The Magician’s Doubts

In this thoughtful exploration of Vladimir Nabokov’s major English-language fiction (from THE REAL LIFE OF SEBASTIAN KNIGHT to LOLITA, PALE FIRE, and ADA), Michael Wood seeks to delve behind the mask (or masks) that Nabokov presented to the reading public. To help the reader approach Nabokov’s complex literary creations, Wood suggests that one should keep in mind fours sets of meanings which may be evoked in his use of the name “Nabokov”: the historical person whose biography has been documented by others (such as Brian Boyd); a public persona constructed out of numerous commentaries and interviews; a less confident, more vulnerable figure whose existence can be sensed in the literary texts; and a particular style of writing that is immediately identifiable as Nabokovian.

Wood’s readings prove especially illuminating when he examines those fissures in the fiction where one can see Nabokov “the haughty mandarin” coming together with “the great, doubting magician.” Gliding swiftly over passages in which Nabokov displays a kind of showy linguistic and inventive brilliance, Wood pauses on passages of haunting emotional depth in which one finds the elusive, questioning, vulnerable Nabokov at work. His commentary highlights the subtle elements in a text which lead one to question the overt messages of that text, whether it be the passionate ravings of Humbert Humbert in LOLITA or the desperate delusions of the would-be king Charles Kinbote in PALE FIRE. To Wood’s credit, he does not always attempt to provide a definitive answer to the questions he has raised, but the very way in which he frames and asks his questions casts new light onto long-familiar terrain. THE MAGICIAN’S DOUBTS will find a welcome place on the bookshelves of those readers with a special fondness for Nabokov’s fiction.