Outstanding biography, John Goodliffe

Vladimir Nabokov: the American years
Brian Boyd,
Chatto and Windus, London, 1992, $59.95

The first volume of Brian Boyd’s monumental biography of Vladimir Nabokov (Vladimir Nabokov: the Russian Years, 1990) was accorded very high critical acclaim. This second volume, covering the period from 1940when the Nabokovs sailed from France to America, until 1977when Nabokov died at the age of 78, is even more massive and detailed than the first: 783 pages, compared with 607.

Nabokov’s last 37 years are much better documented than his earlier ones in Europe. From 1941 to 1959 he worked as a university teacher, mainly at Wellesley College, a private educational institution for young women, near Boston, and at Cornell University, Ithaca. In 1953 he finished writing Lolita, a book which he aptly described as a ‘time bomb’. The American publishers to whom he first sent it pronounced it too hot to handle and were unwilling to risk a fine or even jail by putting it into print. It was eventually accepted by the Olympia Press in Paris, notorious for its publication of Henry Miller and much that was outright pornographic. When Lolita was finally published in the USA in 1958 it had acquired the reputation of a banned book, and duly exploded into the bestseller list. But it remained for some time forbidden fruit in Britain and New Zealand, and this helped to ensure its later success there when the permissive sixties arrived. Nabokov became rich and famous for largely the wrong reasons and so was able to spend most of the rest of his life living in a luxury hotel in Montreux, Switzerland, able to devote himself fulltime to writing and butterfly collecting.

Throughout his (Nabokov’s) work he wants to make us gasp with wonder when we see how real things can be behind all that we take for granted; and to impart a sense of the artful, deceptive munificence of life, concealing miracles of generosity behind the everyday; to suggest that world before our eyes is a puzzle, but that its solution lies before us, and that we may somehow be headed towards the ‘blissful shock’ of discovering life’s great surprise.

‑Brian Boyd, from the introduction to Vladimir Nabokov: the American years.


In 1986 Andrew Field, an academic working in Australia, published what was at the time optimistically, and, as it turned out, unwisely and prematurely, described by one critic as the ‘definitive work on Nabokov’: VN: the life and art of Vladimir Nabokov. In the foreword to a subsequent edition of this work Field complained bitterly about the unjust vilification he had suffered at the hands of what he somewhat exaggeratedly referred to as the ‘Nabokov Mafia’. The most virulent of the so-called Mafiosi was Nabokov’s son, Dimitri, who referred to Field’s book in phraseology worthy of his father as ‘an odd concoction of rancour, adulation, innuendo, and outright factual error, and a huge, heavy batch of garbage’. The biographer himself was ‘a malevolent dwarf sliding through his own muck with a bulldog grip on his love/ hate object’s coat-tails’. Boyd reserves his own much more controlled comments on Field’s errors for his notes, but his work certainly reduces his predecessor, once referred to as ‘the colossus of Nabakov studies’, to the stature of a dwarf, malevolent or otherwise.

But it has to be acknowledged, in fairness to Field, that he was allowed only limited access to Nabokov’s papers, whereas Boyd, more fortunate in gaining the sympathy and confidence of Nabokov’s widow (who died in 1991), was allowed free access to the author’s archives in Montreux and at the library of Congress. And. as his formidable list of acknowledgements indicates, he supplemented this research by consulting individuals and libraries in ~ a dozen different countries. Possibly Field’s resentment at the limitations imposed on him finds expression in his estimate of Nabokov as a man who, while a supreme, if ‘narcissistic’, artist in words, could be arrogant, egotistical and sometimes paranoic. In the concluding chapter he wrote: For some he was the most extraordinary and attractive person they had ever encountered, for others a somewhat frightening reptilian creature in which the human element was wanting.’

Boyd scrupulously avoids such emotive language, maintaining personal detachment and refraining from psychological judgments on Nabokov the man. His ‘passion for accuracy’ and ‘pursuit of the particular’ match the qualities he imputes to his subject. He writes clearly, vividly, and elegantly, giving the distinct impression that some of Nabakov’s own mastery of the English language has rubbed off on his biographer. Thus one becomes almost as spellbound by the fascinating detail of Nabokov’s activities as university teacher, writer, and, not least, as lepidopterist of world rank. By concentrating with fixed intensity, like his subject, on the apparently insignificant trivia of everyday life (Nabokov’s ‘passion for exploring the world’s endless detail’ is emphasised on page 110) he allows the writer to reveal himself as far more human and approachable than the ‘arrogant’ and ‘reptilian creature’ referred to by his earlier biographer.

