BOOKS AND ARTS JANUARY 14, 1967
Now in his sixty-seventh year, Vladimir Nabokov is suddenly upon us. Of course, he was here all along, but his oeuvre was like an iceberg, the massive body of his Russian novels, stories, plays, and poems remaining untranslated and out of sight, lurking beneath the visible peaks of Lolita (1955), Pnin (1957), and Pale Fire (1962). In the last eight years, however, six of his books in Russian have been translated and three out of print novels reissued. Nabokov's own translation of Lolita into Russian and a collation of stories known as Nabokov's Quartet appeared quietly this autumn, but the publication of Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited, a considerably revised and expanded version of the memoir first issued in 1951 as Conclusive Evidence, is an event that should be celebrated, for it is the finest autobiography written in our time and, as a tentative Nabokov bibliography reveals, it is his twenty-second book in English and thirty-second in all, not including the plays and stories which remain to be translated and collected, or the entomological papers, which could fill a volume. The publication of The Exploit (1932), now being translated by Dmitri Nabokov (whose excellent translations of his father have been insufficiently praised), will leave untranslated only Nabokov's first two novels from the twenties, which he considers "mediocre."
This extraordinary outburst of Nabokovia highlights the resolute and indomitable spirit of the man who published his masterpieces, Lolita and Pale Fire, at the age of 56 and 62, respectively. Nabokov endured the exigencies of being an emigre writer when the Western world only seemed interested in his inferior Soviet contemporaries, and has emerged not only as a major Russian writer, but as the most important living American novelist. No doubt some academic pigeonholers still worry about Nabokov's nationality and where to "place" him, but John Updike solved this synthetic problem when he described Nabokov as "the best writer of English prose at present holding American citizenship." Not since Henry James, an emigre in his own right, has an American citizen created so formidable a corpus of work.
Nabokov was born in 1899, the same year as Hemingway and Hart Crane, a year before Thomas Wolfe. One doesn't readily think of him as their contemporary, and this fact serves to underscore a familiar and saddening story about American letters, and to emphasize Nabokov's signal achievement. One hesitates to sustain a vocabulary better suited for a General Motors account report, but in total output, Nabokov surpasses Faulkner, the only other major American writer of the modern period whose work threatens to occupy a full shelf, and even Dreiser, that veritable writing machine. To find a comparable verbal felicity in our literature, one has to go back to Melville and Hawthorne, but the poetic order of Nabokov's virtuoso prose, the joy and the exactitude with which every sentence seems to have been composed, finally places him beyond comparison. Criticism must now catch up with Nabokov, and one can foresee in the next decade a spate of articles and books which should rival the recent outpouring of Nabokov's old works. The first book on Nabokov, Page Stegner's Escape into Aesthetics, which deals with the five novels written in English, was published this fall, Wisconsin Studies in Contemporary Literature is devoting its entire spring issue to Nabokov, and the author of Lolita can be seen on Educational Television.
But like Mary McCarthy's splendid review of Pale Fire, this kind of fanfare is too recent to account for his reputation, which has grown quietly for a decade among a new generation of serious readers and, most significantly, younger fiction writers such as John Barth, Jerome Charyn, ' John Hawkes, and Thomas Pynchon. One of the healthiest aspects of Nabokov's ascension is that, unlike so many writers today, he does not owe his eminence to the unrelenting efforts of the critics.
Nabokov's pronounced antipathy to Freud and the novel of society will continue to alienate some critics, but there is a reason for the delay in achieving his proper status more basic than his failure to conform to some accepted school or Zeitgeist pattern: readers trained on the tenets of formalist criticism have simply not known what to make of works which resist the search for ordered mythic and symbolic "levels of meaning," and depart completely from post-Jamesian requisites for the "realistic" or "impressionistic" novel--that a fiction be the impersonal product of a pure aesthetic impulse, a self-contained illusion of
reality rendered from a consistently held point of view and through a central intelligence from which all authorial comment has been exorcised. Quite the opposite happens in Nabokov's fiction: his art is artifice or nothing, and the fantastic, a-realistic, and involuted forms toward which even his earliest fictions evolve make it clear that Nabokov has always gone his own way, and it has not been the way of the novel's Great Tradition according to F. R. Leavis. But Nabokov's present eminence signals a radical shift in opinions about the novel and the novelists' ethical responsibilities. A future historian of the novel may one day claim that it was Nabokov, more than any novelist now living, who kept alive an exhausted art form not only by demonstrating new possibilities for it, but by reminding us, through his example, of the variegated aesthetic resources of his great forebears, such as Sterne, and the Joyce who was a parodist rather than a symbolist.
