It’s the 40th Anniversary of Vladimir Nabokov’s Death
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Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov, who died on July 2nd forty years ago, is one of the most celebrated writers of the twentieth century. His reputation rests on Lolita, which is self-consciously—exuberantly—a groundbreaking novel, and still feels as original today as it did when it was first published in 1955. Nor has it grown any less shocking with the years.
It’s about a man who abducts and rapes a teenage girl, after first contriving to become her stepfather. If that weren't shocking enough, Nabokov has the audacity to tell this story not in hardboiled prose but in the lushest, most spectacularly baroque sentences ever composed in English. The novel’s famous opening—‘Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins’— frames Lolita as a love letter to the abducted girl, but it is just as much a love letter to the English language and to the lushly-rendered landscape of suburban America. Yet all this potently beautiful prose never flinches from the sordidness of its story: Lolita uses moral gravity the way dancing uses actual gravity.
It’s perhaps because Lolita is so famous—and notorious, and brilliant—that Nabokov’s other novels tend to be somewhat overlooked. He wrote no fewer than eighteen (half in Russian, half in English), not to mention hundreds of short stories and a dozen volumes of poetry. Unsurprisingly, they’re pretty good, and if you haven’t read them all yet, today’s date is a good excuse to get on with it.
Perhaps his most underappreciated novel is Pale Fire (1962)—but there’s a good reason why it’s so underappreciated. When you turn to page one, you find yourself at the beginning of a long poem. Its rhyming couplets are eked out in a homely English that occasionally strays into grandiloquence. Nabokov was a poet before he was a novelist, and there’s great pleasure in the poem, but if you’re expecting a novel it’s disconcerting. The first time I plucked the book down in a bookshop I ended up returning it to its place.
The trick is to consult the footnotes. They are written by an academic, Dr. Kinbote, who seems… troubled. His commentary rapidly diverges from the poem it’s supposed to be commenting on, and we begin to understand that he either has a big secret—or he’s completely insane.
He claims to hail from a country called Nova Zembla. Whether this is a country which really exists in the world of the novel or whether it’s a delusion of Kinbote’s is never cleared up: it’s a northerly territory which, like Nabokov’s Russia, has been transformed by an anti-monarchist revolution, but it’s also a place woven from a latticework of intellectual and artistic games, of literature, of imaginative play. Kinbote seems to know an awful lot about the life of Nova Zembla’s former king, whose whereabouts are officially unknown. Perhaps, Kinbote wonders, his majesty might have chosen to spend his exile teaching at a New England university. One of Nabokov’s hobbies was compiling chess problems, and he was just as tricksy about putting his novels together. Pale Fire is the most fiendish of them all.
Not just the novel as a whole but its individual sentences are playful and puzzling. But it’s a delight to get lost in them. I’ll restrain myself to one example. Here is Kinbote contemplating his preferred method of suicide:
The ideal drop is from an aircraft, your muscles relaxed, your pilot puzzled, your packed parachute shuffled off, cast off, shrugged off - farewell, shootka (little chute)! Down you go, but all the while you feel suspended and buoyed as you somersault in slow motion like a somnolent tumbler pigeon, and sprawl supine on the eiderdown of the air, or lazily turn to embrace your pillow, enjoying every last instant of soft, deep, death-padded life, with the earth's green seesaw now above, now below, and the voluptuous crucifixion, as you stretch yourself in the growing rush, in the nearing swish, and then your loved body's obliteration in the Lap of the Lord.
But Pale Fire is not merely an exercise in problem-solving. It has a gripping plot. A king escapes from his gaol, revolutionaries plot his assassination, there’s a chase across the mountains. At one of its many levels, the novel is a murder mystery which leaves it to the reader to work out its solution—although there may not be one. That would be just like Nabokov.
Most novelists would come under a bit of critical fire for writing two separate novels about a lonely and eccentric Russian—or Nova Zemblan—academic on an American campus. But Pnin (1957) is so utterly different from Pale Fire that you hardly notice the things they have in common.
Its protagonist, Professor Timofey Pavlovich Pnin (you’re supposed to pronounce the ‘P’ but no-one does) lives alone, in every conceivable way. We follow him as he travels to a lecture (he gets the wrong train), while he tries to establish a relationship with his ex-wife’s son, while he washes up. The novel’s pervasive mood of aching farce becomes gradually more painful and less funny each time Pnin fails to forge a meaningful connection with the people around him. Even the novel’s narrator, a Russian-American colleague of Pnin’s called Vladimir Vladimirovich, seems unconcerned for Pnin’s welfare. Listen to his mocking tone as he describes the procedure by which Pnin prepares his lectures:
Professor Pnin laboriously translated his own Russian verbal flow, teeming with idiomatic proverbs, into patchy English. This was revised by young Miller. Then Dr. Hagen's secretary, a Miss Eisenbohr, typed it out. Then Pnin deleted the passages he could not understand. Then he read it to his weekly audience.
Even if you’re not that keen on campus novels, Pnin and Pale Fire are worth a look, but if nothing will convince you to read another book about a professor (I wouldn’t blame you), then don’t worry. There’s a Nabokov for everyone. Bend Sinister is a dystopian reimagining of the already-fairly-dystopian histories of Eastern Europe. Ada or Ardor is a love story set in a parallel universe. One of his Russian-language novels, translated as Laughter In The Dark, is a satire of European decadence containing early buds of the ideas which reach full bloom in Lolita. The Real Life of Sebastian Knight pokes absurd fun at the work of literary biographers (Nabokov was a virulent opponent of the merest suggestion that art has anything to do with life). But perhaps none of his work has more universal appeal than Speak, Memory, a memoir as imaginatively rich as any of his novels.
Speak, Memory covers the early period of Nabokov’s life, and it’s a pretty exciting period. He was born into the Russian nobility and fled Russia with his family when the Revolution broke out. In Berlin his father was fatally shot during a bungled assassination attempt, and when the Nazis came to power, Nabokov and his wife fled for America. Speak, Memory, however, is not as action-packed as this summary suggests. Instead it is meditative and wistful, illumined by a deeply moving nostalgia for a Russia to which Nabokov can never return. But he doesn’t ask for the reader’s pity. On the contrary, Nabokov glories in the vivid memories he can conjure of his childhood and adolescence.
Speak, Memory asks what a life is, and what happens to all the beauty and wonder we experience, once we’ve experienced it. So perhaps on the fortieth anniversary of the author’s death, Speak, Memory is the place to meet him, if you haven’t already.