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(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 18)

“Do you know this man now?” As Field asks in the conclusion to this book, the question is, of course, the ultimate one to be asked of every biography. The answer in this case is not a simple one. Auden, Eliot, and Nabokov himself have long maintained that their works should stand alone, speaking for themselves. Yet scholars have long agreed that to appreciate fully a given author’s imaginative scope and creative ability, a thorough and perceptive literary biography can be of immense aid. Field—in the title, throughout the book, in the conclusion—points to the inconclusive and often contradictory nature of facts, both personal and historical, and the elusive nature of trying to “capture” a real person in time and place. At moments, Field succeeds brilliantly; at points, his failures are irritating.

In attempting to write an unconventional and inventive biography, Field has created unnecessary stumbling blocks for the reader. Time sequences are often confusing, with phrases such as “but that was later” or “but that was earlier”; incidents which begin in the present suddenly drop back three or four years. Chronological problems abound. If Field wanted to avoid the usual ponderous overdating which often makes many scholarly biographies such dull reading, he should at least have added an appendix of names and events in chronological order. A bibliography of his sources would not have been amiss either, for he uses no footnotes, leaving the reader no way to check his accuracy. An index should also have been included in a book of this nature. Unless the reader marks the pages as he goes along, he will find it virtually impossible to relocate specific points without actually rereading whole chapters page by page. Library copies will, no doubt, quickly become a jungle of underlinings.

In establishing an informal, almost gossipy tone and style for the book, Field occasionally lapses into self-indulgence which seems to focus more on himself than on Nabokov, such as in his overly long, almost maudlin reaction to the death of Nabokov’s young cousin Yurik. The whole first chapter is also a case in point, in which Field talks almost entirely about his long personal relationship with Nabokov and his problems with the novelist in trying to write the biography. The book abounds with this kind of self-indulgence. The full-page account of a house, of which he cannot even find a photograph, seems needlessly sentimental and long, leaving the reader with no new information. His evocation of St. Petersburg as it was in the youth of Nabokov, Field admits that even Nabokov criticized as “a dreadful macédoine.” That Field’s images have come straight from the poetry of Nabokov does not save the description.

Another kind of failure is one that scholars will look more kindly upon, even if they occasionally become bored with the piles of details. Field has thoroughly researched the materials for this book; unfortunately, he seems unable to discriminate between those facts which illuminate his subject and those which simply obscure it. One wonders if the time spent “guessing” when Nabokov’s father first grew his mustache might not have been better employed. The long discussion of family origins and genealogy could have been heavily edited without losing the main point: the social position of the Nabokov family through two generations. The same is true for much of the introductory material about the Tenishev School which Nabokov attended—its founding, its theories, its exterior architecture. The mini-biography of Nabokov’s literature teacher, Gippius, also becomes tedious. Even though Field’s observations on literary influence are perceptive and persuading, the reader learns more about Gippius than he wants to know. Were this book as substantial as Blotner’s two-volume biography of Faulkner, these superfluous details would not matter so much; however, in a biography this brief, the reader would appreciate less Gippius...

(The entire section is 1,777 words.)