You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Elusive Butterfly

Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years

By Brian Boyd

Princeton University Press, 783 pp., $35

"I am almost exclusively a writer," Vladimir Nabokov told an interviewer in 1965, "and my style is all I have." "Almost exclusively" is touching and exact. It mixes a certain sadness with plenty of pride. Nabokov was a loving husband, a doting father, a haunted son; an eager lepidopterist, a conscientious teacher, an ingenious setter of chess problems; but his writing governed his life. Writing was his mask and his definition. It didn't necessarily come first--when he dreamed that his hotel was on fire he reported that his dream-self saved, in the following order, his wife, his glasses, the typescript of Ada, his dentures, and his passport--but it came everywhere else. The simple inscription on his blue gravestone in Switzerland tells more of the story than many such markers can manage: VLADIMIR NABOKOV ECRIVAIN 1899-1977.

His style wasn't all he had, and that portion of his claim seems to be a little exercise in mock pathos, as if this exorbitantly unpitiable man were asking for pity, as if he were Humbert Humbert, who in Lolita said he had only words to play with. Nabokov had memories, imagination, wit, three languages, a tirelessly observant eye, and a life littered with accidents that could be realigned as features of an incomplete and tantalizing design: a father murdered by mistake, escape from tyrants in Russia, Germany, and France, weird resemblances between Russia and America. "Man's life," he has a character write in Pale Fire, "as commentary to abstruse unfinished poem." The simile brings us back to style, though, or at least to language, and style can be seen as a name for what language can and cannot do for us.

Humbert Humbert dies "in legal captivity," having painted the bars of his cage, like the ape whose story Nabokov says started him off on Lolita. Nabokov paints the bars, the cage, what he can see of the rest of the zoo, and what he intuits of the rest of the world. His affection goes, as he wrote in Speak, Memory, to the "many … things that one always hopes might survive captivity in the zoo of words." Captivity is the recurring, dominant experience, even for the beast that has the run of several zoos. Teaching Russian at Wellesley, Nabokov would invite his students to watch the tongue as it throws itself at the "squashed vowels": "It rushes and Crushes itself against your lower teeth--a prisoner dashing himself at the bars of his cell." And of course words and pronunciation are themselves only one (or two) of the zoos that constitute our mental and material life, and they can stand for many others.

There is a little fable in Ada that brilliantly focuses this sense of the world's cages and what we do about them, Nabokov's hope against hope:

Certain caged birds, say Chinese amateurs shaking with fatman mirth, knock themselves out against the bars (and lie unconscious for a few minutes) every blessed morning, right upon awakening, in an automatic, dream-continuing, dream-lined dash--although they arc, those iridescent prisoners, quite perky and docile and talkative the rest of the time.

Between the shaking Chinese and the iridescent prisoners, the world offers us much to look at. It is what we have, and it is enough. The prisoners' talk alone makes literature and culture. But the prisoners forgetting of the cage is important, too. It's not just that they have been dreaming of elsewhere, it's that they wake up as if they were elsewhere. "Every blessed morning" is a quaint old cliche that comes to life with the birds. These are blessed mornings; the dash blesses the day, even if it is only a dash into collision and unconsciousness.

Nabokov had clear ideas about the lives of the poets: "The best part of a writer's biography is not the record of his adventures but the story of his style." In the same vein he wrote to Andrew Field, his earlier biographer, that "the only rational and artistic way to write the history of an individual of my dismal kind (whose only human and entertaining side is the gift of inventing clouds, castles, lakes) would be to follow his development as a writer." The "clouds, castles, lakes" are an allusion to a Nabokov story (called "Cloud, Castle and Lake"), and the "dismal kind" is still another imitation of humility, a touch of self-deprecating elegance. (It was wasted, as it happened, on Field, who had come to believe that Nabokov was rather dismal, or at least was hiding the spicier bits of his life from him.)

