Nabokov’s Amer­i­can dream

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Anna As­lanyan Nabokov in Amer­ica: On the Road to Lolita By Robert Roper Bloomsbury, 369pp, $39.99

Speak, Mem­ory, Vladimir Nabokov’s nos­tal­gic 1967 memoir, re­flects on his life from the age of three to 41, tak­ing us from early-20th-cen­tury Rus­sia, soon to be en­gulfed by revo­lu­tion, to Europe at the start of World War II. He planned a se­quel to it based on his Amer­i­can years, but Speak On, Mem­ory was never writ­ten, partly be­cause much of that ex­pe­ri­ence had found an out­let in his nov­els.

As Robert Roper ar­gues in his literary bi­og­ra­phy, it was Amer­ica that made Nabokov the master we now ad­mire. Nabokov in Amer

ica, a de­tailed ac­count of the 20 years the writer spent there, re­vis­its some of the less widely known facts and draws a num­ber of fresh analo­gies.

Nabokov, his wife Vera and their son Dmitri ar­rived in the US in 1940, hav­ing fled Ger­many via France: Vera’s Jewish­ness meant they could no longer stay in Europe. Amer­ica, ac­cord­ing to Roper, had been an ‘‘in­vi­ta­tion to ad­ven­ture’’ to Nabokov since read­ing as a boy The Head­less

Horse­man, a western by Mayne Reid. Grow­ing up in an An­glophile fam­ily, he learned to read in English be­fore he could do so in Rus­sian, and although he wrote mainly in Rus­sian in the first two decades of his ca­reer, his move to the US sig­nalled a new start.

One of the high­lights of this bi­og­ra­phy is Nabokov’s pas­sion for but­ter­fly col­lect­ing: a tal­ented lep­i­dopter­ist, he found a rich ter­rain for his pas­sion in the Amer­i­can west, where the fam­ily trav­elled ex­ten­sively.

But­ter­flies punc­tu­ate the book, fram­ing Nabokov’s literary work, as the bi­og­ra­pher metic­u­lously fol­lows the writer’s progress in the new en­vi­ron­ment.

At first Nabokov was not en­tirely happy with his English — a quaint prod­uct of the Old World — and it took him some years to master it. He never achieved ‘‘the planned Rus­si­fi­ca­tion of the Amer­i­can reader’’ (that he did have such plans is one of the book’s more ques­tion­able claims), but his own Amer­i­can­i­sa­tion was cer­tainly suc­cess­ful.

The road to Lolita was full of re­search, both lin­guis­tic and cul­tural: Nabokov gath­ered slang words and stud­ied teenage habits; the trips to the west, where the fam­ily usu­ally stayed in mo­tels, pro­vided both prac­ti­cal de­tails and vivid im­ages for Hum­bert and Lolita’s year on the road. One of the most orig­i­nal ideas in this book con­cerns Dmitri’s in­flu­ence on Lolita: Hum­bert’s ob­ses­sion with his step­daugh­ter is seen here as the ‘‘dark nega­tion’’ of Nabokov’s pro­tec­tive love for his own son.

First pub­lished in France in 1955, Lolita reached the US three years later and im­me­di­ately be­came a sen­sa­tion. Although ‘‘Hur­ri­cane Lolita’’ is at the cen­tre of Roper’s nar­ra­tive, am­ple space is given to Nabokov’s other books, in­clud­ing the nov­els Pale Fire and Pnin, and his trans­la­tion of Eu­gene One­gin, run­ning to 1895 pages and con­sid­ered by many the best English ren­di­tion of Pushkin’s mas­ter­piece.

When these works brought their au­thor fame, one per­son who did not join in the praise was Ed­mund Wil­son, the most in­flu­en­tial Amer­i­can literary critic of the time and a good friend of Nabokov’s. Their cor­re­spon­dence was a source of in­tel­lec­tual plea­sure to both, de­spite dif­fer­ences in their po­lit­i­cal out­look: Nabokov hated com­mu­nism, while Wil­son was left-wing.

What made the two grow apart was Wil­son’s ap­pre­ci­a­tion of Boris Paster­nak’s Doc­tor Zhiva

go (Nabokov thought it a Soviet pro­pa­ganda stunt) as against his neg­a­tive re­ac­tion to One­gin — and to Lolita, which he liked less than any­thing else by Nabokov. Un­like many, Roper does not be­lieve Wil­son’s scathing re­marks re­sulted from jeal­ousy and is con­vinced his sup­port gen­er­ally was cru­cial to Nabokov’s suc­cess in the US.

An in­ter­est­ing an­gle ex­plored in the book is Nabokov’s views on other Amer­i­can writ­ers. He had an ‘‘es­pe­cially keen dis­re­gard for Hem­ing­way. Faulkner he dis­missed with sim­i­larly ap­palled com­men­tary’’, while ‘‘Salinger was the rare au­thor of his time of whom Nabokov did not speak with dis­re­spect’’. In fact, Roper demon­strates that The Catcher in the Rye and Lolita ‘‘are vaguely aware of each other’’.

These ob­ser­va­tions com­plete the por­trait of the writer within the Amer­i­can canon. Yet when it comes to the Nabokov phe­nom­e­non, Roper ad­mits that, de­spite there be­ing many in­ter­pre­ta­tions, ‘‘the myth re­mains, and so do the books, ever ready for re­dis­cov­ery’’.

Rus­sian-born au­thor Vladimir Nabokov was able to in­dulge his pas­sion for lep­i­doptery in the US

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