Craig Raine fondles Vladimir Nabokov

Craig Raine

  • Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years by Brian Boyd
    Chatto, 783 pp, £25.00, January 1992, ISBN 0 7011 3701 0

Nabokov ‘had a flypaper feel for words’, according to Alison Bishop, who knew him at Cornell when she was a child. He might, therefore, have relished his biographer coming mildly unstuck in the course of this otherwise tenacious, intricately argued, judicious account of Nabokov’s life in the States, and, post-Lolita, in Montreux. Disposing of Andrew Field, his predecessor in the field, Brian Boyd cites his insolent, perfunctory response to one of Nabokov’s factual corrections. Told an event had taken place in July and not on ‘a wet autumnal day’, Field emended the phrase to ‘a wet autumnal day in July’ – a covert imputation and rebuke of pedantry, not without a certain Nabokovian brilliance. The brilliance is unconsciously acknowledged by Boyd some forty pages later when his own phrase, ‘a wretched autumnlike spring’, revisits the trope.

Sometimes Nabokov’s own flypaper feel betrayed him in the same way, though it is often difficult to distinguish between allusion, homage and degrees of debt, direct or indirect, to other writers. For example, he was a lifelong admirer of E.B. White and his correspondence indefatigably quotes White’s colourful definition of a miracle: ‘blue snow on a red barn’. In Lolita, Humbert speaks of ‘our humble blue car and its imperious red shadow’. Of course, Nabokov was abnormally sensitive to colours – sounds and letters arrived in his ear colour-coded – and this may account for the depth of his response to White’s oxymoronic accuracy of observation. Is it fellow-feeling or emulous study which produces an earlier variant on the plausible mismatches of nature’s palette? ‘Brown woolly smoke arched and dipped over the green shadow it cast on the aquamarine lake.’

White matters less than Joyce, about whom Nabokov, on occasion, could be unruefully generous. In one interview, he gave out this undeniable admission: ‘my English is patball to Joyce’s champion game.’ Mostly, though, Nabokov was inclined to minimise the influence of Joyce on his work. He held by his stern avowal that his mature style was formed long before he read Ulysses with any attention. That flypaper feel, however, means that Nabokov is, consciously and unconsciously, an aural retentive. A conscious example: ‘bizarre, tender, salivating Dr Humbert, practising on supremely lovely Lolita the Third the art of being a granddad’. Here Nabokov presents us with an allusion to an allusion. In the library episode of Ulysses, Mr Best does his best to insert an allusion to Victor Hugo into the torrent of Stephen’s Shakespearean speculation: ‘The art of being a grandfather, Mr Best gan murmur. L’art d’être grand ... ’ But the title of Hugo’s volume of verse for children is carried away on the cataract of eloquence.

On the other hand, consider the transmogrified, involuntary progress of Bloom’s kidney, ‘the moist tender gland’ he purchases at Dlugacz’s shop. In Humbert’s parody of ‘Ash-Wednesday’, which he makes Quilty recite prior to his murder, the adjectives suddenly obtrude: ‘Because you took advantage of a sin / when I was helpless moulting moist and tender ... ’ And when the young Nabokov is attracted to Tamara in Speak, Memory, his tendresse resorts to the same paired adjectives, appropriately relocated: ‘the tender, moist gleam on her lower eyelid’. A Humbert would draw the jury’s attention not only to the two familiar adjectives, arm-in-arm, but also to the swift glissando of ‘gland’ to ‘gleam’. Enormous Changes at the Last Minute.

In The Gift, there is a more generalised debt to Bloom’s shopping. Godunov-Cherdynstev’s purchase of shoes – an epic of hypnotic banality retailed with rapt pedantry – is inconceivable without Joyce’s example: ‘A young woman in a black dress, with a shiny forehead and quick, wandering eyes, sat down at his feet for the eighth time, sideways on a stool, numbly extracted a narrow shoe from the rustling interior of its box, spread her elbows apart as she slackened the edges, glanced abstractedly aside as she loosened the laces, and then, producing a shoehorn from her bosom, addressed Fyodor’s large, shy, poorly darned foot. Miraculously the foot entered, but having done so, went completely blind: the wiggling of toes inside had no effect on the exterior smoothness of the taut black leather. With phenomenal speed the salesgirl tied the lace ends and touched the tip of the shoe with two fingers.’

