Speak, Nabokov by Michael Maar (trans. Ross Benjamin). Verso. 160pp, $24.95.
There is a danger to writing about Vladimir Nabokov’s fiction. The author, who once earned a modest living in Germany as a creator of crossword puzzles, loved logic games to the extreme, and he filled his books with them, perhaps excessively. Examples of this tendency are not hard to come by; here are two: Nabokov famously entered several of his books under the heteronym “Vivian Darkbloom,” an anagram of Vladimir Nabokov (he would also use “V.,” among other names, to create an ambiguous authorial presence in his novels, pioneering a kind of coy, comic meta-fiction). For our second example, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight: the novel’s title character advances through the novel in a stutter-step as a knight would on a chessboard, while also tangling with two characters named “Bishop,” as well as queens and other characters derived from chess pieces. Edmund White once discussed the book as an elaborate chess game.
Nabokov was one of the great writers of last century, and these games, cute and clever as they sometimes were, tended to serve a greater purpose than mere mock-intellectual ornamentation. But that hasn’t stopped erstwhile interpreters of Nabokov’s work from treating them as such. I once read a highly interesting paper demonstrating a theory by which John Shade—the deceased poet whose long poem Richard Kinbote annotates in Nabokov’s Pale Fire—was actually the real author of the annotations. It was a wonderful read, and I found it highly persuasive, but the paper didn’t do anything beyond “solving” the book by promulgating this theory of Shade as the author. After some time I was forced to ask myself, so what? What if in fact Shade did possess Kinbote, thereby overseeing the annotations of his own poem? What does that mean? I began to see the paper—smart as it was in its own way—as not so much a piece of literary criticism as a kind of parlor trick, at best a plowing of the terrain that a critic would then take up to make a full reading of Pale Fire.
The problem with Nabokov’s novels is that they are all so carefully wrought as Pale Fire, with little (sometimes ridiculously tiny) hints and tip-offs pointing a reader toward a “solution,” that they seduce critics into trying to solve them rather than creatively read them. Obviously the cataloging of Nabokov’s clues and tip-offs has some place in the criticism of his writing—it is perhaps a necessary first step—but a good critic must go beyond simply following Nabokov’s trail of bread crumbs, instead forging her own path through these works, otherwise she runs the risk of merely acting as Nabokov’s factotum. This is a risk Michael Maar frequently succumbs to in his Speak, Nabokov, a little book with some charms but one that remains on the whole unsatisfying.
One problem with Maar’s scholarship is that a lot of it is so farfetched that it should never have been published. While discussing Nabokov’s infamous book of pedophilia, Maar takes up the tried and true theory that Lolita dies and Humbert imagines that she ran away with Quilty as a way to mask that. It’s an intriguing theory, but his sole piece of proof is the phrase “marble arms,” which Humbert uses to describe his arms that hold Lolita after sex. Maar finds it a reference to King Lear (because the le and the ar spell “lear”), and thus because Lear has lost Cordelia Humbert has lost Lolita. Such grasping speculation has little place in the kind of serious book that Maar wants Speak, Nabokov to be, but the fact is that far too often in this short book one’s eyebrows are raised in a similar fashion.
Another problem with Maar’s self-styled “literary sleuthing” is that much of what he presents isn’t exactly new. In addition to the well-worn theory of Lolita’s death, Maar recounts the oft-told tale about the famous ending of Nabokov’s short story “The Vane Sisters,” where readers must arrange the first letter from each word in the final paragraph to decode the secret message that explains the work. Sure, it’s interesting if you haven’t heard it before, but if you have heard it, Maar’s account offers nothing you don’t already know. Nor does it build to anything truly original. To make matters worse, Maar comes off as unreasonably credulous when he recounts that Nabokov—in an example of the grandiosity that he too often fell prey to—claimed his little trick “can be tried only once in a thousand years of fiction.” Maar first makes the difficult-to-believe statement that his idol made this declaration “in all modesty,” and then he later solemnly affirms “it is indeed a technical trick that one cannot use every week, but perhaps only once in a thousand years.” (Perhaps that should have given him pause; I’ve never really liked “The Vane Sisters’” little trick ending.)
Like a lesser magician profiting off of explaining the tricks of a true master, Maar repeatedly doles out these bits of Nabokov trivia. The anecdotes are indeed fun, but collecting and conveying them should not be confused with first-rate literary criticism.