"The best part," however, does allow a little room for other parts, and the biographical question is what to do about them. What Field wanted to do was find scandal in old Russia. Was Nabokov's father an illegitimate son of the czar? Did little Vladimir call his mummy Lolita? The answer to both questions is no, and Field's work was erratic and willful on all kinds of other scores. Brian Boyd lists some of Field's mistakes with a kind of dazed patience, unable to understand why anyone would wish to scramble the correct dates offered in his own earlier bibliography, or to persist, as if it were a matter of personal integrity, in being wrong about the date of the Russian Revolution.

There is a puzzle about Nabokov's relation with Field, though, and it broaches an interesting question about biography. It is clear that Field succumbed to the lexical madness that bags most Nabokovians sooner or later; and that it cannot matter in the least whether Nabokov called his mother Lolita or not. But why did Nabokov, having agreed to show a letter to Field, strike out the innocent salutation (Radost, "dearest"), taunting the poor fellow with what he was not to know? Discretion and a sense of privacy, Boyd thinks, but to me it looks more like a rather complicated game, particularly if we remember that Nabokov was helping Field with his work, and publicly talking about him as "a dear friend of mine … a learned and talented man," at the same time that he was planning to keep his lecture notes to himself "however much Andrew Field may want them." There is something gloating and strange in this last remark.

Later, the relation broke down altogether, with Field hinting darkly at the revelations he could make if he wanted to, and Nabokov calling him a scoundrel. Field was plainly wrong to think that Nabokov wanted only a "flattering portrait" of himself, and Nabokov was plainly right to think that a biographer who went around collecting mere gossip was going to get a lot of things wrong. But surely Field was on to something, at least in principle, in his belief that perspectives other than Nabokov's own could be important, that it cannot be the biographer's business, or his only business, to retrace the subject's view of the subject's life.

Of course, Nabokov had written his own life, or a piece of it, in Speak, Memory, thereby posing a formidable problem for any biographer. One could hardly compete with the master, and one could hardly ignore him. And what were the other options? Boyd solved the problem with great scruple and subtlety in the first volume of his life of Nabokov (The Russian Years) by taking his cue from his subject, but making up his own mind; borrowing Nabokov's shaping of his life, but offering his own interpretation of it, supplemented by an immense amount of archival research.

Speak, Memory takes Nabokov from his first moment of "complete consciousness" (father, mother, child, sun-flecked path) to the day of his departure from France for America in 1940. The Russian years started a little earlier, with Nabokov's ancestors and parents, and ended on the same day. These were the years of a princely childhood in Russia, followed by the study of languages in Cambridge, of Nabokov's beginnings as a writer, exile in Berlin and Paris, a reputation (based on works like The Defence, Despair, Laughter in the Dark) as the finest novelist of the emigration. He had also written, but only partly published, his major work in Russian, The Gift.

Nabokov thought often of continuing his autobiography (as Speak On, Memory or Speak, America), but he didn't get very far. Thus Boyd's American Years has no mountain of that kind to negotiate. The new difficulty, also elegantly overcome, is that nothing much seemed to happen to Nabokov in the second part of his life -except, that is, for the knock-on effect of the extraordinary thing that happened to one of his books. Lolita, written out of the obscure and continuing interest in deviance that fuels all of Nabokov's best fiction, a work he thought that no one would read and that he might himself never be able to acknowledge, brought him international fame and a considerable fortune. It turned overnight from an untouchable book into a best seller; it became a moderately successful movie and a not so successful musical; and it is now a "classic," so respectable that casual readers have to be reminded to be shocked.

The high point of Nabokov's fame, Boyd suggests, was the moment of publication of Ada in 1969: his face on the cover of Time, his words in the pages of Playboy. Meanwhile Nabokov had moved from a precarious post teaching Russian at Wellesley to an established job teaching Russian and European literature at Cornell. He had published a lot in The New Yorker, even in the days when no one else much had heard of him; and with (ante and money be had abandoned America (but not the citizenship that he took up in 1945, or his love of America) for the Palace Hotel in Montreux. He wrote five other novels in these years; "invented," as he would have said, the imaginary but all too familiar country of Bend Sinister, the foolish but hospitable academic vacancies of Pnin and Pale Fire, the self-parodying worlds of Transparent Things and Look at the Harlequins.

