Craig Raine fondles Vladimir Nabokov

Craig Raine

  • Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years by Brian Boyd
    Chatto, 783 pp, £25.00, January 1992, ISBN 0 7011 3701 0

Nabokov ‘had a flypaper feel for words’, according to Alison Bishop, who knew him at Cornell when she was a child. He might, therefore, have relished his biographer coming mildly unstuck in the course of this otherwise tenacious, intricately argued, judicious account of Nabokov’s life in the States, and, post-Lolita, in Montreux. Disposing of Andrew Field, his predecessor in the field, Brian Boyd cites his insolent, perfunctory response to one of Nabokov’s factual corrections. Told an event had taken place in July and not on ‘a wet autumnal day’, Field emended the phrase to ‘a wet autumnal day in July’ – a covert imputation and rebuke of pedantry, not without a certain Nabokovian brilliance. The brilliance is unconsciously acknowledged by Boyd some forty pages later when his own phrase, ‘a wretched autumnlike spring’, revisits the trope.

Sometimes Nabokov’s own flypaper feel betrayed him in the same way, though it is often difficult to distinguish between allusion, homage and degrees of debt, direct or indirect, to other writers. For example, he was a lifelong admirer of E.B. White and his correspondence indefatigably quotes White’s colourful definition of a miracle: ‘blue snow on a red barn’. In Lolita, Humbert speaks of ‘our humble blue car and its imperious red shadow’. Of course, Nabokov was abnormally sensitive to colours – sounds and letters arrived in his ear colour-coded – and this may account for the depth of his response to White’s oxymoronic accuracy of observation. Is it fellow-feeling or emulous study which produces an earlier variant on the plausible mismatches of nature’s palette? ‘Brown woolly smoke arched and dipped over the green shadow it cast on the aquamarine lake.’

White matters less than Joyce, about whom Nabokov, on occasion, could be unruefully generous. In one interview, he gave out this undeniable admission: ‘my English is patball to Joyce’s champion game.’ Mostly, though, Nabokov was inclined to minimise the influence of Joyce on his work. He held by his stern avowal that his mature style was formed long before he read Ulysses with any attention. That flypaper feel, however, means that Nabokov is, consciously and unconsciously, an aural retentive. A conscious example: ‘bizarre, tender, salivating Dr Humbert, practising on supremely lovely Lolita the Third the art of being a granddad’. Here Nabokov presents us with an allusion to an allusion. In the library episode of Ulysses, Mr Best does his best to insert an allusion to Victor Hugo into the torrent of Stephen’s Shakespearean speculation: ‘The art of being a grandfather, Mr Best gan murmur. L’art d’être grand ... ’ But the title of Hugo’s volume of verse for children is carried away on the cataract of eloquence.

On the other hand, consider the transmogrified, involuntary progress of Bloom’s kidney, ‘the moist tender gland’ he purchases at Dlugacz’s shop. In Humbert’s parody of ‘Ash-Wednesday’, which he makes Quilty recite prior to his murder, the adjectives suddenly obtrude: ‘Because you took advantage of a sin / when I was helpless moulting moist and tender ... ’ And when the young Nabokov is attracted to Tamara in Speak, Memory, his tendresse resorts to the same paired adjectives, appropriately relocated: ‘the tender, moist gleam on her lower eyelid’. A Humbert would draw the jury’s attention not only to the two familiar adjectives, arm-in-arm, but also to the swift glissando of ‘gland’ to ‘gleam’. Enormous Changes at the Last Minute.

In The Gift, there is a more generalised debt to Bloom’s shopping. Godunov-Cherdynstev’s purchase of shoes – an epic of hypnotic banality retailed with rapt pedantry – is inconceivable without Joyce’s example: ‘A young woman in a black dress, with a shiny forehead and quick, wandering eyes, sat down at his feet for the eighth time, sideways on a stool, numbly extracted a narrow shoe from the rustling interior of its box, spread her elbows apart as she slackened the edges, glanced abstractedly aside as she loosened the laces, and then, producing a shoehorn from her bosom, addressed Fyodor’s large, shy, poorly darned foot. Miraculously the foot entered, but having done so, went completely blind: the wiggling of toes inside had no effect on the exterior smoothness of the taut black leather. With phenomenal speed the salesgirl tied the lace ends and touched the tip of the shoe with two fingers.’

