Nabokov, Vladimir 1899–
Nabokov is a Russian-born American citizen now living in Switzerland. Principally known for his novel Lolita, he continues to publish original work in English while also republishing translated versions of his early Russian novels. His style is uniquely baroque and playful, and his work includes stories, poems, criticism, plays, autobiography, and translations. Among his fictions are Ada, Pnin, Glory, Invitation to a Beheading, and Transparent Things. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)
To approach Nabokov's novels with anything less than complete humility is not only an act of arrogance but of foolishness, for if the novelist's art, as Nabokov suggested in his autobiographical memoir, Speak, Memory, is to compose elaborate and significant puzzles in which "the real clash is not between the characters but between the author and the world," too often even his most dedicated and enthusiastic critics lose the game disastrously and are left red-faced and gasping for breath….
Nabokov's position in literary life is unique: he has no double in recorded literary history. He is, with Boris Pasternak, one of the two greatest Russian novelists of his time, and he is, with William Faulkner, one of the two great American novelists of that same time. He is, in fact, his own double—at once the two greatest living novelists, himself the mirror of his own reflection. And his novels are genuinely Russian and as genuinely American—The Gift is, to my knowledge, the best modern Russian novel in both manner and matter, and Pale Fire is, to my mind, one of the best novels in English to have been written in this century.
There are eight novels and a novella in Russian and five novels in English, and these fourteen volumes, for all their being in two languages and the products of two literatures, are of a piece, forming together a real canon, a multi-mirrored labyrinth of reflecting and repeating dreams and nightmares, disasters and delights. Speakers and voices may vary from volume to volume, but the maker's hand is consistently firm as the hallmarks of his steady and continuing vision remain clear and sharp from first to last. He is clearly and always the maker of these books, the serious and deceptive artist with whom we must play the game.
The central figure of Nabokov's novels is the artist, the man of sensitivity and imagination. Hero and dragon alike dream the creative dream and either shape that dream into immutable art or are destroyed by it in a mutable world.
R. H. W. Dillard, "Not Text, But Texture: The Novels of Vladimir Nabokov," in Hollins Critic, June, 1966, pp. 1-12.
"I have no desire to twist and batter an unambiguous apparatus criticus into the monstrous semblance of a novel," says the mad critic Charles Kinbote in Pale Fire. He succeeded in producing the most ambiguous apparatus criticus imaginable, and his maniacal creator, Vladimir Nabokov, twisted and battered that into the finest comic novel since Ulysses….
[Nabokov] is wonderfully funny, while at the same time he is wonderfully serious. His books are intricate puzzles. Chinese ivories, Fabergé eggs; they represent the triumph of artifice. But his themes are profound: the interpenetration of illusion and reality in Pale Fire; the interpenetration of art and life in The Gift. Nabokov is a unique phenomenon in our literature (no one has yet had the temerity to imitate him except Thomas Pynchon in V.), as he was a unique phenomenon in Russian literature. Pale Fire and The Gift, which continually threaten to shatter the novel form, turn out finally to be enlargements of it, as Ulysses and Finnegans Wake are. It is about time we recognized that Vladimir Nabokov is a novelist of major importance.
Stanley Edgar Hyman, "Nabokov's Gift," in his Standards: A Chronicle of Books for Our Time (© 1966; reprinted by permission of the publisher, Horizon Press, New York), Horizon, 1966, pp. 184-88.
That fine old humorous humanist Nabokov has republished one of his earliest novels, the second, translated from the Russian by his son Dmitri and himself. King, Queen, Knave is to Nabokov as The Mudfog Papers is to Dickens: an indication of better things to come. In a foreword he says it is the gayest of all his novels. It isn't. Pnin is gayer, Lolita is gayer, Pale Fire is gayer. In the English-reading world, at least, Nabokov will be remembered for these and for the incomparable Speak, Memory. Students of his work will therefore read King, Queen, Knave, as students of Dickens read The Mudfog Papers; but I doubt that it will long be read for its own sake. We read Nabokov for his marvelous shining language and his allusive puzzles; but here the language seldom shines and the puzzles are not very subtle. There are even verbal infelicities here and there….
