Earlier this month a woman told me that her mother’s writings are as good as Nabokov’s. In a situation like that, one can only smile and nod, even while one’s mind is silently screaming, “No! No one writes as well as Nabokov!”
The Mount Rushmore of twentieth-century American writers consists of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, and William Faulkner. Of the four, only Faulkner even approaches Nabokov’s ability to paint with the English language, and Faulkner tended to stray a bit too often into stream of consciousness writing and other tricks. Nabokov was a master of written communication. The most amazing fact about Nabokov’s skill with English is that English was not his first or second language. He was born and grew up in Russia, learning to speak and to write in Russian and French. He learned English later, after his family had fled Russia. Yet his later novels are written in English, and his earlier novels were translated from Russian to English under his supervision. Both sets of novels sing in a lyrical manner unapproached by any other writer of the last hundred years and more.
Hemingway in particular is credited with crisp, succinct writing which has influenced thousands of composition and journalism classes. Gone are the long Dickensian descriptions found in nineteenth century English literature. Yet Nabokov accomplished something in English that Hemingway and Steinbeck never approached. Nabokov had a profound sense of the sound and rhythm of language. As a master he toyed with language. His mind was capable of creating descriptions of people and events that are multi-textured, complex without becoming verbose. When I read a Hemingway story, I might think, “I never imagined that character or setting or plot, but if I had, I could have written this story.” When I read a Nabokov story, I ask, “How did he do that? And why is it that I cannot do that?”
I just happen to be reading the short stories and novels of Nabokov this month. Currently I am savoring The Real Life of Sebastian Knight. I saw one brief example of Nabokov’s mastery of expression last night, as the title character describes his social awkwardness by calling himself a “colorblind chameleon.” Who but Nabokov could have expressed so much with but two English words?
Tragically, Nabokov is best-known for Lolita, a novel about a middle-aged man’s obsession with a “nymphet,” a prepubescent girl to whom he is drawn emotionally and physically. The subject is uncomfortable; and, because he writes from the man’s point of view, Nabokov does not directly condemn his character’s thoughts and his actions. Notoriously, the book is frequently banned. Two movies have been made from the book, the first directed by genius Stanley Kubrick and starring genius Peter Sellers–not as the main character, but as his nemesis, Clare Quilty. (The name itself is a beautiful visual pun.) While Lolita contains as much of Nabokov’s skillful writing as any other novel he wrote, the subject matter tends to guide people into the false assumption that Nabokov himself must be perverted. Nabokov makes his characters so convincing, so real, that a reader almost expects each of them to be somehow an autobiographical image of the author.
My favorite Nabokov novel is Pale Fire. The heart of the book is a poem of 999 lines–the thousandth line is missing–but the bulk of the book consists of a preface and annotations by a second character, the poet being the first character. The relationship between the poem and poet on the one hand, and the interpreter on the other hand, is displayed astoundingly throughout the book. While it contains a wealth of literary tidbits of the highest quality (such as “Chapman’s Homer” referring simultaneously to a particular translation of an ancient Greek poet and to a more recent success on the baseball diamond), the entire novel contains levels of meaning and significance that can hardly be described, certainly not without spoiling the charm of the book.
Aside from writing, Nabokov’s passions included chess, butterflies, and opposition to totalitarian governments. A little awareness of these topics assists a reader of Nabokov. (For example, Sebastian Knight has a close associate named Clare Bishop.) Lack of awareness of these matters does not keep any reader from enjoying Nabokov’s work. Many of his clever jokes are discovered only during a second or third reading, when the reader can set aside plot and character and instead swim in the flow of Nabokov’s unequalled prose. J.