May 20, 10
Brian Boyd’s biography of Vladimir Nabokov is meticulously researched and unlikely to be surpassed anytime soon, if at all. In some ways, that’s unfortunate. While this is a foundational and necessary text for anyone who wants a deep understanding of Nabokov’s work, Boyd’s attitude towards his subject is often distractingly worshipful. Some of the faults stemming from this approach include Boyd’s tendency to make something of a show of criticizing obviously weak early work (presumably as an assertion of balance), and his irritating habit of gratuitously pointing out minor features (occasionally exaggerated) of early stories and novels that he claims anticipate developments in Joyce’s work, or were at least arrived at by Nabokov independently, supposedly free of Joyce’s influence. Nabokov’s reputation hardly needs boosts of this kind. Boyd also lapses into Nabokovianisms every now and again, which is grating, and appears to have internalized his subject to such an extent that there can be no real pretence of objectivity.
Although logistically necessary to gain access to Nabokov’s private papers and those held at the Library of Congress (access to which has been restricted by the estate until 2009), Boyd’s cooperation with the notoriously private Vera Nabokov and the pugnaciously protective Dmitri Nabokov raises questions as to how complete and objective this biography can really be. Although Boyd asserts his scholarly independence in his preface, the Nabokovs were very wary of biographers, particularly after having been burned by the rather strange Andrew Field, whose pseudo-scholarly, error-riddled, and sometimes bizarre critical and biographical work outraged the family.
The two volumes together are over 1,000 pages, so casual readers of Nabokov might find it a bit of a slog. Boyd is, however, an astute reader of Nabokov, and all the novels (along with many of the stories, plays, poems, essays, and so forth) are given critical attention, which makes this something more than a conventional biography. For anyone whose interest is strong enough, this is the best biography out there by far, regardless of its weaknesses.