Buttoned

Michael Ignatieff

  • Vladimir Nabokov: The Russian Years by Brian Boyd
    Chatto, 607 pp, £20.00, November 1990, ISBN 0 7011 3700 2

This is a very good biography indeed – thorough, compassionate, refreshingly unreverential. Is it, on the other hand, necessary? Any literary biographer must proceed on the assumption that the life gives us the work, yet Nabokov’s scorn for this way of thinking was proverbial. The butterflies of his art were always flying free of the dingy Continental hotel rooms in which they happened to have had their pupation. So what exactly do we learn about the butterfly darting out of the window when we learn the name of the pension, the name of the landlady or the floor the window was on – the humdrum specimens that end up in the nets of the harmless drudges of biography? The best that a biographer can do is to demonstrate the unheroic reality – those mean Berlin rooms, the absurd, forgotten émigré cabals – that Nabokov’s art managed to transcend.

The added difficulty, in Nabokov’s case, is that he lived so fully through his art that there is little besides his art for a biographer to discuss. Much of his life, therefore, becomes plot summary of whatever he was writing at the time. Several hundred pages of this Life consist of such summaries – as sprightly and cogent as such exercises can be – but like all plot summaries, they leave one somehow unwilling to return to the originals. Yet if the life turns out to have been not much more than the originals themselves – plus ‘he paced the floor, he sharpened his pencils and Vera brought him cups of tea’ – why should we bother with the crib at all? Better to return to the originals and read. That is surely what the old boy would have wanted.

It is not only that the work all but swallowed up the life but also that the life, even when we know it, is a false trail: it doesn’t help us to track down the genesis of the work. Take the issue of cruelty in Nabokov’s fiction. His depiction of suffering always makes cold shivers of pleasure run up my spine. What does Boyd make of this lepidopteral coldness? Given his subject’s superb contempt for the ‘Viennese Quack’ and all those who travel in the ‘third-class carriage of his thought’, psychoanalytical theories of artistic sublimation are out. On the issue of cruelty, Boyd acts more like a friend than a critic, rushing to the defence, pointing out what every reader already knows: that Nabokov was also capable, as other cruel writers are not, of writing with the utmost tenderness and compassion. Boyd also insists on the writer’s domestic happiness. But the discovery that he was a devoted husband and a doting father is irrelevant. It merely takes us back to the Nabokovian premise that fiction is not an exercise in self-disclosure, but in imagining yourself to be other than what you are.

Moreover, is a Life necessary where the artist himself has left behind a masterpiece of autobiography? Anyone who has read Speak, Memory comes to Nabokov’s fiction with an absolutely clear impression of the superbly vital, arrogant, enchantingly attentive and amusing person he must have been in life. Boyd cannot compete with Speak, Memory: he can only fill in the blanks – the itinerary of flight and exile, the detail of making a new life in Berlin in the Twenties.

The existence of Speak, Memory also pre-empts the biographer’s strategy of disclosing the private self behind the artist’s masks. Nabokov was the artist of his own life: there are only disguises. As anyone who interviewed him can testify, few artists were so scrupulous about avoiding the extemporaneous or the casual and few were mindful of posterity from such a young age. Nabokov turned his early life into memoir, arranged all his editions with bibliographic punctilio, wiped out most traces of an original, raw, unformed self. Having made the stuff of family history into myth, he vanished into it. Boyd checks the myth against such facts as can be ascertained and shows that, with one exception which we will come to, Nabokov was fastidious rather than economical with the truth. The point that remains, however, is that the only Nabokov we can know is a conjurer in costume, the juggler always juggling.

For all Boyd’s formidable skill in winning the confidence of the author’s widow and son, he has not managed to wrest from the Cerberi who guard his reputation any occasions on which the juggler is seen backstage in his undershirt, wearily removing the greasepaint. There is, for example, relatively little of that staple of literary biography: the candid, unbuttoned letter. Nabokov’s prose was always buttoned even when exuberant and playful. There appear to be few moments in which we see a Nabokov that has not been fashioned for our eye. Take the moment when, as a Cambridge undergraduate in 1921, he records his impression of Rupert Brooke’s Grantchester:

  I once passed through Grantchester by bike. Fences, complicated iron gates and barbed wire in the surrounding fields tortured the eyes. A humble humdrumness emanated from the dirty little brick homes. A tomfool wind blew up a pair of drawers hung out to dry between two green stakes over the plant-beds of a pauper’s vegetable garden. The faint tenor of a hoarse gramophone wafted up from the river.