She is, of course, fondling the details, as it she were a student of Nabokov: ‘in reading one should notice and fondle the details,’ he adjured his class at Cornell. As a writer, Nabokov is a fanatic for detail, his mimesis rivalling that of nature itself: ‘when a butterfly had to look like a leaf, not only were all the details of the leaf beautifully rendered but markings mimicking grub-holes were generously thrown in.’ Nabokov consciously competes with this luxuriant, exuberant generosity: ‘I discovered in nature,’ he writes in Speak, Memory, ‘the nonutilitarian delights that I sought in art.’ There is something gloriously otiose in, say, Humbert’s discovery, after he has murdered Quilty and passed unmolested through the guests congregated downstairs, that his car is likewise in a tight spot from which it, too, will negotiate an escape unscathed: ‘two other cars were parked on both sides of it, and I had some trouble squeezing out.’

When Humbert initially arrives at Ramsdale, it is to stay with the McCoo family, but, on the day, the McCoo house burns down and Mr McCoo brings the bad news to Humbert’s hotel – ‘distraught’ and ‘in wet clothes’. My italics. The prodigality reminds me of Emily Dickinson:

As if I asked a common Alms,
And in my wondering hand
A Stranger pressed a Kingdom,
And I, bewildered, stand –

Then there is the little, optionally extra dog taking ‘rapid chords with his front paws on the resilient turf’, or Laughter in the Dark’s dachshund, the inside of whose ears resemble ‘dark pink blotting paper, much used’. Or the quarrel between Humbert and Lo about their pursuer which she suddenly interrupts with eloquent irrelevance: ‘If I were you – Oh, look, all the nines are changing into the next thousand. When I was a little kid ... I used to think they’d stop and go back to nines, if only my mother agreed to put the car in reverse.’

All this is a long way from the prose commonly associated with Nabokov, poetic prose whose oppressiveness Virginia Woolf reluctantly stigmatised in ‘Impassioned Prose’, where she evokes Laurence Binyon’s remark that ‘poetical prose has but a bastard kind of beauty, easily appearing overdressed.’ Nabokov, it should be said, is not entirely immune to sartorial excess. Now and then the odd sentence flourishes like Dickens’s Dickensian signature – a towering whirlwind of inky underlings. For instance, it is dismaying to learn from Boyd that a particularly tiresome sentence in Speak, Memory was not a temporary lapse, but a considered substitute for a shy piece of nomenclature which wouldn’t reveal itself even after extensive enquiries. Nabokov wanted to know what the concertina connections between railway carriages were called. No luck. He settled for ‘intervestibular connecting curtains as black as bat-wings’. At his best, though, he is superseded only by Joyce: the E.B. White-ish ‘maroon morons near blued pools’; ‘the beaded tracks of a wagtail’; ‘a cuckoo began to call in a copse, listlessly.’

A great deal to fondle, then. But, with all this fondling, how much feeling? Critics have always had their doubts. Ronald Hingley maintained that Nabokov’s work in general ‘secretes about as much milk of human kindness a cornered black mamba’. Nabokov responded by putting Hingley into the translation (heavily revised) of King, Queen, Knave as a department store mannequin – a literal blockhead. The odd thing is that, in addition to a critical study, Hingley was reviewing Speak, Memory, book which, like Pnin, displays Nabokov’s humanity at its most engaging.

His private manner was utterly winning, particularly his comic mode. Boyd includes two anecdotes, both innocently revealing. In the late Sixties, Nabokov asked Alfred Appel if student unrest was disrupting his lectures. The only demonstrations were demonstrations of affection;

I told him about a nun who sat in the back row of one of my lecture courses, and who one day complained after class that a couple near her were always spooning. ‘Sister,’ I said, ‘in these troubled times we should be grateful if that’s all they were doing.’ ... ‘Ohhh,’ moaned Nabokov, mourning my lost opportunity, clapping his hand to his head in mock anguish. ‘You should have said, “Sister, be grateful that they were not forking.’ ”

So, no problem with the man. Then when Lolita was scaling the bestseller list and before Nabokov became wary of the spontaneous interview, a reporter from Sports Illustrated accompanied the Nabokovs on a butterfly-hunting trip. Nabokov kept up a running commentary. When the car wouldn’t start, he explained it was ‘nervous’. When the expected butterflies didn’t materialise, Nabokov lugubriously narrated: ‘And then I saw that strong man put his head on his forearms and sob like a woman.’ Another blank search produced another parodic cliché: ‘his face now a tear-stained mask.’ But the books, what do they reveal?

