Inventing Ivanov

Beginning with a list of works by the fictive I. D. Ivanov and with his family tree, the book crosscuts scenes in contemporary Los Angeles with Ivanov’s versions of events decades earlier--in Russia, England, Germany, and France. It is a fictional biography that remains in process and inscrutable, a haunting rumination on the lethal dangers of living off someone else’s experience.

Ivanov sits in his beachfront condominium in Southern California and slyly mixes memories and desire for the benefit and exasperation of E. Michael Ross, an academic desperate for promotion and tenure. Ross is convinced that an authorized study of the famous Ivanov will establish his scholarly credentials. The feeble old man still possesses a powerful imagination and a mischievous urge, however, to confound his young pedantic parasite.

The Revolution ends forever the idyllic, privileged childhood of Ivan Dmitrievich (Vanya) Ivanov, son of an important adviser to the czar. While he and his slightly older brother Misha are studying at Oxford, their father is assassinated in Berlin. Ascetic Misha disappears into murky underground activities and, eventually, ends up in a Soviet prison, while aesthetic Vanya flees wartime Paris with his child bride, Natasha.

Ivanov’s life and works are remarkably similar to those of Nabokov; so, too, is his luxuriantly dense style and that of this book about him. Brooding over irreparable loss, the novel presents its resonant language as a self-evidently inadequate consolation. Memory is Ivanov’s persistent subject, but as Natasha observes, “Memory is dreams and lies and hopes and disappointments and fantasies and possibilities, all that in the past.”

The book’s elaborate pattern of doublings suggests an unbridgeable chasm between past and present and between life and art. More playfully than the Greeks, it presents art as flawed imitation. Yet Smoodin deserves considerable credit for inventing Ivanov.