Andrew Field is one of the best-known students of the life and work of Vladimir Nabokov. His first book on his subject, Nabokov: His Life in Art (1967), provided what Field himself called “narrative criticism”—that is, a running commentary on Nabokov’s work up to that time. His second, playfully entitled Nabokov: His Life in Part (1977), is a loosely constructed biographical study based on a series of interviews with Nabokov. Now, in this third book, Field has returned to write the complete biography for which he says the first two works were preparatory.
In fact, Field has mined his earlier two studies for much of the critical commentary and biographical information contained in VN: The Life and Art of Vladimir Nabokov. Although he does provide much new information about the events of Nabokov’s life, Field’s criticism of Nabokov’s works is so slight and so superficial that the suggestion of the title—that the book is equally about Nabokov’s “life and art”—is misleading. One of the expectations readers usually hold of the biography of a famous writer is that somehow the life of the man will reveal something important about his work. It is seldom, however, that Field penetrates beneath the persona that Nabokov created and projected. VN is less a helpful critical-biographical study than it is a fairly straightforward account of one man’s life.
The life of Vladimir Nabokov as depicted by Field was one of extremes. Born in 1899 in czarist Russia to an aristocratic family, he became a millionaire at the age of sixteen when his uncle died and left him his estate. This rich life was short-lived, for the Bolshevik Revolution drove his family out of Russia to Germany to live in comparative poverty in the no-man’s-land of the Russian émigré community. Field says that the death of Nabokov’s father and the loss of “mother” Russia were the two greatest ordeals in his life. He also argues that these powerful losses and his life as an émigré were the earliest conditioners of his fictional world. As evidence, he cites the body of work that Nabokov published during the seventeen years of the Berlin émigré experience under the pseudonym Sirin, for in that work one can see in embryo all the themes later developed in his more mature novels Lolita (1955) and Pale Fire (1962).
Field’s discussion of Nabokov’s work during this period seldom goes beyond obvious comments about its focus on the refugee experience and seldom offers any biographical connection to his fiction except to note that certain novelistic incidents were based on actual occurrences. More helpful is his discussion of the filmic sense in an important early Nabokov novel, King, Queen, Knave (1928), which was a result of Nabokov’s pickup work as a film extra in German cinema during the 1920’s. Most of the critical commentary on Nabokov’s early fiction Field admittedly derives from the more incisive studies of others.
Although Field has no particular psychological theory or methodology to apply to the life of Nabokov, he does have a loosely structured psychological persona which he projects onto the enigmatic author—that is, the image of a sort of ironic and self-mocking Narcissus. Related to the Narcissus motif are Field’s repeated comments, particularly in the first half of the book, about Nabokov’s obsession with his family and his fictional concern with incest. Although Field occasionally makes use of the Narcissus characterization to justify his own ironic comments about Nabokov, the theme is not a consistently maintained one in the biography but, rather, appears sporadically as an inadequately developed attempt at psychological unity.
Primarily, Field sticks to a reporting of events, accompanied by the usual biographical device of guessing at his subject’s motivations and feelings. There are, however, points in the study when he cannot resist reaching for explanations justified by what can only be called trivial evidence. For example, Field says that photocopies of letters from Nabokov to his mother have the salutation cut out. The cut-out section indicates that the missing salutation was a Russian word about seven letters long with the tail or hat of Nabokov’s Russian “t” showing clearly above or below the empty space. Because Nabokov’s mother’s nickname was Loyla, Field suggests that he must have called her Lolita, the name of his famous nymphet heroine. Although this is slim evidence, even if it were true, Field has absolutely nothing significant to say about this hypothetical connection.
One of the real problems of trying to tie Nabokov’s life to his work is the fact...
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