This is vintage Nabokov – one poet casting a baleful eye on another’s arcadia. Yet already the magician’s wand is in his hand, pointing to the pair of drawers on the line. Somehow one would not have expected anything else, and in this sense, the book merely confirms what one knew already from Speak, Memory: that Nabokov’s self-consciousness was formed very early, that his eye was on posterity from the start. When he has one of the narrators in his early fiction say, ‘I think that here lies the sense of literary creation: to portray ordinary objects as they will be reflected in the kindly mirrors of future times, to find in the objects around us the fragrant tenderness that only posterity will discern,’ he is also describing the way he stage-lit his own life for future biographers and readers.

Does Boyd tell us anything we hadn’t already learned from the master himself? By my count, there are two moments when he does manage to get behind the Nabokovian masks. Yet even in the more traumatic of these – his father’s assassination – Nabokov is shown to have remained, incorrigibly and very touchingly, an artist.

Vladimir’s father – a courageous lawyer, Kadet politician, newspaper editor, devoted husband – was assassinated on 28 March 1922 at the Philharmonia Hall in Berlin at a Russian political meeting addressed by Pavel Milyukov, the former Kadet leader. Two assassins crying, ‘For the Tsar’s family and Russia,’ fired at Milyukov, missed and hit Nabokov’s father instead. Boyd quotes extensively from Nabokov’s diary entry for that day. He was at home, reading Blok’s poetry, while his mother was setting out the cards for patience when a distraught friend phoned to say that there had been an accident:

the sole thing clear and significant and alive was the grief, tenacious, suffocating, compressing my heart. ‘Father is no more.’ These four words hammered in my brain and I tried to imagine his face, his movements. The night before he had been so happy, so kind. He laughed, he fought with me when I began to demonstrate a boxing clinch. Then everyone went off to bed. Father began to undress in his room and I did the same in mine next door. We chatted through the open door, talked of Sergey, of his strange, abnormal inclinations. Then Father helped me put my trousers under the press, and drew them out, turning the screws, and said, laughing: ‘That must hurt them.’ Dressed in pyjamas I sat on the arm of the leather chair, and Father, squatting, cleaned the shoes he had taken off. We were talking now about the opera Boris Godunov. He tried to remember how and when Vanya returns after his father has sent him off. Couldn’t recall. At last I went to bed and hearing Father also going off asked him to give me the newspapers, he passed them through the slit of the parted doors – I didn’t even see his hands. And I remember, that movement seemed creepy, ghostly – as if the sheets had thrust themselves through – And the next morning Father set off before I woke and I didn’t see him again.

This passage is as fine as any in Speak, Memory itself: a startling example of suffering mediated and mastered by artistic impulse. As Boyd so rightly says, Nabokov was an artist for life’s sake. His aesthetics was also an ethics. To the degree that his fiction dispenses moral advice, it is the message he learned at his father’s death: remember everything, every single last detail (the ghostly slipping of that newspaper through the crack between the doors) because meaning is in memory, in the pattern we make in recollection, in the shape we give to the story we then tell. It is in extremity that we live most fully, that our minds are forced open.

The finest pages in Boyd’s biography follow the seismic traces of his father’s death through Nabokov’s fiction. There is that famous sentence in Speak, Memory where Vladimir recalls how the villagers on the family estate of Vyra, after coming to his father to have him settle some local dispute, would then toss the boy in the air: ‘Thrice to the mighty heave-ho of his invisible tossers, he would fly up in this fashion, and the second time he would go higher than the first and then there he would be, on his last and loftiest flight, reclining, as if for good, against the cobalt blue of the summer noon, like one of those paradisiac personages who comfortably soar, with such a wealth of folds in their garments, on the vaulted ceiling of a church while below, one by one, the wax tapers in mortal hands light up to make a swarm of minute flames in the mist of incense, and the priest chants of eternal repose, and funeral lilies conceal the face of whoever lies there, among the swimming lights, in the open coffin.’ Boyd dwells on this passage as a paradigm of Nabokov’s art: imaginative exuberance perfectly controlled, each clause ‘a perpetual declaration of independence’, as the sentence loops from summer sky to church ceiling to open coffin, effortlessly assembling sharply discontinuous recollections of his father in an agonised continuum of grief and memory.

