Nabokov, Vladimir (Vol. 6)
Nabokov, Vladimir 1899–
Nabokov, born in Russia and educated in England, lived in Europe and, from 1940 until about 1970, in the United States. Still an American citizen, he now lives in Switzerland. Nabokov is a novelist, short story writer, poet, critic, playwright, autobiographer, and translator. Before 1940, he wrote in Russian; since then he has employed only English for his creative work. Nabokov's ineffable prose is joyful, intelligent, and sly, "too clever by half." Regarded as a whole, his books compose one of the most unique and distinguished oeuvres of our time. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)
Nabokov … regards the world we live in as possessing a reality, or unreality, of quite different order and value from that of the world in which, and out of which, he creates. The reality of the one and that of the other are as non-transferable currencies; the former is "unattainable," the latter always in process of being attained. The world of his art, distinct and discrete, may well be more real to him than the other one is, but by the same token it would also be the more mercurial, more protean, as mortal as he, profoundly and reliably unsure. The fictions of his art are less usefully thought of as competitive with the fictions of his life than as transformative of them, and less subject to the ravage of vicissitude—what [Quentin] Anderson may have had in mind when he spoke of Nabokov's art as "actually parasitic on the memory of an ordered community" [see CLC-3]. That community was not exactly a fiction—not, that is, if we are to insist on the value of distinctions, on the vitality and viability of language itself. If the "premise" of Nabokov's humanism, itself premised in that "ordered community," requires at times to be regarded as a fiction, it should be done so without ignoring the actuality behind it, or behind, as Mr. Anderson says, the "memory" of it. For I suppose it will have to be stated, dreary as it sounds, that the idea of fiction, like the idea of esthetic form, presupposes an idea of reality—and not just a reality qualified out of existence by the sophistical assumption that it consists of a bunch of moving shadows on the wall of a rather dim cave…. [Pnin delineates] a difference between what is outside and what is inside, between the existent reality and the reality we fabricate for ourselves to keep it from hurting too much. What Pnin enacts is the importance of such distinctions, and what it elicits is a sense of the respect due them, and due every level and order of the effort to make the kind of distinctions that ensure and enrich personal life, that serve to protect it from the damaging incursions of a disruptive and discontinuous world, and at the same time impart to it the fullest possible sense of the realities and imperatives of that world and the other humans who inhabit it. The story of Mira Belochkin is not simply an interpolation out of the mysterious source of a superabundant inventiveness, but central to the discriminations the novel makes in its perception of different levels of reality, different orders of fiction. (pp. 35-6)
But Pnin is one kind of discreteness, Pale Fire another. What in Pnin sustains the sensibility responsive to that "film of flesh" has in Pale Fire encased itself in the hardened plasticities of the "space traveler's helmet"—the adventurous reader is not allowed beyond the protective shield of its elaborate, often tedious, burlesque…. [The] reader doesn't count, he must fend for himself and chart his own excursions…. Nabokov's pastoral [is] enormously gay, especially for those who enjoy a suitably broad and properly elegant parody of the quasi-poetical compositions, pseudo-critical analyses and so-called scholar-critics whom (genuine critics aver) the novel makes particular fun of. And the bulk of that fun is the nit-witty chatter of the man who sits in his "wretched motor lodge" and tells tall tales about the lives of kings who are queens, jacks who are knaves, and the death of a dubious poet. As the king levitates, the fool leers. Kinbote sounds like a tower of babble talking to the pillars of gestalt. Whether he gives you shivers or fevers or anything else is an interesting question, but what impresses one about this novel is how Nabokov, in the cap and bells of his would-be scholar ex-king, and under conditions of limited visibility, is able to lead himself around by the sheer ring of authority in his voice. Navigation by sound is fine for the bat and the blind man; for the artist it is only one of a number of senses that guide him through his straits…. [What] happens to the "stage play" poet at the end of the book pretty well sums Pale Fire: it "perishes in the clash between two figments." (pp. 36-8)
Gene Ballif, in Salmagundi (copyright © 1970 by Skidmore College), Spring, 1970.
In [A Russian Beauty] Vladimir Nabokov carries on the bitter-sweet business of Englishing his Russian writings—bitter-sweet because it confirms that the Russian he wrote, like the Russia he wrote for, has receded forever into limbo. He enjoys pointing this out, and puts on a cool, arrogant air about it—the old Russia was a fiction anyway, that's why it was so charming—but nevertheless the regret comes through, tears shed over lost fictions are still real tears. A Russian Beauty (the title story is all gauzy hints and moist whispers redolent of lost youth) brings together pieces published in émigré journals between 1924 and 1940. Though they are nearly all complete stories, the dominant impression is of skimpy, rather ghostly incompleteness: paths never taken, futures that didn't materialize, books one might have written, but did not. The stories describe dispossession, and they convey it even more poignantly in their style, the pale pastel or sepia in which you can just make out an apartment in Berlin or Paris, a finger tapping nervously on a cigarette, a shifting street scene. There are moments of vivid feeling and grotesque comedy, but everything somehow is see-through and spectral, as though the author, even at the time of writing, envisioned with gloomy clarity the future nonexistence of this way of life and its peculiar idioms….
How on earth did this Russian Nabokov, with his wry, tenuous impressionism, manage to turn himself into the American Nabokov, the brilliant impersonator, the bold and tender humorist of Lolita and Pale Fire? They may share the same theory of the novel—the same belief in a hidden order, the refuge of art, and so on—but the one is so defensive and dreamy, the other so tough (flourishing against all odds in a robust, alien culture) that at moments they hardly seem the same writer.
Yet they are, of course, and while A Russian Beauty only obliquely anticipates the exuberant writer of the 1950s and 1960s, it fits in neatly with … Transparent Things. The old and the new seem to be merging, the wit of the middle years tapering off into emotional privacy again. Addicts of Nabokov's fiction will not mind; they will savour even the tetchy bibliographical remarks, the capricious mixture of indulgence and distaste he displays for his former self, the reader-baiting—"Only some very poor readers (or perhaps some exceptionally good ones) will scold me …". However, despite these marginal delights, the book remains an exercise in a rather specialized kind of nostalgia, and only real connoisseurs will appreciate the elusive flavour of its long-bottled griefs and joys.
"Quiet, Memory," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers, Ltd., 1973; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), October 12, 1973, p. 1210.
