Day 1189: Speak, Memory

Cover for Speak, MemoryAlthough I admire Lolita, I went into Nabokov’s memoir with some trepidation. The three of his novels I read showed such a preoccupation with what he calls “nymphets”—beautiful preteen girls—that it was disturbing. It’s one thing to write a novel about a sexual predator and quite another to have the theme recur in all of your works. So, even though I knew that his partially autobiographical novel, Look at the Harlequins!, was ironically meant—that is, he depicted himself as people thought he was, not as he was, I’m wasn’t sure what to expect from Speak, Memory.

And it is unusual. Instead of narrating his life in a linear fashion, as you might expect, it instead explores themes in his life. So, there are earlier chapters listing the accomplishments of his ancestors, describing his governesses and tutors, later ones about his obsession with butterfly collecting, his efforts to write his first poem, and so on. The result is an odd dichotomy—for we still understand little of the day-to-day of his life while gleaning lots of details about the things he loved best and a vague understanding of the larger arc. I think he truly doesn’t want to tell much that is personal.

I most enjoyed the earlier chapters about life on his family estate outside St. Petersburg. His life there is depicted as idyllic, and it’s hard to know if it actually was or if it is in memory because he can’t return to it. Because of course his wealthy, elite family had to flee Russia after the Russian revolution.

As in Look at the Harlequins!,  he tells nothing about his wife, Véra, although he addresses her directly at times. He does tell about his feeling for his son and about the parks in Europe they visited when his son was small.

So, I found large portions of this book interesting and beautifully written. The man has the largest vocabulary of any writer I’ve ever encountered. Other chapters, like the one about the butterflies, where I would have had to look up every other word to understand it, or the one about chess puzzles, were not so compelling. Still, I started another book before this one and set it aside to finish this. Such is the power of a great writer even when you’re not always interested in the subject matter.

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Day 1003: Classics Club Spin! Look at the Harlequins!

Cover for Look at the HarlequinsI was supposed to read Vladimir Nabokov’s Ada for the latest Classics Club spin, but after attempting to read it, I substituted Look at the Harlequins!, the last novel published before Nabokov’s death. Sometimes I encounter a novel that really makes me feel stupid, or perhaps intellectually lazy, and such was the case with Ada. It was so full of literary allusions and wordplay that I felt I didn’t know what was going on half the time. In addition, it focuses on some of the same themes as Lolita, and while I found Lolita fascinating, the delights of prepubescent girls are not really what I want to read about.

Look at the Harlequins! is a more straightforward fictional autobiography. Many critics consider it a parodic biography, in which Nabokov twists the events of his life to make them meet public expectations of his character. For example, his family’s exit from Russia after the Revolution was relatively uneventful, while Nabokov has his alter ego, V. V., shoot a Red soldier on the way out. Similarly, although in life Nabokov was monogamous, he gives V. V. four wives and a salacious extra-marital career.

His literary career, however, is reflected in the novel, as is, to some extent, his academic career. I believe he transfers events involving his wife Véra to characters such as his fictional daughter Bel and a briefly mentioned assistant. In any event, he addresses his novel to an unnamed “you,” who we may assume is Véra’s alter ego.

We still don’t avoid the theme of prepubescent girls, though, as V. V. fondles an 11-year-old daughter of friends (whom he has an affair with when she is in her 20’s and he is in his 70’s), has such a questionable relationship with his daughter Bel that friends advise him to send her away to school (he fatefully decides to remarry instead), and ultimately marries a woman his daughter’s age. Obviously, this sexual focus on girls was a motif for Nabokov, but I find it disturbing.

It’s hard to evaluate this novel on a literary level. It has none of the beautiful language of Lolita. It is told in a facetious manner and focuses several times on what the narrator considers a mental aberration. Each time we have to endure a description of the problem, which actually seems like a silly one that obsesses the narrator more than it should. V. V. opens the subject each time he decides to marry but describes the problem over and over. I’m not sure what the point of it was.

Because of its facetious tone, however, the novel lacks highs and lows. Instead, it is full of puzzles, anagrams, and self-references. It is entertaining enough but ultimately unsatisfying.

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Day 522: Véra (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov)

Cover for VeraBefore I start on my review of Véra, I just wanted to comment on the death of Mary Stewart, which I just heard about. I have been reading and re-reading Mary Stewart’s books since I was a young girl. Not only did she write some of the best romantic suspense stories ever, but she also wrote a much-praised historical-fantasy series about Merlin. Her works were well grounded in their settings and beautifully evoked places (some of which we will never see again, such as 60’s Damascus and Beirut). To my surprise, my post about her book This Rough Magic continues to be one of the most visited on my site. We are going to miss Mary Stewart. I have re-read Stewart’s books so many times that I can write reviews of them from memory. I’ll post another one soon.

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I’ve read two biographies now by Stacy Schiff, and both of them are about elusive women. Cleopatra was elusive because most of the information about her life is available only from prejudiced sources. Véra Evseevna Nabokov was elusive because she wanted to be.

Véra considered Nabokov to be a genius and his work to be of sole importance. She never publicly acknowledged her own contribution to it. Even the subtitle of this biography reflects the way she presented herself, always as Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov.

I don’t know a lot about Nabokov. I have read only one of his books, Lolita, but I found it astounding. Despite my dislike of the subject matter, reading it was an amazing experience, and I found the use of language astonishingly beautiful. But you do not need to be familiar with Nabokov’s oeuvre to find this biography, which won the Pulitzer, fascinating.

The Nabokovs had a truly collaborative relationship even though they never publicly acknowledged it. Although Véra denied helping him write, he often called her his first reader. Visitors heard her tell him to reword phrases or even remark, “You can’t say that!” For years, she typed up his manuscripts from his note cards or his dictation. She oversaw the translations of his work into different languages, even laboriously correcting them in the several languages she spoke. She was exacting about the use of words. She took care of all Nabokov’s correspondence, even to friends and family, as well as his business and financial affairs. She was the gatekeeper for interviews and visitors. She also drove him everywhere (and carried the luggage). Her entire married life was dedicated to providing him time and peace to write.

In areas even more directly affecting the success of his literary career, it was at Véra’s suggestion that Nabokov begin to write fiction in addition to poetry. Once the Nabokovs emigrated to America, Véra convinced Vladimir to begin writing in English. She pulled the manuscript of Lolita out of the fire on three different occasions, and it became his most famous work. Students taking his classes at Cornell were bemused by his “assistant,” who provided quotations or page references just when he needed them, drew complex diagrams on the blackboard, and erased it after class. Véra also taught his literature and language classes for him on many occasions and was acknowledged as a better, more systematic Russian language teacher than her husband.

Véra never seemed to resent this role she had taken on; she fostered it. But she was in no sense a nonentity. In correspondence she was much more direct than her husband. Although they tended to share correspondence—he would start a letter, perhaps; she would finish it; he would sign it—she was always left to impart the hard news—the refusal of contracts, the dictation of terms, the correction of translations. Many people believed that she was a dragon who was screening Nabokov’s mail or keeping people away from him, but she was doing what he wanted.

The couple was seldom seen apart. Although Nabokov had an affair early in their marriage and liked to flirt with women, he dedicated almost all his books to Véra. They had an extraordinary marriage, and this is an extraordinary, surprisingly entertaining book.