The new edition of Speak, Memory affords an opportunity to make some general remarks about Nabokov's art which, however admired it may be, is almost never considered on its own terms. A compulsive exegete could devote several hundred pages to an elucidation of the literary allusions in Lolita and Pale Fire and yet fail to identify Nabokov's fundamental concerns and methods. Speak, Memory goes surprisingly far in helping to introduce them.
The 1951 version of Speak, Memory has been widely read in a paperback edition, but its readers may be assured that the revisited memoir is indispensable, its more than one hundred new pages and many important revisions increasing its cumulative power considerably.
The new edition is also much enhanced by eighteen illustrations of Nabokov, his family, and his butterflies. These are not mere ancillary documents, and several present striking juxtapositions: Nabokov in a rowboat as a handsome, white-garbed 21-yearold Cambridge undergraduate, an open-shirted Russian Romantic by way of Rupert Brooke; then an unposed shot taken only nine years later but showing a much older-looking man, a decade of exile behind him, concentration creasing his forehead as he writes The Defense (1930), his third novel. Nabokov has also drawn the endpapers for the new edition: a map of the Nabokov lands and a butterfly (not identified, it is, rightly, Parnassius mnemosyne; in fact. Speak, Mnemosyne was his first choice for a title).
Like the first edition, the augmented Speak, Memory spans the first 40 years of Nabokov's life--one half of them spent in Russia, the other in exile in England, Germany, and France—stopping with his departure for America in 1940. Its researches into the history of his distinguished family extend back to the 13th century, and Chapter Three, which once featured eccentric Uncle Ruka, who at his death in 1916 bequeathed to young Nabokov his lands and the equivalent of a few million dollars, has now been doubled in length in order to accommodate as much of the family tree as possible. Chapter Fourteen provides history of a different sort. It in part deals with Russian emigre existence in Berlin and Paris (1922-1939), spectral worlds in which Nabokov supported himself through translations, lessons in English and tennis, and, fittingly, the first Russian crossword puzzles, which he composed for a daily emigre paper. He re-creates emigre literary life most vividly in The Gift (1938), but Bunin, Aldanov, Kuprin, Marina Tsvataev, and other emigre writers pass through Speak, Memory too quickly, and some readers will wish that Chapter Fourteen had grown in proportion to Chapter Three, especially since there is only one full-length study of the emigre period (by Gleb Struve, available only in Russian). Yet it is the very paucity of such documentary material that points to the excellence and rare purity of Speak, Memory: like Nabokov's fiction, its landscape is ultimately inward, and the memories which provide Nabokov with conclusive evidence of his having existed do not derive from the kind of high-toned gossip which so many literary memoirists confuse with significant personal experience.
Although Speak, Memory proliferateswith names and faces, its most revelatory passages concern solitary moments, and describe the torture and rapture and sense of timelessness experienced in the hunting of rare butterflies and the composition of poems or chess problems. But its sunniest pages are inspired by the memories which "belong to the harmonious world of a perfect childhood," and Nabokov recreates this lost world with an affecting tenderness and exuberance: summers on country estates; winters in St. Petersburg; trips on the Nord-Express; Biarritz and the Riviera; a succession of governesses and tutors; the warmth and gaiety of large family gatherings; the elegant appurtenances of an Anglophile household--all belonging, as
they say, to a vanished era, and as such making Speak, Memory an important social record, among other things, though its author might not consider this a recommendation.
The rich and aristocratic Nabokovs were not the "White Russian" stock figures of Western liberal demonology--all monocles, Faberge snuffboxes, and reactionary opinions—but rather a family with a long tradition of high culture and public service. Nabokov's grandfather was Minister of Justice under two Tsars and implemented the court reforms, while Nabokov's father adds a special resonance to the nostalgic memoirs of his apolitical son, since he tragically epitomizes the final efforts of the non-Soviet intelligentsia to create a democratic society in Russia.
