Vladimir Nabokov: Selected Letters 1940-1977 
edited by Dmitri Nabokov and Matthew Bruccoli.
Weidenfeld, 582 pp., £29.95, February 1990, 0 297 81034 0
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Nabokov liked to write standing up (‘Piles,’ he told a fellow-teacher at Cornell, who thought it might be some short cut to creativity), and his letters reflect that inflexible posture, being all backbone and no upholstery. But prize them we must, for bringing us this otherwise impregnably stylish man’s first, unscripted thoughts; letters at least he wrote and sent, without – that we hear of – asking for them back, to groom them for permanent annexation to his oeuvre. Writing casually, and for a readership of one, he can identify himself with his style (‘... I am almost exclusively a writer, and my style is all I have’) without having to prove himself by doing so stylishly. But when, post-Lolita, the interviewers come, with their pads and tape-machines, to test his spontaneity, the style has once again to become the man, and the record of each viva to be called in for reworking before being passed for publication (‘I am greatly distressed and disgusted by my unprepared answers ... These answers are dull, flat, repetitive, vulgarly phrased and in every way shockingly different from the “card” part of the interview’). It was a mark of resigned good sense therefore, not of inspiration, when, two years before he died, the New York Times asked if it could commission what it called the ‘ultimate interview’ with him, one conducted by himself. Point six and last in Nabokov’s majestic letter licensing this event reads: ‘My soul is mine. What you are going to get is an elegant and accurate shadowgraph on the brightest of walls.’ Souls were never his thing, they could but come under the nauseous heading of Human Interest which, he writes, ‘means Uncle Tom’s cabin to me (or Galsworthy’s drivel) and makes me sick, seasick’. Even when he himself turned to the supposedly soul-searching genre of autobiography and wrote a memoir of his early life – Conclusive Evidence, later to be called Speak, Memory – he defines it to a potential publisher as a hybrid between unqualified autobiography and a novel, the truth crossed with fiction, his life having been given ‘a definite plot’. Nabokov redrafts the old autobiographical contract in favour of the writer and against the basely inquisitive reader, form having the higher claim in his philosophy to fact.

As a letter-writer, we know Nabokov already from the at first comradely, then sharp, then finally embittered exchanges which he had over almost twenty years with Edmund Wilson: an epistolary novel in which a friendship shrank and died in the space separating two bad-tempered writers who could not agree politically about the Soviet Union nor find common ground over the rules of Russian and English metrics. There is an occasional aftershock to be felt from that exhilarating quarrel in the present volume, and some incomparably peremptory opinions on Russian and other literary topics from Nabokov. But the Selected Letters are too taken up with the practicalities of the writer’s life as a writer to have the same intellectual fire-power as the published letters to and from Wilson. This is Nabokov going perseveringly about his business: as a novelist in exile, with his way to make in a country and a language not his own; as a university teacher at once conscientious with his classes and unusual for wanting to teach them ‘how to read books’ (his stress); as a butterfly expert, either staking out specimens in a Harvard laboratory (a gentler version of Vlad the Impaler) or later, alfresco, way out West, in gangling pursuit of nettable rarities; and at last, once he has become the author of Lolita, as the fastidious object of an often tasteless public interest, looking humorously to his defences and writing without pause in his upper-crust hotel in Montreux. The letters are all about Nabokov, but many of them are too routine in subject and too plainly worded to be recognisably by him. A number, strange to say, do not even pretend to be by him, but are letters written by his wife Vera, to spare him further distraction or intrusion on his time; though Vera, it is true, can be a transparent pseudonym for Vladimir, as in the crushingly succinct answers which she returns to an asinine set of questions from Time and Tide as to how, when and where he wrote, and how he found inspiration:

Dear Sir,

  My husband asks me to send you his answers to your questions of December 27th: 1. Pencil. 2. Anyhow. 3. Anywhere. 4. It finds me. He has also a question for you: Why do you spell his name with two ‘a’s?

  Yours truly,

  Mrs Vladimir Nabokov

Family togetherness in fact gets a little in the way in this volume, whose editor, Dmitri Nabokov, the novelist’s son, has chosen to include some short, decently fatherly but inconsequential letters addressed to his own younger, apparently scapegrace self, even though he promises us in his florid introduction that the Nabokov archive which he presides over will yield at least one more volume of letters, addressed to ‘émigré literary figures, his parents and his wife’. The trifles from that future volume which have gone into this more professional one were not such a good idea.

