The View from the Passenger Seat
- The Key of the Tower by Gilbert Adair
Secker, 190 pp, £12.99, October 1997, ISBN 0 436 20429 0
Gilbert Adair the critic writes with feeling and practised bitterness about the anxiety of influence – ‘that looming, lowering pressure exerted, wilfully or not, by those who have already “made it” on those who have not, a pressure cramping, crushing and on occasion castrating the creative energies of the rising generation’. There’s a smack of Hamlet (cabined, cribbed, confined) here – so that when the literary father-figures he has in mind turn out to be Martin Amis, Julian Barnes and Ian McEwan, it’s hard to believe him. Father’s ghost has to be grander. And he is. Adair the novelist’s true problem, which Amis notoriously shares, is with Nabokov. Adair’s 1990 novel, Love and Death on Long Island, ‘currently’, according to his publicity, ‘being made into a major motion picture’, was about a snobbish, reclusive British writer falling hopelessly in love at long distance with an irretrievably straight American boy starlet, but was ‘really’ about its writer’s own love-affair with Lolita, invoking shades of Death in Venice as a thin disguise. This movie will follow on the heels of the ‘controversial’ remake of Lolita.
Vol. 20 No. 2 · 22 January 1998
As I read Lorna Sage’s perceptive, if occasionally puzzling, review of my novel The Key of the Tower (LRB, 1 January) – as, in particular, I read her contention that ‘Adair the novelist has the doubtful distinction of being almost entirely inspired, permeated, by Nabokov’s example’ – something inside me went snap. Now, I realise that when a writer denies an alleged influence, just as when a politician denies a rumoured sexual liaison, the denial seems only to confirm the truth of the allegation; but over the years Nabokov has become something of an albatross about my neck and I wonder if I might set the record straight. Thus: my very real admiration for his work has remained well this side of idolatry; not one of his books (with the possible exception of Pale Fire) is what I would consider an outright masterpiece; as for Ada, it’s the sort of unsalvageable calamity which befalls at least once in their creative lives all but the greatest of writers, an ex-clusive group to which Nabokov most emphatically does not belong; the late, post-Ada confections are each more flabbily written and indolently plotted than the last; and the fabled Nabokovian bewitchment, the undeniable spell cast by his style, works most potently, for me at least, at the paragraph and even sentence level. Let me add that I’m not endeavouring to defend myself in extremis against a ‘mixed’ review. Sage seems familiar with my critical essays and may therefore have read one I wrote two years ago in the Sunday Times in which I not merely expressed distaste for the preening Olympian hauteur of Nabokov the public man but described Lolita, the novel to which I would appear to be most toadyingly in thrall, as ‘unbearable’.
As a shameless poacher of idiolects, I’ve never tried to conceal from even a casual reader’s view the referential mode of any of my books. But for the benefit of any subsequent reviewer, they are as follows:
The Holy Innocents : Cocteau’s Le Grand Ecart, Les Enfants terribles and Thomas l’imposteur.
Love and Death on Long Island : Mann’s Death in Venice.
The Death of the Author: Henry James’s stories of the literary life, as in The Death of (the Lion) the Author (of Beltraffio).
The Key of the Tower: Hitchcock (as more than one reviewer noted).
As for the purely linguistic quality of the latter book, I would say that even if in the English language Nabokov is still probably the most juicily metaphoric of stylists, there exist other languages and some of us read them. The writers I happened to be reading at the time of writing my book were all French – Proust, Cocteau, Giraudoux and Paul Morand, all of them, too, superior (yes, yes, in my opinion) to Nabokov.
Like my novels or hate them – but give me and Nabokov a break!