According to Christopher Ricks, the notes to Eugene Onegin have a tone of ‘patiently patrician calm’ whose ‘coolness can easily become the condescending heartlessness which so attenuates Nabokov’s fiction’. D.J. Enright found Nabokov ‘rich in what is given to few writers and poor in what is given to most men’. Martin Seymour-Smith, reviewing Laughter in the Dark, described Nabokov as ‘a kind of Satanic Mantovani, coming into cruel close-up on your screens at the end of the compelling torment to ask (the question mark ironic): “You have been distressed by my music, you worms?” ’ All three critics share the comforting belief that, au fond, the artist is great because he is morally commendable. This is sentimental in two important respects. It undervalues skill and giftedness. And is goodness so attainable if, like beauty, like grace, it, too, is a gift well beyond most of us? By goodness I mean something more than the mere negative exercise of virtue. But even arid virtue would be something, were one able to discern it on any scale in the annals of history. Anyone who, like Nabokov, had survived Nazi Germany would be unlikely to leave unquestioned Enright’s accusation that Nabokov was ‘poor in what is given to most men’. Most men when? Enright’s review begins (a hilarious category mistake) by comparing Nabokov to Peter De Vries: ‘whereas De Vries despairs of his fellow beings without ceasing to love them altogether ...’ My pop-eyed italics. The friend of the world is nigh. But love is an exclusive emotion. Loving mankind is a logical contradiction, produced by too much treacle in the blood. Duty is a different matter.

Edmund Wilson considered Nabokov cruel, too. But if we reconsider that hemmed-in car at the end of Lolita, we can see the fidelity of Nabokov’s record. Experience will never endorse the simplified democracy of emotion desired by Enright, or the wholeheartedness that Ricks might oppose to Nabokov’s ‘condescending heartlcssness’. Experience is never unmixed with irony. You commit a murder, but this doesn’t alter the eternal parking problem, the presence of the trivial, always soliciting attention. Flaubert, who climbed the Great Pyramid only to discover the card of a French polisher from Marseilles on the top (put there by his friend Maxime du Camp), knew the indestructible irony that plays around life and death: he had seen his surgeon father park a cigar between the toes of a stiff.

Nabokov shared the same knowledge. In hospital with chronic diarrhoea and vomiting, he not only observed his own throes, but also an old dying man: ‘all very interesting and useful to me’. Boyd quotes a newspaper report of a student who killed himself at Evanston. Answering the last question of his French paper, the student wrote, in French: ‘I am going to God. Life does not offer me much.’ Nabokov pounced on it:

Adopt him. I see the story clearly. Combine him with notes of Jan 26 ... Make him make some pathetic mistake in that last sentence. Change it, of course ... Probe, brood.

This is only superficially hardhearted. One word, ‘pathetic’, gives us the key to Nabokov’s vision – the way it fuses pathos and pitiable ineptitude. It is the admixture of the absurd, the touch of verisimilitude, which ministers, in the end, to the pathos. It is something Martin Seymour-Smith reports quite accurately, without understanding the least particle of Nabokov’s method: ‘yet such is Nabokov’s casual power that he causes the reader to suffer with the ridiculous Albinus as he loses his daughter, his sight, and his money, actually to wish to plead with Margot on his behalf, and to loathe the villainous Rex.’ Quite so. Nabokov’s tragedy wasn’t reserved for the noble. It could encompass and engulf the ignoble too.