She is, of course, fondling the details, as it she were a student of Nabokov: ‘in reading one should notice and fondle the details,’ he adjured his class at Cornell. As a writer, Nabokov is a fanatic for detail, his mimesis rivalling that of nature itself: ‘when a butterfly had to look like a leaf, not only were all the details of the leaf beautifully rendered but markings mimicking grub-holes were generously thrown in.’ Nabokov consciously competes with this luxuriant, exuberant generosity: ‘I discovered in nature,’ he writes in Speak, Memory, ‘the nonutilitarian delights that I sought in art.’ There is something gloriously otiose in, say, Humbert’s discovery, after he has murdered Quilty and passed unmolested through the guests congregated downstairs, that his car is likewise in a tight spot from which it, too, will negotiate an escape unscathed: ‘two other cars were parked on both sides of it, and I had some trouble squeezing out.’

When Humbert initially arrives at Ramsdale, it is to stay with the McCoo family, but, on the day, the McCoo house burns down and Mr McCoo brings the bad news to Humbert’s hotel – ‘distraught’ and ‘in wet clothes’. My italics. The prodigality reminds me of Emily Dickinson:

As if I asked a common Alms,
And in my wondering hand
A Stranger pressed a Kingdom,
And I, bewildered, stand –

Then there is the little, optionally extra dog taking ‘rapid chords with his front paws on the resilient turf’, or Laughter in the Dark’s dachshund, the inside of whose ears resemble ‘dark pink blotting paper, much used’. Or the quarrel between Humbert and Lo about their pursuer which she suddenly interrupts with eloquent irrelevance: ‘If I were you – Oh, look, all the nines are changing into the next thousand. When I was a little kid ... I used to think they’d stop and go back to nines, if only my mother agreed to put the car in reverse.’

All this is a long way from the prose commonly associated with Nabokov, poetic prose whose oppressiveness Virginia Woolf reluctantly stigmatised in ‘Impassioned Prose’, where she evokes Laurence Binyon’s remark that ‘poetical prose has but a bastard kind of beauty, easily appearing overdressed.’ Nabokov, it should be said, is not entirely immune to sartorial excess. Now and then the odd sentence flourishes like Dickens’s Dickensian signature – a towering whirlwind of inky underlings. For instance, it is dismaying to learn from Boyd that a particularly tiresome sentence in Speak, Memory was not a temporary lapse, but a considered substitute for a shy piece of nomenclature which wouldn’t reveal itself even after extensive enquiries. Nabokov wanted to know what the concertina connections between railway carriages were called. No luck. He settled for ‘intervestibular connecting curtains as black as bat-wings’. At his best, though, he is superseded only by Joyce: the E.B. White-ish ‘maroon morons near blued pools’; ‘the beaded tracks of a wagtail’; ‘a cuckoo began to call in a copse, listlessly.’

A great deal to fondle, then. But, with all this fondling, how much feeling? Critics have always had their doubts. Ronald Hingley maintained that Nabokov’s work in general ‘secretes about as much milk of human kindness a cornered black mamba’. Nabokov responded by putting Hingley into the translation (heavily revised) of King, Queen, Knave as a department store mannequin – a literal blockhead. The odd thing is that, in addition to a critical study, Hingley was reviewing Speak, Memory, book which, like Pnin, displays Nabokov’s humanity at its most engaging.

His private manner was utterly winning, particularly his comic mode. Boyd includes two anecdotes, both innocently revealing. In the late Sixties, Nabokov asked Alfred Appel if student unrest was disrupting his lectures. The only demonstrations were demonstrations of affection;

I told him about a nun who sat in the back row of one of my lecture courses, and who one day complained after class that a couple near her were always spooning. ‘Sister,’ I said, ‘in these troubled times we should be grateful if that’s all they were doing.’ ... ‘Ohhh,’ moaned Nabokov, mourning my lost opportunity, clapping his hand to his head in mock anguish. ‘You should have said, “Sister, be grateful that they were not forking.’ ”

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