J. Mitchell Morse, in Hudson Review, Autumn, 1968, pp. 534-36.
"Ada," Nabokov's 15th novel, is a great fairy tale, a supremely original work of the imagination. Appearing two weeks after his 70th birthday, it provides further evidence that he is a peer of Kafka, Proust and Joyce, those earlier masters of totally unique universes of fiction.
"Ada, or Ardor: A Family Chronicle" (its full title) spans 100 years. It is a love story, an erotic masterpiece, a philosophical investigation into the nature of time. Almost twice as long as any previous Nabokov novel, its rich and variegated prose moves from the darkest to the lightest of sonorities as Nabokov sensually evokes the widest range of delights. Nabokov the lepidopterist once said that he was "born a landscape painter," and he has never "painted" more luminous landscapes than in "Ada." It is an extraordinarily visual book, teeming with allusions to painters and paintings, and many scenes are veritable tableaux vivants of works ranging from Beardsley's illustrations for "Lysistrata" to the idyllic landscapes of Monet and Prendergast. As the family chronicle to end all such chronicles, "Ada" is a kind of museum of the novel, and it employs parody to rehearse its own history….
Most of "Ada" is set in an imaginary world. Imaginary lands extend from five of Nabokov's untranslated Russian works (1924–1940) to Padukgrad in "Bend Sinister" (1947) to Zembla in "Pale Fire" (1962), reaching an apotheosis in "Ada," where the entire universe has been re-imagined, including Space-Time. God is called "Log" in "Ada," and the universe consists of two sibling planets, "Antiterra" (or "Demonia"), on which the action takes place, and "Terra," the subject of endless debate. Only deranged minds accept the notion of Terra, and when in her madness Aqua Veen envisages a "minor hymnist's paradise," her delusions depict life in our modern cities. A distorted version of Van Veen's first book, the speculative and totally ignored "Letters from Terra" (1891), is 50 years later (Part Five) made into a horrific science-fiction farce that rehearses the first half of 20th-century history….
"Ada's" most intricate anachronisms are linguistic and literary. Given their circumstances, the characters are quite naturally trilingual; faithful to verisimilitude, Nabokov includes some Russian and French. The former is transliterated and usually translated, the latter is not translated. But the French affords no problem, since there is not much more of it than one would find in the average, run-of-the-mill Tolstoy novel. Just as Russian literature is collectively one of the heroes of "The Gift" (1937), Nabokov's last Russian novel, so too is Count Tolstoy one of the heroes of "Ada," and Nabokov pays him abundant tribute….
Like those other great protean modernists, Joyce and Picasso, Nabokov uses parody to re-investigate the fundamental problems of this art. While Van in the early chapters is waiting to be born, so too is the great age of the novel. Van's concluding "blurb" notes that "the story proceeds at a spanking pace," but the pace is sometimes purposefully slow, befitting an infancy of sorts, as Van plots time's texture and parodies the realist's efforts to limn "reality."…
Nabokov is the most allusive and linguistically playful writer in English since Joyce, and like "Pale Fire" and "Lolita," his new novel abounds in delightful minor parodies and pastiches, countless multilingual puns and literary jokes. But however much it is about literature, and however literary it may be, "Ada" is primarily about life—"death-padded life," as Nabokov calls it in "Pale Fire."…
The titles of many of Nabokov's novels and stories are evoked throughout "Ada," for while Van Veen is commemorating those summer "trips to the magic islet" of Ardis, a network of authorial self-references succeeds in revealing the omnipresence of Van Veen's maker [V. V.—Vladimir Vladimirovich], a Prospero who magically summons up the creations of a lifetime. And like "The Tempest," an earlier physics fiction, "Ada" is a culminating work, an act of accommodation that in the face of darkness asserts joy. It is a great work of art, a necessary book, radiant and rapturous, affirming the power of love and imagination, "and much, much more," to quote Van Veen's concluding but open-ended self-endorsement.
Alfred Appel, Jr., in The New York Times Book Review (© 1969 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 4, 1969, pp. 1, 3-4, 36-7.
It is somehow fitting that we should receive Nabokov's earliest novel after he has presented us with the complex works of his maturity. The first book, Mary, is thus allowed to meet the American reader cloaked in that temporal ambiguity of which its author is so fond and which, in the form of antic memoirs, has been the theme of so many of his later works. For Nabokov's readers, this narrative of émigré life should have a dual significance: first, there is the literary event itself, the publication in English of the beginnings of a now familiar style; second, there is the substance of the book, an intense act of reminiscence that reminds us of what will, and what has, issued from its creator. If the syntax of the last sentence seems odd, it is because grammarian's time and Nabokov's are seldom in precise synchronization….