In Transparent Things, Vladimir Nabokov continues to spin round the drugged reader a web similar to those he has spun before. The hero, like Lolita's Humbert Humbert, entranced by a creature preposterously inadequate to the adoration—if adoration were subject to the rule of adequate cause—often acts the grotesque comic, but there is glory in the emotion itself. An important character in Transparent Things is a novelist, and, as in Pale Fire, the question of the priority of the narratives—and the propriety of the point of view—is open-ended. Like Ada, this newest novel is haunted by chronos. The three anchoring strands of Nabokov's web are love, consciousness, and time. (p. 85)
The entire novel can be construed as that transparent thing, hero Hugh Person, seen on the surface of reality arriving at a Swiss hotel, descended into as the reader submerges himself into his past, and finally, grown totally clear, translated into death under our very eyes. (p. 86)
For a work whose seat of consciousness is … deliberately, playfully elusive…, the controlling intelligence behind the masks of Transparent Things is unmistakable. It is the same intelligence whose absorption with pattern once shaped Bend Sinister and here creates a novel-within-a-novel, R.'s Figures in a Golden Window, dust jacketed in "flame and soot," which reverberates in a preponderance of orange and black imagery, including two crucial scenes: the dream of rescue in a flame-illuminated window that the sleeping Person envisions while he strangles his wife, and the attempted escape by window from the hotel fire which ends Person's life. It is the intelligence of The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, luxuriating in the rare word and the revealing etymology. It is the intelligence which used the iconography of cinema in the early King, Queen, Knave and now, in the new novel, is parodying cinemagraphic techniques: long shot, reaction, zoom, quick-cut, montage. This intelligence has always focused on certain themes—for example, on passion that creates and destroys.
On past occasions having entrapped his prey, the reader, too easily for pleasure, Nabokov takes bigger risks this time. His contempt for the Freudians is unabated: to his pantheon of lady psychoanalysts whose names—Melanie Weiss, Blanche Swarzmann—describe their black-and-white views, he has now added the sex researcher Clarisse Dark. Yet he has constructed a situation that seemingly demands a Freudian interpretation. Hugh Person meets his future wife, Armande, on a Swiss railway line between Thur (Hurt) and Versex (Vexers). She invites him to visit her in Witt, her village, where he is badly twitted. Despite Armande's unkindness and humorless stolidity and the obvious temperamental unsuitability of the couple, Hugh marries her. Their sexual relations are controlled by Armande's neuroses, but Hugh endures everything patiently. One night, deep in a dream, he strangles her. No motivation is offered; however, only a reader moving against the novel's texture will assume that Hugh's act is an expression of the unconscious hostility which he has been repressing. Nabokov's fictive world does not allow for the unconscious. It is filled, instead, with Hugh's thoughts and acts. (pp. 86-7)
The main interest of Transparent Things does not lie … in the psychology of the principal character. In this novel, as in his others, Nabokov is chiefly concerned with how certain philosophical ideas about love, consciousness, and time are transformed into art, about—as he says, speaking ostensibly of death, at the novel's close—"the mysterious mental maneuver needed to pass from one state of being to another." (p. 87)
June Perry Levine, "States of Being," in Prairie Schooner (© 1974 by University of Nebraska Press; reprinted by permission from Prairie Schooner), Spring, 1974, pp. 85-7.
Certainly Nabokov is a man with a sense of history, personal history, willing to document himself for himself, and for others. But I wonder how he approached the translation of these early short stories and fragments of unwritten novels [A Russian Beauty and Other Stories]. Did affection blur his eyes so that every rediscovered phrase was golden? Or did accumulated wisdom and experience tempt him to remedy what now seemed maladroit or immature? Or, best of all, did stern respect for the unique work of an unique individual breed its own discipline? Sometimes the brief introductions he has written to each of the pieces in this book suggest one possibility and sometimes another. False modesty would have been out of place, of course. But it's hard to decide when fair-minded admiration for the work of a fellow-writer who happens to have been oneself tips over into unseemly pushfulness.
It is also intriguing to see that Nabokov has turned to the shadowy watered silk and drifting rose petals of these stories, their events seemingly only half-seen, half-remembered even at the moment of their writing, just when he is reacting in his current work against the excellently brash virtuosity and genuine tenderness of the books that together have made him great. There's an examination of beginnings here, a rounding in. Possibly the old man is learning from the young. Possibly the jaunty old Russian-American has forgotten things that the spectral young Russian-German knew as daily commonplaces. Over forty years the two men have grown so far apart that their commonality is only barely discernable.
A Russian Beauty is fascinating in this: not so much in itself—for its bits and pieces are fleeting to the point of self-pastiche and elegant only so that they may laugh at their own elegance—but in that it brings these two men sharply together, publicly face to face. No doubt a brave confrontation, forward-looking. But it might just possibly be a sentimental reunion, profitable to neither. (p. 104)
D. G. Compton, in Books and Bookmen (© copyright D. G. Compton 1974), June, 1974.
What we are given in [Pale Fire] seems unlikely material for a novel: a Foreword, a tedious poem in four cantos by a John Frances Shade, and a series of notes written, as was the Foreword, and, apparently, the Index, by a visiting professor named Kinbote, intimated to be a fugitive from a country called Zembla. This incongruity of materials is part of the point; it is the transforming imagination at work upon the material, rather than the material itself, which makes for the novel.
Nabokov's slyness has been much discussed; what I want to concentrate upon here is the artful manner in which we are nudged through a series of onion-layer realizations about the significance of what it is we are reading.
Initially, we form the impression that Kinbote is a highly opinionated and waspish homosexual who sees himself in all events, insists that Shade's poem contains many veiled references to Zemblan intrigues and to himself, and perceives Shade's wife as an adversary or rival. (p. 324)
He claims that … his understanding of Shade and Shade's poem exceeds that of all others. In fact,… he tells us, it is only [his] notes which provide the "reality of the author and his surroundings, attachments and so forth." He concludes his commentary by observing that the poet might not agree with this, but "for better or worse, it is the commentator who has the last word." It owes to Nabokov's sleight-of-hand that only gradually we come to realize the full significance of that comment.
The next stage of our perception occurs when we become aware of what seem to be discrepancies between Kinbote's version of things, people, and incidents, and the straight of them. (pp. 324-25)
Then we come to the third layer, when we begin to realize that we have no idea what the truth of it all is, for we have to take Kinbote's word for everything. We are completely at his mercy. It is his Foreword, his commentary, and for all we know, it may be his poem. There is no external check on his veracity. Shade may be a character invented by Kinbote. And Kinbote may be mad. (p. 325)
There is … no external check on Kinbote's version of things, and if it be countered that the gulf between his perceptions and those of Shade and his wife constitutes that check, that is no counter at all, for it would be exactly that kind of foil which Kinbote the madman would compulsively create to feed his psychosis.
