2 July – A Day of Loss – Vladimir Nabokov (22 April 1899 to 2 July 1977)
He was the most luscious wielder of words in our time.
Raised in a manner akin to the upbringing of George Amberson Minifer, VN was a precocious prodigy who grew a coat of hard varnish when he lost his home, his inheritance, his country (although he remained fond of Mother Russia, he deprecated her barbaric minions) and, in Berlin, his father (to an assassin’s hand). He moved around but never really settled and his moorings became his wife and his works.
His works are superb.
The monologue on Gogol is a masterpiece of concision. He could be, qua critic, a little unbending (a tad ‘Russian’?) – vide, for example, his legendary campaign of hate against the novels of Dostoevsky – but when he stowed the professional jealousy, his writing soared. The autobiography of early years, Speak, Memory, has to be the best biographical writing since Pepys or Boswell, and far ahead of those men in terms of evocation of sense-data:
“The cabin smelled of pine. The attendant, a hunchback with beaming wrinkles, brought a basin of steaming-hot water, in which one immersed one’s feet. From him I learned, and have preserved ever since in a glass cell of my memory, that ‘butterfly’ in the Basque language is misericoletea – or at least it sounded so…”
That Nabokov had a certain sibilant take on humanity is true, but we join issue with the penetrative critic James Wood, who thought “that fetishizing of the visual for which Nabokov is always praised…is actually his deepest limitation“* and was thus for one rare moment, dead wrong. That “fetishizing” is actually the quintessence of his deepest success. [*James Wood, The Broken Estate (1999), p. 44.]
Albinus recalls some treasured things before the lights in his eyes and his marriage went out:
“His forehead and his eyes were covered with a soft, thick bandage. But his skull was already uncovered and it was strange to feel with his fingers the bristles of the new hair on his head. In his memory he retained a picture that was, in its gaudy intensity, like a coloured photograph on glass: the curve of the glossy blue road, the green and red cliff to the left, the white parapet to the right, and in front of him the approaching cyclists – two dusty apes in orange-coloured jerseys. A sharp jerk of the steering-wheel to avoid them – and up the car dashed, mounting a pile of stones on the right, and, in the next fraction of that second, a telegraph post loomed in front of the windscreen. Margot’s outstretched arm had flown across the picture – and the next moment the magic lantern went out.” [Laughter in the Dark (1961)].
“…this book is written in all my twenty-five hands mixed together, so that the typesetter or some typist, unknown to me, or again the definite person I have elected, that Russian author to whom my manuscript will be forwarded when the time comes, might think that several people participated in the writing of my book; and it is also extremely probable that some rat-faced, sly little expert will discover in its cacographic orgy a sure sign of psychic abnormality. So much the better.” [Despair (1932)].
And you’ll recognise these grabs from that celebrated work, originally published as porn, yet it was published, and couldn’t be today, notwithstanding its haute elegance and sad advent from the tale of an ape given a chalk with which to draw, who drew its cage:
“That husband of yours, I hope, will always treat you well, because otherwise my spectre shall come at him, like black smoke, like a demented giant, and pull him apart nerve by nerve.”
“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.” [Lolita (1955)].
The later book of his I like the most is his funny-sad Transparent Things (1972) – “He had tea several times with Mrs. Flankard in her charming suburban house decorated almost exclusively with her late husband’s oils, early spring in the parlor, summertime in the dining room, all the glory of New England in the library, and winter in the bedchamber. Hugh did not linger in that particular room, for he had the uncanny feeling that Mrs. Flankard was planning to be raped beneath Mr. Flankard’s mauve snowflakes.”
“‘I can commit to memory a whole page of the directory in three minutes flat but am incapable of remembering my own telephone number. I can compose patches of poetry as strange and new as you are, or as anything a person may write three hundred years hence, but I have never published one scrap of verse except some juvenile nonsense at college…I have evolved on the playing courts of my father’s school a devastating return of service – a cut clinging drive – but am out of breath after one game…I have fallen in love with you but shall do nothing about it. In short I am an all-round genius.’ …Toffee-cream neck with a tiny gold cross and a grain de beauté. Slender, athletic, lethal!'”