ABOUT A THIRD of the way through Lolita (1955), one of Vladimir Nabokov’s American masterpieces, ill-fated Charlotte Haze receives a letter from her naughty daughter, who’s growing up quick at Camp Q:
“Dear Mummy and Hummy, Hope you are fine. Thank you very much for the candy. I [crossed out and re-written again] I lost my new sweater in the woods. It has been cold here for the last few days. I’m having a time. Love, Dolly.”
Poor Charlotte, literally barred (note the “crossed-out” I) from her child’s inner life, complains that dumb Lo “has left out a word before ‘time.’” Hummy, of course, knows better. The girl meant just what she wrote: she’s having a time, and that’s all there is to it. A red-blooded American teenybopper’s got no time for adjectives. Humbert had clearly made a careful study of Lo’s language, and so had his creator.
Nabokov’s Anglophone admirers have often oohed and aahed at his mid-career linguistic pivot — a reaction the author carefully cultivated, as he did virtually every aspect of his reception. After all, who could fail to be moved by the beauty and pity — according to Nabokov, art’s two conditions sine qua non — of his 1956 afterword to the first American publication of Lolita:
My private tragedy, which cannot, indeed should not, be anybody’s concern, is that I had to abandon my natural idiom, my untrammeled, rich, and infinitely docile Russian tongue for a second-rate brand of English, devoid of any of those apparatuses — the baffling mirror, the black velvet backdrop, the implied associations and traditions — which the native illusionist, frac-tails flying, can magically use to transcend the heritage in his own way.
A private tragedy, no one’s concern — a note of humble-humble American aw-shucks lending way to the thick, indulgent strains of Russian toska, which Nabokov defines elsewhere as “the generic term for a feeling of physical or metaphysical dissatisfaction, a sense of longing, a dull anguish, a preying misery, a gnawing mental ache.” Artfully managed. One can be forgiven for momentarily forgetting that the author, raised in part by English governesses on an aristocratic Russian estate, had been exposed to the language virtually from birth. In Speak, Memory (1966), another of his American masterpieces, Nabokov recalls a visit from his father, who “ascertained, with patriotic dismay, that [his five-year-old son] could read and write English but not Russian.” Add to that a degree from Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1922, and his English debut in the 1940s seems a bit less of a feat.
Of course, it’s one thing to write in a language, another to make use of its “implied associations and traditions,” and yet another to align oneself with the warp and weft of those traditions, stitching oneself (cue the aw-shucks again) squarely into the American quilt. The curious, inspiring, and often deeply moving story of that great feat is the subject of Robert Roper’s meticulously researched, insightful, and refreshingly unpretentious Nabokov in America: On the Road to Lolita.
The threads of the story — indeed, entire ready-made patches — were there for the plucking, stored in the magisterial biographies of Brian Boyd (The Russian Years and The American Years) and Stacy Schiff (Véra [Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov]), the more narrowly focused work of scholars such as Alfred Appel Jr., Julian Connolly, Neil Cornwell, Galya Diment, D. Barton Johnson, and Susan Elizabeth Sweeney — assiduously cited in Roper’s bibliography — and countless exchanges among the obsessive Nabokovians who haunt the listserv NABOKV-L. There were also the primary sources: Nabokov’s Letters to Véra, recently translated and edited by Boyd and Olga Voronina; the author’s correspondence with his great American intercessor, Edmund Wilson — Dear Bunny, Dear Volodya — edited by Simon Karlinsky; and the motley strips scattered in memoirs, publishers’ archives, and public and private collections.
Roper, a gifted novelist whose previous nonfiction books have dealt with Walt Whitman and the mountain climber Willi Unsoeld, not only weaves these strands together into a compelling narrative, but enriches them with his own deep understanding and appreciation of the country that fed Nabokov for two decades, both literally and figuratively. The passages chronicling the Nabokovs’ butterfly-hunting journeys out West, a region for which the author had a particular affinity, truly take flight. Most productively, Roper — not a Russian-speaker — never loses sight of the fact that Nabokov’s take on the country is not a native’s; all the better, Roper suggests, for it made him a keener observer, gifted as he was with a “vagabond’s sharp-sightedness” (a felicitous phrase Roper draws from one of Nabokov’s poems):
Nabokov might have made a whole life in the West. The lepping [butterfly-hunting] was fantastic, and he responded joyfully to the landscapes. Writing to the artist Dobuzhinsky, he remarked on the palette of the Grand Canyon, which he mistakenly located in New Mexico: the uncanny “cleaves and cleavages” of orange earth and blue sky were captivating, he reported. In Russian there are different words for light blue (goluboy) and dark blue (siniy), and Russian speakers have been shown to be faster at discriminating among blue tones than are English speakers. “How wonderful was the journeying!” he enthused. “I, of course, in the main caught butterflies along the road, but nonetheless by habit investigated the excellent landmarks.”