Kinbote may well live, then, in a world peopled by his imagination, and the linkage between his world and ours is manifest in our initial willingness to suspend disbelief and to perceive him as an eccentric in an objectified world, rather than as the demented solipsist we are forced toward ultimate recognition of.
That the entire fabric of Kinbote's own weaving is analogous to the mesh of the writer's peopling imagination is clear when Kinbote tells us, very near the end, that he will survive in one form or another, that he "may turn up yet, on another campus, as an old, happy, healthy, heterosexual Russian, a writer in exile, sans fame, sans future, sans audience, sans anything but his art," in other words, as Nabokov's fun-house mirror image of Nabokov. Or, Kinbote may "cook up a stage play, an old-fashioned melodrama with three principles [sic]: a lunatic who intends to kill an imaginary king, another lunatic who imagines himself to be that king, and a distinguished old poet who stumbles by chance into the line of fire, and perishes in the clash between the two figments." If Kinbote's self-revelation as a lunatic would seem initially to give the reality of contrast to the "old poet," we come inevitably to realize that that which perishes between two figments must itself be a figment, so that in fact all three become indeed "principles" rather than "principals." (pp. 325-26)
Robert S. Ryf, in Modern Fiction Studies (© 1974, by Purdue Research Foundation, West Lafayette, Indiana), Autumn, 1974.
The tension between the experience of the world and our knowledge of it through language is the basis of Nabokov's fiction. His often repeated comment about one's inability ever adequately to determine the nature of reality—a reality of an "infinite succession of levels, levels of perception, false bottoms and hence unquenchable, unattainable"—establishes the ambiguity of the background against which he floats his highly intricate, self-reflective artifices. His novels deal most fundamentally with the nature of creative language, juxtaposing his characters' inability to recognize the limits of language against the author's assertion of its possibilities. Humbert Humbert's lament, "Oh my Lolita, I have only words to play with," is echoed throughout Nabokov's fiction by his despairing and deranged characters as they try to give order and meaning to their lives. Deceived by the apparent transparency of language, these figures are in constant battle to protect their version of reality from the actual world around them (p. 357)
Humbert's awareness of his imprisonment in language serves as the turning point of the text. Previously, he had insisted that the child Dolores Haze individualize the essence of the nymphet. This ideal, once seen only as a dream more fanciful and more real than the girl, had floated between her and Humbert as a vision of desire "having no will, no consciousness—indeed no life of her own."… But in his attempted total possession of Dolores as Lolita, he demands that the dream be realized in this world, and conversely, that the world enter the realm of the dream. Dolores manages only to threaten the dream. And it is not until Humbert sees that the proper solipsizing of her is in art that he can truly separate his loves—his love for the Lolita of the dream and for Dolores, a by then abused and pregnant young woman.
Nabokov delightfully parodies his characters' confusion of realms, but it is his self-conscious irony that most strikes the reader. For as we are led through the mystification and misfortunes of Humbert, we are made constantly aware that the structure of events that appears threatening or confusing to Humbert (and the literal reader) is an artfully conceived web of enchantment for the author. By creating his playful and complex artifice, Nabokov asserts that he is conquering that which most disturbs his characters, the problem of linguistic reference. His novels are totally self-absorbed, self-referential linguistic games claiming no entrance into, no involvement with, the phenomenal world.
Nevertheless, what is most significant here is that the questions his characters raise, in their blindness, are invariably validated by Nabokov's self-consciousness. The textual conceits are extremely fragile. What prevents Nabokov's fictions from being irrelevant baubles of the self-enamored imagination is their composition out of the threat of chaos and silence that surrounds the characters. The fictions engage their own denial, and if Nabokov asserts the self-sufficiency of the virtual world of language, the infinite ambiguity of the real reveals how tenuous that world is. (pp. 357-58)
Charles Russell, in Modern Fiction Studies (© 1974, by Purdue Research Foundation, West Lafayette, Indiana), Autumn, 1974.
The ideal reader of "Look at the Harlequins!" should have all of Nabokov's previous novels under his belt; should be adept enough at Russian as well as English literary jokes to unravel the spoonerism "Chernolyubov and Dobroshevski" (I can do only half of that one), and should be armed with faith that the course is worth taking. Few candidates will pass.
In "Ada," Nabokov's lifelong preoccupation with doubles led him to create and populate an alternate planet. Here he limits himself to the "oblique autobiography" of a Russian émigré writer whose previous six novels in Russian and six in English are listed on the book's opening page instead of Nabokov's own fifteen. Vadim Vadimovich, four times married, ignorant of both chess and butterflies, wrote in Berlin and Paris as "V. Irisin" (Nabokov was "V. Sirin") before he first "worked without net" in English in a novel titled "See Under Real" in 1939 (see Nabokov's "Real Life of Sebastian Knight, The," 1941); he taught at Quirn College in the U.S. and made his great commercial success with "A Kingdom by the Sea" (see Poe's "Annabel Lee"), which was "A Book-of-the-Decade choice." (p. 98)
Vadim's admirers are constantly getting his titles wrong and confusing his chef-d'oeuvre in which "Bertram, an unbalanced youth … sells for ten dollars his ten-year-old sister Ginny to the middle-aged bachelor Al Garden" with another writer's "obscene novelette about little Lola or Lotte, whom some Austrian Jew or reformed pederast rapes after murdering her mother." Vadim is bothered by "a dream feeling that my life was the non-identical twin, a parody, an inferior variant of another man's life, somewhere on this or another earth. A demon, I felt, was forcing me to impersonate that other man, that other writer who was and would always be incomparably greater, healthier, and crueler than your obedient servant."
"Look at the Harlequins!" thus constantly teases us to "see under real," i.e., look beneath the factual resemblances to the actual Nabokov, or the semblances of him portrayed in the media, to the fantastic artifice that is his "true" self. This is one of his better mirror-boxes, with the usual annoyances of the dictionary hunt ("photic," "fatidic") and teeth-grating jokes…. If you can put up with all this, the sensuality, elegance and sunny arrogance of the performance are disagreeably pleasant. (pp. 98, 103)
Walter Clemons, "The Nabokov Game," in Newsweek (copyright 1974 by Newsweek, Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), October 7, 1974, pp. 98, 103.