Mary is a novel about displaced persons, Russian émigrés living in a Berlin pension in the early Twenties. They form a fine, eccentric collection: a pair of pederasts looking for work as dancers; an aged poet hopelessly lost since being transplanted from the language and landscapes of Russia, which he had celebrated in verses that had often bedecked the bottom halves of calendars; a young secretary caught in perpetual oscillation between throbs of passion and genteel morality; the secretary's friend, with whom the book's hero has a tepid affair and who commits every vulgar blunder known to the intrigues of popular romance. (Here let me say that I find it astounding that Nabokov is still considered to be somewhat waggish about coital doings. I know of no writer so insistent on the presence at such couplings of a delicate, febrile passion, which redeems them from fleshy buffoonery and allows them to glow with grace and a little pleasant humor.)…
By itself, Mary is a highly readable study of recollection. But coming as it does after the author, in later works, has cultivated to lushness the themes and manners of this book, Mary has an incongruous quality: it is a memory of things to come, a remembrance of what in one time sequence has not yet happened, and, not to overburden this fragile book with critical hindsights, it is fair to say that it does round out, for the moment at least, a long association between Nabokov and his readers. For Mary not only presents us with a clear evocation of a past which is redolent of that of Speak, Memory, but it also shows us how memory, meticulously sifted for details, can bring that past into palpable life. It is as if, in Mary, one discovered a primitive formula for Van Veen's temporal theory in Ada, for his baroque, unsystematic attempt to free time from a coerced alliance with space and to make it something in itself perceptual, something coextensive with the similies and metaphors of language….
But rich as this first work is with hints of its author's riper efforts, there is one Nabokovian trait missing: namely, the game playing, the perverse clues and apperceptive comments about the making of the novel itself, the internal puzzles especially devised for the reader who believes, as does Nabokov, that a novel is a struggle not between characters but between its author and the world.
Jack Richardson, "It's About Time," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; © 1971 by NYREV, Inc.), March 25, 1971, pp. 19-20.
[Glory] is a book that deserves not a review but a party. Let us all rejoice with Vladimir Nabokov…. Now, with Nabokov sailing nicely into his eighth decade, the last of [his] Russian novels [has reached] the safe haven of definitive English translation….
The rainbow of novels (nine Russian, six American) now arches complete, from "Mary" to "Ada," and though, along with some short stories and poems and feuilletons, a few fine vibrations have no doubt been left behind in the Russian—a fuzz of nuance and euphony as untransferable as the dust on a butterfly's wing—Nabokov's diligence and self-respect have essentially defied a cruel century's blind attempt to silence his sensibility and dislocate his shelf of work….
In one of those landlordly prefaces that slam shut the doors of unsightly closets, inveigh against the Freudian in the hall, and roughly nudge the prospective tenant toward the one window with a view, Nabokov likens the design of "Glory" to a chess problem whose crux is the impotence of the customarily high-powered Queen. The hint is helpful. In the backward look, the book's two faults, if faults they be (sleepy development, stark conclusion), do combine into a single, intended quality—a weak strength, or sad joy….
[It] may be that Martin is Nabokov's healthiest hero and "Glory" his sunniest book…. By denying Martin any artistic or political passion while not denying him his own complement of senses, Nabokov has released a genie rare in fiction—a robust sense of physical well-being…. Happiness, as with an earlier Russian author, is the fragile, somehow terrible theme….
The point [of the novel], surely, lies in its rapturous evocations and the frissons they give us—what Martin terms "the unexpected, sunlit clearings, where you can stretch until your joints crunch, and remain entranced," what Nabokov in his afterword to "Lolita" announces he "shall bluntly call aesthetic bliss." In its residue of bliss experienced, and in its charge of bliss conveyed, "Glory" measures up as, though the last to arrive, far from the least of this happy man's Russian novels.
John Updike, "The Crunch of Happiness," in The New Yorker, February 26, 1972, pp. 96-101.
