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Wisdom in Exile

Vladimir Nabokov, 1899-1977

Nabokov's death at 78 came as a shock. He had such majestic self-confidence in his genius, his learning, in Nabokov as a Russian, Nabokov as an American, Nabokov as novelist, translator, scholar, entomologist, sportsman, political skeptic, that no writer could have more enjoyed and trusted life. There was so much gaiety and pride in being Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov that I imagined him, like his mischievously Olympian alter ego in Ada, living, loving and sporting virtually forever--a centenarian and genius exuding the same airy and humorous power.

Nabokov was extraordinary. He had many strengths, unexpected resources in every department of life, amazing good Fortune at birth. He was immensely, wildly, arrogantly talented; he was a wonderful looking man; his mind was at once ecstatic, meticulous, wildly humorous, fantastic, yet marked by rigorous intellectual devotion. Even his family circumstances had a legendary quality. He was the cherished first son in a St. Petersburg family (the very best Russian was spoken in St. Petersburg) of minor nobility that had produced many leading Russian statesmen but had a tradition of resisting Czarist obscurantism and race hatred. His father, V. D. Nabokov, had a special love for English literature and democratic tradition. Nabokov senior was a jurist and the publisher of a liberal paper. He went to jail briefly for opposing the Czar's dissolution of the Duma. He is supposed to have shown his contempt for authority by advertising his court uniform for sale. The novelist and his Jewish wife Vera were able to leave Hitler Europe for America in 1940 thanks to a Jewish relief organization that gratefully remembered the father's support of Russian Jewry.

V. D. Nabokov was shot to death by Russian Fascists in Berlin, 1922, while shielding the liberal politician Miliukov. The father's sacrifice added to the great family tradition which the son felt he was carrying out as a Russian writer in the emigration even when he wrote in English--as a scholar, teacher and unrelenting critic of the totalitarian thinking and practices that were to mark Lenin's influence on the century.

This moral legacy and confidence, like the famous devotion of the Nabokovs to one another, seem to be at variance with the novelist's reputation as a wilfully eccentric, perverse and obscure writer with a vaguely shady intent. His most famous and at one time "scandalous" book, Lolita, indeed was first published by the sex-obsessed Olympia Press in Paris. The novels Nabokov wrote in Russian and later translated into English (with his son Dmitri)--Mary: King, Queen And Knave; The Gift: The Defense: Invitation To A Beheading--the novels beginning with The Real Life Of Sebastian Knight he wrote in English--Bend Sinister; Lolita;: Pnin; Pale Fire; Ada--still are bewildering to many readers, seemingly perverse in content and impish in style.

But Nabokov, the last of the great 20th century modernists, was at heart as deeply traditionalist as Proust, Joyce, Faulkner, Eliot. As we seem to know only now that the returns are in, modernism was experimental in technique and style, provocative in intent, as a protest against mass society and conformism. It was a revolt of individual genius against life without moral definition. There were Russian writers before 1917 whose experimentalism and impudence were their warning against mass standards and the intellectual dishonesty that followed from political authoritarianism in every sphere of Russian life.

Modernism flourished in exile and expatriation. But no other "modern master" underwent such painful uprooting as Nabokov. In Germany, England, France, America, and finally Switzerland, Nabokov from the age of 20 sought to carry on the great pre-Soviet tradition of "advanced" art and free imagination. For more than 20 years he had to struggle for a livelihood as a tutor, Russian teacher, tennis coach, translator--what did he not do to keep his family alive! Yet he was steadily producing the novels that made him famous as "Sirin" to Russian readers and attacking every "cliche," his favorite enemy, in the melting of culture and politics. He constantly had to explain that most Russian intellectuals were in exile because they believed in democracy, not monarchism.

Nabokov's ruling faith as an artist was his hatred of the expected, of "mediocrity" (another favorite swear word), of that self-satisfaction in shoddy goods that more and more passes in American education and culture. His hero and hilarious superman Van in Ada says, "For him the written word existed only in its abstract purity, in its unrepeatable appeal to an equally ideal mind. It belonged solely to its creator and could not be spoken of or enacted by a mime without letting the deadly stab of another's mind destroy the artist in the very lair of his art."

The "deadly stab of another's mind" was something that the lordly Nabokov certainly resisted. He not so much rejected as mentally obliterated (he thought) Freud, Faulkner, Conrad, Camus, Pasternak, Solzhenitsyn--not to forget much of Dostoevsky! Nabokov was conceited enough to put down Einstein not just because of his sentimental pacifism but as a physicist. Yet Nabokov's onslaughts against so many other writers seem funny and very Russian. Imagine admiring Ulysses and not recognizing a so much more interesting novel that comes out of Joyce, The Sound And The Fury! Nabokov was never more Russian, in gamesmanship and argumentativeness, more perky, mocking, mischievous and excessive, than in the zeal he brought to winning over his contemporaries. He loved to put others down as "frauds" or--most destructive!--"not important."

Often enough he was right. And why in the world should genius be "nice," especially if you spend most of your life in exile, in resistance to so many popular delusions? The greatest delusion, Nabokov never ceased complaining, was that Soviet dogma and terror have any more transcendent purpose than keeping the gang in power. Nabokov knew with every instinct of his excellent mind and strict conscience that the "advanced" artist has to fight not only for recognition of his originality but against political superstition. A man of relentless mental energy, Nabokov always was outraged by minds that do not fight against the dominant "cliches." He thought that "cliches" stopped the world dead. He had an old Russian belief that the function of art is to open minds, to clear the air, to strip ourselves of all intellectual weakness.

How far Nabokov succeeded in realizing this in all his novels is not certain. Working against the grain, against the century, in pursuit of a beautiful private ideal that he hauntingly associated with a homesickness beyond repair, he wrote with the highest possible ambition for himself at a time when his love of surprising effects, of parody and intellectual "leaps," stunned the reader into more admiration of Nabokov's abilities than of his novels. His most obvious fault was an intellectual showiness and self-consciousness, especially in English, that bound the reader to Nabokov's own mind and personality. He was magnetic, irresistible, irreplaceable, endlessly fascinating; the technical wizardry so important to modernism became such a point of pride with Nabokov that it makes a book like Ada a brilliant bore. He wanted above all to be "an enchanter." He wrote some wonderful books, but much of his work is more that of a virtuoso than of an enchanter.

The talent, the sense of things, the power of imagination, were prodigious. You have only to see what Soviet writers in exile still gasp for to realize what Vladimir Nabokov enjoyed as his natural right. His long exile certainly helped. The emigration, he once said, was the only freedom that Russian writers ever have known.

Alfred Kazin's most recent book is Bright Book of Life: American Novelists & Storytellers from Hemingway to Mailer (Atlantic Monthly Press).

By Alfred Kazin