[The] old artificer has written one of his slyest and funniest books [Look at the Harlequins!]. Admirers who sloped off muttering after a struggle with the intricacies of Ada are urged to reopen their hearts. (p. K29)
The novel is wholly lighthearted, a sunny absurdity that offers a mocking bow to the author's own worst possibilities, unfollowed bad impulses, and uncracked weak spots. His capering in Russian and French seems more playful than usual, and less pointedly designed to exclude readers so boorish as not to have been born Russian. (pp. K29, 116)
John Skow, "Butterflies Are Free," in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; copyright Time Inc.), October 7, 1974, pp. K29, 116.
After Joyce with his "portrait" of Stephen, after Proust with his "remembrance" of Marcel, there are few reasons to be surprised, and many reasons to be disappointed, by the complicated interplay between Vladimir Nabokov and the narrator of ["Look at the Harlequins"], his 37th book. Vadim Vadimovitch is a Russian emigré writer and a mirror image or "double" of Nabokov as a man and writer; but unlike Proust of Joyce, Nabokov never uses this version of himself as a way of questioning the authenticity of his own identity. The fictional self never challenges the "real" or authorial self. Nabokov and his works hover on the margins of the text, so to speak, as a static reality against which Vadim is to be measured. So that while the style of the novel is characteristically brilliant when it comes to erotic comedy or setting a scene or sketching in minor figures, it is deficient in another and far more important way. It lacks the dramatic intensifications, the exploratory feeling that in Joyce and Proust—and in our own time very often in Mailer—is a consequence of their wonderfully vital, vulnerable, intimidated (and not simply intimidating) relationship to fictional copies of themselves.
Vadim is allowed to do nothing that will surprise Nabokov, to test nothing that Nabokov hasn't already tested. For all his famous confidence in the power of fiction to create reality, even while conceding the arbitrariness of the methods for doing so, Nabokov is here, with an arrogance nearly charming in its absoluteness, loath to surrender much if any of his constituted self, as our greatest master of prose, to a mere fictional aspirant.
The puzzles and teasers in the book are fun to figure out when they are broadly parodistic, and altogether less so (though in these instances the vanity of discovery might pass for fun) when they require a detailed knowledge of the whole of Nabokov's oeuvre and the byways of his literary career. In either case the puzzles are without the resonance of personal drama that continues to move us in Proust or Joyce after all the exegesis is finished and that was also powerfully at work in "Lolita" and "Pale Fire."…
Precedents in other novels by Nabokov, such as "The Gift" or "Bend Sinister," where he is a spectral presence or even a direct intruder into the drama of the artist as lover/writer, only point to the unprecedented extent to which this latest book depends on Nabokov's use of himself as a double to the main character. "Look at the Harlequins!" nearly sinks under the weight of self-referential parodies and allusions. The complex interaction between Nabokov and Vadim, who admits to "impersonating somebody living as a real being beyond the constellation of my tears and asterisks … incomparably greater, healthier, and crueler than your obedient servant," can only be located by those willing to become "little Nabokovs," as the author once referred to his ideal readers. But aspirants to the title will fail if they depend for their nurturing only on this particular book; they will need to have been reared on all the others, as if the oeuvre were Nature itself.
And why not? Because, I suppose, there is a difference between any work that asks a reader to recognize some blurred similarities between the characters in it and figures outside it who belong to the great myths of our culture, ancient or modern—between, that is, a novel by Melville or Joyce, Faulkner or Pynchon—and a work like this one which almost exclusively refers us back into the confines of the writer's own life and literary career. Of course, objections on principle can, at many points, give way to pleasure when the allusiveness explains and redeems itself. But as a general rule the interplay depends upon a heady assumption about the Nabokoviana the reader knows or might possibly even care to know….
"Look at the Harlequins!" is finally an altogether coterie book, and while initially it may seem more available than "Ada," it proves, after any but the most superficial reading, resolutely presumptuous about the commitment expected from its readers. The profusion of abstruse literary jokes and esoteric coinages—such as one that refers us back to a volume of Verlaine called "Mes Hôpitaux" in order to understand Vadim's allusion to "Mes Moteaux"—makes us wonder if perhaps his deformations of Nabokov are not in themselves a series of jokes intended to make him the equivalent and not merely the inferior impersonator of Nabokov.
Nabokov, one has been made aware, is supposed to be the greatest "harlequin" of them all; and when Vadim was a boy his aunt would tell him to "Stop moping! Look at the harlequins!" "What harlequins? Where?" "Oh, everywhere. All around you. Trees are harlequins, words are harlequins. So are situations and sums. Put two things together—jokes, images—and you get a triple harlequin. Come on! Play! Invent the world! Invent reality!" It is as if Vadim and Nabokov were to be allowed to compete within the covers of the book for the privilege of "inventing" the true Nabokov….
Behind the often delightful invitation to play of mind there lurks a persistent didacticism. In correcting any mistaken ideas we may have about fiction and reality, Nabokov means to demonstrate that if fiction is not Reality, then neither is so-called "reality" outside of fiction. Reality, as he is fond of saying, always belongs in quotation marks. The ground thereby claimed by Nabokov's own fictional enterprise is, to say the very least, exorbitant—and he chooses to govern it all by himself….
[The] kind of exegetical efforts we are invited to make here need to be distinguished from those we are willing to make while reading Melville or Joyce or Pynchon. At their many puzzling moments those writers direct the attention of the reader not principally to their own literary texts and lives but to the life and texts of the existent world, with all its inheritances, in which they live and write. Theirs seems to me an altogether more exciting and important venture than Nabokov's, even if he has sometimes been called—and sometimes deserves to be called—our greatest living writer.
He stands on the periphery of the great tradition of American literature since Hawthorne and Melville, and of 20th-century literature since Joyce, in that he is, despite his terror of solipsism, its most awesome practitioner. He is not sufficiently vulnerable to—and his style is only infrequently enriched by—the power of the social and literary institutions by which man continues to invent himself.
In his splendid disdain for the power of most other fictions, except for some exclusively literary ones (as note his notorious contempt for Freud), Nabokov has at last proposed in this novel that he himself exists as an institution and that he is not only a product of artistic invention but, taken all together, the exemplification of it. It is therefore interesting to wonder, even while acknowledging the genius displayed in "Lolita" and "Pale Fire," whether Nabokov's great admiration for Joyce would at this point be reciprocated by a writer who left us such decisive parodies and implicit critiques of Walter Pater. Pater, in his disposition if not in the range of his mind or energy, seems to me the most direct antecedent to the Nabokov who wrote this book. (pp. 2-4)
Richard Poirier, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1974 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 13, 1974.
