What can a humble amateur reader—a reader for pleasure, that most suspect and derided of motives—add to the conversation about Vladimir Nabokov, a conversation that has been conducted for decades by obsessive scholars and scholarly obsessives? After all, a cursory web search turns up a website (Zembla), journals (the Nabokov Online Journal, Nabokov Studies, and The Nabokovian), a listserv (NABOKOV-L), and a learned society (the International Vladimir Nabokov Society) devoted to his life and work.
After reading Tim Kreider's Page-Turner article "The Decline and Fall of the Book Cover," I realized that I hadn't yet read Nabokov's autobiography, Speak, Memory (for details, see Following a train of thought: We Learn Nothing to Speak, Memory). In the end I wound up reading both Speak, Memory (1951/1966) and The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov (Knopf, 1995), for the profound reason that they were next to one another on the shelves of one of my favorite used bookstores.
Speak, Memory: Inconclusive evidence
Nabokov is famous for writing novels with unreliable narrators: Despair (1934), Lolita (1955), Pale Fire (1962). Autobiography, of course, foregrounds the problem of the unreliable narrator: not only the question of whether particular incidents really happened, or (if they happened) whether the writer's memory is true to the event, but also whether what the writer has recorded is even true to his or her own memory. How much editing, embellishment, and elaboration has taken place?
In Speak, Memory (originally published as Conclusive Evidence), sights, sounds, smells, and tastes are reported with a suspiciously detailed clarity. We read of the sun-dappled lanes of the idyllic estate near St. Petersburg on which Nabokov grew up, the variegated butterflies that excited his passion for collecting, his vividly remembered childhood nannies and tutors (one of whom is named Lenski), and his formative first love (age 10, on the beach at Biarritz).
And as I read Speak, Memory, it became clear that the clever cover design by Michael Bierut that had inspired me to pick up the book—a piece of semi-transparent paper pinned over the title like a butterfly specimen, and partially obscuring it—doesn't reflect the way memory (or, at least, Nabokov's memory) works. In the first chapter Nabokov writes "I see the awakening of consciousness as a series of spaced flashes, with the intervals between them gradually diminishing until bright blocks of perception are formed" (p. 21). Certain scenes and impressions are related with superhuman specificity, but the periods in between those scenes tend to be partially or fully elided. A better visual metaphor might be a piece of completely opaque paper in which multiple holes have been punched. What is revealed is seen with perfect clarity and often expressed with great beauty, but much remains hidden. In a famous passage Nabokov presents his own metaphor for memories, and his method of relating them: "I confess I do not believe in time. I like to fold my magic carpet, after use, in such a way as to superimpose one part of the pattern upon another. Let visitors trip" (p. 139).
With a writer of fictions, particularly fictions as carefully composed as Nabokov's, the reader is tempted to search the autobiography for hints and clues to the origins of the work. And Nabokov is fully aware of this temptation; while he decries it (along with vulgar Freudianism), he also seeds the text with sly references to his novels. I picked up overt and covert allusions to Bend Sinister, The Defense, The Gift, Lolita, and Pale Fire, and there must be many more. Such allusions only add to the sense that we're being presented with a set of artfully constructed scenes that function as screen memories (an idea that Nabokov himself would have rejected vehemently). And, indeed, some of the chapters were published separately as stories, though Nabokov states that they are, "(except for a change of names) true in every detail to the author's remembered life" (Stories, p. 662).
But as Janet Malcom writes (in her essay "Thoughts on Autobiography from an Abandoned Autobiography," included in Forty-One False Starts: Essays on Artists and Writers, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013), "If an autobiography is to be even minimally readable, the autobiographer...must not be afraid to invent. Above all, he must invent himself" (p. 297).
One chapter of Speak, Memory raised the issue of invention versus memory with special acuteness, at least for me. In Chapter 9, Nabokov embarks on "a short biography of my father" (p. 173). Vladimir Dimitrievich Nabokov was a jurist, parliamentarian, and briefly a minister in the revolutionary Kerenski government (later overthrown by the Bolsheviks). The final section of this chapter relates the story of a duel: his father challenges the "disreputable editor" (p. 188) of a paper that has printed lies about him. In a semicomic turn, after mysterious comings and goings and much anxiety, the editor backs down and the duel doesn't take place.
It seems too perfect an incident to be real; after all, in Speak, Memory Nabokov writes that "No Russian writer of any repute had failed to describe une recontre, a hostile meeting, always of course of the classical duel à volonté type" (p. 191). But apparently it did actually happen; in his definitive two-volume biography of Nabokov, Brian Boyd traces the newspaper articles that Nabokov's father and the disreputable editor wrote afterwards about the incident.
The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov: "Bottom of the Barrel"
Which leads me to The Stories, which brings together the four 13-story collections published in Nabokov's lifetime, plus (for symmetry's sake, I presume) another 13 stories chosen by his son and literary executor Dmitri. Vladimir Nabokov himself had listed a majority of the previously uncollected stories under the heading "Bottom of the Barrel" (p. xvii); Dmitri assures us that his father told him that the label referred "not to their quality, but to the fact that, among the materials available for consultation at the moment, they were the final ones worthy of publication" (p. xiii). Be that as it may (although Dmitri includes a lot of qualifiers in that sentence); but Nabokov was a good judge of his own work, and gathered the best of his stories, in my view, in his first collection, Nabokov's Dozen (1958).
One of the stories excluded from Nabokov's Dozen is "An Affair of Honor" (it was later published in A Russian Beauty and Other Stories (1973)), and as the title suggests, it centers on a duel. Anton Petrovich, a plump, dandyish banker, learns the unwelcome news that his wife is having an affair when, on returning unexpectedly to his apartment one night, he discovers her lover getting dressed. The lover, a business associate of Anton Petrovich, is named Berg; as his name (which means "mountain" in German) suggests, Berg is a "broad shouldered, well-built...athletic" man. Anton Petrovich challenges Berg to a duel, but quickly begins to lose his nerve.
Although the foolish Anton Petrovich is made to endure a series of darkly comic incidents that highlight his absurdity, the awkward incidents and the bleak ending also create in us a sneaking empathy for him. Did Nabokov feel even the slightest sense of identification with the disreputable editor who quailed when faced with fighting a duel with Nabokov's broad-shouldered, athletic father?
Anton Petrovich works himself up into a state of paralyzing fear by imagining his own death:
"How will it all be?....Now, there was a question: does one salute one's opponent? What does Onegin do in the opera? Perhaps a discreet tip of the hat from a distance would be just right...What does one feel with a bullet hits one between the ribs or in the forehead? Pain? Nausea? Or is there simply a bang followed by total darkness? The tenor Sobinov [playing the doomed Lensky] once crashed down so realistically that his pistol flew into the orchestra..." (pp. 212-213).The references are to Tchaikovsky's opera Eugene Onegin (1879), based on Alexander Pushkin's novel in verse, to both of which my train of thought (and a serendipitous discovery) next led me.
Next time: Pushkin's Eugene Onegin to Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin
Last time: We Learn Nothing to Speak, Memory