The significant events in Glory take place between clause and clause, noun and modifier, between the major and minor terms of a metaphor. Nabokov suggests in his introduction to this authorized translation (made jointly with his son) that he deprived the main character of all political interest and artistic ability in order to leave the final exploit naked, unjustified beyond its own inherent justifications.
There is, of course, considerable opportunity for romanticism here (indeed, the original title was Romantic Times), yet Nabokov's brilliant, somewhat unjoyous humor prevents it from cloying. A few aspects of Glory are overstated, others are inexplicable, still others are unimportant: nonetheless style provides an ex cathedra authority that overrides objections. Glory is a tricky, perhaps essentially sterile, artistic problem set by Nabokov for Nabokov. Within the given limits it has been gorgeously well worked out.
D. Keith Mano, "A Variety of Talents," in National Review (150 East 35th St., New. York, N.Y. 10016), March 3, 1972, pp. 226-27.
Ada, you might say, is Nabokov's Finnegans Wake, polylingual, full of puns and linguistic jokes, placed in an imaginary future-past, where America and Russia have merged and annexed bits of France and Switzerland into their author's sovereign territory. The characters, like the Earwicker nuclear family, are closely related and prone to split and fuse; though not primordial or eternal, they attain patriarchal ages without taking leave of adolescence, as though playing naughty tricks on time. If the self-banished Joyce was making a one-man literary revolution, Nabokov, a genuine displaced person, has been trying throughout his career to make a one-man literary restoration, using his prodigious memory to undo the present. "Speak, Memory," he commands royally, in a title, and the masque begins.
Though he has the reputation of a modernist, his language is antique Mandarin, like his life style, and he is probably the greatest enemy of modernism extant. He is against psychoanalysis, every kind of "new" politics, atom bombs, avant-garde art. He is not just any White Guard exile but a dethroned monarch, like Charles the Beloved, in Pale Fire, traveling under the incognito of Kinbote-Botkin, a poor mad refugee….
Ada, in my view, is a failure, a misfired coup d'état, and this, I think, is not unrelated to the crows of triumph that shrill through it. The theme of need in all its sad and threadbare forms (Gogol's overcoat), so characteristic of the author, has here been cast aside or molted, like last year's set of feathers.
Mary McCarthy, "A Guide to Exiles, Expatriates, and Internal Emigrés," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; © 1972 by NYREV, Inc.), March 9, 1972, pp. 4-8.
Devotees of playful, poetic, punning, cunning and cosmopolitan Vladimir Nabokov will surely find much in Glory to delight them. They will be further enchanted by the author's foreword in which he makes his habitual tilts at S Freud, attempts to identify the hero with his creator, 'useful' literature, etc. Glory is the fifth novel Nabokov (sobriquet Sirin) wrote in Russian during the inter-war years; it follows The Eye and immediately precedes Laughter in the Dark and Despair, which two novels, the reader may or may not be interested to learn, the present reviewer considers their author's finest in his native tongue. The model for Despair and The Real Life of Sebastian Knight was the detective story, that for Pale Fire a work of didactic literary analysis, that for Lolita the 'romantic' potboiler. The tired and threadbare form Nabokov chooses to exploit (literal translation of Russian title) in Glory is the tale of adventure….
What pains he takes in the construction of a sentence, what care he displays in his choice of words…. Miraculously though, Nabokov does not lose himself in a welter of words and visual (we do look at the page) and aural effects—the meaning that the words carry is by no means relegated to a position of irrelevance, time and again this novel is wonderfully evocative. He has often stated his distaste for didactic literature—the sort of fiction that serves simply as a vehicle for its creator's ideas about some matter, moral, social or whatever. (That's not to say that he is devoid of ideas, rather that such thoughts that he expresses are subservient to the Novel, the constructed and fragile flat which on close inspection is found to possess no 'depth' at all. A trick.) Nabokov's didacticism is really far more modest than that of 'committed' writers; like Robbe-Grillet, Joyce etc, he is content to teach us to read anew.
Jonathan Meades, in Books and Bookmen, May, 1972, pp. 64-5.
