11 JANUARY 1992, Page 23


Out of the chrysalis

John Bayley

VLADIMIR NABOKOV: THE AMERICAN YEARS by Brian Boyd Chatto & Windus, £25, pp.783 Writers who travel undergo a meta- morphosis. Hawthorne underwent a posthumous pilgrimage to the South Amer- ica of Borges and Marquez and became magic realism. Exiled across the Atlantic in his own lifetime, Nabokov voluntarily became a new sort of American writer. His metamorphosed bookshelf has now travelled back to Russia and begotten a new progeny of cosmopolitan authors, who would be as alien to the classic Russian novelists as they are to the latest genera- tion of Soviet hacks. The writer who travels loses not so much his nationality as his textual roots — Nabokov his Russianness, Hawthorne his being as a New Englander. But he may find something else, some novel and fertile mode of hybridisation, and Nabokov found it literally in the flesh.

He not only gave flesh — Lolita's flesh — to the abstraction of the American dream and the American destiny, the Ishmaels and the Gatsbys, but he discovered in and for America a new thinginess. Lolita is vividly present in the spoor she has left — the

old grey tennis ball, brown apple core, bedraggled magazines, a white sock on the floor, a still glistening plum stone.

Puritanical America discovered here its own unique dishevelment, the detritus of its bountiful consumerism, from the pages of an author who had sucked such things in from Gogol almost with his mother's milk. Boyd takes as his epigraph a sentence from Speak, Memory about 'the new and beloved world' Nabokov had entered, 'where I have learned to feel at home as easily as I have ceased barring my sevens.' The exemplar is characteristic. Letters and figures in a Nabokov text cease to live on a symbolic plane and become part of the cocoon of clutter in which sex, anxiety and delight also have their being.

In this second volume of Boyd's encyclopaedic biography Nabokov arrives In New York in May 1940 and dies in Mon- treux, Switzerland, a world famous but also once again a European author, in 1977. Except for Lolita, and his new version of the American experience, would he have obtained that fame? Not likely. The early novels in Russian, particularly perhaps The Luzhin Defence, would always have had dis- cerning fans, but Nabokov — or Sirin as he called himself in early Berlin and Paris days, among his fellow émigrés — would have remained no more widely known out- side Russian-speaking circles than Remizov or Andrei Bely. The later novels, Pale Fire and Ada, lead their rather self-indulgently esoteric life in the ample shadow of Lolita;

and the indulgence itself — in contrast to the spare and stark Nabokov of the earlier period — was something that only Ameri- can success could have produced. As the new style, so the new man. In contrast to the lithe athletic writer who docked at the French Line pier with a pair of boxing- gloves at the top of his trunk (two customs officers put them on and engaged in a little sparring match around the Nabokov fami- ly), the later photos show the balding, benevolent seal grown sleek on shirred eggs and blueberry muffins.

The nearest Nabokov came to admitting he had lost anything by adopting an Ameri- can persona is in an unpublished note Boyd quotes from the archive:

The demenagement from my palatial Russian

'The leg of octopus sounds nice.'

to the narrow quarters of my English was like moving from one darkened house to another on a starless night during a strike of candle- makers and torchbearers.

In fact the new quarters were not so much rusticated as sprawlingly bizarre, like the succession of rented campus homes, full of the rich dodges and 'eerie vulgarity' he came so much to appreciate in American living. That phrase used of Lolita, who wavers between it and 'dreamy childish- ness', embodies not inaccurately the new mode of writing Nabokov made for him- self. But the gain, not just in girth and bulk, was enormous, as can be seen from a com- parison of Lolita with its more spare and sinister Russian language prototype, The Enchanter. In becoming fat and physical in the American style; Humbert's story ha:, also paradoxically stepped into a new moral dimension, one that would exercise enormous influence over the native Ameri- can novel. Without Nabokov, no Updike: certainly no painless transition by the American reading public from puritan earnestness to pubic frivolities. Nabokov taught American intellectuals who had sub- stituted Freudian guilts and hang-ups for the old religious inhibitions that sex — at least in literature — could be shamelessly exploited and painlessly enjoyed. Not for nothing did Updike, reviewing The Defense (its American title), in 1963, call Nabokov the best writer of English prose in Ameri- ca, an author 'who writes prose the only way it should be written — that is, ecstati- cally'. That ecstasy was a new thing for writers brought up on the Yankee earnest- ness, the essential gravitas, of Hemingway, Faulkner or even Fitzgerald.

Desmond MacCarthy used to say he suffered a feeling of fatigue when reading a biography with such sentences as:

The Tennysons wondered whether to go to Bournemouth that year, but in the end decided not to.

There is necessarily a good deal of that in Boyd's exhaustive account of the Nabokovs' domestic progress, but to be fair he makes a virtue of this pedestrianism, and the reader is never bored, though he will be disappointed if he hopes for the low-down on any scandals and excitements of the NabOkovan maturity. Probably there was none. Butterfly-hunting and counselling his son Dimitri seem to have occupied any time left over from writing, translating and annotating Evgeny Onegin, or making notes from gun catalogues for the benefit of Humbert's slaying of his rival, or from the papers about murders that had been faked as accidents. A Mr Grammar tried to do away with his wife by running her over in the style Humbert con- templates for the demise of the unfortu- nate Big Haze, but ironically Lolita's mother will manage her own death when distraught by the revelation of her hus- band's duplicity.

Undoubtedly, Nabokov's sense of mis- chief — Russian, cosmopolitan, and upper- class — was stimulated by an American environment. The celebrated controversy about his Pushkin translation in which he engaged with Edmund Wilson seems to have been set up by him half deliberately. Where Pushkin has a monkey, Nabokov translates it as sapajou, French for a spider monkey, and Wilson falls into the trap, complaining that this typical piece of Nabokovan affectation makes a travesty of Pushkin's straightforwardness. 'It so hap- pens that neither monkey nor ape is good enough in the context', replies Nabokov, and he goes on to quote a letter in French 'well known to readers of Pushkin', in which the poet translates his own phrase from the poem, using the word sapajou.

I was looking forward [remarks Nabokov, modestly] to somebody's pouncing on that word and allowing me to retaliate with that wonderfully satisfying reference.

Wilson had duly obliged.

Words and things were the same for Nabokov, to be treasured and mounted like his butterflies. His two best critical pieces, and stunning they are, analyse Gogol's story 'The Overcoat' and Kafka's 'The Metamorphosis' solely in terms of the detail employed, and its aesthetic effect. If Gogol had not described Akaky's overcoat to the last seam, his ddnouement would not have risen to its rich hilarity of pathos. And so good is Kafka's account of the large beetle, or cockchafer, into which poor Gregor Samsa finds himself transformed, that the question is never asked — never, at least, till Nabokov archly asks it — whether the author knew that beetles and cockchafers have efficient wings and can fly out of any trouble they may find them- selves in. Such a solution would not have suited Kafka at all, nor his story.

A train from Zurich or Geneva passing through Montreux en route to the Simplon Pass and Italy climbs up from Lausanne for its first high glimpse of Lac Leman. 'Prochain arret, Montreux,' announces the conductor. A minute later you emerge from the railways station on to the grey cobbles of the Avenue des Alpes.

And so on. Boyd has done his work more than thoroughly, and Nabokov would take a certain impish pleasure in the fact. Biographies today are apt to be as dense with detail as even he could desire, although there is usually less than his inspi- ration in the choice of it. But he would give his biographer a friendly pat on the shoulder, for he had a warm heart. As a writer, however, he showed a correct class instinct in concealing the fact as much as possible.