By education a lawyer, he lectured at the Imperial School of Jurisprudence, was an editor of liberal newspapers, a foe of anti-Semitism, an authority on Dickens, and a prolific journalist and scholar of law who wrote several books and thousands of articles, including "The Blood Bath of Kishinev," a famous protest against the 1903 pogrom. "At an official banquet in 1904," writes his son, "he refused to drink the Tsar's health. He is said to have coolly advertised in the papers his court uniform for sale." Deprived of his title by imperial decree, he "resolutely plunged into antidespotic labors." He was fined by the government for the fiery articles he wrote about the Beiliss trial (Maurice Samuel mentions him several times in his fine book on the Beiliss case. Blood Accusation--coincidentally published at the same time as Malamud's The Fixer--and quotes from Nabokov's reportage).
A leader of the liberal opposition party (the Kadets), he was elected to the first parliament (Duma), went to prison for issuing a revolutionary manifesto, served in the provisional government after the 1917 Revolution, and then escaped to the Crimea, where he was Minister of Justice in the regional government.
In 1919 he went into exile, co-editing a liberal emigre daily in Berlin until his death in 1922 (age, 52), at a political meeting, when he was shot while trying to shield the speaker from two monarchist assassins.
Mr. D. J. Enright, in an early review of Speak, Memory, carefully avoids mentioning any of the above, and decides that Nabokov "loved and admired" his father not for his liberalism, but for the snobbery made possible by his wealth and position. Thus the morality of reviewing.
What Nabokov in the afterword to Lolita calls his "second-rate brand of English" has never been more virtuoso than in Speak, Memory. Utilizing as many of the devices of poetry as prose can accommodate, he unfolds his memories in a rich, shimmering style that in its most ecstatic moments is nothing less than enchanting. When he is writing about those he loves most, the welling prose will build to a final crescendo, as at the end of Chapter One, when he describes "the national [tossing] ordeal" with which the villagers would honor his father after he had been called from the dining-room table and had successfully mediated a local dispute or granted a subsidy:
"From my place at table I would suddenly see through one of the west windows a marvelous case of levitation. There, for an instant, the figure of my father in his windrippled white summer suit would be displayed, gloriously sprawling in midair, his limbs in a curiously casual attitude, his handsome, imperturbable features turned to the sky. Thrice, to the mighty heave-ho of his invisible tossers, he would fly up in this fashion, and the second time he would go higher than the first and then there he would be, on his last and loftiest flight, reclining, as if for good, against the cobalt blue of the summer noon, like one of those paradisiac personages who comfortably soar, with such a wealth of folds in their garments, on the vaulted ceiling of a church while below, one by one, the wax tapers in mortal hands light up to make a swarm of minute flames in the mist of incense, and the priest chants of eternal repose, and funeral lilies conceal the face of whoever lies there, among the swimming lights, in the open coffin."
Effects such as these, abundant in Speak, Memory, are not a matter of "fine writing"--that vaguely pejorative designation, carrying with it suggestions of a hollow eloquence, a disparity between a high style and mean subject--for they rise inexorably out of Nabokov's deepest promptings.
Although the above quotation is also in the 1951 Speak, Memory, there were surprisingly few sustained passages about his father in that first version. This fact, coupled with the short biography of him which Nabokov has added to Chapter Nine, suggests how difficult it has been for him to write about his father, and reveals an especially poignant dimension of the new book which may not immediately be apparent. The nine new pages on his father are informative enough. His memory bolstered by a recently reclaimed
family scrapbook, Nabokov coolly details his father's exemplary career, but as the declarative sentences fall into place, one soon realizes that Nabokov's feelings for his father are so profound that, 45 years after his assassination, they still threaten to overwhelm him, and the emotion seems to well up behind the fortress of facts. At one point he interrupts a very short passage about his father's manuscripts to say "I am taking two hours now to describe a two-minute run of his flawless handwriting." These new pages, unadorned and low-keyed, contrast starkly with the sonorous, evocative pages against which they are set, making the biography of his father a very moving experience in an unexpected way.