Nabokov's anti-Dostoevskianism can be understood as a kind of skirmishing in the perpetual literary struggle between the Davids and the Goliaths, between the up-and-coming new men and the tyrannous old. These attacks have more to tell us about the literary aims of the [attacker]—… Nabokov as novelist—than about the art of the [giant] who [has] been attacked…. Nabokov's art, at least in Lolita, strikes one as deeply rooted in Dostoevsky's tradition. Nabokov's masterpiece is not less melodramatic than Crime and Punishment or The Brothers Karamazov but rather melodramatic in different ways and to serve different ends. No less than Dostoevsky, Nabokov is a "psychological" novelist, a stern moralist, a writer whose interest in human sexuality embraces all aspects of the subject except that narrow, physical, photographic, and clinical interest that dominates so much of contemporary American fiction. Without minimizing the importance of what is anti-Dostoevskian in Nabokov's art, we may say, nevertheless, that Lolita is Dostoevskian in creating a hero who, like so many of Dostoevsky's great figures, is possessed by a powerful idea, an idea so organically a part of his total personality, an idea felt so deeply, that he must live by it and die of it. Dostoevsky's tragic mono-maniacs would recognize Humbert Humbert as belonging to their company; and he would reciprocate that recognition—if, that is, the diabolically subversive character who might himself have been created by Dostoevsky—Vladimir Nabokov—would allow him to do so.
Melvin Seiden, "Nabokov and Dostoevsky," in Contemporary Literature (© 1972 by the Regents of the University of Wisconsin), Vol. 13, No. 4, Autumn, 1972, pp. 423-44.
As early as Invitation to a Beheading (1935) one of Nabokov's central imaginative concerns has been to pit art against death in his fiction. Transparent Things, his new novella, focuses this opposition with a peculiar intensity and with striking virtuosity. The omniscient narrator, sliding in and out of his protagonist's consciousness, is playful, engagingly bantering, leisurely in his musings on the mechanics of narration and the paradoxes of omniscience….
Baron R. is the most teasing in the gallery of ironic and distincly partial self-portraits that Nabokov has given us in his many novels…. R., as a distorted but vivid reflection of Nabokov, comes close to being the presiding intelligence of the novel, though he remains offstage most of the time….
The idea of transparency announced in the title of the novella refers above all else to the pellucid vision of art, which is all we have to set against the final clutter and blockage, the ultimate opaqueness of death. Omniscience is repeatedly played with because it is the most obvious manifestation in narrative technique of the writer's ability to penetrate at will into the infinitely layered, endlessly interconnected personages and objects he conjures up in his fictional world….
I would suggest that for Nabokov the opposite of the psychological symbol is the double—not a set of broadly determined images always leading back to the same immutable sexual facts, but an artful contrivance of hidden resemblances, trick mirrors flashing back to one another, unguessed aspects of a single face, a restless replication of fictional images that illustrates the protean shaping power of consciousness and of art. Like most of Nabokov's fictions, only rather more densely, this novella is full of doublings of plot and Doppelgängers….
These mirrors set at various angles through the novella give back not only one another but the literary models behind the work. The two most relevant ones, both verbally hinted at, are The Pilgrim's Progress, of which more in a moment, and Romeo and Juliet, which, like Transparent Things, is a tale of star-crossed lovers wherein the hero, through an error of perception, causes the death of his beloved and inflicts death on himself. The endless game of mirrors held to art and nature is for Nabokov an intimation of how consciousness constantly renews itself, reinvents itself, multiplies images to ward off the threat of its own extinction, to persuade itself that there is no final darkening of the mirror but only a new and unimagined angle of reflection….
The book in our hands becomes a kind of periscope for peeking over the rim of mortality, but in contrast to the shining raiment at the end of Bunyan, it offers incandescence without transcendence, implying a kind of immortality from the lucid resilience of the imagination itself….
Transparent Things, then, confronts an ultimate question within a highly restricted narrative compass. Because of its compactness, one cannot really compare it to the more elaborate, less distanced rendering of character and event in Nabokov's longer works. This book remains, however, a beautiful instance of Nabokov's mastery—deftly controlled, amazingly inventive, and finally poignant through all the complexities of its intellectual design.
Robert Alter, "Mirrors for Immortality," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1972 by Saturday Review; first appeared in Saturday Review, November 11, 1972; used with permission), November 11, 1972, pp. 72-6.
Vladimir Nabokov's 16th novel [Transparent Things], is a short, cold, intricate and curiously unappealing book. Though in the past Nabokov has been at times an irritating, self-indulgent literary show-off or a too-sentimental celebrant of Russian life before the revolution, he has almost always been intriguing—tantalizing, arch, but truly brilliant, manifestly a leading claimant to the throne of greatest living master of English prose….
