Very Nasty

John Sutherland

  • VN: The Life and Art of Vladimir Nabokov by Andrew Field
    Macdonald, 417 pp, £14.95, April 1987, ISBN 0 356 14234 5

Field’s VN: The Life and Art of Vladimir Nabokov is a biography which can make one wonder what biography is all about. On the face of it, the book marks the end of a tempestuous literary love affair. As his publishers proclaim, Field has devoted his professional life to the study of Nabokov. His first book, Nabokov: His Life in Art (1967) stands as a landmark in its subject’s emergence from literary obscurity to literary respectability. Celebrity had already come with Lolita, published in Paris in 1955. Field was the first critic conscientiously to excavate Nabokov’s sizeable corpus of early work in Russian, most of it published obscurely in pre-war Europe. His eulogistic assessment of Nabokov’s art was couched in a pseudo-Nabokovian jauntiness that put most reviewers’ backs up but could be taken as the sincerest form of flattery. Field ended his survey with a fanfare for the imminent Ada (1969), a work which he confidently predicted would crown Nabokov’s amazingly diverse career.

By 1967, Nabokov had been fifty years in various literary wings. Born an aristocrat in the last year of the 19th century, he was a multi-millionaire at the age of 16. In 1919 he was lucky to flee Russia, never to return, in an old Greek freighter loaded with dried fruit. He finished his education at Trinity College, Cambridge (where he was friendly with an importunate R.A. Butler, we now learn) and from 1923-37 lived as a penurious Russian writer, ‘Sirin’, in an increasingly uncongenial Berlin. In 1925, he married a Jewish wife, Vera Evseevna Slonim. In 1937 the Nabokovs moved to Paris, where he wrote his first novel in English, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight. In 1940, the family moved to America, where he earned a living as a famously eccentric and Pninish college teacher until 1958 when, enriched by Lolita, he retired to Switzerland for the remainder of his life. In retirement he remained vital, publishing Pale Fire in 1962 and his contentious translation of Eugene Onegin in 1964. There was also a massive study of butterflies which never saw print. (Field, incidentally, is somewhat disparaging about the novelist’s skills as a lepidopterist.) When he died, Nabokov may well have been a millionaire for the second time round.

Nabokov’s career up to 1967 was not easily brought into single focus and he suffered, in his own mind at least, from a sense of being under- or only partially valued. Field’s body-and-soul devotion to the Nabokov cause and his mastery of out-of-the-way works was ingratiating. The young man (still under thirty) was summoned to Montreux in 1968, and commissioned to put together a complete bibliography of Nabokov’s publications. Out of this came an intimate acquaintance which encouraged Field to write in May 1968, ‘answering an unplaced ad to be your Boswell. The reply to my proposal (28 May) was warm approval and the hyperbolic though flattering assurance that Nabokov could not imagine anyone else whom he would want to accept as his biographer.’

Nabokov acceded to his young disciple’s offer despite a ferocious distaste for and disbelief in literary biography (‘psycho-plagiarism’) as a genre – jaundiced views given full play in the depiction of Sebastian Knight’s Goodman and Pale Fire’s Kinbote. It is clear that by giving consent to Field, Nabokov intended to do a Thomas Hardy: that is, write his life through a docile secretary. Indeed, he told Field as much: ‘I wanted to see the thing. The first biography, no matter what comes after, casts a certain shadow on the others.’ As events proved, Nabokov misjudged his man. Field may have been young: but he was no Florence Hardy.

The result of the biographical pact was a brief romantic interlude which has shaped the rest of Field’s scholarly career. As he puts it, ‘I spent comparatively little time with Nabokov in Boswellian terms – a week at the end of January 1969, then four days in November of the same year, and finally a marathon month, all of January 1971 – but it was more time than anyone else with a “biographitist” intent ever spent with the man.’ Following this Swiss honeymoon Field assembled what he calls, with proprietary pride, ‘a personal archive’. Its nucleus is ‘14 20-minute tapes which contain extensive conversations with Nabokov and his family and friends’, together with personal records temporarily loaned by the author, of which Field made 1870 microfilm exposures.

