SEPTEMBER 12, 2015
“BIOGRAPHY,” observed the Edwardian poet Edmund Bentley in one of his trademark clerihew poems, “is different from Geography / Geography is about maps, / But Biography is about chaps.”
Sound advice, no doubt. But the distinction is not always so clear. A life and its locales can be hard to disentangle; the burgeoning field of psychogeography attests to a growing public interest in the nexus between the life of the mind and the lived environment. That interest delivers a surprisingly fresh angle on one of the most scrutinized writers of the 20th century in Robert Roper’s Nabokov in America: On the Road to Lolita. Roper reexamines the Russian-American novelist’s literary career through the prism of his encounter with, and assimilation into, the geography of the New World — its great highways, its spectacular rural vistas, its dingy roadside hotels. It tells of an inquisitive tourist, a lofty patrician from Old Europe, immersing himself in the raffish charms of postwar Americana. Posterity might have remembered Lolita (1955) as little more than prolix smut or, at best, a racy psychological thriller-cum-morality tale, were it not for its vivid rendering of its setting, its subtle inventorying of a nation. As the critic Elizabeth Hardwick noted at the time of its publication, it is perhaps doubtful that a homegrown author could have produced such work:
It is rather in the mood of Marco Polo in China that he meets the (to us) exhausted artifacts of the American scene. Motels, advertisements, chewing-gum […] for Nabokov it is all a dawn, alpine freshness.
Nabokov was, above all else, a first-class noticer. An avid lepidopterist, Roper affectionately documents his butterfly-collecting jaunts in the great American parks. From Great Smoky Mountains to Hot Springs, the Grand Canyon to Yosemite, we find Nabokov like the proverbial kid in a sweet shop, losing himself in the thrill of the chase. His naturalist pursuits played a significant role in his metamorphosis from a Russian author into an American one. As a contributor to lepidoptery journals, he honed a scientific writing style — a precise, meticulously taxonomic language — that would inflect his storytelling prose. “America,” writes Roper, “made him more scientist, less flaneur. It gave him intellectual tools — sex-organ dissection and reliance on the microscope […]” so that by the time he came to write the eponymous Dolores Haze, the sexually precocious 12 year old “passes before the gaze of a genius of specificity, and her American setting receives similarly lively treatment.”
Humbert Humbert, Lolita’s narrator-protagonist, blithely acknowledges the scenery of the child’s abduction as a travesty of a romantic mise-en-scène, hubristically framing a road-trip abduction into the stuff of romantic seduction: “Voraciously we consumed those long highways, in rapt silence we glided over their glossy black dance floors.” Humbert is himself a charismatic outsider, a European tourist not unlike his creator. That encounter between Old World and New World comprises the very axis of Lolita’s plot. Nabokov played down such readings, but Roper is not convinced by his refutations: “The book is decidedly about Europe, in the person of a perverted sophisticate, debauching a child who decidedly symbolizes America.” Lolita is, in other words, an “en passant travelogue of [America] at midcentury, filmed in period Technicolor as well as in noir black and white.” The United States was changing, and Nabokov, to borrow Virginia Woolf’s memorable phrase, was ticketing the moment:
He had looked around him and recognized a curious, half-asleep people — a perky populace with gloomy secrets, inhabiting a magnificent landscape that it tended to crap up, prone to stifling social norms best depicted via caustic comedy. Gunplay would arrive in the last act, as it did in so many of the nation’s stories. Sex would be the springboard for all else — nonstandard, indeed perverted, sex, because the country in its youthful aspect was fresh and sexy but also strapped in with prohibitions.
A fascinating and illuminating subplot within Nabokov in America concerns Nabokov’s relationship with the great American literary critic Edmund Wilson (1895–1972). Wilson was an invaluable ally in those difficult early years. When Nabokov arrived in the United States in the early 1940s, he was not entirely without connections. (There was particular goodwill toward the Nabokov name in Jewish émigré circles: Vladimir’s father, a liberal aristocrat, had taken a brave and outspoken stand against pogroms in his native Russia.) But it was his friendship with the Russophile Wilson that really opened doors, career-wise. The metropolitan literary elite is notoriously impregnable to awkward outsiders, and yet, as Roper relates, “Nabokov’s experience in his first years in America was that cultured, powerful people were magically available to him.” When Nabokov began writing for The New Yorker in 1944, he had Wilson to thank for the opportunity.
Their relationship would ultimately founder. The ostensible cause of the rift was a disagreement over Nabokov’s translation of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin — Wilson reviewed it unfavorably, Nabokov was piqued, and they fell out — but Roper draws attention to deeper, long-standing philosophical differences between them. In particular, they did not see eye to eye on the big questions of history, politics, and social change. For example, Nabokov’s rigid insistence that Russian reformism of the 1860s was directly responsible for the scourge of Bolshevism struck Wilson as simplistic and reductive. Indeed a certain myopic fanaticism characterizes many of Nabokov’s pronouncements on matters of politics — a disposition attributable, no doubt, to the trauma and upheaval inflicted on his life by the Russian revolution of 1917. This would become increasingly apparent in his later life, when his zeal hardened into McCarthyite paranoia and sheer right-wing pigheadedness: he would become good friends with the reactionary journalist William F. Buckley, and publicly lambaste The New York Review of Books for its opposition to the Vietnam war. For Nabokov, the longhaired idealists of 1960s and 1970s US counterculture were little better than Bolsheviks-in-waiting.