This chess-playing, butterfly-catching, polylingual, White Russian exile, a veteran of Berlin and Paris in the '20s and '30s, a survivor of nearly 20 years of American college teaching (see Pnin, see Lolita, see Pale Fire), is now the septuagenarian master with 27 books to his credit, living in retirement and deserved fame in a Swiss hotel. He may well win the Nobel Prize….
But it is true that only Nabokov could have written this novel. It is dense without being clotted, stylishly laced with crisscrossing details, studded with arcane references and tricks, written in the guise of a high-handed narrative. And yet it lacks the je ne sais quoi of Nabokov's best bittersweet jeux d'esprit. It is labored, stiff, compacted, thin. Complex, but lame. There's none of the old verbal delight, the gleam in the eye, the wit and intelligence that were often narcissistic but bright and sparkling nonetheless. Nabokov at his best has always been a black, almost enbittered writer, but this new novel about death, memory and regret is an uninspired, dispirited performance. It is often nearly stalled by willful digressions and by a tone of more than usually peremptory Nabokovian omniscience. The characters are surprisingly dull, there's not a pleasant, entertaining or striking one in the batch, and Nabokov's usual condescension toward his creatures—instead of making them ironically sympathetic (one of his old tricks)—here serves to flatten them even more into wet gray cardboard. With these ingredients the Nabokovian theme of love lost and time a-fleeting hasn't its customary force or charm. All in all, alas, a depressing book—hardly the brandy expected from the master's autumn harvest.
Richard Locke, in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), November 12, 1972, p. 3.
Transparent Things … is Nabokov's first work in English to have no Russian novel peering over its shoulder, waiting for its chance, and this seems to make a large difference in the writing. The novel is brief, terse, oblique, abstract, almost penitent, almost awkward, as if the glitter of earlier works had to be atoned for, or as if the re-creation of all the Russian novels in English had ended a cycle and the author had to begin again, groping for a new style.
The voice here is not the intricate, flippant, aesthetic, or aristocratic voice of Van Veen, Humbert Humbert, Professor Botkin, or the Russian Nabokov, indeed is not really a voice at all but rather a set of rapid shifts of tone, imitations of the tones of various commonplace pretexts and occasions for stories: the television talk show, the letter of acknowledgement, the dim, clinical essay on a vast subject, the interview with the prison psychiatrist….
Transparent Things is a mixture of the master stylist's written and spoken manners, eloquent at times, absurd at times, at all times elusive. For the effect, whether we attribute the book to the fictional author [that is, the "minor but eminent novelist," the "master stylist" in the novel who "we can, if we wish, see … as the unseen author of the book"] or not, is to evoke Nabokov's mind without Nabokov's language, or with Nabokov's language only sporadically in attendance, and this, as any critic will tell you, is to erase Nabokov altogether. It isn't, though….
Nabokov has a great tenderness for neglected things, as Denis Donoghue said … but it is a tenderness reserved only for neglected things, and this is a very small area for a man's humanity to work in. Whatever Nabokov himself may feel about an old man's death or the general relations of people to objects, his prose plainly prefers the objects, will close up on people only when they have let themselves become ludicrous or isolated, when they can provoke pure pity, when they make no demands, call for no complicated human engagement…. This is not so much a flaw in Nabokov's work, perhaps, as its boundary, the place where his competence ends.
Of course, there is a truth in this too. The inhumanity of Nabokov's vision is a large part of his fidelity to an inhuman world, where people are hard to find, or feel anything for, among objects….
Things are transparent because they are constantly replaced in our minds by stories about them….
Transparent Things resembles The Defense in many ways: mood; theme; gangling hero without a name, or who acquires a name or lives up to his name only as he dies….
The difference is that Transparent Things clearly suggests a hope, a chance of some kind of intelligible hereafter, even if it lasts only a moment, whereas The Defense offered an eternity of crippling paranoia as its only prospect. But the similarity will serve to remind us what to look for in the rarefied air of Nabokov's mountains. Not human affections, or at least not much in that line, but a human vertigo, an extraordinary perception of how we feel on the edge of a metaphysical drop.