Despite the dates given in the subtitle, the earliest letters here come from before the war, when Nabokov was still a part of the liberal Russian diaspora in Berlin and Paris. They fix the tone and lay down many of the themes of what follows, for the years of still further exile after 1940, when he moved to the United States. Apart from some fond and exemplary letters to Vera, to whom, it seems, he wrote at the rate of a letter a day on the rare occasions when they were apart, there are letters to his brother Kirill in Prague, welcoming his attempts to write poetry but taking precise and ruthless issue with particular lines on technical grounds and for their triteness – ‘As a general rule, try to find new combinations of words (not for the sake of their novelty, but because every person sees things in an individual way and must find his own words for them’ – and letters to do with getting his books published in English, to a literary (‘or, rather, anti-literary’, he decides once he has met her) agent in New York and to a publisher in London, Hutchinson. Two of the novels he had recently published in Russian, Camera Obscura (which became Laughter in the Dark when he translated it for a second time himself) and Despair, both appeared here in 1936–7 on the list of the Hutchinson-owned John Long, where, writes the betrayed novelist, who has presumably been copytasting the books issuing from that too genteel imprint, Despair can only have stood out ‘like a rhinoceros in a world of humming birds’.

These are promisingly sane, resolute letters for Nabokov to have written, ahead of his own difficult removal into the English-speaking world. The Russian rhino-breeder already has a remarkable way with the English language, and a gratified sense of his own anachronism, as an Old European too thoroughly educated by life and by books to be shocked by the audacities, whether formal or moral, of Anglo-Saxon Modernism. ‘That sort of thing was much discussed in Russia just before the revolution and in Paris just after the war, and we had a good many writers (most of them clean forgotten at present) doing a roaring trade by depicting the kind of “amoral” life on which you comment in such a delightful way’ – this to his same New York agent, who had seemingly complained on behalf of the market she served that the selling of his work would not be helped by his ‘old-fashioned themes’, an inept description, even for an agent, of the unprecedently sinister plots of Despair and Laughter in the Dark.

Fifteen years later, by now a regular if not universally approved-of professor of literature at Cornell, Nabokov sets off for market with the horniest rhino of them all, Lolita, whose fraught emergence into print makes the central, seismic episode of these Selected Letters. The first mention is in a letter of 1951: a novel in progress ‘deals with the problems of a very moral middle-aged gentleman who falls very immorally in love with his stepdaughter, a girl of 13’, the last is a report from as late as 1976, a year before he died, that he had just been shown ‘an advert in an American rag offering a life-size doll with “French and Greek apertures” (this delphic if guessable expression might have inspired more enterprising editors to an anatomical footnote). When Nabokov most needs them, the big New York publishers are fearful, tiptoeing away from his possibly actionable manuscript one after the other. The novelist himself remains patient and even sympathetic to them, recognising that what he has to sell is a ‘time-bomb’; but he is more than ordinarily anxious to publish what he knows is far and away the best thing he has done since he changed from writing in Russian to writing in English, and in the end he falls into the hands of the ‘ogreish’ Maurice Girodias of the Olympia Press, a publisher whose hands are easier to fall into than out of again and with whom his relations became memorably sour: ‘I wrote Lolita’ are the infuriated last words of the last letter written to Girodias by Nabokov and included here. By now Putnams have brought the book out in the United States, it is selling hugely and its adhesive first publisher is asserting his claim to some of the profit.

Nabokov was no doubt bound to have trouble with Lolita, especially once it had made its offshore debut, as a lovely rhino condemned to snort amidst the alien porn of the Olympia Press. But he has trouble, too, finding a home for wholly unsensational books which it should have been simple for him to get published. How, one asks, could any publisher with a right mind to his business turn down the touching and delectable Pnin, the definitive comedy of campus life, a large part of which had appeared chapter by chapter in the New Yorker? Viking, however, did so, on the grounds, according to Dimitri Nabokov, that to bring it out would be to do his father a ‘disservice’. And the massively glossed, famously literal translation of Eugene Onegin, on which Nabokov spent so much time and which was instrumental in creating the rift with Edmund Wilson, is long years in the hawking around and the publishing, before the Bollingen Foundation finally obliges.

