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Michael Ignatieff

  • Vladimir Nabokov: The Russian Years by Brian Boyd
    Chatto, 607 pp, £20.00, November 1990, ISBN 0 7011 3700 2

This is a very good biography indeed – thorough, compassionate, refreshingly unreverential. Is it, on the other hand, necessary? Any literary biographer must proceed on the assumption that the life gives us the work, yet Nabokov’s scorn for this way of thinking was proverbial. The butterflies of his art were always flying free of the dingy Continental hotel rooms in which they happened to have had their pupation. So what exactly do we learn about the butterfly darting out of the window when we learn the name of the pension, the name of the landlady or the floor the window was on – the humdrum specimens that end up in the nets of the harmless drudges of biography? The best that a biographer can do is to demonstrate the unheroic reality – those mean Berlin rooms, the absurd, forgotten émigré cabals – that Nabokov’s art managed to transcend.

The added difficulty, in Nabokov’s case, is that he lived so fully through his art that there is little besides his art for a biographer to discuss. Much of his life, therefore, becomes plot summary of whatever he was writing at the time. Several hundred pages of this Life consist of such summaries – as sprightly and cogent as such exercises can be – but like all plot summaries, they leave one somehow unwilling to return to the originals. Yet if the life turns out to have been not much more than the originals themselves – plus ‘he paced the floor, he sharpened his pencils and Vera brought him cups of tea’ – why should we bother with the crib at all? Better to return to the originals and read. That is surely what the old boy would have wanted.

It is not only that the work all but swallowed up the life but also that the life, even when we know it, is a false trail: it doesn’t help us to track down the genesis of the work. Take the issue of cruelty in Nabokov’s fiction. His depiction of suffering always makes cold shivers of pleasure run up my spine. What does Boyd make of this lepidopteral coldness? Given his subject’s superb contempt for the ‘Viennese Quack’ and all those who travel in the ‘third-class carriage of his thought’, psychoanalytical theories of artistic sublimation are out. On the issue of cruelty, Boyd acts more like a friend than a critic, rushing to the defence, pointing out what every reader already knows: that Nabokov was also capable, as other cruel writers are not, of writing with the utmost tenderness and compassion. Boyd also insists on the writer’s domestic happiness. But the discovery that he was a devoted husband and a doting father is irrelevant. It merely takes us back to the Nabokovian premise that fiction is not an exercise in self-disclosure, but in imagining yourself to be other than what you are.

Moreover, is a Life necessary where the artist himself has left behind a masterpiece of autobiography? Anyone who has read Speak, Memory comes to Nabokov’s fiction with an absolutely clear impression of the superbly vital, arrogant, enchantingly attentive and amusing person he must have been in life. Boyd cannot compete with Speak, Memory: he can only fill in the blanks – the itinerary of flight and exile, the detail of making a new life in Berlin in the Twenties.

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