June 25, 2015 | Chicago Tribune
During his 20-year stay in the United States (1940–1960), Vladimir Nabokov enjoyed a remarkable friendship with the literary critic Edmund Wilson. The two giants had much in common: Nabokov the Russian and Wilson the Russophile; both men pedantic and exacting in their literary standards; each swift to judge and slow to retract. They developed a warm and mutual affinity, addressing their letters, “Dear Bunny” and “Dear Volodya.” Wilson was an editor of The New Yorker and, before that, The New Republic, and served as Nabokov’s unofficial literary agent, connecting him with publishers, helping him land articles and acting as all-around confidant and consigliere.
There was just one problem: Wilson did not care for Nabokov’s fiction. The books that Nabokov published in America and soon after leaving included his very best: “Pnin,” “Lolita,” “Pale Fire” and the memoir “Speak, Memory.” But Wilson found little to like in them, and actively disliked “Lolita.” “Nasty subjects may make fine books; but I don’t feel you have got away with this,” he wrote to his friend in 1954. The novel’s events were “too absurd to be horrible or tragic, yet remain too unpleasant to be funny.” The criticism stung. Nabokov later referred to it in a letter that combined hurt feelings, anxiety and arrogance: “It depresses me to think that this pure and austere work may be treated by some flippant critic as a pornographic stunt. This danger is the more real to me since I realize that even you neither understand nor wish to understand the texture of this intricate and unusual production.”
He needn’t have worried. “Lolita” became one of the literary sensations of the 20th century. It was widely hailed as a masterpiece and brought the author fame and wealth. Yet as Robert Roper writes in “Nabokov in America: On the Road to Lolita,” Nabokov’s friendship with Wilson never recovered. The two sparred over “Doctor Zhivago,” which Wilson admired but Nabokov disdained, and then fell out spectacularly in a public exchange of letters in the mid-1960s. The immediate cause was Nabokov’s translation of Alexander Pushkin’s “Eugene Onegin.” Wilson thought it was all wrong, but Nabokov yielded to no one when it came to Russian prosody. His devastating reply to Wilson’s review — noting Wilson’s “long and hopeless infatuation with the Russian language,” and “his monstrous mistakes of pronunciation, grammar, and interpretation” — was, Roper writes, “an act of destruction, of friendship murder.”
Nabokov’s relationship with Wilson was both a high and a low point in his American period. In all other respects the sojourn was a time of personal and professional happiness for the writer and his family, who had escaped Europe as the Nazis closed in on Paris. Roper, a novelist and biographer, has written a graceful and engaging account of the improbable way that America itself became Nabokov’s muse. This most European of Russians — formidable, exacting and magnificently haughty — fell helplessly in love with the great American West and its plainspoken people. Along with his wife and son, Nabokov traveled 200,000 miles by car, favoring such locales as Salt Lake City, Telluride and the mountains of Wyoming. “I love this country and dearly want to bring you over,” he wrote his sister in 1945. “Alongside lapses into wild vulgarity there are heights here where one can have marvelous picnics with friends who ‘understand.'”
During his travels, Nabokov was not just sightseeing; he was absorbing a culture. The great strength of Roper’s book is its portrayal of Nabokov’s complete assimilation of Americana over the course of two decades, always in the service of his fiction. Initially tentative about his command of English — Wilson frequently offered corrections — Nabokov quickly mastered the language and bent it to wizardly purposes. A bravura passage in “Pale Fire” ruminates, characteristically, on the ideal method of suicide, settling on a leap from an airplane: “enjoying every last instant of soft, deep, death-padded life, with the earth’s green seesaw now above, now below, and the voluptuous crucifixion, as you stretch yourself in the growing rush, in the nearing swish, and then your loved body’s obliteration in the Lap of the Lord.” By that point Nabokov did not need corrections from anyone.
In addition to learning the language, Nabokov took in daily life in the United States. Rather than the stereotypical wrong-footed foreign professor, he was surprisingly game and plunged right in. He developed a fondness for motels and state parks. Similar tastes found their way into “Lolita”: Humbert Humbert, the disgusting and charming pedophile, also enjoyed these mid-century features of life on the road. With “Lolita” in mind, Nabokov “collected girlish slang from teen magazines” and took in details about chewing gum and gaudy advertisements. Although Nabokov considered himself a self-contained master who could write works of genius on a desert island, Roper persuasively argues that for his greatest literary achievements, “the American context was determinative.”
Darker sections of “Nabokov in America” explore Nabokov’s inspiration for pedophilia as a literary subject. His chess partner while teaching at Stanford University had married a 14-year-old girl and attempted to seduce other children. Nabokov came across a newspaper article that described a monster who kept a child as a sex slave for two years, bringing her on a road trip (much like Humbert). Wilson drew Nabokov’s attention to the case study of a Ukrainian man from the 19th century who repeatedly had sex with girls and lived in shame and guilt.
Biographers have found no evidence that Nabokov shared this vile predilection. Yet he saw artistic possibility in it and returned to the subject in later books (including “Ada” and “Look at the Harlequins!”), dancing wildly on the knife edge that separates wicked humor from bad taste. But art to one side, why keep such a chess partner? And why respond to the Ukrainian case study by writing to Wilson, “It is wonderfully funny”? Roper should ask these questions, but he does not. Saul Bellow once described Nabokov as “one of the great wrong-way rubbers of all time,” and indeed there is something in his severe genius that makes most readers squirm and many recoil. Roper puts matters less violently when he describes Nabokov’s “affinity for stories of the forbidden, of humiliation and compulsion, played half for laughs.” Undoubtedly, “Lolita” is a work of art. But couldn’t he have moved on to a different subject?
Another criticism of “Nabokov in America” is that it largely overlooks “Speak, Memory,” which is one of the great literary memoirs of the 20th century. But the novels get their due, as does the teaching. Nabokov spent a decade at Cornell University, where his courses on Russian literature attracted wide acclaim. Roper describes him as “a seductive, roaringly funny, erudite, and becomingly accented lecturer.” When completely free, Nabokov put down his pencil and took up a butterfly net, spending hours upon hours in lepidoptery. For a time he even worked at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology, where he painstakingly organized the butterfly collections. It was a revealing passion: the elusive chase, the search for new ground, the sensual fixation on detail and — overshadowing and overwhelming all — beauty.