Vladimir Nabokov's last three novels form, in the squinting retrospect of at least this surveyor, a trilogy of sorts: "Ada," which is remarkably long; "Transparent Things," which is remarkably short; and … "Look at the Harlequins!," which is, like Mama Bear's chair, comfortably middle-sized. All three books … are—in the nicest possible sense—narcissistic to a degree unprecedented in his other English-language fiction, where a distinct madness differentiates the narrator (Humbert Humbert, Charles Kinbote) from the author, or where at the end Nabokov himself breaks in, as if to establish that his unfortunate heroes (Krug, Pnin) are somebody else entirely. But no such disclaimer attaches to Van Veen of "Ada" or to R. of "Transparent Things"—creations that flagrantly flirt with our knowledge of their creator. And the main movement of "Look at the Harlequins!," the core of its "combinational delight" (to quote "Pale Fire"), is the reduction to zero of the difference between the author and the apparently contrasting Russian émigré author, Vadim. (p. 209)
Nabokov's long joust and love feast with reality seems notably good-humored in this novel—the best, in my view, of his last three. If "Transparent Things" is a splintered hand mirror, and "Ada" cotton candy spun to the size of sunset cumulus, "Look at the Harlequins!" is a brown briefcase, as full of compartments as a magician's sleeve and lovingly thumbed to a scuff-colored limpness. It holds, in sometimes crumpled form, all the Nabokovian themes, from ardor to Zembla, and shares with us more frankly than any book since "The Gift" his writer's bliss, "the endless re-creation of my fluid self". (pp. 209-10)
Throughout the invented reality of this novel harlequins recur…. [A] harlequin's traditional lozenge pattern is a chessboard made oblique…. Vadim/Vladimir … notices "a pair of harlequin sunglasses, which for some reason suggested not protection from a harsh light but the masking of tear-swollen lids." Which hint of masked grief suggests, more strongly than is his wont, why our author has so insistently harlequinized the world and tweaked the chessboard of reality awry. (p. 212)
John Updike, "Motlier Than Ever," in The New Yorker (© 1974 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), November 11, 1974, pp. 209-12.
Among the many prestidigitating selves inside Vladimir Nabokov is a valet who can palm himself off on readers when the master grammarian is sleeping off his skills next door. As he has said, he "has always been a conjuror: all art is deception and so is nature—see the butterfly mimicking the leaf." So Look at the Harlequins! is the valet's fast-talking parody. He becomes Vadim—even Vadim McNab for a while, since Americans have difficulty with the two "o"'s that follow—a Russian émigré aristocrat, quick to enjoy puberty, living briefly in Cambridge (Eng) and France, writing poems and novels—ghostly list of books supplied….
Nabokov inherits the old Russian taste for Shandyism. Sterne, more than Joyce, is his master in English literature….
Look at the Harlequins! is not one of Nabokov's best fairy tales, but it is good farce throbbing with his well-known obsessions; there is the usual mingling of tenderness and menace and underlying all the exile's stinging sense of loss. The grammarian now overworks the word "fatidic" (Rare) and in describing a girl he never fails to mention "the clavicle." The country that replaces his lost native land is language, but he is not, as some have said, the cold perverse aesthete: no one who has read Pnin can say that. One thinks of Sterne again—Sterne who kept off madness by feverishly following his eye—in the erotic insinuation, in the passion for anatomy, in the old comedy of measurement, and the preoccupation with touch. Touch and the navigating eye keep him alive….
What nonsense I have been talking about Sterne! In this particular book one thinks of that other master of fairy tale, that other fisher of styles, P. G. Wodehouse…. Half the pleasure of late Nabokov lies in the déjà vu. There is only one serious flaw in the breezy narrative: the chapter on Vadim's secret visit to Russia in search of Isabel is a flop. It is the only chapter in which, to our embarrassment, laughter fails to draw blood. And that to an addicted Nabokovian is hard to bear.
V. S. Pritchett, "Nabokov's Touch," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1974 by NYREV, Inc.), November 28, 1974, p. 3.
If novels were composed of marvelous sentences Nabokov would surely have to be judged the greatest living writer; and it is certain he would be some kind of great writer if he were writing travel brochures, field guides to lepidoptery, technical manuals for the automotive industry.
But novels are not composed of beautiful sentences. Occasionally—perhaps especially when he has stunned us with his performance in sentence after sentence—we long for a huge, lumbering, sweating, grunting workhorse of a sentence that will ploddingly perform the brute labor of bearing its terrible, necessary burden from here to there. But of course getting "there" is not the point of [Look at the Harlequins!]; the point lies in the elaboration of fantastic, fugal designs, gorgeous patterns and textures, all with contemptuous grace and virtuosity. Such art is in the essence and by disdainful intention decadent, flung in the faces of the "facetious criticules in the Sunday papers" who charge him with "aristocratic obscurity." Nabokov is our great decadent, our reigning mandarin and eccentric, a supreme, determinedly minor artist whom major ones might well envy while criticules continue to carp and gnash the stubs of their teeth. (p. 29)
Saul Maloff, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1974 by The New Republic, Inc.), December 28, 1974.
Much influential criticism of Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita has placed more emphasis on the novel's playfulness than on its passion. The terms offered by Alfred Appel, Jr., Page Stegner and others as keys to an understanding of this and other Nabokovian fictions—artifice, patterning, involution, staging, coincidence, sleight of hand, game, puppet-show—suggest the aloofness of art from what must at this stage of the essay be gingerly referred to as "life." This emphasis has helped to locate Nabokov among such novelists of the idealist tradition as Proust, Kafka, Joyce, Borges, Beckett, and Barth, whose fiction dramatizes the insubstantiality, incomprehensibility, or triviality of the world and, in the case of some of these writers, if not all, the self-sufficiency of the artistic imagination and style.
The emphasis on his playful aloofness is not discouraged by Nabokov himself. He has many times, in his petulant instructions to would-be critics about how his work is to be taken, made fun of the notion that his fiction might be about anything other than itself. He has on several occasions suggested the comparison of his novels with games…. If the novels are truly analogous to chess problems, then no doubt they are elegant and original ones. As Nabokov strongly urges, what more is there to say? Who will be so ill-mannered as to descend to heavy discussion of themes and meanings? Criticism is out and annotation—the detection and savoring of puns and sui-references—is in. Thus conscience imposed by the author does make Kinbotes of us all.
