The Essential Vladimir Nabokov

People who dislike Vladimir Nabokov tend to find his dexterity stressful, like watching a circus performer juggle torches for hours. The solution to this is to chill out. It’s not your job to worry that an elective juggler is going to light his shorts on fire! Let the performer assess his own risks!

A more pragmatic solution for skeptics is to administer Nabokov in modest doses, a page or two at a time, before working up to full chapters. Even with tiny bites you’ll immediately perceive the way he hops between material realms and metaphysical ones as freely as a bunny in a meadow. You’ll notice the way synesthesia guides his pen, and you’ll pick up his themes of exile, wonder, the afterlife and the privacy and primacy of marriage.

Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov was born in Russia in 1899 to a wealthy family. He was a chic youngster — a Swiss watch dangled from his wrist, a chauffeur escorted him to school — whose hobbies included poetry and girls. At a young age he displayed a flair for impish gestures. In “Vladimir Nabokov: The Russian Years,” the scholar Brian Boyd cites an episode where a young Nabokov was assigned a school essay on the topic of laziness and turned in a blank sheet of paper.

It wasn’t long before his family found themselves fleeing from one location of jinxed historical relevance to another. After the Bolshevik coup, the family left Russia in 1917 and settled in Weimar Germany following stops in Greece, England and France. Nabokov’s father, a newspaper editor and liberal statesman, was assassinated by Russian monarchists in Berlin in 1922. It was in the same city that Nabokov met Véra Slonim, who would become his wife. The couple fled Nazi-occupied France in 1940 — Véra was Jewish — and lived in America before retiring to Switzerland in 1961.

You may be aware that Nabokov was a freak for puzzles and games. This is true on every scale and expressed in nearly every work of fiction. Within the unit of a sentence you might frolic through puns and anagrams; within the unit of a paragraph you may decipher an acrostic or a code; and within the unit of a novel you will encounter doppelgängers, disguises, unseen participants and possibly dead narrators. No other major writer possesses a greater commitment to the value of playfulness.

On that note: Have fun!

Where shall I begin?

Whatever I prescribe as the Official Starting Place will be controversial because Nabokov was too far-romping a writer to produce anything close to a “representative” book. I’ll recklessly submit “Pnin” (1957) as the harbor from which a questioning novice should embark on her voyage. It accomplishes what a first encounter must, being tantalizing and penetrable. More important, I can’t imagine anyone who would otherwise love Nabokov dislikingPnin” and being tragically dissuaded from further exploration.

Timofey Pnin is a Russian émigré who wears sloppy socks and instructs a handful of dimwit pupils at an American college. Enchanted with and besieged by the spoils of the New World, he finds life “a constant war with insensate objects that fell apart, or attacked him, or refused to function, or viciously got themselves lost as soon as they entered the sphere of his existence.” Another of Pnin’s foes is the English language, which thwarts and reduces him to the inglorious social position of local punchline.

The campus novel was in its infancy when Nabokov made this contribution, and “Pnin” helped establish the parameters of the category. There is a cozily circumscribed setting, ample mockery of pettifogging administrators and pretentious academics, and dramatic comedy derived from the spectacle of adults driven to compete for rewards concrete (tenure) and illusory (peer approval).

Fans of the Nabokov Extended Universe will be aware that Timofey Pnin briefly appears in “Pale Fire,” where we learn that he has — hurray! — achieved tenure.

What’s his best novel?

“Pale Fire” (1962). An avalanche of superlatives applies: It is his most inexhaustible work, most tragic, most gleeful, most inventive, most tender, most dissected by scholars. But above all, it is his most sheerly pleasurable.

The novel is presented as a 999-line autobiographical poem by a fictional poet grieving his daughter’s suicide. The poem, written in heroic couplets, is accompanied by psychotic annotations from the poet’s neighbor, a madman who fancies himself the exiled king of an imaginary nation called Zembla. “Pale Fire” contains multiple plots in both senses of the word and they all refuse summary so instead I will propose that this is the work most demonstrative of Nabokov’s style, which Martin Amis adoringly characterized as a “tireless attempt to pay full justice to the weird essence of things.”

It also illustrates how flawless the writer’s maximalism could be. In this way, and (don’t worry) in this way only, Nabokov reminds me of Prince: a virtuoso who dances right up to the line of absurdity, pauses to observe the line, and then soars across it with a jeté of such controlled flamboyance that a witness can’t help swooning.

You can’t be serious. Not ‘Lolita’?

Nobody died and made me boss, but I believe that, while the two novels are of equal quality — if it’s possible to make distinctions at such an altitude — “Pale Fire” is simply more Nabokovian. That said, of course “Lolita” (published in France in 1955, and in the United States in 1958) is a masterpiece! It is nastier and earthier than “Pale Fire,” and may constitute the most dazzling advertisement for the English language ever composed.

You know the premise of the book, or at least its main characters and setting: 12-year-old child, middle-aged man, road trip across America. Lolita and Humbert Humbert are supposed to be shockingly unsuitable as lovers. The mismatch is a device for Nabokov to investigate passion in all its pathological complexity.

