Stalking Nabokov
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Stalking Nabokov

Brian Boyd

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Stalking Nabokov

Brian Boyd

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About This Book

At the age of twenty-one, Brian Boyd wrote a thesis on Vladimir Nabokov that the famous author called "brilliant." After gaining exclusive access to the writer's archives, he wrote a two-part, award-winning biography, Vladimir Nabokov: The Russian Years (1990) and Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years (1991). This collection features essays written by Boyd since completing the biography, incorporating material he gleaned from his research as well as new discoveries and formulations.

Boyd confronts Nabokov's life, career, and legacy; his art, science, and thought; his subtle humor and puzzle-like storytelling; his complex psychological portraits; and his inheritance from, reworking of, and affinities with Shakespeare, Pushkin, Tolstoy, and Machado de Assis. Boyd offers new ways of reading Nabokov's best English-language works: Lolita, Pale Fire, Ada, and the unparalleled autobiography, Speak, Memory, and he discloses otherwise unknown information about the author's world. Sharing his personal reflections, Boyd recounts the adventures, hardships, and revelations of researching Nabokov's biography and his unusual finds in the archives, including materials still awaiting publication. The first to focus on Nabokov's metaphysics, Boyd cautions against their being used as the key to unlock all of the author's secrets, showing instead the many other rooms in Nabokov's castle of fiction that need exploring, such as his humor, narrative invention, and psychological insight into characters and readers alike. Appreciating Nabokov as novelist, memoirist, poet, translator, scientist, and individual, Boyd helps us understand more than ever the author's multifaceted genius.