But at least one of Nabokov's novels, Lolita, appears to prove the inadequacy of the chess problem or riddle analogy. There are, to be sure, self-conscious artistry, abundant puns and in-jokes in this novel; but the list of terms needed to do it justice would have to be extended considerably beyond those currently in vogue, including the artistic "virtues" enumerated by Nabokov, to include such old-fashioned notions as obsession, lyricism, love, guilt, life—even social purpose and a rather splendid sincerity—all of which belong to a world less safe and self-contained than that suggested by the game analogy. Unlike such truly slippery works by the same author as Pale Fire and Invitation to a Beheading (in which the hero's environment, established over the length of the novel, collapses in the final pages like a house of playing cards), Lolita has, in the words of Andrew Field [in Nabokov: His Life in Art] a "central reality" which "remains ever firm and vibrant." This central reality is an artist's painful discovery of his dependence on and vulnerability to his subject, a life beyond self and beyond art. Lolita may have no moral in tow, but it embodies a serious moral idea: the transcendence of the dichotomy of art and life in terms of which the game analogy has led critics to think. Stegner writes [in his introduction to The Portable Nabokov] that Nabokov's work "is not … about 'real' life at all. It is about art." Lolita shows that a book cannot be about truly valuable art unless it is also about real life.
No less than Borges's "The Circular Ruins" or Barth's Lost in the Funhouse, Lolita is a self-conscious investigation of artistic process; but its findings are significantly different. Where they end in tautology, it breaks out of the circle. Because its substantial portrayal of its hero is not undermined by either philosophical speculation or playfulness, Lolita suggests a Nabokovian affinity (the author's no doubt vigorous objections notwithstanding) less with fictional idealists than with such stories of the artist or artistic imagination as Melville's Moby-Dick, Hawthorne's The Blithedale Romance, Balzac's The Unknown Masterpiece, and most obviously perhaps, Mann's Death in Venice. Mann's novella begins with tension between the authoritative style of the established writer Aschenbach and his instinct, at middle age, "to seek the open." This instinct leads him to vacation in Venice, where he falls in love with a beautiful boy and, enthralled, perishes in an epidemic. The movement of Lolita is much the same: from stylistic closure toward openness and the potential for dissolution. It can be thought of as a movement of form in search of new content. (pp. 71-3)
Brent Harold, "'Lolita': Nabokov's Critique of Aloofness," in Papers on Language & Literature (copyright © 1975 by the Board of Trustees, Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville), Winter, 1975, pp. 71-82.
I have sometimes wondered if among his several accomplishments Mr. Nabokov was not at his best in the short story, and the appearance of this collection of his earliest work [Tyrants Destroyed] confirms me in my belief…. They are, as he tells us in the Foreword, "representative of my carefree expatriate output between 1924 and 1939, in Berlin, Paris, and Mentone." I take the word "carefree" with a pinch of salt, for he suffered the impoverishment of all refugees and that experience adds depth to his narratives.
One is very soon impressed with Nabokov's versatility. In the title story, written in the spring of 1938, when tyrants were in the ascendancy, he concentrates his feeling of out-rage in a fantasy that pierces the three of them. He tells us that he tutored boys during his expatriation, and the ignominy of tutors everywhere is reflected in the sixteen pages of "Perfection." In "A Nursery Tale," one of the earliest, young Erwin is tempted by the devil to stroll about town choosing the harem which he will be free to enjoy at midnight—a number of the girls are as young as Lolita, and it is surprising to see what happens. "Music," the most deft story in the book, shows the pathos of a broken marriage when the divorced couple meet by chance at a piano recital.
For originality, for the surprising beauty of simile and metaphor, and for the mischievous Olympian serenity with which he creates his situations, Nabokov is in a class by himself. (p. 144)
Edward Weeks, in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1975 by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), March, 1975.
Like Oscar Wilde and Charles Kinbote, Nabokov plays—has been playing now for many decades—a game to which self-appreciation is intrinsic. His invented selves even appreciate one another. John Ray, Jr., Ph.D., in his foreword to Lolita, tells us how to admire what Humbert Humbert accomplished in the 69 chapters of the narrative proper…. Ada concludes with a lyrical blurb for itself. The introduction to a reprinted Bend Sinister lists allusions no one seems to have noticed the first time around. The introduction to a revised Speak Memory prompts us to turn up a sentence deep in the book—"The ranks of words I reviewed were again so glowing, with their puffed-out little chests and trim uniforms…"—and discern buried there "the name of a great cartoonist and a tribute to him."
All reviewers, it seems, missed that one. Reviewers—torpid folk, and with deadlines—don't pick up Nabokov sentences one by one, as they're meant to be picked up, or marvel at their iridescences, tap them for false bottoms, check them for anagrams. His only fit reader is finally himself ("it is only the author's private satisfaction that counts"), and the rest of us should wait to speak until we're spoken to—as we are being, constantly, by all those notes and prefaces. (p. 21)
Those beautiful involuted sentences, which are Nabokov's hallmark, are ways to build a world, not ways to describe one. "Without any wind blowing, the sheer weight of a raindrop, shining in parasitic luxury on a cordate leaf, caused its tip to dip, and what looked like a globule of quicksilver performed a sudden glissando down the center vein, and then, having shed its bright load, the relieved leaf unbent. Tip, leaf, dip, relief…". Between book covers, there is no leaf and no raindrop until the creator has done all that. (p. 22)
[What] is really going on in Tyrants Destroyed [is] less the promotion of some negligible stories than their careful assignment to year and month and room and weather and journal, the reinvention of an aspect of the author's past, a pendant to Speak Memory.
For his chief work is finally himself, as it was Hemingway's, as it was Huysmans's. Joris-Karl Huysmans (1848–1907) is a point de repère Nabokov's appreciators seem to have shunned. Contemplators of Ada's lush verbal jungle (now sleeps the nacreous petal, now the gules) might adduce with advantage the creator of Des Esseintes, whose tortoises were bejeweled, and who tired of flowers, and indulged in artificial flowers, and then tired of those and sought out real flowers so exotic they could pass for artificial. (p. 24)
Hugh Kenner, "Mockings of the Master Illusionist," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1975 by Saturday Review/World, Inc.; reprinted with permission), March 8, 1975, pp. 21-4.
To my ears most of Nabokov's writing since "Lolita" will necessarily remain more or less unknown. I cannot reread "Pale Fire," and I could not get through "Ada" the first time around. Something has gone wrong: Nabokov's fiction has become approximately as accessible as the Swiss mountain peaks which now surround him, but that is another story. The story, or stories (there are 13 of them) in "Tyrants Destroyed" are accessible enough, perhaps because they were originally written for the sort of liberal émigré intelligentsia which, of all Nabokov's various audiences, must be the one he was most directly connected with….