But there was a huge event in Nabokov's apparently quiet later life. He changed his language. A writer could hardly experience a greed event. Even before Nabokov left Europe, he had written a novel in English, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, a remarkable work that is severely underrated even now. But that wasn't the completed event. He had known English since childhood, and had been to a university in England. The completed event was the decision, taken soon after his arrival in America, to abandon Russian as an instrument of prose fiction. He said later that he "had to" give up his Russian, his "natural idiom," his "untrammeled, rich, and infinitely docile Russian tongue for a second-rate brand of English." He "had to" write in English if he wanted to make some money, and to reach an audience other than that of ?migr?s. But why couldn't he write in Russian as well?

He "had to" give up Russian, it seems, not in order to sell books in English, but in order to write the English he wanted to write — to shake the shadow of his Russian. He made a sort of vow to himself. He says in a letter to his wife, rather oddly, that "I myself don't fully register all the grief and bitterness of my situation." "I don't think anyone who hasn't experienced these feelings can properly appreciate them, the torment, the tragedy." The implication, clearly, is that a writer cannot have two languages, a view that makes Nabokov quite different, say. from Beckett, and perhaps from most bilingual writers.

And the later parts of the story are also full of pain. He translates Speak, Memory into Russian and finds himself "after fifteen years of absence, wallowing in the bitter luxury of my Russian verbal might." It is bitter, but it is luxury. Later still, translating Lolita into Russian, Nabokov spoke not of luxury, but of deprivation, an awaited linguistic springtime that had turned into autumn in his absence. His "marvelous Russian language" had "proved to be non-existent." There are those who agree with this judgment, as Boyd says, and those who disagree, and I can't judge at all. The important thing, surely, is that Nabokov had written Lolita in the meantime, had Found a fabulous, freaky, singing, acrobatic, unheard-of English that probably made even his most marvelous Russian seem poor, and therefore meant that the terrible decision of his early years in America had been right, that the second language could flower for him only at the cost of the first. The second language had to become a first language, a language to write in. Perhaps one cannot love two languages.

It is possible, too, that Nabokov came to understand deprivation as well as he did through his abandonment of Russian as a literary language. He was a connoisseur of loss long before he came to America, of course. His father had been killed, his country canceled, two refuges made uninhabitable, and Boyd is quite right to insist on Nabokov's passionate attachment to the idea of a world or a state of consciousness "where nothing is lost." But. there is a passage in Speak, Memory, quoted by Boyd, that constructs memory and understanding as a function of loss rather than a redemption of it. Nabokov wonders whether he had missed something in his French governess, "something … that I could appreciate only after the things and beings that I had most loved in the security of my childhood had been turned to ashes or shot through the heart." Thus it may have been also that Nabokov could appreciate language itself, appreciate it incomparably as he did, only after he had lost a language, or made himself lose it, and had found another in the ashes of his loss.

One of the great pleasures of Boyd's two volumes is their critical chapters. This is unusual in critical biographies, where we are accustomed to turn from a passably interesting life to eager plot summary masquerading as commentary. Boyd is astute, and attentive to the text; he spots features that you (or at least I) hadn't seen, and you enjoy the argument whether you agree with him or not. He has fine things to say about all the novels. And he writes very well, evoking for example the "mixture of affection and acid" with which Nabokov treats America, and often managing neat little stylistic homages to his subject: "Nabokov would put just a trickle of himself into Mlle Larivi?re, the children's governess in Ada…"

He also offers a shrewd and close assessment of Nabokov's monumental and much-disputed translation of Eugene Onegin, comparing it with other English versions, highlighting its peculiarities, and finding in it a useful key to Nabokov's passion for "bright particulars." Nabokov is saying, Boyd suggests, "not that nothing is real… but that it is only as the mind tries to peer past the generalization of the commonplace that things actually start to become real, individual, detailed, differentiated from one another." This is an attractive program, if an old-fashioned one; it is pretty much what the Russian Formalists were preaching as early as 1917. But what makes it work, of course, is the practice of peering, the active love of what Boyd calls "the world's endless detail." "All children dawdle their way to bed," he says, "but it takes a Nabokov to remember every detail fifty years later."