The judicious attention to nuance, so virtuously demonstrated in his best novels, is conspicuously absent from his engagement with historical forces, a weakness noted by Wilson relatively early in their friendship. In a letter of January 1947 discussing the merits of Nabokov’s second English-language novel, the dystopian Bend Sinister (1947), Wilson advised Nabokov to avoid political themes because, “You aren’t good at this kind of subject […] because you are totally uninterested in these matters and have never taken the trouble to understand them.” It was Nabokov’s determination to shut history out of his novels — so integral to his conception of a pure literary aesthetic — that came between them. Roper explains:
For Wilson, the suffering of classes of people is a commanding truth, and the means by which they connive in their own enslavement needs to be understood. The novel was not the best place to seek that understanding, but […] a rejection of the whole topic by an author was telling […] [T]he novels, which their clever schematic premises, held to with impressive rigor, did not relax and breathe and give him a feeling of life profoundly opened to and understood […]
Politics aside, the two men were seemingly very different people. A certain domineering, truculent tendency in Nabokov’s personality contrasts markedly with the warmth and generosity of Wilson, of whom Roper observes that “there is no writer in our literature who so loyally helped so many.” In some candid remarks about Pnin (1957), Nabokov’s wonderful novel about a genial but ultimately rather hapless émigré academic, Wilson expressed deep reservations about what he perceived to be Nabokov’s propensity for cruelty: he speculated that Nabokov might be one of those people “who enjoy malicious teasing and embarrassing practical jokes” but get “aggrieved and indignant” in the face of the merest slight. A bully, in other words. These comments appeared in a volume published in the year of Wilson’s death, 1972; by this time the gloves were well off.
The index to Nabokov in America contains, under C, a rather charming entry entitled “character of Nabokov,” which then breaks down into a number of alphabetized subentries: there are two entries apiece for “arrogance,” “cruelty,” and “self-confidence,” four for “running down of other writers,” three for “superciliousness and condescension,” and one apiece for “boyishness,” “egoism,” “enjoyment in famous people,” “force of will,” “friendships with ordinary people,” “generosity,” and “sententiousness.” It makes for a droll if somewhat unflattering portrait — a revealing little snapshot in which the foibles rather emphatically outnumber the virtues.
Nabokov’s likability as a man is, of course, a moot point. Indeed there is every reason to think him a cantankerous crank — even, in some respects, a boor. What matters is how these traits manifested themselves in his work, the spirit in which they are deployed. Roper argues — and I would agree — that Pnin is not gloatingly mean but generously sympathetic. If there is in Nabokov’s fiction a tendency to humiliate, it is enlisted in the service of teasing out pathos. Martin Amis, in a 1998 lecture on morality in Lolita, addresses this question in relation not only to Lolita, but across the oeuvre:
In Nabokov, art itself provides the reproach and the punishment. His manqué figures pay a steep price for their presumption, for their monkeying around with the order of things: Albinus in Laughter in the Dark, with his plan to cartoonify the Old Masters; Kinbote in Pale Fire, with his epic and vandalously solipsist misreading of John Shade’s poem; Hermann Hermann, another autist, in Despair, with his doomed crime and his doomed novel.
Nabokov was a lucky writer, as well as a supremely talented and industrious one. No doubt he would turn in his grave at the suggestion that his success owed anything to historical forces, those pesky Marxian gremlins. But, as Roper points out, he was the beneficiary of a quite singular moment in the history of US culture — namely, the enormous expansion of higher education in the postwar decades, which enabled him to obtain gainful employment teaching comparative literature at Wellesley College, Massachusetts, the crucial first step in his ultimately successful American journey. Arriving in the United States armed only with his extensive expertise in Russian literature,
He was in possession of authentic goods, literary riches, that he knew one day could secure his future […] he found himself in a country badly in need of basic education in matters Russian at that rare moment when America was asking to be taught.
Furthermore, the timing of Lolita’s publication — it was published in the United States in 1958, three years after its publication in France — could scarcely have been more felicitous. Just a few years earlier it might never have seen the light of day. A series of obscenity controversies in the 1950s had gradually whittled away at American prudishness, clearing the way for the appearance not only of Nabokov’s masterpiece, but of a number of other groundbreaking novels that marked a historic shift in US cultural mores. It would be a further three years before Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer would finally find a US publisher; Lolita would join works by Faulkner, Mailer, Kerouac, and Burroughs as harbingers of a new era of profanity in American letters. It was this rare conjuncture that catapulted Nabokov from the happy obscurity of niche émigré academia to literary superstardom. As Roper notes, “he might have made a small, smart career in ancien régime nostalgia” but for Lolita’s breakthrough success.
Roper writes with a delicious turn of phrase, with sensitivity and acuity, respectful of his subject while cognizant of his flaws and contradictions. Nabokov in America is, for the most part, shedding new light through an old window. But some stories deserve retelling, and there is plenty here to intrigue, provoke, and delight.