BOOKS AND ARTS DECEMBER 28, 1974
Look at the Harlequins!
By Vladimir Nabokov
"I met," begins the novelist-narrator Vadim Vadimovitch (no family name given, though it may begin with the letter "N"), or Vladimir Vladimirovitch, "the first of my three or four successive wives in somewhat odd circumstances, the development of which resembled a clumsy conspiracy, with nonsensical details and a main plotter who not only knew nothing of its real object but insisted on making inept moves that seemed to preclude the slightest possibility of success. Yet out of these very mistakes he unwittingly wove a web, in which a set of reciprocal blunders on my part caused me to get involved and fulfill a destiny that was the only aim of the plot."
Immediately the maze, the mystery, Ihe Nabokovian minefield, the deadly games we're obliged to play by conflicting house-rules slyly hinted at by the subtle, devious, somewhat sinister host who knows but never unequivocally reveals. The point, if there is one, is to play adroitly in the certain knowledge of final defeat.
Imagine a tale told along such wavering, receding, chimerical lines which start surprisingly and end where they will. Imagine a teller in susceptible childhood who has already harbored "the secrets of a confined madman" and taken to heart the esthetic and metaphysical counsel of a whimsical, possibly daft great-aunt: "stop moping" and "Look at the harlequins! All around you. Trees are harlequins, words are harlequins. So are situations and sums. Put two things together--jokes, images--and you get a triple harlequin. Come on! Play! Invent the world! Invent reality!"
Imagine an invented life compounded in continuously shifting proportions of known facts, dream, fantasy, illusion and reality, in all their slippery relations, told by a lonely, old half-mad "memoirist," and you begin to see the magnitude of the game's odds, tilted wholly in the house's favor, which is to say Nabokov is as relentless and duplicitous a necromancer at 75 as ever he was in the high period of his permanent youth.
Like Vladimir Vladimirovitch, Vadim Vadimovitch was bom in St. Petersburg in 1899, lived a childhood aspects of which we know, or think we know, from the novels, was educated after the revolution at Cambridge, began his literary career and established a parochial reputation as an emigre writing for Russian periodicals in France, emigrated to the US before the war and taught at Cornell (here Quirn University) for many years, made the impossible transition from Russian to English (or a language that misleadingly looks like English but is in essence quite wholly created and one of the world's ' authentic miracles--"the fata-morganic prose I had willed into being in the desert of exile"), went on to compose the famous oeuvre (disguised here only by the playful, taunting titles) and became the universally celebrated novelist and man of letters.
But between, beyond and beneath the discernible lines to his own life, Nabokov imagines a correlative life and an imagination resembling but at a remove from his own--invents, that is, a life that he might have lived and a semblance of the imagination that absorbs from that life the materials of his art. All of it he has transcribed in the forms, language and imagined processes by which dreamed life and suffered experience-- from the glow of a lovely girl's skin and the set of her chin, the down of her forearm to the familiar Nabokovian confusions of time and duration, space and direction, memory and image, as well as his nightmares and waking dreams, the symptoms of a recurring "madness" and other fantasms of the mind, the processes by which the real and the illusory life are re-created into Vadim's/Vladimir's fictions. An adored girl fits her palm "for a moment into the cheek of the teapot. And it all went into Ardis [a novel of Vadim's very like Vladimir's Ada], it all went into Ardis, my poor dead love." A man who's not sure of his name and must find the coordinates of his existence somewhere, even if he must invent them, or discover them in the iridescence of a butterfly, or in the rigors of art. "Only the writing of fiction," Vadim writes as he casts about among the possibilities of his life, "the endless re-creation of my fluid self could keep me more or less sane."