Artistically, the point is that we readers should see, with fascinated gratitude, the mixed truth of experience as it actually is. In Nabokov’s world, you are either an ironist or a simpleton. Consider Lolita, for example, a book denounced by Enright as ‘his most distasteful, arch, affected and perverse’ work. Enright’s disgust is less shocking now than it once would have seemed. We know about child abuse. But Nabokov is interested in both child abuse and romantic love. He brings the two together the better to explore pathos and pitiable ineptitude. Boyd, after a brief nod towards Lolita as ‘a passionate and poignant love story’, as ‘an unformulaic novel’, then goes out of his way to underscore Nabokov’s moral disapproval of Humbert. He is correct, but only up to a point.

Towards the end of Lolita, Nabokov’s nerve fails him and a noticeable revisionism overtakes the novel. The immoral minority is silenced. We are given to understand, several times over, that Humbert’s behaviour is wrong, that Dolores Haze is a more complex person that Humbert had previously realised. She is suddenly gifted with profundity: ‘You know, what’s so dreadful about dying is that you are completely on your own.’ Humbert tells us that the world of evil into which she has been forced compels her to ‘mail her vulnerability in trite brashness and boredom’. It is a convenient explanation, but try telling it to Charlotte Haze, an exasperated parent but hardly an evil one. And then compare this special pleading, this newly discovered sensitivity to death, with the bleak authenticity of Lo’s comment on ‘some smashed, blood-bespattered ear with a young woman’s shoe in the ditch’: ‘that was the exact type of moccasin I was trying to describe to that jerk in the store.’ Observing another father envelop ‘his lumpy and large offspring’, this revised Lo’s smile loses ‘all its light and becomes a little shadow of itself’. This touched-up portrait requires a darkening of Humbert’s self-portrait: ‘it was always my habit and method,’ he admits, ‘to ignore Lolita’s states of mind while comforting my own base self.’ ‘Dolores Haze,’ he avers self-inculpatingly, ‘had been deprived of her childhood by a maniac.’ This verdict – ‘maniac’ – may comfort readers by its fundamentalism, but it isn’t accurate. Boyd’s particular emphasis centres on the reminiscence that virtually concludes Humbert’s story: the remembered ‘melody of children at play’ brings Humbert the realisation that ‘the hopelessly poignant thing was not Lolita’s absence from my side, but the absence of her voice from that concord.’ A beast, by God.

Truer to the book, though, is Humbert’s constant reference to the myth of beauty and the beast, with its princely outcome. If having fondled Nabokov’s details, we allow them to copulate, we can see a theme pregnant with interest for Nabokov in several books. Laughter in the Dark gives us the helpless passion of Albinus for the unworthy object, the tawdry Margot. Pnin is in abject thrall to an equally unworthy object, Liza Wind, his former wife: ‘to hold her, to keep her – just as she was – with her cruelty, with her vulgarity, with her blinding blue eyes, with her miserable poetry, with her fat feet, with her impure, dry, sordid, infantile soul ...’ One thinks of Stanley Spencer’s The Beatitudes of Love, a series which reminds us that the body is rather more grotesque than we usually imagine. In Transparent Things, Hugh Person is locked to Armande after one display of tenderness – unique, as it turns out, but curiously binding: ‘He loved her in spite of her unlovableness.’ Lolita surely began as another novel of this kind, with this difference – that the object of the love is not ‘unworthy’, rather that the love-object can never be commemorate with the love. This is the disparity it shares with Pnin, Laughter in the Dark and Transparent Things.

Nabokov’s interest in Lolita is in the in destructible myth of the indestructible passion – the categorical imperative that overrides all other categorical imperatives. We see it in Racine, in Wuthering Heights, in Graham Greene, in Les Liaisons dangereuses, in Love in the Time of Cholera – love as a terminal illness. In contrast, we may consider the nous of Auden: ‘we meet romantically passionate engaged couples, but never a couple of whom we can say that their romantic passion will not and cannot change into married affection or decline into indifference.’ Auden is right, but the myth endures, and, in Lolita, Nabokov’s strategy is to lend it the only plausibility possible: it is credible, this obsessive love, only if it is perverse. Nabokov finds the perfect carrier of the romantic virus in Humbert – biologically doomed to a select sexual sliver of the female spectrum, laceratingly intelligent at the same time, and therefore capable of abject attachment and supreme detachment. The rhetoric of sarcasm, the deliciously heartless observations (‘a man having a lavish epileptic fit on the ground in Russian Gulch State Park’) are all apparently opposed to the mythos, but actually underwrite it. The explanation for this particular analytic, alienated tone of lofty detachment is volunteered relatively early in the novel and curiously discounted: it is, argues Humbert, merely a question of artistic unity; given the tone of his journal entries, he ‘has considered it my artistic duty to preserve its intonations no matter how false and brutal they may seem to me now’. Here perhaps we hear the revisionist voice of the novel’s closing pages. Equally plausible is the inference of insincerity: this chapter (17) begins with a direct address to the ‘Gentlemen of the Jury’. Humbert wants to preserve his pitiless style and yet beat the rap.

