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.

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