Nabokov thought that Lolita and Ada were his most significant novels, and that he would be remembered for Lolita and his work on Eugene Onegin. He was probably right on both counts, but Boyd makes great claims for Pale Fire, too. "In sheer beauty of form, Pale Fire may well be the most perfect novel ever written." Pale Fire is a novel in the form of a critical edition: foreword, text, commentary, index. The poem is by John Shade, an American said to be "one oozy footstep" behind Robert Frost; the commentary by one Charles Kinbote, who claims to be the exiled king of a place called Zembla, and may actually be Professor Botkin, a Russian exile with royal fantasies. The commentary is much longer and much crazier than the poem, a sort of parable of critical fecklessness. Kinbote/Botkin has got hold of the poem because Shade has been shot by a madman looking for someone else: for the judge who put him away for his last offense, in what appears to be the common sense interpretation of the event; for the exiled king himself in Kinbote/Botkin's insistent view. Either way, Shade was not the intended victim, and his absurd, accidental death comments cruelly on the lines late in his poem, which say, as an instance of modest certainty, that he is "reasonably sure" that he will be alive tomorrow. He dies before the day ends.

Nabokov's father was killed in Berlin in 1922 by bullets intended for someone else, and Shade is killed on the elder Nabokov's birthday. We don't need to know this, but it is pretty powerful information if we have it. The diffidence with which Boyd offers it is an instance of his discretion, and of just how literary this biography is. We may not find it "likely," he says, that Nabokov "has constructed Pale Fire in an effort to make sense of a life in which something as tragic and absurd as his father's murder could hap pen." But it is more than likely, and I would want to quibble only with the description of the effort. My own feeling is that Nabokov knew that one cannot make sense of such a life. One can only make novels and poems that mirror and partially, pathetically correct its senselessness; correct it only in a book.

What is not at all likely, but is intricately fascinating, is Boyd's reading of Pale Fire itself. He argues that Shade does not die, but only writes his death, turning himself into the manic Kinbote/Botkin as a way of escaping the prison of the self and of commenting on the rather placid confidence of his poem. "Shade concocts Kinbote," along with his commentary and his double life and his exile, and his deep unhappiness. This is certainly a more persuasive interpretation than the inverse one, popular among Nabokov scholars: that Kinbote has concocted Shade and his poem. I am even half-convinced that Boyd's interpretation is the one to which Nabokov himself secretly clung, that Boyd is speaking for Nabokov here.

Still, neither of these riddling interpretations is as interesting or as powerful as the straighter one, and Nabokov was right to keep his secret. The text has its reasons, which reason knows nothing of. A work in which a sane American imagines his own death and a crazed European who makes off with his poem is certainly worth attending to. But it conceals a curious complacency in its structure, as if everything is perfectly under control, and it is not half as moving as a work in which a crazed exile, unable to reach happiness for himself, clutches at the happiness that he finds in the life of another, builds his grand fantasy between the lines of a modest poem, and saves and loves the poem even as he tries to steal it and make it over. For its fullest effect, this novel needs what critics (used to) despair of: a world of difference, not a strenuously unified field. The great virtue of the ghastly Kinbote/Botkin is that he knows he is not Shade: not a poet, not sane, not lovable. He sees the difference that we are tempted to deny, and it is his recognition of what he is not that makes him a sort of hero, his antics notwithstanding. Like Humbert and Van Veen, he offers the difficult tribute of the exceptional to the ordinary.

