Geoff's Reviews > Vladimir Nabokov: The Russian Years

Vladimir Nabokov by Brian Boyd
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Dec 22, 09

bookshelves: favorites, volodya, biophilia
Read in December, 2009

No author had more occasion to become "the voice of his era" than Nabokov, and one of his great achievements is resolutely avoiding that role and following undeterred his own muse. Born in 1899, he was truly a child of the twentieth century, and almost every major upheaval that affected Europe in the first half of that century as well affected him, until he quit the continent and fled France with Hitler's hounds hot on his heels and found relative security in America and the English language. Even then his life did not settle in any normal sense of the word, though relative stability, in great contrast to the poverty and transience of his early adult years in Berlin and Paris, did finally find himself and Véra and Dmitri in the new world (a world that also made possible his eventual return to Europe and a kind of reclamation of his pilfered past). His whole life was somehow uncannily preparing him for this exact move to America and transition to a career as an English prose writer. From St. Petersburg, where he was born into a fabulously wealthy Anglophile family (his father played an important role in Russian liberal politics from before the 1905 revolution and on into the Russian emigre community that was centered in Berlin in the 1920's- a life that warrants a biography of its own) and the luxury of an idyllic youth so lovingly explored in Speak,Memory- the arbors of Vyra, his first encounters with literature and lepidoptera, the influence especially his father was to have on his life and fate- to Crimea escaping the Bolshevik terror, and the family's final flight from Russia via the Yalta harbor under machine gun spray, and then throughout the almost two decades in Europe where the young poet became the rising star of emigre literature, the play of what seems to be the hand of fate touches Nabokov's life just when events seem to be sliding into utter collapse and ruin. During the revolutions, the wars, the exile, Nabokov focused his energies on developing his gift, remained obedient to his destiny and his muse, and each circumstance of history that seemed an apparent obstruction actually served to expand Nabokov's art, though, in many cases, severely limiting his physical means. I can think of perhaps no other author who adhered so closely to his own vision despite the turmoil history was attempting to hurl at him. No wonder then his novels of this time come to be kinds of "thought experiments" on these problems: the inaccessibility of the past and the caprice of memory; the role of fate in life; the intricacies of consciousness as it encounters reality; the glories of particularity, individuality, variety; the redemptive power of imagination in a hostile world.

Though it certainly cannot be said that the epoch did not find seams and fissures to seep through and invade his work, ultimately, the great creator of worlds outmaneuvered the great destroyers of worlds. His Berlin novels took as a point of departure the emigre experience but never relinquished the mantle of strangeness and the unique psychological labyrinths that elevate the works beyond simple descriptions of a social milieu into the realms of the metaphysical. His European stories, novels, and plays grew into a sort of testing of an individual character's consciousness against the limits or structures of a reality or a superimposed reality. Boyd's criticism of Nabokov's works is fabulous. Coming away from it, one begins to see Nabokov as the last Romantic, or some Romantic of space-time, whose works are idylls or inverse idylls or worlds within worlds that all adhere to a wonderfully textured realism draped over a complex superstructure. And though Nabokov's works are particular worlds unto themselves, everywhere within them are the refracted images of the people, places and successive stages of history on which his life played out, inverted or made grotesque, distorted in a mirror or converted into the afterlife of thought or art. As Europe was disintegrating about him, Nabokov's cities and structures were becoming ever stronger and more invigorated with life, culminating with the composition of The Gift, which, as Boyd so compellingly argues, was that era's masterpiece and gave birth to Nabokov's next thirty years of work.

There is also the story of his love for Véra, who was to become his closest ally in life and art, his typist and editor, the mother of his child, and lifelong companion in all of the varied settings they found themselves thrown. But the true subject and hero of Boyd's book is Nabokov's art, his devotion to exploring the richness of human imagination, and the creative impulse and what that urge implies about our existence. Boyd suggests that at the heart of Nabokov's work is the idea that our creative nature is something of an echo of a further volition working at things, unseen because of the limits inherent in human consciousness. Through art, through the flexing and stressing of a state of being, Nabokov is attempting to push through these invisible walls, to project humanity beyond the human, and to explore the immense variety and chance that go into composing even the most mundane human moment, and the perception of that moment- in short, "the marvel of consciousness- that sudden window swinging open on a sunlit landscape amidst the night of non-being."

On a personal note, the Boyd biography, combined with The Gift and a rereading of Lolita, have culminated into my favorite reading experiences of the year (and this was a year particularly shining with gems), so I hope to be excused if Nabokov dominates my "currently-reading" shelf for some time to come. I can think of no better way to enter 2010 than with a new literary obsession.
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Comments (showing 1-2 of 2) (2 new)

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message 1: by Stephen M (new)

Stephen M Wow. Amazing review. This has only one like? How can this be?

I've been on a crash course of Nabokov for the past 24 hours and it's been wonderful learning about his life, reading his work. I'm already hoping for a certificate in Nabokov completion. But I'll not get ahead of myself just yet.


Geoff Thanks Stephen! I struggle on in obscurity.

Boyd's two-volume bio isn't only the definitive source for everything Nabokov, it is an absurdly compelling and well-written book, and the analysis of his works is without parallel. It completes the great triad of literary biographies along with Ellmann's Joyce and Richard Holmes' Shelley: The Pursuit. Essential stuff, captivating read, intellectual smorgasbord.


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