Aside from the pleasure of connecting these stories with Nabokov's longer and better known works, our hypothetical reader will find at least one almost perfect little story, "The Admiralty Spire," which must be among the most completely funny things Nabokov has ever written….
Poe is the one native American writer who might conceivably have influenced Nabokov, and (influence aside) it seems obvious that Nabokov and Poe have a lot in common. I say this rather worriedly, since I think of Nabokov as a very fine artist, whereas I was educated with Ivor Winter's critical dooms echoing in my ears, and Winters, after all, found that Poe wrote poetry fit only "to delight the soul of a housemaid."… Is there not an element of claptrap in these stories, of good old 19th-century romantic flimflam? I think there is, and that indeed it is one of the charms and surprises of reading this collection, that it allows one to think of Nabokov not in his own terms, which have become progressively more solipsistic and self-referential, but as a startingly fresh and beautifully talented practitioner of certain fairy tale 19th-century literary traditions. Aside from Poe, I found myself thinking of Maupassant as I read the very early "A Matter of Chance," which is just the sort of toughly ironic concoction with a wistful center that most of us ate up in high school.
I say this not to disparage Nabokov but simply to suggest that we are much closer to understanding what sort of artist he is if we think of him as a really good and witty Poe rather than an artful Sartre or a flighty Joyce. Nabokov has never set up to be a wise man or a sound observer of the human scene and it does him no good at all to be treated as a philosophic or comprehensive novelist, especially since within his own terrain of slightly unreal poetic obsessions he is quite clearly a supreme master. Who else could have brought off "Lolita"? (pp. 4-5)
Thomas Rogers, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 9, 1975.
Mr Nabokov clearly thinks of himself as a very good, if not a great writer; having been praised by sycophantic American reviewers, and having been read by a small percentage of the American middle classes, he has come to the blinding conclusion that the important thing about Nabokov's writings is Nabokov himself. This is the common strategy of second rate writers, and in Look at the Harlequins! Nabokov has forestalled the judgement of whatever thin cultural history is written of our time and has composed his own literary history. This is the novel to end all of Nabokov's novels—or at least one hopes so….
What we have, as always, is a magical mystery tour into the purlieus of Nabokov's greatness, and in Look at the Harlequins! he presses his search into himself with even greater fervour, daring to go where no man has gone before. He drops a host of tiny allusions and coy hints about his previous novels, and there are a great many characters and situations which have an unmistakable air of déjà lus about them. There are two explanations for this: it may be that Nabokov is fascinated by his own work, and so continues to harrass and worry it in order to extract some key or secret code which will justify it all; or, more probably, it may be that his talent has long since atrophied and he is condemned to the constant reworking of his original material, to press some scent out of the already heavily pressed flower.
But to offer Look at the Harlequins! as another and a different novel requires the help of two overweening assumptions: the first is that the readers will be so familiar with the range of Nabokov's work that they will pick up the allusions which fly toward them. This is, of course, an unwarranted assumption. The second is, that Nabokov is a great enough writer to be able to afford the luxury of such self-indulgence. To put it more crisply, are his novels good enough to be remembered? No. He simply takes part in more and more elaborate exercises in self-justification and, if you forget the rhetorical tricks which have endeared him to the American critics, there is not and there never has been anything of great import in his writing.
This is principally because Nabokov is a rhetorician rather than a creative writer. He has mastered all of the technical tricks of the novel, and he has invented a few of his own, but the heart of the matter has consistently eluded him. So he is forced to recapitulate the themes and the appearances of his earlier fiction, a fiction composed of fancies rather than imagination, and will never develop its substance…. When a novel strives too hard to become literature, it falls into literariness. Nabokov's words are hollow and external, and he lays them on with a very flat trowel. All that is left is a solemn persona playing with himself and that—of course—leads to blindness.
Peter Ackroyd, "Soi-disant," in The Spectator (© 1975 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), April 19, 1975, p. 476.
It is the melancholy preoccupation with the meaning of exile that lifts the new Nabokov, Look at the Harlequins!, far above its recent predecessors and makes it his saddest, most likeable book since Pale Fire. Too often lately, enchanted—almost as enchanted as the author himself has seemed to be—with that gross, ingenious intelligence, one has woken up to find that one has been enamoured with an ass. But after all the spoonbending, sharped cards, falsebottomed boxes and bamboozling with which it's crammed, Look at the Harlequins! survives as a magnificent novel about solitude. It is alternately wickedly funny and heartbreaking.
It purports to be the memoirs—the Speak, Memory—of an émigŕe Russian writer called Vadim Vadimovich whose trashy novels are frequently mistaken for those of Vladimir Nabokov. The confusion is pardonable….
Indeed, Vadimovich is a cheesecake Nabokov and his life, similarly coarsened, sentimentalised and misprinted, tracks Speak, Memory just as [his novel] A Kingdom by the Sea tracks Lolita…. In Look at the Harlequins! everything and everybody is a version, a translation, a shadow of something or somebody else.
Thus far, Nabokov is doing no more than rattling the customary small change of his fiction and horsing with familiar ultimacies. But in the novel, all is so deeply rooted in the character of Vadimovich himself that the tricks, games and speculations which Nabokov has tended to leave strewn over the surface of his books are more deeply absorbed into this one than perhaps they have ever been before. Vadimovich, by taking leave of Russia, is at home nowhere. His English is a shaky blend of grammarian's pedantry and miscued slang. The Russian in his head is a rusty treasure trove. The language of the novel is itself homeless, displaced—a hyperactive mongrel of English, French and Russian.
There is hardly a paragraph in the book which does not expose some humiliating embarrassment caused by misunderstanding and mistranslation…. Life cheapens irremediably in translation, and Vadimovich is condemned to life in a state of perpetual translatorese, by turns mistaking and mistaken. He is impervious to the sneers he receives from people around him because he usually fails to understand them, or takes them for oblique compliments; and Nabokov is marvellous at making the reader wince with shame for Vadimovich while Vadimovich himself blusters innocently through a thicket of condescending insults.
Correspondingly, Vadimovich's own sensitivities are incommunicable, locked inside the rhino-hide of his immense ego. The writing for which he lives—the blessed transformation of life into art, into harlequins—is, as Nabokov cunningly reveals, paltry stuff. But it is unnervingly close to Nabokov's own fiction. Look at the Harlequins! is flooded by a kind of experimental doubt; reading it is like watching a priest teasing himself with the seeds of his own atheism….
