Ian Sansom

Like April in Arizona

Nabokov in America: On the Road to Lolita


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For all those keen quivering Nabokovians out there with infinitely deep pockets – are there any other kind? – or perhaps with access to a university library, these are undoubtedly the years of plenty. In 2014 alone, even the most casual short-trousered amateur Nabokovterist armed with a basic butterfly net would have been able to catch Maurice Couturier’s Nabokov’s Eros and the Poetics of Desire, Yuri Leving’s Shades of Laura: Vladimir Nabokov’s Last Novel, Samuel Schuman’s Nabokov’s Shakespeare, and the paperback reissues of Gerard de Vries and D Barton Johnson’s Nabokov and the Art of Painting and Vladimir E Alexandrov’s Nabokov’s Otherworld. Almost forty years after his death there is, it seems, much good Nabokov-hunting still to be had. In a lecture on ‘The Art of Literature and Commonsense’, collected in his Lectures on Literature – which remains the perfect entry point into the vast, prodigious kingdom of the Great Nabob – Nabokov remarks, ‘In a sense, we are all crashing to our death from the top story of our birth … and wondering with an immortal Alice at the patterns of the passing wall. This capacity to wonder at trifles – no matter the imminent peril – these asides of the spirit … are the highest form of consciousness.’

So as we go crashing to our death, let us continue, like Alice, to wonder at trifles. This year has already seen a reprint of Galya Diment’s excellent and eccentric Pniniad, an utterly thorough study of the relationship between Nabokov and the much-thwarted Marc Szeftel, his colleague at Cornell and the model for poor Timofey Pnin, hapless ‘assistant professor emeritus’ in Pnin. And now comes Robert Roper’s useful Nabokov in America.

According to Roper, his book is ‘an attempt to borrow Nabokov back from the scholars’. In this regard, at least, he is successful: the prose, for the most part, is perfectly readable by the non-specialist, except when it becomes horribly unreadable by absolutely anyone. Avoiding Nabokov’s own famously fancy prose style and the weird, wannabe excrescences of so many Nabokov scholars, Roper tends at times towards the opposite, a kind of aw-shucks down-home folksiness: ‘The Nabokovs had been through the historical wringer’; ‘neither of them had ever been much for cooking or packing on the pounds’. But his main point is made clearly and sensibly enough for anyone to be able to follow, the basic thesis being that Nabokov turned himself into a more purely American writer than many others have so far acknowledged. In America, in Roper’s words, Nabokov ‘began to write with a new audacity, with, I would argue, an American-style effrontery’.

Nabokov certainly liked to think of himself as an American writer – ‘I am as American as April in Arizona’ he told an interviewer in 1966. And again: ‘I feel intellectually at home in America.’ And again: ‘I am an American, I feel American’. And again: ‘America is the only country where I feel mentally and emotionally at home.’ The Russian doth protest too much, methinks. John Updike had it about right: Nabokov, he declared in an article written in the 1960s, is ‘the best writer of the English language presently holding American citizenship’.

Nabokov arrived in America aboard the SS Champlain in 1940 at the age of forty-one with his Jewish wife, Véra, and their young son, Dmitri. He lived in the States for just over twenty years, teaching at Wellesley College and Cornell, and of course writing many of his greatest novels in, about and around America, not least Lolita (1955), which was scribbled on his beloved index cards in his equally beloved Oldsmobile while touring the country on his long summer butterfly-hunting expeditions. Among other things, Lolita – whether you like it or not – is a celebration and a denunciation of what Humbert Humbert calls that ‘lovely, trustful, dreamy, enormous country’. But could Nabokov ever really be regarded as an American writer in the same way that, say, F Scott Fitzgerald, Sinclair Lewis and Updike, or Lydia Davis and Toni Morrison, are?

It all depends, of course, on what you mean by an American writer. Was Isaac Bashevis Singer in any meaningful sense an American writer? Is Junot Díaz? Is it the case that all actual so-called American writers – simply by virtue of the fact that they have lived at some time in America – are necessarily fizzier, flashier or sassier than some aboriginal Englishman or Scotswoman? Would it be possible to present two pieces of work, in English, to the average reader and have them identity the writer’s country of origin by stylistic features alone? Is the Nabokov of St Petersburg really so different from the Nabokov of Ithaca, New York? Perhaps.

What we know for sure is that Nabokov became an American citizen in 1945 and that he carefully studied and catalogued the nation in the same way that he carefully studied and catalogued butterflies at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology. He made notes on American phrases. He studied American magazines. He immersed himself in – inserted himself, rather, deliberately and forcefully into – the world of American arts and letters. Maybe his strange desire to be American was the most American thing about him.

But all of this we know already from Brian Boyd’s Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years (1992), which forms a massive diptych with his Vladimir Nabokov: The Russian Years (1990) and which still stands as perhaps the only book about Nabokov – rather than any of the books actually by Nabokov – that any non-tenured Nabokovian would wish to read. As a biographer, Boyd remains unsurpassed (and probably unsurpassable). Then again, Roper’s claims are not based on any startlingly new original research but rather on his own instincts as a writer – like Nabokov, or, in fairness perhaps, unlike Nabokov, he is a novelist. Roper certainly provides some very interesting and sensitive readings and comparisons between Nabokov’s work and Moby-Dick, and with the work of Hemingway, Ayn Rand and Nabokov’s good friend – and, eventually, great enemy – Edmund Wilson.

But the questions remain. Where did Nabokov really develop what Kingsley Amis, in a brilliant review of Lolita in The Spectator, called his ‘Charles Atlas muscle-man’ style of writing? Was it in St Petersburg or on an American campus? On the family estate back home in Russia or in the lonely motel rooms he and Véra liked to stay in on their long summer tours of the Rockies and the Southern states? Are literary audacity and effrontery really echt American or are they the products of aristocratic disdain? Or – perhaps – is it possible that Nabokov was most himself neither in Russia nor in America but rather at the very end of his life, in the Palace Hotel in Montreux, an exile from everywhere and everyone and everything but himself? Perhaps the book we’re really waiting for is Vladimir Nabokov: The Swiss Years. In the meantime, Roper’s is a useful addition to Nabokov studies, although, as with almost all literary scholarship, highbrow, lowbrow and everywhere in between – which is no shame to Roper but rather the fault of our own sad sense of loss and estrangement as readers, long exiled from our first literary experiences of passion and joy – reading the book does make one feel rather like Humbert Humbert, struggling to make love to the middle-aged mother of the child he secretly adores. ‘So I tom-peeped across the hedges of years, into wan little windows. And when, by means of pitifully ardent, naively lascivious caresses, she of the noble nipple and massive thigh prepared me for the performance of my nightly duty, it was still a nymphet’s scent that in despair I tried to pick up, as I bayed through the undergrowth of dark decaying forests.’

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