The subsequent biography, called riddlingly Nabokov: His Life in Part, was another ultra-Nabokovian performance, written as Field’s monologue, with constant interruptions (in bold type) from Mr and Mrs Nabokov. The work was not to its subject’s liking. Field is vaguely offhand as to the exact cause of the falling-out, and refers to what was evidently a monumental bust-up only in passing in the last chapter of this present book: ‘There was a four-year legal struggle over my 1977 book about him. Nabokov was furious about what he saw as a breach of faith. The author was upset because, he contended, he had been given assurances about the general outlines of the life of Nabokov that proved to be untrue.’ What the breach of faith was, and what the untruth, we are left to guess. Nabokov died in July of the year in which Nabokov: His Life in Part was published. A few months before he died, he gave an interview to George Feifer fulminating at Field as the treacherous ‘Mr X’, his would-be biographer and the purveyor of ‘enormous blunders’.

By 1977 Field was no longer the privileged biographer he had been in 1967. Nor is he so privileged in his 1987 book (which, as the echoing titles suggest, recycles sections of the previous two works). It is noticeable that there are no thanks, even of the most perfunctory kind, to Nabokov’s surviving widow. There is evidently nothing to thank her for. ‘Copyright reasons’ are obscurely cited as the excuse for not referring to ‘Nabokov’s letters to his mother between 1910 and 1936 ... an important background source for his first émigré period’. Even more damagingly, Field has evidently been forbidden to quote from Simon Karlinsky’s edition of The Nabokov-Wilson Letters (1979), thus fatally impoverishing his account of the author’s most important literary relationship. (Karlinsky, incidentally, has his little say about Field’s ‘enormous blunders’ in the preface to his volume.)

Not to put too fine a point on it, Field is evidently at daggers drawn with Nabokov’s closest surviving relatives. In his recent (1986) translation of The Enchanter, Nabokov’s son, Dmitri, goes out of his way to put the presumptuous biographer down as rudely as he can. In an earlier essay (‘On Revisiting Father’s Room’, 1980) he referred obliquely to Field as a ‘scoundrel’. And if Field could hope for little help in his biographical labours from the living Nabokovs, he had even less from the dead. The author buried his literary remains with a pharoah’s care. As Field ruefully notes, ‘the terms of Nabokov’s will withhold publication of his private papers until fifty years after the death of both his wife and son.’ And, of course, well after the death of Andrew Field. Since Field knows the contents of some of these private papers it must be tantalising beyond bearing for him. It also frequently casts him in the ridiculous role of desperately miming what the law prevents him saying. At the beginning of Chapter Nine of VN, for instance, Field refers to ‘an extraordinary letter ... which significantly shortens the distance between Nabokov and his art. It offers an unparalleled intimate picture of Nabokov, and it is a startling picture.’ But, he tells us, the contents of that extraordinary letter ‘cannot be printed in this century’.

Formidable as they are, Field has declined to be put off by the Nabokovian obstacles in his way. Nor, apparently, is he deterred by unfriendliness like Dmitri Nabokov’s. Indeed, he positively makes love to the profession of publishing rascal. The epigraph to VN is a defiant quote from Look at the Harlequins! (1974), referring to the ‘matter-of-fact, father of muck, mucking biographitist’. Nabokov evidently intended this as a smashing rebuke. Field takes it as a challenge to which he will rise. Muck no more frightens him than it would a brass-grubbing Victorian industrialist. The purpose of this latest version of his book is frankly burglarious. He will, he declares, publicise Nabokov’s ‘secret life’ and throw open ‘all the important sealed doors’. Those things that Nabokov determined ‘shall never, never be ferreted out’ are here and now – we are to assume – on public display.

Field’s ferreting begins on the first page, where he tells us that Nabokov’s literary masterpieces were all conditioned by ‘shadows in the Nabokov family tree’. Earliest of the shadows is the incestuous liaison between the author’s great-grandmother and grandfather. As Field notes, ‘it is, of course, nothing but a neat reversal of the story of Lolita.’ And it explains why incest is the ‘major theme’ in the subsequent fiction. Another major theme is that of the ‘bend sinister’ or bastardy, and Field has an ancestral explanation for that, as well. He ventilates with some relish the court and family rumours that Nabokov’s father, Dmitri, was a by-blow of Tsar Alexander II. Nabokov scoffed at the allegation, and so does Field after waving it around for a page or two. But he goes on to propose that Dmitri was actually the bastard of the Tsar’s brother, the Grand Duke Konstantin. Field is clearly wedded to this theory, although his arguments for it are at best weakly circumstantial: Maria (Vladimir’s grandmother, married to the incestuous Dmitri), ‘who was very beautiful, unhappily married, passionate, high-living, and in close proximity to the grand duke for more than a decade was probably his lover, and he may have been the father of some of her children’. Close proximity is all the evidence Field can apparently muster for this theory which, as he admits, is dismissed (‘mistakenly’) even by those members of the Nabokov family who are prepared to go along with any version of the royal bastardy argument.