The first chapter's crescendo ending defines a structural pattern consistent throughout Speak, Memory. In spite of Nabokov's indifference to music of any kind, he describes the use memory makes of "innate harmonies" and "wandering tonalities," its resolution of "janghng chords," and the overriding design of Speak, Memory is intricately contrapuntal. Each of its fifteen chapters sounds a major motif, and the titles which they bore in their initial appearance as magazine pieces summarize these motifs best: "Portrait of my Mother"; "My English Education"; "Butterflies"; "Exile," and so forth (see Nabokov's Foreword). These "bright blocks of perception" follow a rough chronology in time, but weaving through them in almost rhythmical associative progressions are separate out-of-sequence themes which, when followed and apprehended by the autobiographer, reduce time to a convenient abstraction. Every chapter moves, in varying degrees, toward a recapitulation of its intertwining thematic lines, a full orchestration that in its closing moment reaches for a plangent chord--an incandescent, summary image.
Because consciousness is virtually an optical instrument to Nabokov, his efforts to recapture the past are something vividly seen. The struggle takes place before the reader, who shares with the memoirist that exhilarating instant when Mnemosyne obeys Nabokov's injunction, and the isolated, dimly remembered moments--mute images which have been fading in and out of focus--suddenly coalesce and come to life, releasing a cascade of reverberating sounds and sights, as at the end of Chapter Eight when, after resurrecting a large family outing, Nabokov hears "beyond the river, behind the rhythmic trees, the confused and enthusiastic hullabaloo of bathing young villagers, like a background of wild applause"—as though the bathers were a concord of witnesses to Nabokov's bravura performance, the memory feat which includes his bedazzling re-creation of them.
In addition to its qualities as a memoir, Speak, Memory serves, along with Chapter Five in Gogol (1944), as the ideal introduction to Nabokov's art, for the most lucid criticism of Nabokov is found in his own books. His most overtly parodic novels spiral in upon themselves and provide their own commentary; sections of The Gift and The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (1941) limpidly describe the narrative strategies of later novels. Nabokov's preoccupations are perhaps best projected by bringing together the opening and closing sentences of Speak Memory: "The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness." At the end of the book, he describes how he and his wife first perceived, through the strategems thrown up to confound the eye, the ocean liner waiting to take them and their son to America: "It was most satisfying to make out among the jumbled angles of roofs and walls, a splendid ship's funnel, showing from behind the clothesline as something in a scrambled picture--Find What the Sailor Has Hidden--that the finder cannot unsee once it has been seen." The Eye is welltitled; the apprehension of "reality" (a word that Nabokov says must always have quotes around it) is first of all a miracle of vision, and our existence is a sequence of attempts to unscramble the "pictures" glimpsed in that "brief crack of light." Both art and nature are to Nabokov "a game of intricate enchantment and deception," and the process of reading and rereading his novels is a game of perception, like those which E. H. Gombrich writes about in Art and Illusion--everything is there, in sight (no symbols lurking in murky depths), but one must penetrate the trompe I'oeil, which eventually reveals something totally different from what one had expected. This is how Nabokov seems to envision the game of life and the effect of his novels: each time a "scrambled picture" has been discerned "the finder cannot unsee" it; consciousness has been expanded or created.
The word "game" commonly denotes frivolity and an escape from the exigencies of the world, but Nabokov confronts the void by virtue of his play-concept. His "game of worlds" (to quote John Shade in Pale Fire) proceeds within the terrifyingly immutable limits defined by the "two eternities of darkness," and is a search for order--for "some kind/Of correlated pattern in the game"--which demands the full consciousness of its players. The author and the reader are the "players," and when in Speak, Memory Nabokov describes the composition of chess problems he is also telescoping his fictional practices. If one responds to the author's "false scents" and "specious lines of play," best effected by parody, and believes, say, that Humbert's confession is "sincere" and that he exorcises his guilt, or that the narrator of Pnin is really perplexed by Pnin's animosity toward him, or that a Nabokov book is an illusion of a reality proceeding under the natural laws of our world, then one has not only lost the game to the author, but most likely is not faring too well in the "game of worlds," one's own unscrambling of pictures.
Alfred Appel, Jr.
By Alfred Appel, Jr.