Michael Wood, "Tender Trousers," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; © 1972 by NYREV, Inc.), November 16, 1972, pp. 12-13.
Vladimir Nabokov, having spent his life building the Taj Mahal, has decided at the age of 73—for his own amusement and incidentally for our pleasure—to construct a small mock replica. The miniature is not flawed, no, but the most splendid features of the great model have been just slightly parodied, out of playfulness almost. "You see, the past is something of a joke," he seems to be saying: and those whose professional lives consist of literary detective work are going to be kept busy with "Ada," "Lolita," and "The Real Life of Sebastian Knight," trying to discover if he means it.
"Transparent Things" stands in the same relation to Mr. Nabokov's work as "The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold" did to Evelyn Waugh's; it is short, candid, brutal, and it is a semi-explanation….
"We shall now discuss love," begins Chapter 17, but we never do. We discuss an idiot woman and a fool of a man, and if love can be the opposite of death sometimes here it is made to sound like contempt for the living. The only transparent thing respected, pandered to, propitiated in this strange story will be death….
Love and death, past and present, are one on the other like panes of glass—transparent things. (Is there need to say that every sentence of Mr. Nabokov's is also crystal clear? That if anything is loved in this loveless story it is the English language?)….
In the end, death will have been offered every kind of hostage; but of course "every" is still not enough. Death survives, and it is as casual, as unpredictable, as eccentric and as daunting as Mr. Nabokov's genius.
Mavis Gallant, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1972 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 19, 1972, pp. 1, 12.
Vladimir Nabokov has broken a new barrier by being the first to combine poems and chess-problems in one book. This book [Poems and Problems] reflects a mammoth East-West battle in the mind and soul of one man whose destiny forced him into exile from Russia in his youth and compelled him to acquire the mastery of alien tongues and alien ways in his gradual trans-Atlantic progress to North America….
[The poems] possess an elegance similar to that of the chess-problems, including the wit and technical expertise. There runs throughout a theme of infinite sadness, the solitude of the rootless, wandering exile, for ever dreaming of the homeland he may never revisit. Nabokov tries to produce a 'faithful' or 'exact' translation in English, imitating not only the sense, ideas and vocabulary of the originals but also as far as possible the prosody and technical points, such as alliteration. Though often felicitous in rhythm and vocabulary, there are, inevitably, times when his ear for English lets him down. Fourteen other poems are written directly in English. The book gains if the reader has also read Speak, Memory and his latest novel, Glory.
Anthony Dickins, "East-West Battle," in London Magazine, December-January, 1972–73, pp. 157-60.
The great irony is that Nabokov should be both Russian and American. The two cultures are equally avid of message, equally insistent upon confessional sincerity, equally leery of disinterested leasure—and Nabokov is precisely that writer who has announced that he entertains no general ideas, who regards the diary as the lowest form of writing, who subscribes solely to the esthetics of bliss. And yet a closer look reveals he's had his fun with both sets of dour compatriots; he is the flinty antagonist, his brilliance the light sparked from friction. He plays games with our expectations, now frustrating them, now fulfilling them, now forcing them to change; if you're not already one, you must become a bit of a prig in order to experience the thrill of having Nabokov scandalize you in all the right places. Nabokov needs you to believe in the suburban pieties (progressive education, sentimental leftism, psychoanalysis, Thomas Mann), just as his parodic style requires that you be familiar with mystery stories, case reports, scholarly monographs, utopian novels, fairy tales….
The most distinctive aspect of the Nabokovian sentence is its length, its flexibility, its comprehensive and rapid notation of complex sensations and thoughts. Nabokov has reminded his fellow authors that in a single sentence an image of innocent delight can be turned, through a Gogolian simile, into the last rites for a dying civilization….
Poetic precision and a large grasp of fictional structures … make Nabokov's writing exemplary…. On the map of contemporary American literature he is due N.—magnetic, cold, giving a sense of direction to smaller craft.
Edmund White, "The Esthetics of Bliss," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1973 by Saturday Review; first appeared in Saturday Review, January 6, 1973; used with permission), January 6, 1973, pp. 33-4.
Nabokov has given me more pleasure than any other living novelist, more jolts, more laughs, more joy, and now and then (mirage or not) a feeling of what I can only call numinous imminence.
His first power was always a palpable exactness and ripeness of language….
