The Secret History of Vladimir Nabokov
(Pegasus Books, 2013)
Any account of 20th century authors with larger-than-life biographies has to begin with Vladimir Nabokov. The famed Aurelian and author of Lolita was born into the Russian nobility, inherited vast wealth and estates as a teenager (childless uncle), then lost everything in the Bolshevik revolution (Black sea escape, boat attended by gunfire). After an education at Oxford, during which his father was shot by assassins, he settled in Berlin with his Jewish wife, then fled the Nazis to Paris. He rubbed elbows with some of the biggest literary names, fled yet again when the Germans invaded France, and, finally arriving in America, wrote celebrated short stories and novels, scraping by as a transient adjunct until landing his first full-time job at nearly 50. Yet, despite having personally experienced effects of the revolutions, wars, and political turmoil that defined much of the century, Nabokov seemingly wrote about anything but those harrowing events. His most famous novel concerns a child molester kidnapping his stepdaughter. Other famous books, Pnin and Pale Fire, are respectively about a bumbling Russian professor and a maniac who annotates a famous poet’s final epic. The novels are often about madmen or fools, and rarely do his characters seem to take note of current events or political situations. Even his memoir Speak, Memory is oddly circumspect about the more dramatic aspects of his biography: his escape from the Bolsheviks, his years in Berlin and Paris, or the specifics of his various escapes, much less the friends and family members who weren’t as successful and endured brutal regimes, even dying (as his brother did) in the concentration camps. It focuses instead on childhood governesses, summers by the sea, and
Nabokov has long had a reputation as an aesthete, obsessed with language but largely disconnected from social or political concerns. Other Russian expatriates accused him of ignoring the plights of his homeland (much less the rest of Europe), and though he remained resolutely anti-Communist (and more so anti-Nazi, even anti-German, and deeply philosemitic) his entire life, readers rarely found “Important-with-a-capital-I” political or social issues in his writing. Nabokov, so the theory goes, wrote beautiful jewel boxes filled with puzzles and games, but as disconnected from the time and place they were written (or set) as any art can be.
Andrea Pitzer’s Secret History of Vladimir Nabokov aims to change that perception. Part biography, part history, part literary criticism, part treasure-map, Pitzer has compiled an impressive amount of information to make the case that for over 50 years readers and critics alike have misunderstood a fundamental aspect of Nabokov’s stories. It’s an audacious claim, to say the least. But after what feels like an unnecessarily coy first half (in which she repeatedly alludes to information about Lolita and Pale Fire that she doesn’t reveal until nearly the end), Pitzer ultimately makes a strong case for her argument.
Pitzer bookends her history with an account of Nabokov and another famous Russian author preparing to meet: the first and last chapters are both titled “Waiting for Solzhenitsyn.” She begins with a day in early October 1974, when Nabokov and his wife Vera were waiting at their hotel in Montreux, Switzerland to meet with Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who had just been expatriated from the Soviet Union. Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago was everything Nabokov’s critics claimed his books were not. A detailed account of life in the Soviet concentration camps, the book exposed many of the worst cruelties of Stalin’s government, and changed the way more than a few idealists saw the Soviet Union. Solzhenitsyn was en route to visit Nabokov for their first personal meeting. Pitzer sets the scene, then (in another unnecessarily coy maneuver) leaves the reader wondering what happens.
Then she begins to weave together a biography of Nabokov and what she assures will soon be seen as relevant historical events, including the invention and rise of concentration camps (in many surprising places), and the political upheavals that directly affected either Nabokov or his close relations. Into this, Pitzer situates careful readings of Nabokov’s work, from his earliest writing in Russian and French, to his most famous novels. In each, she points out ways in which Nabokov left subtle but unambiguous clues as to how his characters have been broken by, or escaped, from some of the worst and most violent settings of 20th century history.
Disclaimer: during my M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Syracuse, I took a course with the novelist David Treuer. Called simply Pale Fire, its premise was also deceptively simple: we would read the book, then track down every reference we could find. Pale Fire has a strange structure. Instead of a narrative, the story is gradually revealed through the annotations a madman named Charles Kinbote has appended to a long poem written by a fictional analogue of Robert Frost, named John Shade. To even read the book one must hunt back and forth between the poem and the annotations, and both contain an endless treasure-trove of references (obvious and obscure) to literature, geography, and history. There’s constant misdirection: an obvious reference to Shakespeare’s awful Timon of Athens reveals a much subtler allusion to Hamlet. And the references can quickly become overwhelming:there’s a nod to Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. The greatest quest, perhaps, and the one that has stymied close readers for fifty years now, is the location of Kinbote’s “Crown Jewels.” Treuer’s final exam was to have us put together a plausible explanation of what and where the jewels are. Though we all had exhaustive explanations, no one came close to a satisfying answer. Among its other revelations Pitzer’s book offers a more than reasonable explanation of the jewels. Given her subject’s lepidopteran facility for camouflage, Pitzer’s research here is astounding.