Nabokov described the writing of “Lolita” as “a painful birth, a difficult baby.” A 1958 review of the novel in this newspaper called it “one of the funniest and one of the saddest books that will be published this year.” From a distance of 65 years we can revise “year” to “century” and cut “one of.”

I prefer nonfiction.

If I had to describe “Speak, Memory” (1966) in four words I would choose these: “the opposite of Wikipedia.” First published in 1951 under the title “Conclusive Evidence,” the manuscript was subsequently renamed “Speak, Memory,” then revised and plumped and rereleased in its definitive version 15 years later. The first Spanish translation, “¡Habla, Memoria!,” nicely emphasizes the imperative verb of the title.

It is a mesmerizing autobiography as well as a chronologically lopsided one. The text dwells on Nabokov’s aristocratic boyhood and adolescence in Russia while depicting very little of his adult life. Gliding between eras and episodes, Nabokov dotes lavishly upon minutiae (mushrooms, upholstery) and obscures moments that other memoirists might have bluntly plundered (the murder of his father).

The chief events of Nabokov’s young life are present and accounted for, if not coaxed into an obedient timeline. He was born to an artistic mother and honorable father; the family was forced to leave Petrograd; Nabokov attended Cambridge and lived in various parts of Europe; he married Véra and fathered a son, Dmitri, who went on to become his primary translator. But for all that, there’s Wikipedia. “Speak, Memory” is best read as an illumination of how Nabokov arrived at his style of perception, and therefore of writing.

I would like to read one of his Russian novels in translation.

Nabokov’s writerly obsessions included — but were not, heaven knows, limited to — moss, eggs, panes of glass, the word “supine” (which appears in at least 13 of his novels, sometimes in multiple) and chess. Chess especially and unsurprisingly. Although a particular game can be won, chess itself remains quite unconquered by man or machine, and the game’s infinitude engaged Nabokov as much as its narrative possibilities.

In a foreword to “The Defense” (1964, in translation) he Vladsplains that the novel’s structure brims with chess effects: surprise attacks, unexpected moves from the corner of the board and a sequence of chapters designed to ape the genre of chess problem known as retrograde analysis. Maybe this claim will strike you as conceptual wizardry; maybe it will strike you as preposterous gimmickry. The only way to find out is to read the book.

The protagonist is Aleksandr Ivanovich Luzhin, a Russian grandmaster whose chess skills (high) and executive functioning (low) result in a life that ping-pongs between victories and blunders. During Luzhin’s boyhood, chess appears to him as a magical metaphor through which to make sense of reality. As he matures, reality cedes pre-eminence to chess; the cacophony of existence becomes a squalid obstruction between Luzhin and his imagined realm of pure abstraction. Insanity strikes.

I would like to be slapped in the face with cleverness, again and again.

Submit to the last and finest of Nabokov’s Russian novels: “The Gift” (first published as a standalone book in 1952; the English translation followed a decade later). This exquisite seminar on pattern-making is rife with coincidences and mimicry and cunning tricks; it starts on April Fools’ Day and ends with the main character, a Russian émigré poet in Berlin, poised to write the novel you’ve just finished reading.

Page 1 of Chapter 1 of “The Gift” showcases a classic Nabokov observation. He’s describing the appearance of a moving van printed with the name of the company in 3-D letters along the side. Instead of using the artless shorthand of “3-D,” however, Nabokov describes “yard-high blue letters, each of which (including a square dot) was shaded laterally with black paint: a dishonest attempt to climb into the next dimension.” If that doesn’t fill your stomach with lepidoptera, I do not know what will.

Throw me a curveball.

“The Enchanter” (1939)is a maquette, a sort of study, for “Lolita.” Nabokov originally wrote it in Russian under the title “Volshebnik,” completing it in 1939, only to destroy every copy — or so he thought. Years later, after the success of “Lolita,” he discovered a surviving draft of the novella, gave it a reread and revised his opinion of it from “dead scrap” to a “beautiful piece of Russian prose, precise and lucid.” Quite the upgrade. He gave Dmitri permission to produce an English version.

The premise is similar to that of “Lolita”: A pedophile weds an older woman to gain access to her child. Many of the things that elevate the later novel to masterpiece territory are not present. “The Enchanter” takes place in France and contains none of the excoriation and exaltation of America that makes “Lolita” so sharp. And it is not nearly as funny — perhaps because when Nabokov wrote it he was “laid up with a severe attack of intercostal neuralgia,” per one of two author notes.

However. It has one of the subtly great opening lines in literature and the whole thing is beautifully spare for Nabokov (which is to say wildly overwrought by the standards of any other novelist — but who can resist “overwrought” when the wroughting is this elegant!). It doesn’t stand up on its own as a great novella but it offers the pleasure of sneaking into a dress rehearsal.


I would like to devour every last morsel.

First, enjoy this contemptuous review of Jean-Paul Sartre’s “Nausea” that Nabokov wrote for the Book Review in 1949.

Next, proceed to “Strong Opinions” (1973), which is a collection of Nabokov’s strong opinions.

Third, attempt to solve the short story “Symbols and Signs” without going mad.

And for dessert, dig into the NABOKV-L listserv, a discussion forum founded in 1993. This is easily the best online Nabokov resource — a geyser of scholarship and lunacy — and can be browsed free of charge.

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