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19. Speak, Memory: The Life and the Art
When I wrote my biography of Nabokov, I had to deal with the Pegasus in the room: Nabokov’s own autobiography. I mined Speak, Memory as much as I could for inimitable evocations and for factual details (except in the rare cases where documentary evidence proved Nabokov’s attempt at fidelity to the facts had failed), but I also analyzed his artful shaping of his life in order to throw new light on his mind and art.
The first section of the introduction to my Vladimir Nabokov: The Russian Years (1990) quickly surveys Nabokov’s life; the second shows how much the artfulness he displayed in recounting his life could teach us. In a talk in Mos-cow in May 1990, a few months before the biography’s publication, at the first Nabokov conference in what was still the Soviet Union, I juxtaposed that second section of the introduction, the analysis of Speak, Memory’s art, which in the sentence I focus on foreshadows Nabokov’s father’s death, with the rawness of the diary account that Nabokov wrote up the day after the killing.
I visited Russia in 1990, after hair-raisingly clandestine researches in 1982, only at the encouragement of the late Simon Karlinsky, the finest of émigré Nabokovians (he began reading “Sirin” in Harbin, Manchuria, the émigré capital of the east, in his early teens, in the 1930s).1 When I happened to talk to him in early 1990, he encouraged me, despite my wariness, to revisit Russia’s libraries and archives: “They’ll show you everything!” They certainly showed me whatever I knew to ask for, and I was able to squeeze some of what I found into the proofs of The Russian Years.
Nabokov always insisted that audiences needed to know the details of artists’ work but had no right to know the details of their lives. True to that principle, he made his own autobiography more a work of art than any other autobiography has ever been, and he left out almost all his adult life.
One problem for a biographer of someone who has written such a superlative autobiography as Speak, Memory is to situate one’s own effort in relation to the author’s “official” version of his life. In Vladimir Nabokov: The Russian Years, I tried two different solutions to the problem: the first, to interpret Speak, Memory as a work of art—and to show how the artistry, the transforming imagination of the writer, in fact can reveal more about Nabokov than a more direct transcription from life would do—and the second, to ferret out those direct transcriptions, the raw facts behind the art, the things that Nabokov would rather we didn’t see. I want to take as my example the death of Nabokov’s father in Speak, Memory and in real life.
Although Nabokov was often hailed as the finest stylist of his time, many readers have found themselves perturbed by the deliberateness of his style. To them, his phrasing calls attention to itself too much to express genuine emotion or even to say anything. This puts Nabokov in good company, since it was exactly the reaction Shakespeare provoked in Tolstoy. Surely no old man on a heath in a storm would ever cry out
Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage, blow!
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you have drench’d our steeples, drown’d the cocks!
You sulph’rous and thought-executing fires,
Vaunt-couriers to oak-cleaving thunderbolts,
Singe my white head! and thou, all-shaking thunder,
Strike flat the thick rotundity o’ th’ world!
From his premises, Tolstoy is quite correct. Shakespeare’s lines testify to an impressive verbal mastery but they do not represent any plausible human speech. There is not one reader in a thousand, though, who does not feel that if Tolstoy had just turned his stiff neck a fraction he could have espied in Shakespeare all the life and truth he could have wished. A considered style may not convey what naturally comes first to mind or mouth, but for that very reason it can express so much more.
At the end of the first chapter of Speak, Memory Nabokov describes how the villagers living on the fringes of the family estate where he spent his childhood often subjected his father to a spontaneous Russian rite of gratitude. After Vladimir Dmitrievich Nabokov had settled some dispute or granted some request, five or six men would toss him high in the air and catch him in their arms. Young Vladimir at lunch inside would see only his father aloft and not the men below:
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 midst 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.
(SM 31–32)
Some will enjoy that sentence enough to trust its author. Others might suppose it a tour de force too accomplished to be aiming at any response but meek acclamation. To those with an open mind, I would like to suggest that the first reaction may be right.
Despite the generalized nature of the church scene that materializes beneath the sky’s blue vault, Nabokov in fact anticipates here (as the good reader may intuit at once, as any reader of Speak, Memory should gradually recognize) a precise moment later in his own life, the day he looks down at his father lying in an open coffin. Though that first image of a man soaring against the sky seems to start careening away from its occasion, there is nothing haphazard or indulgent in the way the sentence drops down from the figure poised as if forever in the air to the dead man on his bier. For even as Nabokov envisages the funeral he also half-affirms his father’s immortality: “like one of those paradisiac personages who comfortably soar.” But style cannot charm the facts away: the body still lies there motionless in the church, the candle flames swim because of the tears in young Nabokov’s eyes.
Nabokov ends the chapter this way to add his own tribute to that of the villagers—the oldest of whom, incidentally, still revered the memory of Nabokov’s father after more than sixty years of Soviet rule. Vladimir Dmitrievich died a hero’s death, bravely defending his chief ideological opponent within his own liberal Kadet party from two right-wing thugs and being shot in the scuffle. Nabokov’s verbal glide from the villagers’ gratitude to his father’s last rites foreshadows the fact that in the very manner of his death his father justified the high esteem in which he was always held.
