Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1742
“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 and more Nabokov.
However, better to have too much detail than too little, and much of Field’s detail is significant and important. The Tenishev school curriculum; the reading lists; the books in the family library; the information regarding the family’s political involvement—all these are important and essential to an understanding of Nabokov’s intellectual and emotional development as well as his passionate determination to be a Russian writer, a determination which he did not give up until the 1940’s, and then only with anguish. The reader will appreciate the accounts of the relationship between father and son, the early years of wealth, the first flight to escape the Bolshevik Revolution, and the successive stages of emigration. The flight continues out of political necessity when Nabokov and Véra, his wife, leave Nazi Germany for France only to be forced from Paris to America when France falls to Hitler. Field’s clear and moving accounts give the reader a sharp insight into Nabokov the man, and do much to illuminate the fiction of Nabokov the writer. The patterns of the life are reflected in the writer’s art.
The portrait of Nabokov’s father is especially important and well executed, based not only on family memoirs, but also on accounts of contemporaries. By all accounts, the father was a remarkable man whose influence on his son is made obvious—a man of “harmony and integrity,” of spirit and good humor, a loving father. He was a lecturer on criminology and literature, an expert lepidopterist, a journalist interested in abnormal psychology, a liberal politician, a man of courage and honor. When accused in print of marrying for money, he challenged the writer to a duel. Twice he was arrested for political activity. The first time it was for his attacks on the Tsar’s anti-Jewish pogroms and his protest of the Tsar’s dissolving the First Duma; the second time he was arrested by the Bolsheviks for his work with the Kerensky provisional government. Each time he faced his sentence with courage, attempting through letters to cheer his wife and children. His tragic death, occurring while he attempted to prevent the assassination of a colleague, shook the whole family. (The reader is never told how, when, or why the father and mother returned to Russia after perilously escaping from the Crimea under Bolshevik gunfire.) For the next thirteen years, Nabokov’s mother, Elena, and the three youngest children struggled in Prague on a small Czech government pension.
Vladimir Nabokov emerges as a man much like his father—a multitalented man of “harmony and integrity,” a loving son, husband, and father with a strong sense of humor, an enemy of totalitarian governments and anti-Semitism. His Berlin days were filled with jobs trying to stave off poverty; he taught everything from languages to tennis. He tried journalism, theater, and cinematography, including a bit part as a walk-on actor. Throughout these lean years he worked steadily to become an established Russian writer.
Although courted by the government to return to Russia, Nabokov, unlike many of the émigrés, knew that to return would mean to compromise his principles. He refused to consider the idea. Living in Berlin with his Jewish wife, Vera, Nabokov saw clearly the threat and approaching dangers of the Nazi government. After their son was born in 1937, the Nabokovs left Berlin forever, but he took his strong feelings about the Jewish persecution with him. He told Field: “There is a sense of responsibility about this theme which I think I will tackle one day. I will go down to those German camps and look at those places and write a terrible indictment.” His continuing opposition almost cost him his first fulltime job in the United States—his lectureship at Wellesley. Because the United States and Russia were, at the time, Allies fighting the Axis Powers, his stinging denunciations of the Bolsheviks were not approved of by the administrations. He refused to compromise. Later the termination of his teaching career at Cornell University came over a matter of principle about the teaching of Russian.
Like his father, Nabokov from childhood exhibited a strong sense of humor and a flair for the heroic gesture. Field illustrates this quality both by describing schoolboy pranks and by writing with mature humor, underlining the quality of wit so evident in Nabokov’s fiction. One of the first qualities that impressed Nabokov about Americans was their goodnatured honesty and sense of humor. Even his naturalization ceremony becomes a side-splitting roar of laughter. When his wife objects to being represented in the biography, Nabokov exclaims, “You can’t help being represented. We’re too far gone! It’s too late!” bursting into laughter that evokes tears. Like his father, too, Nabokov once issued an enemy a challenge to a duel over a matter of honor. In Berlin, he and another émigré drew straws to see who would be first to hit a violinist accused in court of driving his wife to suicide. The two carried out their plan, causing a general melee.
The Field portrait is various and lovingly executed. He shows us a man of moods and interests more complex than is generally known. Since Nabokov’s pursuit of chess and butterflies have often been used to make him seem something of a dilettante, Field balances the picture by showing Nabokov’s lifelong love of tennis and soccer as well. His active pursuit of soccer ended abruptly in his mid-thirties when he was knocked out on the field, suffering several broken ribs. The man that emerges from this wealth of detail is the whole man—a very different portrait from the stereotyped intellectual, esthete, and dandy.
Although Nabokov: His Life in Part is not as illuminating or as skillfully presented as Field’s early study, Nabokov: His Life in Art (1967), nor as thorough as his excellent Nabokov: A Bibliography (1973), it is a useful and informative work. Its flaws seem to result from the biographer’s being too close to his subject matter, too personally involved. It is as if Field were trying to write a Nabokov novel about Nabokov: techniques which work well for the master craftsman in fiction do not serve his biographer well. Still, the book’s major contributions far outweigh its flaws and disadvantages. The details and anecdotes, hardly touched on in this review, provide valuable insights into a time and place and people that might have been lost if Field had not captured them here. More importantly, of course, Field’s book provides another window on the fiction of Nabokov.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 35
Atlantic. CCXL, August, 1977, p. 94.
Best Sellers. XXXVII, September, 1977, p. 178.
Guardian Weekly. CXVII, July 24, 1977, p. 18.
New Statesman. XCIV, July 29, 1977, p. 154.
New Yorker. LIII, July 4, 1977, p. 88.
Sewanee Review. LXXXV, October, 1977, p. R102.
Times Literary Supplement. October 7, 1977, p. 1142.
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