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Nabokov: Old News from Old Prospero

The Gift

Mr. Nabokov's new novel is, of course, an old one. The Gift is his last Russian romance before he turned to bless us with his English, and dates from 1937. Its fame in the other language has long sounded in the ears of those of us who (unlike, say, Mr. Edmund Wilson) could not read it. Here at last it is, translated by Michael Scammell with the close cooperation of the author.

Its form is pseudo-autobiography. The year is in the mid-1920's. The hero, Fyodor Godunov-Cherdyntsev, is a young aristocratic emigre living in Berlin--just like, at that date, Mr. Nabokov. He writes poems, dreams of Russian literature and of his lost Russian estates, composes chess-problems, is a passionate lepidopterist--just like, at that date, Mr. Nabokov. Furthermore he is referred to, throughout the book, alternatively as he and I, a typical mirror--conjuring trick of this author, which further serves to confuse the writer with the written-of. But we are firmly warned, in a foreword, off any temptation to identify Godunov-Cherdyntsev with his creator. On the contrary, says Mr. Nabokov: not at all!

It seems to me that we come up smack against a very real difficulty here. "The novel" is not "life." In "the novel" events are shaped, patterned, bent; and the interest is in the design that, out pieces of imagined or imitated reality is composed. In autobiography, we do not expect this design; life is not like that and its significant form, if it is lucky enough to have one, is of quite another kind; the interest here is not in the pattern of the pieces but in the fact that they happened. The demand upon us is that it is true. Pseudo-autobiography, therefore, puts its author into straits from the very beginning. For if he is to lend it authenticity, he has to give it that life-like shapelessness and wealth of odd detail that, in the event, lose half of their attractiveness from the simple fact that the reader knows that they haven't happened. "Goodness, how fascinating!" he begins to say; and then pulls himself up short with the reminder that this is a mere invention. (For instance, if I were to tell you that I once fell off a twenty-story building and not merely did not hurt myself but cured a bad headache, you would no doubt be animatedly attentive but, if you then realized that I was simply making it up, bored to tears.)


This difficulty is increased by the fact that Mr. Nabokov has, in Speak Memory, written a real autobiography of himself at this very period - and one of the best of modern autobiographies it is too. So that anyone who knows and loves that book is tempted to exclaim “Yes,' yes, so you decide that that is going to happen to Fyodor, do you? But I know from what even more engaging real event you have derived it." The harsh, fantastic, unpredictable light of life itself breaks in upon the mist of romance and disperses it.

At this point I imagine Mr. Nabokov himself rising to answer--for one of the many resplendent virtues of his books is that they draw you into a continual debate with the author. "You are mistaken," he says: "it has always been my particular concern to show that the distinction between 'novel' and 'life' is a false one. In Speak Memory I was at particular pains to point out the incredible leitmotifs of life, the way that something apparently (but only apparently) irrelevant, like a box of matches, may crop up again and again at the nodal points of a career."

That is true. But I feel this is a one-way process. The fascination of Speak Memory is the manner in which the raw material of a lived life has been transformed into something with the exactness and shape of a classical novel. The weakness of The Gift is that what, being a fiction, ought to be a constructed novel, has been deliberately loosened into a pale ghost of a life. And I feel that Nabokov agrees.

A further difficulty is that the pseudo-autobiography of The Gift is an imagined record of thought--the story of the development of an invented mind. Again, Fyodor is a less fascinating character than his inventor, lacking the superb self-confidence and forthrightness of idiosyncrasy that make Mr. Nabokov such a relief in a world of hesitant half-men. In fact the "hero," or at any rate "heroine," is, as the author says, not Fyodor but Russian Literature. Chapter One is concerned with Fyodor's poems, which are liberally quoted. (Who wrote them, Fyodor or Nabokov?) Chapter Two is in the mood of Pushkin, Chapter Three in that of Gogol. Chapter Four is simply Fyodor's life of Chernyshevski, a 19thcentury liberal of whom I, at any rate, had never heard. And Chapter Five and last ties up the loose ends and discusses the book that Fyodor will 'write some day--which is The Gift itself.