In the meantime, comedy is the Nabokovian additive to the romantic mythos. Humbert reports the fusion of feeling and fatuity, faithful to the actuality of his first act of intercourse with Lolita. The account isn’t edited by passion: Humbert’s heels are ‘stone-cold’, the sleeping Lo has an ‘unfair amount of pillow’, Humbert has no place to rest his head and ‘a fit of heartburn’, his thoughts are preoccupied with sleeping pills (‘in the glove compartment – or in the Gladstone bag?’), his eats occupied with the surrounding chorus of lavatories, once or twice he catches himself ‘drifting into a melancholy snore’. At the same time, Humbert and Nabokov can make us feel ‘the aura of her bare shoulder’. The peculiar, brilliant Nabokovian gift is to make us feel equally the force of Humbert’s claim to be ‘burning with desire and dyspepsia’.

Nabokov brings fresh enervation to Ovid’s acute observation that post-coital sadness isn’t rare. ‘With the ebb of lust, an ashen sense of awfulness, abetted by the realistic drabness of a grey neuralgic day, crept over me and hummed within my temples.’ Mood established, Nabokov can now let the external detail speak for itself, a little huskily in the aftermath: ‘a touch of rosy rash around her swollen lips’; ‘I was unbathed, unshaven, and had had no bowel movement.’ Lastly, there is frank panic, not unmixed with lust:

This was a lone child, an absolute waif, with whom a heavy-limbed, foul-smelling adult had had strenuous intercourse three times that very morning. Whether or not the realisation of a lifelong dream had surpassed all expectation, it had, in a sense, overshot its mark – and plunged into a nightmare. I had been careless, stupid and ignoble. And let me be frank: somewhere at the bottom of that dark turmoil I felt the rising of desire again.

No one is better than Nabokov at reporting the thing which did not happen – that non-existent bowel movement, or Lo’s assertion that Humbert has ‘torn something inside her’, which proves not to be the case, despite the awesome power of the adjective ‘strenuous’ when coupled with ‘intercourse’. The attentiveness here, so crucial to the complex truth of the event described, is the same attentiveness that gave us the shoe purchase in The Gift and the X-ray machine’s vision of every phalange on the foot. The method is methodical, unhurried, meticulous, forensic and inspired.

For Brian Boyd, Lolita is ‘the radical, repulsive inversion of the whole theme’ of parental love for children. I find this a reductive reading, in which a great many details go un fondled in the interests of protecting Nabokov’s reputation for humanity. Boyd quotes Nabokov’s verdicts on Humbert and Lo – strictly external verdicts – to the effect that Humbert is ‘a vain and cruel wretch who manages to appear “touching” ’ (Strong Opinions), and that Lolita came ‘second in his list of those he admired most as people’. On the other hand, one could cite Nabokov’s afterword to the novel: ‘despite John Ray’s assertion, Lolita has no moral in tow.’ Equally external, this, but less positively identikit than Nabokov’s other opinions of these characters. I prefer Nabokov’s aesthetic as it emerges from a discussion of Gogol’s The Overcoat: ‘the diver, the seeker for black pearls, the man who prefers the monsters of the deep to the sunshades on the beach, will find in The Overcoat shadows linking our state of existence to those other states and modes we dimly apprehend in our rare moments of irrational perception ... At this superhigh level of art, literature is of course not concerned with pitying the underdog or cursing the upperdog. It appeals to that secret depth of the human soul where the shadows of other worlds pass like the shadows of nameless and soundless ships.’ His aesthetic, then, is not prescriptive, but descriptive, exploratory, unafraid – certainly unafraid of the Humbert he can locate within himself and, therefore, within us, his readers.