Once Nabokov has been released by Lolita from all further solicitation by him of patrons, editors and publishers, his letters are free to become crankier and more abrupt. He can now pursue a favourite sub-genre, the fierce correction of published error, whether respecting himself or others. In his own case he has to cope with his biographer Andrew Field, his commerce with whom deteriorates swiftly and with cause, from the co-operative to the adversarial, to the point where, by 1973, Nabokov is telling one of his Russian correspondents: ‘His version of my life has turned out to be cretinous. I have had to correct or delete hundreds of passages teeming with blunders and inventions of all kinds.’ He continues also through the nearly twenty years of his fame to ask, as he had done from the start, to have the final say in how his books should look in their bound form. But with what descriptive flair he applies his veto: ‘Dear Frank, I just got the photostat of the new jacket design for ADA, and I do not like it at all. The lettering is dumpy, with apertures en cul-de-poule. The coloration of the word ADA recalls at first blush the nacrine inner layer of a dejected shellfish, and, at a closer inspection, the bleak marblings of a ledger’s edge.’

More keenly than about artwork, however, Nabokov worries about what will happen to his work in translation, to the style of his books, which is also their matter. His first experience, with his Russian novels, has not been good: ‘They belong to Russia and her literature, and not only style but subject undergoes a horrible bleeding and distortion when translated into another tongue.’ To stop such haemorrhaging he chose to translate his Russian novels into English himself, or to oversee his son as he translated them. Then, once his later books are being translated out of English, the same anxiety and possessiveness return. Even in old age he is prepared to spend days on end improving the French version of Ada, in which he has found ‘monstrous mistakes and impossible mannerisms’ (the unhappy Paris publisher responsible bears the superbly apt name of Henri Hell, apt because in the title Ada – pronounced arda – we are meant to see and to hear the Russian word ad, meaning ‘hell’; unless of course Henri Hell is a nom de guerre angrily superimposed on a correspondent of some more innocent name by Nabokov himself). Nabokov has a philosophy of translation, and an unorthodox one: he believes that the best translation, of poetry above all, has to be literal, never free. And as he treats Pushkin, in his declaredly ‘servile’ version of Eugene Onegin, so the translators of his own books are expected to treat him; they should stick as pedantically close as they can to what he writes, and not try and suit it disloyally to the presumed tastes of his foreign readers. When, in 1969, his Poems and Problems are published, Nabokov knows what format is best for the 36 poems in that book, originally written in Russian and translated into English by himself. The originals must face the translations, he tells the publisher: ‘It is for you to decide, but I am quite sure ... that the Cyrillic weirdies ought not to be tucked away, in diamond print, but should be boldly displayed en regard. This is both more scholarly and compendious, since they will take less place in a verso position while satisfying the poignant demands of pedantic purity.’

This last phrase is an alliterative but serious pointer to a genuine passion in Nabokov. If pedantry is a love of exactness in seeing and describing, then pedantry is what most openly moves him, whether in attending to the minute but specific differences in the genitalia of American ‘blue’ butterflies, or in getting students actually to read great works of literature whose factual delights pass unnoticed because of the academic craving for abstraction – this professor sees it as a vital if unpopular part of his lesson on Tolstoy to explain ‘the arrangement of a sleeping-car on the Moscow-Petersburg express train’. And when the circumstances are poignant for being personal, Nabokov displays a more than merely aesthetic pedantry in respect of the historical past, writing in 1967 to correct the Sunday Times in London, which had printed a wrong account of his father’s murder in Berlin: ‘I wish to submit that at a time when, in so many Eastern countries history has become a joke, this precious beam of light upon a precious detail may be of some help to the next investigator.’

These Selected Letters are not so inveterately rude as I have made them seem, by quoting their author only at his most destructively (and quotably) imperious. Nabokov can be supportive too, and charming, with the right correspondent. And when he has Soviet Russia for his subject, and its hateful regime, his imperiousness reveals itself as strong emotion and no longer as a cultivated effrontery. He may scorn the idea that the writer has responsibilities other than to the uninhibited practice of his art, but it is as a celebrated writer, late in life, that he speaks up for those who have fallen foul of the Soviet regime, for Joseph Brodsky or for Solzhenitsyn, writers he could never admire but whom he is ready to support – he even arranges for jeans (or ‘dungarees’, as he puts it) to be sent to Brodsky in Russia. He writes to the Observer in support of the persecuted Bukovsky (‘Although I doubt that any words of mine can elicit the slightest reverberation amidst the unimaginable magistrates of the Soviet Union’), and cables the Leningrad Division of the Union of Writers to protest against the arrest of Vladimir Maramzin. It is the tragic fate of Russia and of Russians which finally relocates the exiled Nabokov in his original, much-cherished culture, by drawing from him sentiments which no other cause could have inspired him to make public.

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