This is something Maar seems to grasp in his chapter covering The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, Nabokov’s first novel in English and one of his most underrated works. After studiously picking up Nabokov’s bread crumbs, Maar unfurls this thought:
Why do the many books compressed into Sebastian Knight not break into disconnected fragments? The answer is already concealed in the title. A knight wears armor. Sebastian is the nude martyr pierced by arrows. The components of the name are mutually exclusive. Indeed, it is impossible that an armored book of fiction—which is what Sebastian Knight undoubtedly is—can portray something like naked Real Life. Either Sebastian or Knight: either real life or fiction. A book with this contradictory title apparently seeks to deal with the “either” and the “or” . . . the coincidence of opposites. . . . Only at the climaxes of Sebastian Knight do we witness how opposites merge into a higher unity.
This is an interesting (and to my eyes fresh) reading of The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, and one wishes that Speak, Nabokov offered less gimmickry and more of this, instead of anecdotes and theories that have already been widely circulated. But the fact is that Maar’s latest book continues the path he started out on with 2005′s The Two Lolitas. That slim, highly conjectural book catapulted Maar to prominence on the strength of the uninteresting fact that Nabokov might have read a 1916 story that featured a protagonist decidedly Humbertian for his love of a prepubescent girl named Lolita. The book made no serious attempt to prove Nabokov a plagiarist (and given the straitjacketed mastery of the English language that Nabokov demonstrates in Lolita, it would have been a fool’s errand), but it did offer a lot of dubious conjecture as to possible motives Nabokov might have had for things he possibly did. The reception was mixed: critics were ticked by the thought of an Ur-Lolita, but most recognized that simply discovering this prior text was not tantamount to serious literary criticism.
As with The Two Lolitas, Speak, Nabokov suffers from more conjecture surrounding the author’s life. At least Maar’s sleuthing of Nabokovian riddles has some value to a reader, but his “readings” of Nabokov’s life through his works offer little beyond extremely suspect conjecture. For instance, after listing numerous incidences of homosexuality in Nabokov’s works, Maar invokes the author’s brother Sergei, vaguely proffering him as a cause of this theme in Nabokov’s fiction because he was possibly gay. Even worse, after telling how Sergei was murdered by the Nazis in the Neuengamme concentration camp, Maar proclaims that a good chunk of Nabokov’s fiction is a way of sublimating his brother’s death. Maar caps off the section with this observation:
To Nabokov’s work Sergei’s death imparted some moderation and ambivalence. Ada would be an old man’s erotic dream without Ada’s neglected younger sister, Lucette, who resembles the author’s brother in many respects. Without Sergei, Charles Kinbote—who is musical, religious, and fond of German culture as well as young men—would have only comic sides and not also a tragic one.
How the death of Nabokov’s brother, which happened a good 17 years before Pale Fire was published and a full 24 before Ada, would play such a substantial role in the creation of these books is never explained. In Maar’s defense it must be said that not all of the personal readings of Nabokov are quite this egregious (though far too many are), and a few are even illuminating; points should be awarded to Maar for his insistence that Nabokov read and admired Schopenhauer and based his ideas about life beyond the grave on the philosopher’s The World as Will and Representation. Likewise, Maar also makes some worthwhile observations on the similarity of Nabokov’s story “The Potato Elf” to Thomas Mann’s story “Little Herr Friedmann.”
Maar is nothing if not a studious researcher of Nabokov—indeed, some of his better sleuthings imply a Talmudic dedication to parse every last line of Nabokov’s books. A fan of the author could do worse than spending an afternoon scooping up the factoids he has scattered throughout this easily digested read. Yet the true Nabokovian would do much better to take a month and read Brian Boyd’s masterful two-volume biography, which also includes much delightful trivia, but even more importantly offers robust and penetrating readings of each of Nabokov’s novels and major short stories.
But just because Maar’s book is a disappointment, don’t give up on Verso for literary criticism. They’ve admirably published a number of studies by the lucid and charming Franco Moretti, whose “statistical” approach to the 19th-century European novel is everything that Speak, Nabokov is not: original in approach, provocative in conclusions, rigorous and satisfying; it is literary criticism that enriches the original work rather than embellishing it.
Scott Esposito edits The Quarterly Conversation.
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