Field goes on to characterise Nabokov’s adored father as a snob, a lover who married for money, an ineffectual politician and morally dishonest. His father’s failings were evidently taken over by the young Nabokov in his wandering bohemian life after the Revolution. But – and this is the most delicate aspect of Field’s biographical thesis – the moral deviousness was transmuted and refined into the ‘Narcissistic’ Nabokovian aesthetic, becoming the foundation of the author’s incorrigible and playful deceitfulness: the ‘art’ in a word.

Some of the deceptions which Field identifies are telling and convincing. He notes, for instance, that for all his years in Berlin, Nabokov resolutely claimed to speak no German, to have no German friends and, as he protested, ‘had not read a single German novel either in the original or in translation’. Yet Field shows (with the assistance of an article by D.B. Field) that Nabokov lifted a passage from a German novel by Leonhard Frank in The Defence (1929) and ergo must have been competent in German. Why then did he feel obliged to mislead posterity on the subject?

Much more controversial is Field’s suggested addition to the epic Nabokov-Freud feud. The novelist’s public scorn for psychoanalysis and its founder was notorious. And, Field would have us believe, it was conducted at ‘the deep structure’ of Nabokov’s most private life. When they were still on biographer-biographee terms, Field noted that letters to his mother which Nabokov showed him had the salutation cut out. Field calculates that the excision is ‘a word about seven letters long with the tail or hat of Nabokov’s Russian t often showing clearly below or above the cut-out space. Lolita, surely, it seems to me.’ It doesn’t, however, seem so to Dmitri, who has the original uncut letters and who says that the word is radost – ‘joy’. Dmitri also says that Field has admitted his mistake. Nonetheless in the book Field goes on to ask: ‘What sort of brazen compulsion, the ultimate gesture of contempt for everything Freudian, brought Nabokov to use a version of his mother’s nickname for the heroine of his greatest novel?’ Had it been true, a very brazen compulsion.

Field is rather fond of filling blank spaces with daring speculations. He is on more solid ground (though doubtless no less offensive to surviving Nabokovs) in his uncovering of Nabokov’s adulteries, particularly his affair with another émigrée, Irina Guadinini, in 1937. Field has not apparently seen the love letters between Nabokov and Irina, but he has in ‘the Field archive’ a signed document ‘which must remain temporarily anonymous’. He goes on to summarise Nabokov’s own confession of his extra-marital affairs. ‘There had been one time when he had intercourse with a German woman in a forest on the outskirts of Berlin, after which he had had nothing more to do with her. Then there was the incident with the stout woman to whom he was giving lessons.’ And so on. Field has clearly been resourceful, but these are doors which might have remained sealed without any great loss to literature.

VN is the product of a scorned biographer, and the work is understandably cooler than its two predecessors. Disillusionment is evident in Field’s manner which signally lacks all the puppyish Nabokovian flourishes he previously affected. This biography is written plainly and straightforwardly; sometimes even drably. On other occasions, Field’s disillusionment is evident as a retouching of his earlier record. For example, in His Life in Part, he noted Nabokov’s opinion that Pasternak’s ‘Zhivago was a third-rate sentimental novel inexplicably written by a rather good poet.’ This left Nabokov looking perverse but rather grand. Field repeats himself in VN but with additions that make Nabokov look petty and meanly jealous:

On a charitable day Nabokov thought Zhivago was a third-rate sentimental novel inexplicably written by a rather good poet. Marc Szeftel recalled seeing Nabokov following the bestseller lists in the library as Doctor Zhivago slowly crept up on Lolita. During that year Nabokov took every opportunity to make snide remarks about Pasternak’s Zhivago in the course of his lectures. Among Russian friends he compared the novel to the works of Charskaya, a novelist who had been popular with pre-revolutionary schoolgirls.

The most jaundiced sections of VN concern Nabokov’s last years in Montreux (the period when the two writers’ relationship was most strained). According to Field, Nabokov wore his fame badly. He was pompous. Ada (so eagerly awaited in 1967) is ‘the weakest novel he wrote’. A staff member at the New Yorker called the two main characters dolphins, which Field solemnly puts forward as ‘the most succinct statement of the novel’s problem that I have heard’. Nabokov drank too much in these later years, often starting at ten o’clock in the morning, and secreted a supply of whisky in teapots during his television interviews. It was, we are made to feel, a disappointing and unworthy end. And we may also feel that Field would have seen it differently had he continued to be a Nabokovian courtier, rather than the non-person Mr X.