Vladimir Nabokov, Volume II
Vladimir Nabokov: The Russian Years (1990), the first volume of Brian Boyd’s massive biography, ended in May, 1940, in the port of Saint Nazaire, France, with Vladimir and Véra Nabokov and their six-year-old son Dmitri about to board the ship that would take them to America, only three weeks before German troops entered Paris. In the opening pages of his second volume, Boyd reprises that scene at Saint Nazaire as it was recalled by Nabokov himself in the last paragraph of his memoir Speak, Memory (1966; a revised version of Conclusive Evidence, 1951):
we did not immediately point out to our child, so as to enjoy in full the blissful shock, the enchantment and glee he would experience on discovering.…a splendid ship’s funnel, showing behind the clothesline as something in a scrambled picture—Find What the Sailor Has Hidden—that the finder cannot unsee once it has been seen.
Why, Boyd asks, did Nabokov choose to end his autobiography with this anecdote? The answer reveals much not only about the structure of Speak, Memory but also about the distinctive outlook that informs all of Nabokov’s works: “his sense of an unseen design behind the apparent chaos of life, an unimaginable freedom beyond even the keenest thrills consciousness allows.” That perspective, Boyd suggests, is the key to understanding Nabokov’s life and art.
Seen in retrospect, a well-known life has a false sense of inevitability—an ersatz substitute for the “sense of an unseen design” that Nabokov treasured. To get the real thing, one has to follow a life as it unfolded, with all of its twists and turns, its dead ends and chance encounters, all the while holding in mind an awareness of the completed pattern. It is a measure of Boyd’s art as a biographer that his narrative sustains this dual consciousness.
The span of Nabokov’s life covered in this volume may be divided into three periods. The first period, from 1940 to 1948, was a time of financial insecurity, ill health and dental woes, and prodigious work, during which Nabokov established himself as a writer in English. When he arrived in New York in 1940, at the age of forty-one, Nabokov had already finished his first novel written in English, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (1941), yet his full transition from Russian to English was by no means clear-cut. Boyd succeeds in making vivid Nabokov’s gradual renunciation of his mother-tongue and his growing confidence in his mastery of English, even though for the reader the outcome is never in doubt. This was also the period in which Nabokov became acquainted with America, a “new and beloved land” in which, he said, he was immediately at home.
For much of this period Nabokov taught at Wellesley College, but his salary there was meager and he was never offered a permanent position. (His outspoken anti-Soviet views were not in accord with prevailing public sentiment or, more important, with the views of the college’s president.) He also drew support from literary philanthropies, especially vital during his first years in America, and briefly went on the lecture circuit.
Writing was another source of income, and there the help of Edmund Wilson was invaluable. Nabokov met Wilson in October, 1940, through his cousin Nicolas Nabokov, a composer. Then widely acknowledged as America’s preeminent literary critic, Wilson quickly recognized Nabokov’s gifts and used his connections to send review-assignments and other literary projects in Nabokov’s direction. Mutual regard developed into friendship—for Nabokov, by far the deepest friendship of his American years—and yet it was a relationship which, primarily on Wilson’s part, was bedeviled from the start by tension and rivalry. Edward Weeks, the editor of the Atlantic Monthly, was another early Nabokov admirer, and a number of Nabokov’s first stories in English were published in the Atlantic. Even more important for Nabokov in the long run was the interest taken in his work by Katharine White, fiction editor at The New Yorker; in 1944, he accepted a first-reading agreement with the magazine. Among the many treasures of this volume are several examples of Nabokov’s patient, witty, meticulous responses to overzealous New Yorker editors.
This was also the period of Nabokov’s most intensive work as a lepidopterist. Butterflies were a lifelong passion for Nabokov, but at no other time in his life did he spend so much time in concentrated scientific study. First as an unpaid volunteer (“unofficial curator of lepidoptera,” in Boyd’s words), later with a modest salary, he spent countless hours at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology. In addition, much of his time each summer was spent butterfly-hunting in the western United...
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