Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Five must-reads by and about Nabokov

Maxim D. Shrayer's publications on Nabokov include The World of Nabokov’s Stories and Nabokov: Themes and Variations (in Russian). His recent books are the literary memoir Waiting for America: A Story of Emigration and the collection of stories Yom Kippur in Amsterdam.

One of his five must-reads by--and about--the Russian-American writer Vladimir Nabokov, from Shrayer's 2010 dialogue with Anna Blundy at The Browser:
Vladimir Nabokov
by Brian Boyd

Now we have Brian Boyd’s biography of Nabokov.

Note that I’m deliberately choosing English-language books on Nabokov that are in print and are likely to remain in print for the years to come. There are a number of wonderful books by other Nabokov scholars, some of these books no longer available in print. So, Boyd’s biography… It’s huge. Two enormous volumes. Monumental. It still remains the single most important book on Nabokov, having eclipsed a lot of things when it was published. It is reliable and readable. Boyd had access to Nabokov family materials. The field has changed in the past 20 years and there have been other biographies, including two Russian-language ones, neither one particularly outstanding. If I’m asked which biography is the best, I’d say the Boyd, even though I do have some reservations about it. I think in a way it’s almost too perfect, and in places it perfects and corrects Nabokov himself. That’s not to say that Boyd is avoiding contention or does not ask the hard questions, but you wonder if the story isn’t told almost exclusively through the Nabokovian lens. But we could not have done without Boyd’s work in the field.

What are some of the specific things one might have done differently?

It’s hard to write a biography in English of a person who is equally important to Russian, European and American cultures without getting bogged down in various cultural or ideological contexts.

For example, Nabokov’s great personal tragedy was that he wasn’t a great Russian poet. It had always been his ambition and it continued to be his ambition, but by the early-1930s he was writing less poetry, and when he resumed, off and on, he seemed to sense his limitations. Not that as a poet he wasn’t an accomplished craftsman, but Nabokov’s poetry lacked genius, a unique intonation. If you read a poem by Blok or Akhmatova, you would know it was written by them. With Nabokov’s poetry you probably wouldn’t know. This was a huge source of dissatisfaction to him as an artist, and in the story of his life it deserves more attention.

I suppose it would probably be a cavil to say that in Boyd’s biography the map of 20th-century Russian literature has one principal edifice. Some of the Russian works and authors, both Soviet and émigré, who had influenced Nabokov in profound and various ways, appear as hillocks and mounds, not literary mountains. It’s a bit like a map Nabokov himself might have drawn.

Another underappreciated matter would be the importance to Nabokov of his marriage to a Jewish woman and the effect that had on his life and career. I think it changed him as a person. Nabokov had to negotiate Jewish questions in his marriage, his son was halachically Jewish, he stayed in Nazi Germany until 1937 with a Jewish wife and son… but also it affected his writing and vision. I think there is a web of Jewish references and a significant trace of Judaism that we are only beginning to come to terms with in Nabokov’s writing. The late Véra Nabokov and Dmitri Nabokov participated in the creation of Boyd’s biography as advisers and readers, and they have both been reticent on this and other matters.
Read about the other books on the list.

--Marshal Zeringue