Nabokov's narratives unravel deep within the texture of his work, and serve as reference points for the mind while the eye is transfixed by the whirling sleight-of-hand; Russia, England, France, America; three or four successive wives; the fitful, hectic processes of creation. Iris, lyric love of his young manhood and first of his wives, is killed by her maid, thwarted lover. Annette, first Vadim's inept typist, then his inept wife, and between these states the occasion or object of a small masterpiece of a defloration scene, disappears with a lady friend who may or may not have designs on her--but not before producing a daughter for him. That he has in the barren chill of their marriage sought the brief consolation of a lascivious graduate student is the pretext but not the cause of her departure. Louise, number three, the wicked stepmother and something of a tramp, vanishes with some lover or other to Florida or Florence or somewhere else--leaving Vadim, as the others have, to his lonely devices and his consuming art, all of them become memory for the old writer, lost in time and recoverable only through the endless re-creation of his fluid self.
The daughter, Bel, his Annabel Lee, his Lolita and melancholy inspiration for that novel (as written by Vadim more evocatively, suggestively entitled A Kingdom By the Sea), his captive, enchanted princess denied him by Annette throughout her childhood and forever after by that vilest of despoliators, another man, in fact her husband--Bel is granted him only for the butterfly years of her pubescence following Annette's violent, happy death. And, as we would confidently have predicted, those are Vadim's glory years. Not surprisingly, they give rise to the tenderest, loveliest, saddest fata-morganic prose in the novel: the two of them alone in their kingdom by the sea, two beautiful children, father and daughter, tremblingly innocent, delicately sexlessly lewd lovers, joyously free during that brief reprieve to ramble the "intelligent" trails of the far mountains inhabited only by other butterflies and a magical, wondrous landscape out of time. Not of flesh and the world but of the state of "being in love": Nabokov is the incomparable master of that trance, and here it is reserved only for the brief doomed period when he is first enamored of Iris--and for Bel, for the gift of time between childhood and adolescence, for her incipience, before they are awakened from their dream and exiled from their kingdom. Then the corruptors appear: first a mature, fleshly, awful woman, his third wife, the witch who makes her own exorbitant demands; and then, as Bel seeks to take flight, a cloddish young man, inane, a dolt, clumsy, altogether unworthy, who perceives Bel not as a butterfly but as a young woman (Who bleeds and can bear--and carries her off to hell, which is to say the Soviet Union, where Bel's beautiful, archaic, pre-revolutionary Russian will fall on dirty ears.
All this is glimpsed darkly from afar through the distortions of memory, while we are mesmerized by the dazzling, blinding, multifaceted surface. For Vadim, as for Vladimir, art is precisely performance. A masque, a circus, a trapeze act conducted--as he says of his shift from Russian to English--"without net." A matter of life and death, sanity and madness, every step is dangerous. One wants simply to record those steps-those figures and figurations- and regard them rapt with admiration, as in a brief paragraph, a sentence, a phrase Nabokov turns and circles, spins and whirls with arrogant perfection, superb mastery. How he works with the safety' net of Russian "spread below, between me and the lighted circlet of the arena" where the audience sits gaping, I cannot say; but to observe him working without net in fata morganic is all the more breathtaking. If novels were composed of marvelous sentences Nabokov would surely have to be judged the greatest living writer; and it is certain he would be some kind of great writer if he were writing travel brochures, field guides to lepidoptery, technical manuals for the automotive industry.
But novels are not composed of beautiful sentences. Occasionally--perhaps especially when he has stunned us with his performance in sentence after sentence--we long for a huge, lumbering, sweating, grunting workhorse of a sentence that will ploddingly perfom the brute labor of bearing its terrible, necessary burden from here to there. But of course getting "there" is not the point of Vadim's novel; the point lios in the elaboration of fantastic, fugual designs, gorgeous patterns and textures, all with contemptuous grace and virtuosity. Such art is in the essence and by disdainful intention decadent, flung in the faces of the "facetious criticules in the Sunday papers" who charge him with "aristocratic obscurity." Nabokov is our great decadent, our reigning mandarin and eccentric, a supreme, determinedly minor artist whom major ones might well envy while criticules continue to carp and gnash the stubs of their teeth.
Saul Maloff is author, most recently, of the novel Heartland (Scribners).
By Saul Maloff