Asked about it in 1962 by Peter Duval-Smith in an interview, Nabokov addressed the charge of cruelty directly. The question was: ‘it sometimes seems to me that in your novels – in Laughter in the Dark, for instance – there is a strain of perversity amounting to cruelty.’ Answer: ‘I don’t know. Maybe. Some of my characters are, no doubt, pretty beastly, but I really don’t care, they are outside my inner self like the mournful monsters of a cathedral façade – demons placed there merely to show that they have been booted out. Actually I’m a mild old gentleman who loathes cruelty.’ It’s a curiously unthreatened credo, but also an admission that the monsters were inside and have been ‘booted out’. In these self-righteous times, it is a brave, considered affirmation of all those negatives, all those black potentialities, which only age can efface – if that – and which age now and then actually uncovers.

Boyd evidently loves Nabokov – not uncritically, but protectively, and this is a quality to be cherished in a biographer when the general tendency seems to veer towards iconoclasm. So one applauds his defence. And yet one is still unsettled when it comes to what Boyd calls, in his closing pages, ‘the superficially heartless worlds of many of his books’. One absolutely convincing explanation of Nabokov’s apparent lofty indifference is Boyd’s demonstration that Nabokov believed, like Pnin, ‘dimly, in a democracy of ghosts. The souls of the dead, perhaps, formed committees, and these, in continuous session, attended to the destinies of the quick.’ With such a belief, you can see why even the most oppressive circumstances can be considered with authorial equanimity. Nevertheless, there is something which asks to be explained at the end of Bend Sinister: ‘Twang. A good night for mothing.’ Updike, in a review of The Defence, tentatively offered lepidoptery as the key to Nabokov’s psyche: ‘the lepidopterist’s habit of killing what it loves; how remarkably few, after all, of Nabokov’s characters do evade the mounting pin.’ Perhaps, though, ‘The Ballad of Reading Gaol’ isn’t the poem we want at this juncture. Might it not rather be a case of gathering things into the artifice of eternity? Isn’t it, too, a refusal to accept, even for a nanosecond, the sentimental fiction that fiction is anything more than fiction, however real the novelist strives to make it? Nabokov was imperiously testy about Forster’s notion (‘as old as the quill’) that characters could ‘take over’ a novel. ‘My characters are galley slaves.’

In Volume One of his biography, Boyd referred to a short story, ‘Breaking the News’: ‘those who have called Nabokov cold and inhuman have not read this story ...’ In fact, the story is not obviously compassionate. Most readers would find elements in it that are grotesque, macabre and a little pitiless. The plot is easily summarised: ‘Eugenia Isakovna Mints was an elderly émigré widow, who always wore black. Her only son had died on the previous day. She had not yet been told.’ This is Nabokov’s opening paragraph in its entirety – so neutral as to verge on the summary, though there may be a hint of pathos in her continued mourning. To the basic situation, Nabokov adds a dangerous, destabilising, comic ingredient – Eugenia Isakovna’s deafness. She is ‘ideally deaf’ as Pnin is ‘ideally bald’. Boris Chernobylski, a friend, is the person with the responsibility for breaking the news. Having arranged the son’s job (in Paris), he is the person who has been informed, by telegram, then airmail letter, of the death: ‘the poor young man had fallen into an elevator shaft from the top floor, and had remained in agony for forty minutes: although unconscious, he kept moaning horribly and uninterruptedly, till the very end.’

