Some Remarks on Nabokov

by Justin E. H. Smith

Vladimir Nabokov has done pretty much all a human can do, from within the pouch of corporeal experience and the tunnel of time, to trace out the boundaries of the absolute. He has done so entirely without positive beliefs, but armed only with a love of the names of things, and a superhuman power to combine these names according to the rules — which are his own rules — of the art of description. This, from Speak, Memory:

I have journeyed back in thought –with thought hopelessly tapering off as I went — to remote regions where I groped for some secret outlet only to discover that the prison of time is spherical and without exits. Short of suicide I have tried everything. I have doffed my identity in order to pass for a conventional spook and steal into realms that existed before I was conceived. I have mentally endured the degrading company of Victorian lady novelists and retired colonels who remember having, in former lives, been slave messengers on a Roman road or sages under the willows of Lhasa. I have ransacked my oldest dreams for keys and clues– and let me say at once that I reject completely the vulgar, shabby, fundamentally medieval world of Freud, with its crankish quest for sexual symbols (something like searching for Baconian acrostics in Shakespeare’s works) and its bitter little embryos spying, form their natural nooks, upon the love life of their parents.

Vladimir Nabokov is not himself a bitter embryo, but he is a big baby, a spoiled child at his best when he is describing the years he spent as an actual spoiled child, in sailor’s costume, coddled by nurses, fondled by uncles, plied with sweets. He has trouble comprehending the Bolshevik revolution beyond what it means for his own plight, which is to say the practice of his lepidoptery, of being bathed by servants, and other mischief. It is this same indifference to politics, which is to say also this conservatism by default, that makes Nabokov a transnational, and translinguistic author, which in turn are the very things that make him a great author. He can readjust even to America, and become great there while other emigrés flap and fizzle, because there are butterflies in Colorado too. And in this way the whole world is his home, even as his indifference to his fellow human beings seethes from nearly every page.

Vladimir Nabokov had moreover been transnational from the beginning, and never had to convert or adapt. As he put it, by the time he arrived in America he was too old anyway to be ‘Conradically transformed’. His English came before his Russian, though both seem to have been preceded by an innate or congenital mépris:

I learned to read English before I could read Russian. My first English friends were four simple souls in my grammar– Ben, Dan, Sam and Ned. There used to be a great deal of fuss about their identities and whereabouts — ‘Who is Ben?’ ‘He is Dan,’ ‘Sam is in bed,’ and so on. Although it all remained rather stiff and patchy (the compiler was handicapped by having to employ –for the initial lessons, at least– words of not more than three letters), my imagination somehow managed to obtain the necessary data. Wan-faced, big-limbed, silent nitwits, proud in the possession of certain tools (‘Ben has an axe’), they now drift with a slow-motioned slouch across the remotest backdrop of memory.

Already on the manor outside pre-revolutionary St. Petersburg, though, traces of America, and not just of the English language, seem to have had a particularly strong hold on his imagination. Thus the same uncle who fondled him (about which fondling Nabokov, the anti-Freudian, makes little),

would solemnly bring me from America the Foxy Grandpa series, and Buster Brown– a forgotten boy in a reddish suit: if one looked closely, one could see that the color was really a mass of dense red dots. Every episode ended in a tremendous spanking for Buster, which was administered by his wasp-waisted but powerful Ma, who used a slipper, a hairbrush, a brittle umbrella, anything –even the bludgeon of a helpful policeman — and drew puffs of dust from the seat of Buster’s pants.

What is going on here? There is genius, for one thing, but whose is it? Nabokov is simply relating to us the trifling comics he recalls having read decades before. He has at the very least had the talent to remember them, and to preserve and eventually reveal their own inborn genius. Buster Brown is a work of genius, as Nancy and Sluggo might be, as Archie or Garfield might be, but it takes a genius to draw it out, and it is a mark of Nabokov’s genius that it can be drawn out by being described simply, by being barely described at all, but almost only mentioned. Buster Brown, from whose pants puffs of dust rise when he is spanked. Genius!

And when he is observing his fellow men, is it not just as if Vladimir Nabokov is delighting in Buster Brown’s spanking? Here, I think, is the very cruelest and most delightful passage in all of Speak, Memory, which brings together anti-unionism, anti-collectivism, Nabokov’s sense of his own singular specialness, and, finally, his unmistakable power to convey through the art of description that he is, just as he senses, special:

All my life I have been a poor go-to-sleeper. People in trains, who lay their newspaper aside, fold their silly arms, and immediately, with an offensive familiarity of demeanor, start snoring, amaze me as much as the uninhibited chap who cozily defecates in the presence of a chatty tubber, or participates in huge demonstrations, or joins some union in order to dissolve in it. Sleep is the most moronic fraternity in the world, with the heaviest dues and the crudest rituals. It is a mental torture I find debasing.

It was only when I read Ada, or Ardor two years ago or so that I became convinced of Nabokov’s greatness. I hesitated for a long time after that to read his memoir, since memoirs have a way for me of overexposing their subject, and in the case of novelists of depriving me of the precious illusion of novels as autonomous works of art. In this case the memoir has had the effect of revealing to me the way in which Vladimir Nabokov’s greatness as an author is fundamentally rooted in his limitations as a human, in particular in his lack of fellow-feeling with other humans, his constitutional indifference to matters of solidarity. What he finds when all of this is stripped away are nature, and freedom, and humor and amazement.

Whether you take this as a ‘positive’ assessment of Nabokov or not will depend on whether you see inculcation of virtue as one of the functions of literature.

Piece crossposted with Justin E. H. Smith’s website