Investigate isn’t the word. He “consumed” and digested them, turning out that “crazy quilt of the forty-eight states,” that vital, vertiginous experience he called Lolita — a work of beauty and pity, taking America whole but from the side, a “parody,” as Appel notes and Roper quotes, “with real suffering in it.”
Relying but never parroting Nabokov’s most perceptive exegetes, like Appel, Vladimir Alexandrov, Page Stegner, and Leona Toker, Roper is remarkably good at seeing through Nabokov’s own statements — artful to the point of dodginess — on his vision and praxis. The novelist’s claim of “inventing” America, which he makes in the 1956 afterword to Lolita, cannot be taken at face value. For Nabokov, the consummate defender of the artist’s sovereignty in an age when that sovereignty, as he saw it, was challenged from the left, the right, and the middle(brow), all works of art, however “realistic,” were inventions, the “brew of individual fancy,” an artist’s and audience’s ticket to “aesthetic bliss, that is a sense of being somehow, somewhere, connected with other states of being where art (curiosity, tenderness, kindness, ecstasy) is the norm.” Yet, as he well knew, no work of art could do without a “modicum of average ‘reality,’” enhancing the work’s texture and serving to deepen and complicate the reader’s engagement. Roper understands that Nabokov may well have underplayed the value of his chosen “modicum” and of its particular contribution:
The idea that his vision of his new book, his “brew of individual fancy,” awaited only the injection of local-colorist details — Canadian or Mexican would have served as well — advances an idea that Nabokov liked to propagate, that he was on the Mozartian side of things, his imagination supreme, largely self-contained. In fact the American context was determinative. It fed meaning and amplitude into fancy’s brew.
This shrewd insight opens up new vistas, allowing Roper, for instance, to make bold comparisons between Nabokov and Salinger, one of the few contemporary American authors for whom the Russian émigré upstart had a kind word. The pairing is revealing. Both Lolita and The Catcher in the Rye (1951) explore marginalization in Truman’s and Eisenhower’s America, the fate of Romantic ideals, however warped, in a hypocritical bourgeois milieu, and the fragile sanctity of childhood, with unforeseen threats looming just around the bend. “For both [narrators],” Roper writes,
a certain period of childhood — nymphethood for Humbert, and for Holden those years when a child comes out with things that “just kill” you — is a window on radiance. If it makes sense to speak of an American zeitgeist, then these two seem to have partaken of something within it, maybe of the same thing — each, of course, in his own way.
Roper digs deeper into the American grain, through Melville and Poe (whom he appreciated), down to the Indian captivity narratives that flooded the American literary landscape in the late 18th and early 19th centuries — and which found their way to Russian through Nabokov’s beloved Pushkin and the works of the Irish-born “Captain” Mayne Reid (1818–1883), author of myriad Western potboilers that were extraordinarily popular during Nabokov’s childhood: “Knowing English,” Nabokov recalls in Speak, Memory, “I could savor his Headless Horseman in the unabridged original.” Roper adds: “As quick as he was to pick up American slang, or to become knowing about American locales, he was intuitive and subtle in knowing what tale to tell — a very old tale, as it happened, provocative, formally simple, and outward-facing, toward the American vastness.”
One of the most ecstatic stretches of Lolita takes place in that Western vastness. It features a stop in “Shakespeare, a ghost town in New Mexico, where bad man Russian Bill was colorfully hanged.” Yes, Virginia, there really was a Russian Bill — a cattle-rustler by the name of William Tattenbaum, who claimed to have been an Imperial Life-Guard Hussar in the old country; and hanged he was, in the improbably named Shakespeare, New Mexico. There’s your “modicum” of “reality.” Here it serves to recall Nabokov’s own aspirations, his fiddling with the Gregorian-Julian calendric conversion in order “to find ‘April 23’ under ‘birth date’ in [his] most recent passport, which is also the birth date of Shakespeare” (Speak, Memory). And the birthday of America’s sweetheart Shirley Temple, too. Somewhere between these two icons is our literary bad man, the Russian Bill Shakespeare, composing his love letter to the American language, enjoying a “lavish epileptic fit on the ground in Russian Gulch State Park.” He’s having a time, and he’s giving it to us good.