Even if it were nothing more than a biography, Boyd’s book would be remarkable enough, the fruit of ten years’ painstaking toll and scrupulous attention to detail. But it also includes sensitive and penetrating critical analyses of all Nabokov’s works, notably, in this second volume, of Bend sinister, Lolita, Pnin, Pale fire and Ada. In addition he brings searching criticism to bear on Nabokov’s English version of Pushkin’s famous ‘novel in verse’, Eugene Onegin, with its copious, erudite, and witty commentary. He finds flaws here: Nabokov’s ‘irrationally unconditional denial’ that Pushkin’s knowledge of English was anything other than rudimentary; and his misleading comparison of English and Russian parody. Boyd maintains, as Nabokov himself did, that, far from being pornographic, Lolita is actually a distinctly moral work and supports this contention with convincing argument from the text of the novel. In his analysis of Pale fire and Ada, both exceedingly convoluted, subtle and dense works, he is as thorough as everywhere else. But the reader who has not yet enjoyed these two books is advised to skip the relevant chapters; Boyd’s explanations might well spoil the delight in playing games and solving puzzles that Nabokov’s fiction invites the reader to share.

It is perhaps not surprising that, having presumably eaten, drunk, slept and dreamt Nabokov for so long, Boyd should occasionally be tempted to let his enthusiasm get the better of his generally cool judgment. Certainly Nabokov was a genius, virtually unique as a writer in his mastery of two languages and his wizardry with words in both of them. But sometimes the praise becomes a little too fulsome: ‘Signs and symbols is ‘one of the greatest stories ever written’; ‘No one else has ever taught this aspect of reading so well’; ‘No one … has had a greater sensitivity to narrative methods and conventions than Nabokov’; ‘No work of fiction has looked with sharper vision than this (The Vane Sisters)’; ‘No other novel begins so memorably (Lolita); ‘For sheer beauty of form Pale fire may well be the most perfect novel ever written’. Boyd is of course entitled to his high opinions, but they seem sometimes a trifle extravagant.

The volume is magnificently produced. It is useful to have the relevant year and Nabokov’s age at the time on each page of the biographical sections. The acknowledgements, notes, bibliography and index occupy nearly 120 pages. The book is illustrated with material from the Nabokov archives: family snapshots, press photographs, photographs of manuscript drafts, butterfly diagrams, a plate from Nabokov’s magnum opus on lepidoptery published in 1949. It is however a little surprising that there is no chronological table of the author’s life and works.

For most of Nabokov’s writing career he remained persona non grata in the USSR, since the Party insisted that art and literature be used almost exclusively for non-artistic ends: moral, social, political. He, for his part, denied the existence in the Soviet Union of any literature at all in his meaning of the word. It is thus an irony of history that, not too long after his death, with the coming of ‘glasnost’ in 1985, his works have finally been made available to readers of Russian in what is now the Commonwealth of Independent States. After his official ‘rehabilitation’ as a Russian writer in July 1986 he became almost ‘a national treasure’, jokingly referred to as ‘the writer of perestoika’.

In July 1990 an article by Viktor Erofeev was published in the Soviet weekly Literary Gazette, entitled ‘A funeral feast for Soviet literature’. In it Erofeev, a leading writer, deplored the fact that literature in Russia had for far too long suffered from the deadly sickness of ‘hypermoralism’, so having its attention diverted from ‘aesthetic matters’ into ‘narrow-minded sermonising’. He called for a rediscovery of the ‘playful element in art’ and concluded that the ‘funeral feast’ could turn out to be a happy one since it offered ‘hope that in Russia … a new literature [would] appear’ which would be ‘nothing more, but also nothing less than literature’. Nabokov would surely have approved. The article encourages the belief that Nabokov’s work may now become more influential in Russian literature than he ever dreamed possible. Boyd’s outstanding biography will undoubtedly have a part to play in this, marking Nabokov’s ‘rebirth’ as a Russian writer almost one hundred years after his birth as a human being.


John Goodliffe is a Senior Lecturer in Russian Language and Literature at the University of Canterbury.


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