Wednesday, September 7, 2011

"Vladimir Nabokov: Novels 1955-62": Review

Listening to Jeremy Irons' perfect audiobook rendering of the perfect novel "Lolita" recently reminded me of the original work, so I went back to it and I welcomed the screenplay paired here for pleasure; I also re-read "Pnin" and "Pale Fire," which overlap obliquely. It'd been thirty years since I enjoyed those three novels, and like Humbert Humbert, Charles Kinbote, and Pnin himself, I'm about the same age-bracket as their creator was when he conjured up these erudite, erratic, and eccentric characters who in turn, of course, play off of himself, however much he may have denied it from his own niche in East Coast academia in postwar America.

"Lolita" as a novel I found rare: it needed not a word replaced; every adjective was necessary, each verb crafted, every sentence chiseled. My comments would be superfluous, but in the Library of America edition, Brian Boyd's notes pale before those in the annotated edition by Alfred Appel, whose version I recommend. If you lack not only fluent French but Russian, not to mention reams of insight into the worlds of art, butterflies, popular culture of the time, and wordplay that anyone less brilliant than Nabokov would not catch, Appel's edition supplants Boyd. Boyd drew upon Appel's notes and as his biographer, Boyd adds a few tidbits among those Appel did not in his reticence to expose certain facts gleaned from interviews with Nabokov a few decades ago. However, as with the rest of this handsome to hold LofA edition, Boyd's notes tend, as in many LofA commentaries, to skimp, perhaps due to pressure to keep the books easy to hold.

The sadness of "Lolita" lingers, with its beauty. The screenplay Nabokov first wrote for Stanley Kubrick was seven hours long, but from the shorter, if never produced conflation of two versions here, I would have liked to read whatever Nabokov created as he sought to transfer the gist of the novel into an entertaining, deft story for the screen. It's a great counterpart to the novel, best read after the printed text, naturally.

Pnin, who finds himself trying to get by at a college after the war, joins other Russian expatriates at a summer gathering. He laments a "'typical American college student' who does not know geography, is immune to noise, and thinks education is but a means to get a remunerative job." (387) Some things never change. 

Later at that gathering, Pnin learns of the death in the Nazi camps of a woman he had loved, and he goes out to walk "under the solemn pines. The sky was dying. He did not believe in an autocratic God. He did believe, dimly, in a democracy of ghosts. The souls of the dead, perhaps, formed committees, and these, in quick succession, attended to the destinies of the quick." (395) But this reverie's snapped by the mosquitoes. Nabokov in these tales does not allow his haunted, thoughtful fellows to wander in the ether long.

A professor chats with another; they look up at the stars. "I suspect it is really a fluorescent corpse, and we are inside it." (417) Metaphorical images arrest one's attention in these often everyday tales, as characters jolt themselves out of themselves to look at a world that does not synchronize with their internal (dis)orientation. 

Two academics dominate "Pale Fire"; Pnin gets a mention from one professor who mistakes Kinbote for him. Kinbote's commentary satirizes scholarly obsession, as this titular poem by John Shade gets wrenched by Kinbote, an emigre from Zembla with a complicated past, into Kinbote's own tale, even as he notes that he has "no desire to twist and batter an unambiguous apparatus criticus into the monstrous semblance of a novel." (495) 

The odd delight of this challenging story lies in watching Kinbote's obsession take over his task. He does not appear to realize how far Shade's content lies from Kinbote's imagined reality, so details pile up. "But a commentator's obligations cannot be shirked, however dull the information he must collect and convey." (556) He loses his grip on what he set out to do: "Anybody having access to a good library could, no doubt, easily trace that story to its source and find the name of the lady; but such humdrum potterings are beneath true scholarship." (624)

Kinbote leaps into raptures, deriding Shade's seemingly secularized temperament. Nature herself is rightfully chided as "the grand cheat," who "puts into us" lust "to inveigle us into propagation." (621) Kinbote praises the "Divine Embrace," and "the warm bath of physical dissolution, the universal unknown engulfing the miniscule unknown that had been the only real part of one's temporary personality." (599) Even if Nabokov satirizes such faith, this is a marvelously written passage. Man's life, as Kinbote sensibly for once notes, may be that "human life is but a series of footnotes to a vast obscure unfinished masterpiece." (636)

These works show Nabokov at his best. I cited a few more off-beat sections to show the sometimes overlooked two works that nestle next to "Lolita." These four inclusions are highly recommended, and one only wonders, as Nabokov disingenuously confesses, how his English-language efforts compare to his native Russian ones, for he learned English as a baby, and he appears far more fluent than Pnin! As often in these works, the teller of a tale cannot always be trusted, or does not share omniscience.
(Amazon US 8-27-11; see here 185 "Lolita"-related covers)

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