His father’s death left one seismic trace in Nabokov’s work: his own marital infidelity left another. The woman was an alluring poet of Russian origin, Irina Guadanini, who made her living, incongruously, as a poodle-trimmer. The affair developed while Nabokov’s wife, Vera, and their three-year-old son were in Berlin, and Nabokov was being lionised by literary Paris in the winter and spring of 1937. The affair caused Nabokov such acute distress that he broke out in a crippling attack of psoriasis while nonetheless finding himself unable to stop. Finally in July, in Cannes, he confessed to Vera, who told him that if he felt that way, he should leave immediately. ‘Not now,’ Nabokov miserably replied and then spent what Boyd describes, on the basis of his reading of the letters to Guadanini, as ‘the worst evening of his entire life’.

After more letters, Irina Guadanini arrived in Cannes. She remembers going to their address, looking up at the apartment and seeing Vera’s hand remove a man’s and a boy’s swimming trunks from the balcony. When Nabokov brought his son down for a swim, she rushed up to him. He asked her to leave, but she wouldn’t and kept a desolate vigil while father and son, later joined by Vera, sat on the sand. Once again, this is a Nabokovian scene and might well have found its way – transformed of course – into fiction. Yet here Nabokov brought the shutters down between life and art, returning her letters to him, asking for his back, and never referring to the matter again.

The after-tremors of the affair are, nonetheless, visible in The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, his first novel written in English. Fittingly, the novel is a fictive biography, centrally concerned with the issue of how biographical quarry escape their hunters. As Boyd puts it, ‘in his own life Nabokov hoped that, after his request to Irina Guadanini, his letters to her would be destroyed, and that his private life would frustrate any future researcher as thoroughly as Sebastian’s privacy would have frustrated V.’ Here at least, Boyd manages to foil the artist’s escape into family myth or fictional artifice.

It would, however, be heartless, and also a little stupid, to weigh a literary biography by its poundage of previously unknown embarrassments, affairs or tragedies. In biography, that most voyeuristic of genres, what counts is sympathy and discretion – qualities Boyd displays in abundance – as well as modesty. By admitting that no amount of knowing about the life can explain away the art, Boyd pays the homage that any biographer must pay to a great artist. His awareness of the metaphysical and moral implications of Nabokov’s artistic position raises everything he says about the writing well above common-room cleverness. As he puts it, Nabokov taught us to see that ‘everything – a crumpled leaf, the smoke above an ashtray – becomes miraculous, a token of the inexhaustible creativity of the world.’ Most important, apart from forgetting, art is the only way to master loss: a father’s death, the extinction of love. ‘No subject would become more uniquely Nabokov’s than the preposterous fact that we cannot retain the real past we have lived through.’ His greatness consisted in his robust refusal to surrender to the available émigré sentimentalities, his insistence that, through art, everything could be redeemed. As he says in Speak, Memory ‘the break in my destiny affords me in retrospect a syncopal kick that I would not have missed for worlds.’ Exile did not make him a writer: Boyd shows how self-consciously, how assiduously he was already fashioning himself into one before the Revolution took place. But exile turned the normal problems of loss – we forget, time dims everything – into a massive challenge that roused every fibre of his imagination. The greatest challenge of all was leaving his beloved Russian behind and refashioning himself as a writer in English. Nothing he ever did was more daring, more ruthless or in the end more successful.

Boyd makes a convincing case for Nabokov’s artistic boldness – above all, with narrative, with the portrayal of serial time, which in Nabokov’s art is chopped up, compressed, re-strung – but points out, fairly, I think, that many of the experiments fail. He and I would not always agree which are the failures: I think The Enchanter is better than he does, but I share his sense that there is only one masterpiece from his Russian period: The Gift.