His dictionary, both gazetteer and observatory, is also magic kit, jewel box, amusement park, and perhaps too often for his own good, an invitation to court what Wallace Stevens called "the bawds of euphony." Yet what has always mattered is how and where Nabokov's words move. I mean safely across that waste-chasm that waits for the slack or hackneyed, the arid abstract, the missed connections that prefigure death. It's the gap between (as Nabokov says) "membrane and brain"—also the gulf between thing and thing, which fresh metaphors dismiss. In a mood often glimmeringly old-fashioned for all his cruel clarity of film-frame cut, we are through into the living thing itself, which suddenly is then all over again still also made of words. The reservoir near the burning barn breaks into "scaly light." The gulf is nullified but still there.
Joseph McElroy, "The N Factor," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1973 by Saturday Review; first appeared in Saturday Review, January 6, 1973; used with permission), January 6, 1973, pp. 34-5.
Lolita is one of our finest American novels, a triumph of style and vision, an unforgettable work, Nabokov's best (though not most characteristic) work, a wedding of Swiftian satirical vigor with the kind of minute, loving patience that belongs to a man infatuated with the visual mysteries of the world. Yet when Nabokov talks of the work, we are disappointed, for there is an arrogant, contemptuous side of his nature that tends to distract us from his genuine accomplishments….
I believe that, as an artist, as a conscious—obsessively conscious artist—he is as exciting as any writer who has ever lived….
But my deeper and, admittedly, very personal reaction to Nabokov is quite different. To me he is a tragic figure, heroic in his isolation perhaps, or perhaps only sterile, monomaniacal, deadening to retain for very long in one's imagination…. Nabokov empties the universe of everything except Nabokov. He then assigns worth—which may seem to us quite exaggerated, even ludicrous, as in Ada—to a few selected human beings, focusing his powerful imagination upon the happy few, lavishing contempt and energetic humor upon most other people. Nabokov exhibits the most amazing capacity for loathing that one is likely to find in serious literature, a genius for dehumanizing that seems to me more frightening, because it is more intelligent, than Céline's or even than Swift's….
[Ultimately, Nabokov is] not American, and his scorn for the democratic ideal is something as deep in him, as natural, as his genius for words, for chess, and for the capturing of butterflies?
Still, assuming the immense differences between Nabokov, as an exiled Russian, and us, as Americans, we must admit that he is not really Russian either. He "is" only, supremely, himself. Therefore, it is understandable that he should despise certain "mediocrities"—Stendhal, Balzac, Zola, Dostoevsky, Mann—not because they are really mediocre but because they are not Nabokov.
Joyce Carol Oates, "A Personal View of Nabokov," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1973 by Saturday Review; first appeared in Saturday Review, January 6, 1973; used with permission), January 6, 1973, pp. 36-7.
Like Nabokov's other recent novels, Transparent Things contains its requisite complement of ostentatiously displayed false doors that turn out not to work and a few hidden trapdoors that do. The fictional character of the German novelist R. has been lent a few of Nabokov's own more superficial traits (he resides in Switzerland, writes in English, and publishes his books in America). Already several critics have sprung at the bait and hastened to identify R. as the author's self-portrait. This is as wide of the mark as the similarly hasty identification of Van and Ada with Nabokov and his wife that some of our otherwise thoughtful commentators on Nabokov had suggested after the publication of Ada. Not only is everything that really matters about R. totally unlike Nabokov, but his constant mangling of idiomatic expressions and popular sayings is rather obviously derived from the similar trait of Zina Mertz's disagreeable stepfather in The Gift—surely a character who could not by any stretch of the imagination be mistaken for the author's self-portrait….
Once more he has managed to shape a formless, potentially threatening reality into a precise and transparent work of literary art while continually demonstrating for the benefit of attentive and imaginative readers the exact means employed for bringing about this transformation. In this sense all of Nabokov's novels are "transparent things," and their transparency is, to borrow Marina Tsvetaeva's phrase, the author's "ultimate victory over time and gravity." This is why one closes this little book, so full of tragic and violent events, with the final feeling of lightness and joy.
Simon Karlinsky, "Russian Transparencies," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1973 by Saturday Review; first appeared in Saturday Review, January 6, 1973; used with permission), January 6, 1973; pp. 44-5.