travel.

Wyllie's book moves through every aspect of Nabokov's literary career – except perhaps his work as a translator, which is often liminal and near-invisible in a writer's œuvre. Although Nabokov is pre-eminently a writer known universally for one book (Lolita) and widely for a few others (Pale Fire, Pnin, and Speak, Memory) and hardly at all for tons of others, Wyllie resists the temptation to dwell on the peaks of his career. As a result, we learn a lot about his entire first career as a Russian-language writer (a particularly good guide to books far less known that his English novels, and a strong treatment of their place in the Russian tradition). The treatment of each of Nabokov's books in turn, whether Russian or English, is thorough and balanced. And all this criticism is woven into a deft and concise biography of Nabokov and his family.

Wyllie gives plot summaries and critical readings of each novel, and of several short stories and other works. She's centrally interested in in themes that span Nabokov's work. Véra Nabokov, Vladimir's wife, identified his overarching theme as "potustoronnost," which is usually translated "transcendence" or something equally vague, and probably can't really be translated at all. But the essence of this idea of "potustoronnost," which Wyllie keeps returning to in one language or terminology or another, is that we have access to other states of being. These can be materialistic (heightened sensory perceptions, gifts of language or empathy), or they can be spiritualistic. It's customary to see Nabokov as a materialist ("our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness"), but Wyllie points to many intimations of immortality in his work.

And indeed, when you think of Nabokov's work comprehensively, as Wyllie does, you notice all kinds of overflows of passion, exceeding and confusing of the limits of the senses, doublings and blurrings of interpersonal boundaries. These can sometimes take the form of ghosts and sometimes of delusions and sometimes of delusions of seeing ghosts. Art and ecstasy, and their counterparts damage and loss, coexist, sometimes turning on a dime from one to the other and back again: as in the unforgettable scene in Pnin when the title character thinks he has broken a bowl that connects him to its giver, his stepson – only to find that the bowl is safe except in Pnin's exuberantly awfulizing imagination.

If such material were taken a step further, Nabokov would have been a crank – a spiritualist crank, a religious crank, perhaps, someone whose works could be dully read through some key to their mythologies. But he was also a materialist, and one I think we can strongly relate to: a materialist who felt deeply the capacity of our material brains and bodies to fabulate transcendence. Hence the contradictions that drove Nabokov to invent, or reinvent, a deeply personal postmodernism. Everything in his novels is doubled or kept at several removes or wrapped inside frames inside frames, to distance the reader and writer alike from the beauties of an existence too overwhelming to contemplate. The whole effect is one of laboriously artificial swaddling of the intensely real. This central paradox inspires others: that Nabokov could be a deeply ethical writer, even a moralist, while being violently opposed to speaking directly about politics or philosophy; that he could be the great writer of lurid crimes and obsessive madness, while maintaining a gentle sentimentalism that apparently also suffused his personal life; that he could be the aloof genius, supremely self-confident, always the smartest person in any room, and at the same time generous and self-effacing, even self-mocking.

It's very hard to approach Nabokov's work, and after several attempts I think nearly impossible to teach that work. People have to find him for themselves. I certainly did. I mentioned that I've been reading Nabokov for about 20 years, a little less perhaps – but I'm 56 years old and I've been an English teacher for 35 of them. Early attempts to get me to read Nabokov failed, especially if they involved required reading for courses. I tried Lolita, of course, and found it embarrassingly overwritten and of course massively offensive – of all the bloody things you could write about, why pedophilia, and why the most expansive project of objectification and appropriation of women and girls, and … on and on. The younger me had a point, but in the way of Nabokovian paradoxes, the point is the point and the bad is the good. The novel's overwritten quality is its whole aesthetic (like that of Tristram Shandy and Moby Dick and Ulysses, all of which I loved). And by deliberately imagining the worst human being possible, Humbert Humbert, and locking you in a narrative with no escape from his voice, Nabokov gets around all mere morality. If you want to know how people can treat other people as cruelly and selfishly as possible, and still be people, still be recognizably us, you have to imagine them without flinching. Milton did that with Satan, Dostoevsky with Raskolnikov and Stavrogin, Vince Gilligan with Walter White – and Nabokov with Humbert. What seemed to me the distillation of patriarchy when I was young and alert for masculine power and privilege now seems to me the ultimate anatomy of the hidden sources of power and privilege – and Lolita is all the better for being utterly untouched by conscious feminist rhetoric.

Having me read Pale Fire when I was a graduate student was even worse, because Pale Fire is one long expression of scathing contempt for the very thing I was trying seriously to become: an explicator of literature. Assigning Pale Fire to young students passionate about reading cannot be taken as anything but a doubly, and hideously, cynical move. Tenured professor assigns work by literary giant that mocks the act of reading and the concept of literature itself: a deliberately bad poem with insane commentary, executed with an extravagance that would make Humbert blush. And perhaps worse, in grad school you also have to read scholarship, and Nabokov scholarship tends toward the humorless and the portentous, building a strange hall of acoustic mirrors around dark hilarious novels like Lolita and Pale Fire and Pnin that threatens to extinguish every bit of laughter in the process of echoing and reflecting and reverberating their wit.

Luckily Barbara Wyllie sees the lightness and gentleness of Nabokov, his fascination with absurdity and his essential lack of – indeed deep abhorrence of – malice. And many years after my first attempts to read his work, I came to see them too. I still think of Nabokov as a very uneven writer – more so than Wyllie, who sees something to admire in every major text. I revere Speak, Memory (a book that Wyllie treats by means of references throughout her life of Nabokov, which makes sense, rather than as a literary work on its own, which would also make sense). I love the intricacy and energy of The Real Life of Sebastian Knight; I was disarmed by the rueful involutions of Le guetteur ("The Eye"). But I haven't liked some of the absurdist political satires (or rather, mockeries of the absurdist political satire) like Bend Sinister or Invitation to a Beheading. I didn't like Ada at all; I think that huge novel lacks focus, and it's still one where the over-the-top preciousness of the language and concerns puts me off. And then there are still several of the Russian novels I haven't gotten to and must soon: Wyllie has helped me to prioritize The Defense, Glory, and The Gift. I don't think Nabokov was always on his game, and that's unsurprising, because Dickens and Melville and Edith Wharton weren't always in top form either. But when he was on, Nabokov was unimaginably good. If he had never existed, it would have been impossible to invent him.

Wyllie, Barbara. Vladimir Nabokov. London: Reaktion, 2010.