At this point, the deafness is introduced by Nabokov and, with it, a whole train of wincing ironies. Synchronised with the fatal telegram is the delayed arrival of a postcard from the dead man to his mother. A comic masterpiece of mangled idiom, it is gruesomcly proleptic: ‘My darling Moolik (her son’s pet name for her since childhood), I continue to be plunged up to the neck in work and when evening comes I literally fall off my feet, and I never go anywhere –’ As the widow goes out shopping, she is observed with a kind of Joycean ‘scrupulous meanness’: ‘one also noted that her feet seemed disproportionately large and that she set them down draggingly, with toes turned out.’ Her friends, meanwhile, consult on the telephone and foregather at the widow’s apartment. The difficulty for them is her deafness, which precludes tact and gradualism. ‘Shuf suggested they write on bits of paper, and give her to read, gradual communications: “Sick.” “Very sick.” “Very, very sick.” ’ The thriving comedy already challenges the pathos. Nabokov’s imaginative alertness treats us to a superb digression into Chernobylski’s egotism, helpless, harmless, utterly human in its bizarre insistence: ‘And to think it was I who got that job for him, I who helped him with his living expenses!’ Nabokov further assaults the purity of his tragic donnée by the comically maladroit English of the émigrés, by their authentic mixture of sadness, sympathy and self-importance. They are dismayed, but enjoying the drama. Not that the drama excludes this little, irrelevant, ironical sartorial soliloquy as Chernobylski dresses to go out: ‘fiercely and agonisingly baring his teeth and throwing back his fat face, he finally got his collar fastened.’

At the apartment, the widow misreads the situation. For her, the sudden confluence of friends seems the opportunity for an impromptu lunch and, deafly, she busies herself to that end, until a ‘warm-hearted’ (i.e. tactless) pianist lodger at the Chernobylskis shouts ‘to her that nobody, nobody would stay for lunch.’ The widow, still unconscious of anything amiss, turns instead to making snacks ... More and more friends arrive, form oppressive groups, and gradually a contagious sense of doom begins to affect the widow. ‘Somebody had already walked away to the window and was shaking and heaving there, and Dr Orshanski, who sat next to her at the table, attentively examined a gaufrette, matching it, like a domino, with another.’ Finally, Chernobylski, sobbing, roars across the room: ‘What’s there to explain – dead, dead, dead!’ ‘But she was already afraid to look in his direction’ is the final sentence of the tale.

How do we read it? It has the resourceful ingenuity of a gifted torturer and a kind of grim gaiety: ‘Madame Chernobylski and the warmhearted pianist had been waiting there for quite a long time. Now the execution would start.’ My italics. Is it possible to relish the ironies and cherish the injuries? The answer is clearer if one considers the two biographical sources for this story (neither picked up by Boyd, oddly enough). The story was written circa 1935, but its twin germs occurred almost simultaneously a decade earlier. In mid-December 1921, Nabokov, en route from Cambridge, visited his former governess, Cecile Miauton. She was almost completely deaf. Nabokov bought her a hearing aid, on the assumption that she was unable to afford one. The result is recorded in Speak, Memory: ‘she adjusted the clumsy thing improperly at first, but no sooner had she done so than she turned to me with a dazzled look of moist wonder and bliss in her eyes. She swore she could hear every word, every murmur of mine. She could not for, having my doubts, I had not spoken.’ Mlle Miauton lives with Mlle Golay, ‘my mother’s former governess’, ‘with whom she had not been on speaking terms when both had been living under our roof’. (In ‘Breaking the News’, the widow has not been on speaking terms with Frau Doktor Schwarz, her land-lady, for a week.)

If this is the comic germ of the story, the tragic germ occurred only a few months later, in March l922, when Nabokov’s father was assassinated, as he defended a political rival. The assassins didn’t even know who Nabokov’s father was. This inept tragedy goes some way towards explaining Nabokov’s artistic predilection for fatal farce. Eliot said memorably that when a poet’s mind is perfectly equipped for its work, it is constantly amalgamating disparate experience’. His famous examples are falling in love, reading Spinoza, the noise of a typewriter, the smell of cooking. Nabokov’s biography supplies a classic case-history – mating a deaf governess and a political assassination. Nabokov’s diaries provide a complete account of the latter event, the centre of which is the difficulty of breaking the news, both to Nabokov and his mother.