That brings us to the third difficulty--for the English-speaking world. The Gift is Russian in a tremendously private way. It conveys the strongest sense of being written in Russian for Russians, and Outsiders Please Keep Out. To put it another way, it is intensely provincial: its author has as yet scarcely stepped out of the ?migr? wings on to the European, let alone on to the world, stage. The life of Chernyshevski, the book within the book, exemplifies this at its' purest. For the average West-European it is practically unreadable. One has the sense of eavesdropping. There is palpably loud laughter, in gales, but alas! one does not know the language. Add that half of the life is spoof, describing an old age that Chernyshevski, who as I gather was in reality executed, never had. All this, and then the imaginary notices of the book in, I presume, the imitated styles of various reviewers in the contemporary emigre press, and the total effect is approximately that of, say, a brilliantly witty, deadpan account of Queen Victoria's marriage to Disraeli, upon an intelligent Turk. An 80-percent efficiency-loss, at the most conservative estimate.

We must say, then, that with The Gift the Nabokov honeymoon is over. But let us be careful. The point is not the honeymoon, but the possibility of the enduring and happy marriage. We ensure that by making certain that the excellences are never taken for granted. In a sense the comparative weakness of much of the subject matter of The Gift facilitates this duty: it makes it all the easier to perceive the peculiar and permanent qualities of the style (whereas in Lolita. say, we were much busier attending to the thing said).

First, the glittering English, all this author's own. The comparison with Conrad is not revealing. Conrad learned, miraculously, the writing of a fine, pure style strictly comparable to that of the best native-born practitioners of his day-but Nabokov has invented a sort of English that never before existed. When we read as snug as a thug in a jug or doom does not jam or that Pnin was ideally bald, we have a sensation, an insight, of what it would be like to be linguistically Russian. One is presented with the illusion that one has at some time learned that desperately unlearned language. Never for one second does the style of Conrad admit one into the experience of thinking Polish.

But more than that, we are granted the gift of becoming Nabokov, of whom his Russianness is only a single aspect. Above all he is the conjuror, the literary illusionist. He constructs his novels as though they were chess problems, with unpinning, pawns to knights, and smothered mates. As an example of his deliberate heightening of the air of mystery and mastery, we may consider a single repeated and strongly characteristic trick--the metaphorical animation of the inanimate. Thus, "The rain began coming down faster: someone had suddenly tilted the sky." Or, describing the effect of a hot sun appearing and disappearing behind clouds, "As the light got stronger or died away, all the shadows in the forest breathed and did push-ups." Or, in a Lewis Carrollian vein, "The yawn begun by a woman in the lighted windows of the first car [of a moving train] was completed by another woman--in the last one."

Then there is the splendidly uncompromising nature of his contempt which would be a vice in almost any other writer (or person, for that matter) but not in him: because, one feels, his scorn is always a proper reaction to an external and dispassionately observed thing, and not a mere cast of mind. It is simply that he is merciless to all that is stupid and vulgar and wicked--the antithesis of the type who always manages to "understand." Add to this a profound and recherch? sense of humor, a harsh laugh that is the very opposite of amused, and we have the savage portrayer par excellence of all that is farcical in the awful and horrible.

Here is a letter from a French professor to a German pseudo-scholar: "You write the name Deschanel at times with an accent aigu and at others without it. Since a certain uniformity is necessary here it would be good if you were to take a firm decision as to which system you wish to adhere to, and then stick to it. If for any reason you should desire to write this name correctly, then write it without an accent."

If for any reason--it is the epitome of blandly polite contempt! And here he dismisses the inflated Herzen: "[Fyodor] was again better able to understand the flaw (a false glib. glitter) in his generalizations when he noticed that this author, having a poor knowledge of English … had confused the sounds of two English words 'beggar' and 'bugger' and from this had made a brilliant deduction concerning the English respect for wealth."

And here he writes off an emigre novelist with a typically Nabokovian comedie-noire turn: "He was blind like Milton, deaf like Beethoven, and a blackhead to boot."

When we add it all up--the brilliance, the brains, the scorn, the magicianship, the misanthropy (and I would like to add, the profound uncommon-sense) of Nabokov, we see that there is only one thing to do: cast him as Prospero. It matters peculiarly little that The Gift is unsatisfactory in its ensemble: a book written as it is written can never in any sense be a bad book. And it is not difficult to believe that this opinion of its comparative unsuccess is shared by the author. The life-material he has rescued, and used again in its original form, in the superb Speak Memory. And, of the purely fictitious part--the passages about Fyodor's father, which were much the most moving things in The Gift and culminated in perhaps the most memorably hallucinating account of a dream in any literature--have also been extracted recently, and with the addition of some new material been published as a short story. The Lyre, in' The New Yorker (April 13). It says almost everything about the conditions of exile--its horrors, splendors, miseries, sudden catching moments of intolerable pain--takes a tenth of the length of The Gift to do it in, and does it ten times as well.

By Hilary Corke