The Secret History of Vladimir Nabokov challenges the long-held consensus that Nabokov was merely an aesthete—someone whose prodigious literary strengths more or less ignored history. Which is not to say his books weren’t read as moral: in fact, he excels at moral complication, often inviting the reader over long stretches of narrative to develop a particularly limited view of a character—then, like a game of chess, complicating or even entirely reversing the reader’s opinion, sometimes with just a few deft sentences. The result is to make the reader complicit in moral misjudgment. With Pnin, Nabokov encourages us to delight in the awkwardness and misfortune of a bumbling Russian language professor before revealing his noble and generous soul. In Lolita, Humbert Humbert charms us. Debonair and eloquent, he practically begs to be rooted for. Yet, as Pitzer says: “woven throughout are innumerable comic moments, juxtaposed against the handful of sober scenes in which we see Lolita clearly, as when she delights in trying on new clothes or when she walks down the street talking with a friend about the worst part of death being that you die alone.” Nabokov allows Humbert’s narrative to slip just enough for the reader to clearly see how much he’s destroyed Lolita’s life. Expecting an underage sex symbol, we get a little girl who cries herself to sleep, sore between her legs, and we loathe both him and ourselves for having liked him. And yet, Humbert is not entirely a monster either. Despite his monstrous actions, Pitzer allows that Humbert garners both comedy and a “dim sympathy” that “render[s] the entire process of reading the book disturbing.” The moral complications here are neither grand nor political. They are personal, social, even communal, dealing with individuals and their own foibles and impulses as opposed to bold themes of revolution, society, or law.
But Pitzer asserts that Nabokov included in almost every novel connections between the moral complications that his characters enact and the greater political immoralities that writers such as Solzhenitsyn more overtly occupied themselves with, and that so often left in their wake the sort of broken, bumbling or monstrous individuals Nabokov wrote about. The links she draws are hard to argue with. Pitzer points out case after case where fundamental experiences of Nabokov’s characters occurred in the revolutions, wars, concentration camps, and miasma of political oppression that afflicted Russia, Europe, and even America during the first half of the 20th century. And yet, if Pitzer’s claims are true, then despite having done this, Nabokov allowed himself to be so misread as to gain a reputation (even among his closest friends) of dismissing the concerns of his country, turning his back on his people, and being utterly disconnected from the political realities that over-swept them. He allowed himself to lose friends over charges of literary callousness rather than point them to appropriate passages.
Despite her research, Pitzer never offers a satisfactory answer for why Nabokov would let himself be so misread. She makes clear that he was often contradictory about his own work, pointing out, for instance, that he publically claimed Lolita had “no moral in tow,” then wrote in a letter to Edmund Wilson that the book was a “deeply moral affair.” And Pitzer makes the point that as a teacher at Cornell, Nabokov expected his students to read Russian Literature deeply and closely, and many classes focused even on minute references in Tolstoy or Chekhov, in order to better illuminate the work.
It’s possible that for Nabokov the human and the minute were the political—that the forgotten details of yesterday’s headlines (and the lifelong effects they had on survivors) held far more significance for him than the broad brushstrokes of history held in the popular imagination. It’s possible that for Nabokov, the problem with sweeping histories and clashing ideologies lay, finally, in that very loss of detail: the oversimplifications and generalizations that ideology necessarily entails. His works were careful, precise, and detailed because he was trying to create (or find) the kind of people who could be careful enough readers to understand the adverse effect those generalities have on the mind, and to resist them. If so, Ms. Pitzer is one of those readers. And she has done us all a great service in revealing more of Nabokov’s genius than was previously known. This book is a vital aid to any fan of Nabokov’s who wants to understand a little more clearly what the stakes really are.
CHRISTOPHER MICHEL is a writer and stay-at-home dad. He lives in Brooklyn's secret Chinatown.