Julian Evans

In Nabokov’s witty and disarming ‘Ballad of Longwood Glen’, published in the New Yorker in 1957, shy, dreamy Art Longwood climbs a tree on a family picnic to retrieve his son’s ball – and carries on climbing:

Up and up Art Longwood swarmed and shinned,
And the leaves said yes to the questioning wind.
What tiaras of gardens! What torrents of light!
How accessible ether! How easy flight!
His family circled the tree all day.
Pauline concluded: ‘Dad climbed away.’
None saw the delirious celestial crowds
Greet the hero from earth in the snow of the clouds.
Mrs Longwood was getting a little concerned.
He never came down. He never returned.

Something in Art – an artful mystery, an unnameable quality, a quirk of character, something – divides his fate from that of his picnicking, small-town loved ones and ‘removes him’, in Brian Boyd’s words, ‘from life into a special and triumphant kind of death’. Never as transparent as he seems, Nabokov does not elucidate Art’s ‘something’: it stays as unvouchsafed as the secret that V. is waiting for from his dying brother at the end of The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, the word that is supposed to explain everything. So we’re left with journey and question – Art’s climb, V.’s quest – unanswered. Anything can happen: all we’re allowed to do is to partake joyfully of both, of their actuality, their delightful particularity and unconstrained timescape.

Nabokov’s poem came back to me after a train journey to Vichy in central France a month ago. The occasion was a small literary festival, a sort of annual celebratory Mass for the town’s only literary son. His name, coincidentally, has a made-up Nabokovian ring – as if once in a small explosion of municipal creativity the town hit on the idea of dreaming up a great writer to mitigate certain embarrassing historical facts.Valery Larbaud (1881-1957) sounds as fictitious as Vivian Darkbloom or V. Cantaboff; but Larbaud existed, as poet, novelist, critic, translator, born in Vichy, son of an excessive mother and a quiet pharmacist father, who made a pile from discovering and bottling the mineral springs of Saint-Yorre and then died. Valery was an enviably endowed son, both in wealth and natural advantages. He made it his business from his teenage years onwards to journey obsessively (first-class), to dominate other literatures thanks to a fantastic receptivity to their languages, to turn the countries he wandered through into exquisite poetry, half-Baudelaire, half-Baedeker; and, in the course of falling in and out of love with their women, found himself with reprehensible frequency in situations that could only be resolved by boarding yet another train or ship. If there was something of Baudelaire about Larbaud, there was also a touch of Terry-Thomas.

Larbaud’s best-known work is probably the novel Fermina Marquez, about a Colombian beauty who sows sentimental-erotic havoc among the students at a boys’ boarding school – the missing link, one might say, between The Red and the Black and The Catcher in the Rye. But his most interesting creation, introduced in 1908 with the publication of Poèmes par un riche amateur, was the blithe, exotic, multimillionaire A.O. Barnabooth, his Active alter ego, a precocious entrant in the impersonation games of Modernist authorship. Barnabooth was invented on his first trip to London after a visit to the Barnes branch of Boots the Chemist. Poems by a Rich Amateur was the pilot light of French Modernism; it was also a provocation and manifesto, and the young Valery’s camouflaged revenge on a stupid, authoritarian mother who had obliged him to accept legal control of his inheritance.

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[*] Fourth Estate, 139 pp., £9.99, 17 April, 1 85702 779 5.