Vladimir Nabokov: Selected Utters 1940-1977
By Vladimir Nabokov
Edited by Dmitri Nabokov and Matthew J. Bruccoli
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 605 pp., $29.95

Vladimir Vladimirovitch Nabokov was never shy about admitting it: he was a wonder. As the son of a remarkably liberal jurist and Anglophile at the top of czarist society, he had an extraordinarily privileged and even enchanted youth. His memoirs, especially Speak, Memory! wonderfully bring this back.

An avid lepidopterist as a boy, a talented poet privately published by his family when he was 17, he escaped the Leninist dictatorship at 20 and took a degree at Cambridge at 23, then under the pen name "Sirin" became an admired, envied, vaguely disturbing member in Berlin of the Russian literary colony, published novel after novel while also making his living as a tennis coach, chess expert, maker of crossword puzzles in Russian, and translator. (He turned Alice in Wonderland into Russian.) In 1937 Nabokov fled Hitler's Germany with his Jewish wife, went to Paris, was esteemed by French writers, then in 1940 made it to New York bearing his first novel in English, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight.

In America be had a part-time position as entomologist at Harvard, taught at Stanford, Wellesley, and most famously at Cornell. He was an ideal teacher, capable of bringing into class a diagram of an old Russian railway carriage to illuminate the opening pages of Anna Karenina. He wrote for The New Yorker, did a critical biography of Gogol, a painstakingly literal translation (the only kind he believed in) of Pushkin's Eugene Onegin with invaluable notes. Lolita (1955), turned down by publishers who said they weie doing his reputation a favor, was first issued in English in Paris by Maurice Girodias, a publisher of sexy books whose imprint helped to make the novel notorious before it was recognized by American critics at its real worth. Putnam published the book, enabling Nabokov to leave Cornell and to take up residence at the Palace Hotel in Montreux. He died in 1977 in Switzerland.

Nabokov's accomplishments as novelist, poet, translator, literary scholar, and teacher, even his obsession with chess, grew out of Europe's forest of languages, national and religious animosities, a world dominated in every situation by distrust of the deepest and most lasting kind. Nabokov was yanked from his enclosed, luxurious early life (it certainly gave him a taste for luxury in language) to the endless travail of emigration. He triumphed over very great difficulties by a typically Russian and self-confident sense of strategy, by elevating himself into a special kind of exile, imaginative as well as political.

More than most 20th-century modernist masters, Nabokov exuded an extraordinary sense of his own primacy. While still in the Russian literary colony in Berlin, he made his compatriots uneasy. He once admitted, "I have a bad habit (not really bad. just being coy) of choosing the most difficult path in my literary adventures." To my knowledge, no one in English since Poe has written out of such public pride in his imagination, out of so much contempt for his most talented contemporaries, out of such an aggrieved sense of genius at bay and condemned (here because of the switch back and forth between Russian and English) to being underrated by simpler minds ignorant of the difficulties within and between languages that Nabokov emphasized as his torment, specialty, opportunity, and triumph.

As a personal document, as a revelation of character and literary ambition, Nabokov's letters are intimidating without being interesting--he made such a cult of pride. These are not memorable literary letters, but incidents of battle, so defensive, feisty, haughty, magisterial was Nabokov, so insistent on being recognized at his own valuation. His son Dmitri, footnoting many of these letters, doesn't know why Nabokov as a man has been thought unpleasant, and testifies to his father's warmth and richness of character. What put people off was not Nabokov's personality, but the rich, lush, yet secret and almost underhand quality of his imagination. It could become just too private and self-celebratory.

Nabokov was right to bridle when people compared his ability to write splendidly in English to that of Conrad. Conrad never wrote in Polish! Nabokov wrote from Berlin in the 1030s. "Mv novels … belong to Russia and her literature, and not only style but subject undergoes a horrible bleeding and distortion." But newly arrived in the United States, Nabokov admitted to James Laughlin, the publisher of New Directions, "In Modern Russian literature I occupy the particular position of a novator, of a writer whose work seems to stand totally apart from that of his contemporaries." What this was all about is best communicated by Nabokov's great admirer, the critic Vladislav Khodasevich, who wrote:

Peculiar to Sirin is the realization, or perhaps only a deeply felt conviction, that the world of literary creativity, the true world of the artist … conjured out of apparent simulacra of the real world, consists in fact of a completely different material … So different that the passage from one world into the other, in whichever direction it is accomplished is akin to death.

Nabokov was an extraordinary writer. But except for a marvel of tenderness like Pnin, I rarely want to reread him. The effects he gains are often intensely magnified, properly grotesque, and richly comic, but many of the books tend to suffocate me. The point of view is so rarefied, the subject so much one of obsession. Lolita, marvelous, a work of psychological and satiric genius, nevertheless remains in one's mind not a story of love or passion, but of fatality, I know exactly what Nabokov meant when he said that the book had its inception in Europe. A monkey there was taught to draw--and drew the bars of its cage. This in no way annuls Nabokov’s conviction that art begins in, and should afford, "aesthetic bliss," or "writing with ecstasy,” as John Updike says of Nabokov.

Russians like to say, used to say, of their supreme writers that given their despotisms, the writer can be "another government." His writing banned in the Soviet Union, his heart full of rage and contempt for what was going on there, Nabokov interpreted his absence from Russia as a tribute to his specialness. In the course of time, his aversion to Soviet authoritarianism became an aversion to radicals like Bertrand Russell, Jean-Paul Sartre, even to the Harvard Russian linguist Roman Jakobson, who occasionally visited his old country.

All this is in the letters, but minus Nabokov's literary genius. Nabokov admired Dorothy Parker and other Americans, but he hated Mann, Freud, Faulkner, Eliot, and Pound. The last two were "big fakes," Freud was a “Viennese quack.” Maybe Nabokov was right to say that "all my stories are webs of style and none seems at first blush to contain much kinetic matter … For me 'style' is matter." I remember reading years ago that Isaac Babel thought Nabokov didn't have too much to write about. Nabokov would have replied--as he does in these letters--that all these other people were incapable of locating his special quality. "Style" was not window dressing but a category, it was a special attribute of the imagination. In Ada he wrote of his hero "Van Veen" (another "VV") apropos of the great man's ecstatic lovemaking up to old age, "Reality lost the quotes it wore like claws--in a world where independent and original minds must cling to things or pull things apart in order to ward off madness or death (which is the supreme madness)."

The swagger of that passage, the grand manner, calls up Nabokov in all his pride and talent. It also helps to explain "the slight uneasiness" that his imaginative world provides to some people. Not only is it rarely our world, it is not a world that conceivably explains or replaces the one we know. But there are many others, perhaps more akin to Nabokov in imagination, who gratefully accept him at his own valuation. That can be bracing to non-believers like myself. In a time thirsty for genius, it brings back a familiar glow.

Alfred Kazin’s Our New York (with David Finn) has just been published by Harper & Row.

By Alfred Kazin