Again and again throughout Speak, Memory Nabokov returns obliquely to his father’s death as if it were a wound he cannot leave alone but can hardly bear to touch. For Nabokov the love of those closest to the heart—a parent, a spouse, a child—distends the soul to dwarf all other feeling. The narrowly focused love that marked his life also shapes his fiction, whether positively (Fyodor and Zina, Krug and his son, John and Sybil Shade) or negatively, in the desolation of love’s absence (Smurov or Kinbote) or the horror of its sham surrogates (Albinus and Margot, Humbert and Lolita). Because love matters so much to Nabokov, so too does loss (Krug and his wife or son, Fyodor and his father). But he had learned from his parents to bear distress with dignity, and when he depicts his father high in the midday air he alludes to his private grief with the restraint taught him as a child. The formality and apparent distance in no way diminish the emotion: he simply feels that even a sense of loss sharp enough to last a lifetime must be met with courage and self-control.
Some conclude that since his stylistic originality announces itself with such force, Nabokov therefore can have only style to offer. I find another explanation more convincing: his style stands out so boldly because he has rethought the art of writing deeply enough to express all his originality of mind.
In the sentence I am scrutinizing, two opposite aspects of Nabokov’s style reveal two counterpoised tendencies in his thought. On the one hand, he admits to an “innate passion for independence” (Feifer interview, 22). He reveres the particularity of things, all that can break away from generalization and the blur of habit; he values the freedom of the moment, the possibility of the freakily unexpected that derails the iron mechanism of cause and effect; he celebrates the capacity of the mind to move about within the present. All these impulses make his style a perpetual declaration of independence: in this case, he chooses to stress the unconstrained mobility of the mind as his sentence loops off from the summer sky to church ceiling— and refuses to return.
On the other hand, Nabokov prizes pattern and design, things united in new combinations rather than considered in isolation. He is entranced and puzzled by the chance harmonies of the moment, the complex artistry of mimicry in the natural world, the designs of time or fate, the patterns lurking within memory. When he lets a new scene materialize under the flimsy awning of a simile he seems to have yielded to mere momentary whim. But before the sentence ends we discover that it was always under control, and as we read on in Speak, Memory we can make out that that image of church and funeral forms part of a pattern at the core of the book: again and again Nabokov foreshadows his father’s death, reticently but ineluctably, as if he had no choice but to reconstitute the insidious designs of fate.
Independence and pattern function like the complementary twin hemispheres of Nabokov’s mind. He searches out pattern in the music of a phrase or the spell of an anagram, in the shapes of time or the weave of the universe. He pursues independence in everything from his own sense of self to his philosophy of history, from his politics or esthetics to his way of looking at a face or a tree.
As Nabokov well knew, the manifest artistry of the sentence on his father—or of his style in general—carries its own metaphysical implications. Consciousness at full stretch can pass beyond its impromptu range; here it can also transcend time by compressing together a past occasion and what was then the future by freezing the moment to leave someone suspended in that cobalt sky. Through the force of his art Nabokov answers the question with which he began the first chapter of Speak, Memory, the question he confesses has always bewildered and harassed him: what lies outside the prison of human time, our entrapment within the present and our subjection to death? Typically, he chooses to display rather than efface the power of a mind working unspontaneously and so able to create an image or a thought out of the ordinary. The energy mortal consciousness can have when it vaults over the barrier of the moment suggests more than anything else its kinship with some other form of consciousness lurking beyond human limits.
In the last chapter of Speak, Memory Nabokov writes:
Whenever I start thinking of my love for a person, I am in the habit of immediately drawing radii from my love—from my heart, from the tender nucleus of a personal matter—to monstrously remote points of the universe. . . . I have to have all space and all time participate in my emotion, in my mortal love, so that the edge of its mortality is taken off, thus helping me to fight the utter degradation, ridicule, and horror of having developed an infinity of sensation and thought within a finite existence.
(SM 296–97)
This states the problem Nabokov addresses throughout his art: what can we make of the breach between the limitless capacity of consciousness and its absurd limitation? To answer this, he has searched relentlessly for some consciousness beyond the boundaries of the human.
This interest in the beyond stems not from any denigration or repudiation of the here and now: quite the contrary. Nabokov had two great gifts as a writer and a man: literary genius and a genius for personal happiness. The hero of The Gift—whose giftedness is twofold in just this way—actually anticipates in a rush of gratitude and joy that he will compile “a practical handbook: How to Be Happy” (Gift 328). But even sunny genius knows another side of experience, for to the degree that the world makes happiness possible it also primes us for the ache of loss. The key to Nabokov is that he loved and enjoyed so much in life that it was extraordinarily painful for him to envisage losing all he held precious, a language, a love, this instant, that sound.
Nabokov extols the freedom we have within the moment, the richness of our perceptions and emotions and thought. Nevertheless, we are all imprisoned within ourselves, trapped in the present, doomed to die. It seems brutal and senseless that we must store up such wealth of recollection—and even agonies like bereavement in time become a kind of wealth, a measure of having lived—when we know that it will all be snatched away by death. But perhaps at its very best consciousness itself hints at a way out. In art or science, in memory, in the exercise of imagination and attention and kindness, the mind seems almost able to peer past the prison bars of selfhood and time.
Nabokov’s sentence tosses his father so high he almost condenses into pigment and dries out on a ceiling fresco. Such sudden, disturbing transitions from life to art occur often in Nabokov. Why? A fashionable conundrum? Art for art’s sake?
No: Nabokov believed in art for life’s sake. Cast your eyes ar...

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