Hessen conceals the full truth from Nabokov when he telephones ‘Something terrible has happened to your father.’ A car is dispatched for mother and son. Nabokov informs his mother and invents an accident: ‘Father hurt his leg, rather seriously Hessen said.’ When the car arrives, Yakovlev tells Nabokov: ‘Keep calm. Shots were fired at the meeting. Your father was wounded.’ Nabokov, knowing the truth has been softened, passes on to his mother that her husband has been ‘badly’ wounded. When they reach the Philharmonie, where the meeting has been, they are met by Hessen and Kaminka. ‘Avgust Isaakievich, Avgust Isaakievich, what has happened, tell me, what’s happened,’ Nabokov’s mother begs. Neither man can bring himself to utter the absolute truth. ‘He sobs, cannot finish.’ And the widow at last makes it out for herself. The police will not allow them into the room where the body lies. The whole passage is an extraordinary feat of memorialisation. Nabokov misses nothing. Not the way Hessen, appealed to for the truth, ‘spreads out his hands’. Not the way ‘their teeth chatter’ and ‘their eyes dart away.’ Not the way ‘from one door a black-bearded man with a bandaged hand came out, and somehow helplessly smiling muttered, “You see I ... I am wounded too.” ’ My humbled italics. Nabokov was 23. What a writer.

The egotism of the bearded marginal figure finds its way into ‘Breaking the News’, where it is transposed into Chernobylski’s protestations. More surprising perhaps is the physical detail which Elena Nabokov shares with Eugenia Isakovna Mints: both have ‘twitching eyebrows’ and when Nabokov’s mother first hears of the unspecified accident, she exclaims: ‘My heart will burst, simply burst if won are hiding anything.’ When the Chernobylskis are wondering how to break the news, their words are identical: ‘Her heart will not bear it, it will burst, her poor heart.’ Nabokov knew about the impurity of experience at first hand and was faithful to its farce as well as to its tragedy.

In August 1954, Nabokov wrote to his New Yorker editor, Katharine White, about the second chapter of Pnin, which she had rejected five months previously. ‘Let me say merely that the “unpleasant” quality of Chapter Two is a special trait of my work in general; you just did not notice in Chapter One the same nastiness, the same “realism” and the same pathos.’ The protest of Katharine White, faced with the selfish absolutism of the Winds’ exploitation of Pnin, its banal evil, is the protest of Nahum Tate when he rewrote King Lear. It represents the desire in all of us to close our eyes, to give the retina a rest, and love our fellow beings en masse – to see evil as aberrant rather than intrinsic. Tell it to Gloucester.

From 1940 or so, Nabokov’s life gradually settled and simplified itself, after a promising zany beginning in America – where customs officers, on his arrival, donned the boxing gloves they found in his luggage and staged some impromptu sparring on the wharf side. At his naturalisation ceremony, the language test and the history test dissolved into an extended rally of kidding between Nabokov and the examiner (‘of Italian origin apparently, judging by his slight accent’). Teaching, lepidoptery and writing devoured his time and attention. The Nabokovs were poor but indifferent to the ugly furniture of their rented surroundings. Volodya would serve local port in jam-jars to his guests and sit outdoors reading in the two feet of unmown grass. Teaching was a matter of persuading his students to fondle the details. ‘Describe the wallpaper in the Karenins’ bedroom’ was a typical examination question. Listening to the hobbled Russian of his students, he would remark: ‘So good to hear Russian spoken again! I am practically back in Moscow.’ That denouncer of Dostoevsky, Doctor Zhivago, Thomas Mann, Faulkner, George Eliot, Klebnikov, War and Peace, Stendhal and Cervantes, Boyd explains, ‘particularly liked reading bad literature aloud – “I can’t stop quoting!” he would chortle with glee.’ His ebullience and self-delight were clearly a trial to Edmund Wilson, who, though a generous supporter of the unknown genius, was always irked by Nabokov’s independence. As I writer, he was completely sure of his own worth and we believe Vera’s diary when it says: ‘There hardly ever was an author as indifferent to praise of invective as V – “I have too high an opinion of myself to mind.” ’ With Lolita, publishers suddenly came running, only to cool as subsequent sales proved less sensational. Then McGraw-Hill offered wholesale prestige publication of more or less anything Nabokov wanted to print. He was to be their flagship author – until ‘economic changes made him seem almost unaffordable and corporate changes eliminated his editors.’ The infatuation lasted six years, a long time in the world offickle, philistine publishers.