Boyd tells the story of Nabokov's works and days in great detail, with all their illnesses and friendships, lectures and lecture trips, regular summers in the Rockies looking for butterflies, travels in Europe with reunited members of the war-dispersed family. Only occasionally does he lapse into the desultoriness that lurks in all big biographies, and surrender to the temptation to tell us something just because it was there, because he found it. Nabokov's health (not as good as he made it seem) strikes me as interesting, as does his sudden gain in weight once he stopped smoking, so that the svelte greyhound of a writer turns overnight, it seems, into a lumbering but still rather dapper St. Bernard (or as Nabokov himself puts it, the lean lecturer becomes a full professor). But I'm not sure I need to know that Edmund Wilson rudely closed a floor one day in Harry Levin's house and Nabokov made Wilson apologize. Or that the Nabokovs went to visit Wilson and his wife in April 1956 and returned "invigorated and refreshed by the mental sea breeze." I'm glad they had a good time, but the biographer seems to be turning the pages of his calendar.

Fortunately, there, is very little of this son of stuff -astonishingly little, given the size of the book and the quietness of Nabokov's life. What Boyd mainly offers us, apart from his intelligent critical comment, is not a record even of mild adventures, but the carefully reconstructed context of a writer's work. We learn a lot about Nabokov's interest in butterflies and about his teaching, because they matter so much to his mind and art. No one before Boyd has made Nabokov's butterfly collecting seem so compelling and so ordinary, so intimately part of a vision of a world of particulars. There are "lumpers" and "splitters" among lepidopterists, apparently, those who like to group together broadly similar kinds of creatures and those whose sense of difference makes them keen to "separate kind from kind." Nabokov, as Boyd nicely says, was "temperamentally a splitter," a devotee of difference, but not as extreme a splitter, either among butterflies or in his fiction, as many of his pronouncements would suggest.

From Boyd, we learn where and how Nabokov worked, his shifts of house at Cornell, the motels and the hotels of his travels in America and Europe. We learn how he took to fame, how he weathered adversity. We learn almost, nothing, however, about, his relation with his wife, which appears as cloudless mutual love.

Their love was a source of wonder to everyone who knew them. I have no reason at all to doubt this picture, and Boyd himself has described what appears to have been Nabokov's one extramarital affair in The Russian Years. But there is a long, untold story here Perhaps all happy families are alike, or happiness just cannot be inspected. Boyd writes very well indeed about V?ra Nabokov's importance to her husband, and about the way she is invoked in his work, but that is not quite the same as exploring a relationship. There is a besetting (and appealing) discretion in Boyd's approach. When he notes that the Nabokovs' son Dmitri has recovered from an illness but has "found another way to cause his parents anxiety," do we read this as mere playful phrasing or as a hint at a much longer tale? When Boyd says that although other translators felt threatened by Nabokov, Dmitri, working with his father, "could simply welcome the improvements," I know I am reading some kind of romance. What son "simply welcomes" his father's corrections? I am not complaining. I don't want the story of Nabokov's rows with his son. But I do need to point out that in another kind of biography they would matter as much as, if not more than, Nabokov's rows with Field or Wilson.

In fact, we don't learn a whole lot about Nabokov himself in this book, if we think of "Nabokov" as a psychological entity rather than as a public face or a series of performances. This is not a failure on Boyd's part, it is an aspect of his triumph. For surely any psychology that we could invent for Nabokov would end up suspended in midair, stranded for lack of evidence. It's not that Nabokov didn't have a psychology, it's that he seems to have made it disappear into style, even in hi: private life.

Boyd argues persuasively that the famous Nabokov of all the late interviews, the chap who is so unbearably coy in film clips and photographs, who seems "immeasurably satisfied with himself and often immeasurably contemptuous of others," is a front, a "protective mechanism … against the casually curious." Nabokov himself said he took "every precaution to ensure a dignified beat of the mandarin's fan," and it is hard to imagine a genuine mandarin talking like that, or even bothering with precautions. But then the "real Nabokov," as Boyd calls him in an unguarded phrase, seems to be yet another performance, only much nicer, the man of "warmth and simple friendliness" known to his family, friends, and servants. Noblesse docs oblige.

I don't mean that Nabokov was insincere, or that he was not a man of warmth and friendliness. How would I know? But a sense of his style does pervade every report of everything he did. The hero of Boyd's book, the real "real" Nabokov, is finally a man whose life is already a form of writing, an awesome figure whose textual career has swallowed up all but a few small segments of his self.

Michael Wood is Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Princeton University.

By Michael Wood