For in Nabokov as in Joyce, art and exile are coupled notions. Vadimovich flees from Russia—and from life—into the consolations of making phrases. Look at the Harlequins! reveals him to be no more at home in literature than he is in Paris or at the ghastly University of Quirn. His wives and his child, each one a corrupt translation of another, are dim shadows on the walls of his empty cave of language. And at the end the terrible, jealous vacancy of his life distils into a senile babble about being brought rum with his tea—the final vengeance of the world of the commonplace. Perhaps the book really is a requiem for a dead parrot [the parrot having been a recurring image].
It is undoubtedly fired by something blacker and more troubled than one is used to in Nabokov's novels. In his afterword to Lolita he said that that book had been touched off by reading a newspaper story about an ape which, given paints and paper, could only portray the bars of its cage. That poor monkey has never been far away in all Nabokov's books, but it has been usually regarded with knowing gloom. Here it is contemplated with something very like despair. Even his beloved butterflies seem to have lost their charm in Look at the Harlequins!—they are dead, but their wings still flutter from the twitch of a convulsive nerve after their thoraxes have been squeezed. "One pinch is enough", says their captor smugly. Vadimovich, paralysed by a seizure of the heart, is a pinched butterfly himself, and Nabokov seems unhappy to find himself in possession of such a disturbingly recognisable trophy. By the end of the book, the title, now abbreviated to LATH like an entry in a dusty bibliography, has changed from a promise and an invitation to a mocking jeer. (pp. 79-81)
Jonathan Raban, in Encounter (© 1975 by Encounter Ltd.), June, 1975.
'What is translation? On a platter/A poet's pale and glaring head,/A parrot's screech, a monkey's chatter,/And profanation of the dead.' Nabokov's strictures (from On Translating Eugene Onegin) apply no less to self-translation; moreover, there are two varieties of profanation in the English versions of his Russian work. Those he has translated himself (Despair, Laughter in the Dark) enjoy the full concentration of his mature stylistic fizz; the rest, worked up from a collaborator's initial literal version, vary greatly in the extent of their final gloss. Tyrants Destroyed has been only lightly revamped, and reads smoothly and untrickily despite occasional infelicities…. The stories belong to what Nabokov calls a period of 'carefree expatriate tvorchestvo' (creative output); and if none revealed an unexpected side of his talent, they are still highly impressive limbering-up exercises. Witty, alertly self-conscious, with occasional pre-echoes of characters like Luzhin and Humbert, they toy with ideas of chance, coincidence and surprise, turning on neat literary notions rather than observed situations; the pleasure (for him and us) is all in the smartness of the story-telling and the momentary images. When he tries more—moral or social commentary—as in the title story, the success is partial: a memoir of the youth and hideous career of a Stalin-like dictator comes to the flat (and absurd) conclusion that tyrants can be destroyed by the miraculous power of laughter.
The final story in Tyrants Destroyed is the only one written in English, and … it's an appropriate reminder of the stimulating effect of the change of language. Nabokov may waggishly complain, in his note on Lolita, that he exchanged 'my untrammelled, rich, and infinitely docile Russian tongue for a second-rate brand of English'; but few would agree. The Vane Sisters is structurally much more daring, not to say eccentric, hinging on a cute acrostic in the final paragraph; the tone more ironic (and often merely nastier); and the language more ripplingly inventive. (p. 650)
Julian Barnes, in New Statesman (© 1975 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), November 21, 1975.
LATH [Nabokov's acronym for Look at the Harlequins!] isn't without strong points. Virtually every sentence is admirably composed—Nabokov is after all a great cadenza artist, the Franz Liszt of English prose. His set characterizations still amuse. His eye for flora-fauna remains vivid, eidetic as ever, though some lush landscapes seem gratuitous, flourishes thrown in for virtuosity's sake. Vadim's four marriages make possible the only sustainedly good parts of the book—the droll erotic escapades, both in bed and out. Paris in the 20s is nicely summed up for its seasonal hues, and there are a few quotable one-liners about brothels in France.
But these scattered strengths are vitiated by the hero's unrelieved resemblance to his cranky creator. Nabokov's notorious quirks, moreover, have become too pronounced for comfort. Earlier he had attacked "Einstein's slick formulae" (sic), even when admitting to ignorance of physics. Here he ridicules "Neochomsk" and "the About-Nothing land of philosophic linguistics." I ponder that potshot, and wonder just how much of Chomsky Nabokov knows (and by extension how much Marx, how much Freud …). In addition, the snobby side of Nabokov, ever-addicted to easy derogation, here turns simply perverse, nasty. Such characterizations as "a particularly stupid baby-sitter" or "Mrs. Blagovo was a half-witted cripple" are pointless cruelties, big guns for small prey. Who gets it next—double amputee grape-pickers?
LATH furthermore is heavy with a schoolboy-smartsy anti-Communism—this from a writer allegedly scornful of "political-publicist" fiction!… There is a visit to Leningrad where, like a Luce or a Buckley, Vadim strings bons mots about the slow, slow restaurant service. Nabokov's criticisms, as any visitor to Russia knows, are very true—and very obvious and easy. They show a politically platitudinous mind at work. Satirizing Soviet hotels and set phrases is like wisecracking about Twinky ads or Tricky Dick. Who can't hit the side of a barn?
LATH is a book of scant intrinsic interest. For full impact it depends exclusively on reader's initiation into a private cult. It has no outside referents, and its recurrent bouts of self-praise … surpass any narcissism in Making It or Mailer. It is the ultimate special-interest novel, serving the particularist concern of one man—and of his academic acolytes, that obedient progeny who, after extolling LATH, will run off and track down the hotel allusions, the Slavic puns and quotes, the old scores settled by hidden sneers. What is most disturbing is that, save for Richard Poirier [see excerpts, above], no reviewer has seen fit to discuss the book's grave flaws, disturbing indeed that such onanistic fluff, such bad books as Ada or LATH—books so querulous and mean, intellectually so vacuous and flat—can command floods of servile applause from learned literati. Never mind the Soviets; Nabokov is the Andrei Zhdanov of American lit. crit. (pp. 119-20)
Unlike LATH, much of Tyrants Destroyed is quite likable. A couple [of] these pieces appeared in The New Yorker—understandably, for, while transcending the spruce neatness of that magazine, they also contain the right mixture of civilized grace and gaiety, of understated warmth and wit. Several stories here are as good as anything in Chekhov or Joyce. Reading them, you wonder what ever became of that Nabokov—something to do with life in the Alps, I suppose. But after Ada and LATH one can sympathize with E. M. Forster, who simply stopped writing novels when he felt he had said all he could say. (p. 120)
Gene H. Bell, in Commonweal (copyright © 1976 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), February 13, 1976.