- The Washington Times - Friday, November 4, 2005

Vladimir Nabokov’s sensational breakout novel, “Lolita,” published 50 years ago this fall, not only lifted the author out of obscurity, it obscured everything he wrote before and after. Like J.D. Salinger’s Holden Caulfield, Mr. Nabokov’s literary creation, the nymphet Lo, has completely overshadowed a complex, if often exasperating, larger body of work.

In the past few months, “Lolita” has been on a birthday parade through the arts pages of the American media. Hardly addressed is the fact that it was Mr. Nabokov’s 12th novel (and third in the English language). So, it’s perhaps a good moment to revisit the pre-Lo and post-Lo of Mr. Nabokov’s amazing career. Partly because it’s a mischievous Nabokovian way of countering the media’s obsession with topical tie-ins. Mainly, though, because his other works illuminated pet themes — European jadedness versus American innocence, the dissonance of exile, the selfish drives of madness and obsession, and a playful meta-fictional take on narrative angles — that all reach their apogee in his signature novel.

In “Lolita,” his cosmopolitan tics — which can seem showy in lesser works — gain comedic power when juxtaposed with the American Everyday of the 1950s: Lo’s “golly gees” versus the predatory Humbert’s fussy French locutions, his clinical erudition versus the gaudy cheeriness of Beautyrest mattresses and “Colonial” inns with “unlimited quantities of M-m-m food.” Yet, while Mr. Nabokov could not resist tweaking the complacent materialism of postwar America, he was, first and foremost, an equal-opportunity critic: He didn’t spare the Old World, either.

Reading his pre-Lolita work published in Europe, one gets the distinct impression that “Lolita,” like his immigration to the United States — aboard a French liner in 1939 — willfully liberated him from a whole range of musty literary conventions associated with White Russian emigre literature.

Such early novels as “The Defense” and numerous short stories are suffused with repetitious nostalgia for pre-revolutionary St. Petersburg (his childhood home), the tedious quarrels of emigre literati, long-winded monologues by aging countesses in the dining cars of German trains, endless chess matches and after-dinner walks in Baden Baden. The reader — as well as Mr. Nabokov himself, one can imagine — quickly wants to flee this claustrophobic universe.

If one makes the mistake of visiting or revisiting Mr. Nabokov’s early work after reading his autobiography, “Speak, Memory,” much of what follows feels like lazy padding drawn from his childhood and early adulthood.

This is not the most grievous sin for a young writer — after all, young writers are constantly implored to “write what you know” — but it flies in the face of a far more compelling bit of writerly wisdom: Books and stories must come to life as creations independent of the author’s vanity. Too much of early Nabokov smacks of the narcissism of young literary lions, as if there were automatic poetry in the most banal observations.

To his credit, compared to the stylized flights of fancy factory-bred in modern creative-writing programs, Mr. Nabokov’s jaundiced eye was bred organically in the turmoil of the Bolshevik Revolution. From a gilded St. Petersburg childhood — country mansions, French nannies, summers on the Adriatic, etc. — through lean years in exile in Paris and Berlin, he watched it all crash and burn with studied nonchalance.

In “Russian Beauty,” a story from his 1930s Berlin period, he explains the fate of one White Russian exile: “Everything happened in full accord with the style of the period. Her mother died of typhus, her brother was executed by the firing squad. All these are ready-made formulae, of course, the usual dreary small talk, but it all did happen, there is no other way of saying it, it’s no use turning up one’s nose.”

Dreary small talk about typhoid and firing squads? If that’s the case, what would Mr. Nabokov make of PTA dinners and Lions Club raffles once he reached America? That clash with innocence, which Mr. Nabokov often takes to playful extremes, comes to the fore in “Pnin,” his 1957 follow-up to “Lolita.”

Here, the hapless Professor Timofey Pnin, saddled with broken English and fussy Old World habits, stumbles and bumbles through provincial cocktail parties, academic intrigue and autumnal Ivy League living: tolling bells, paths “felted with fallen leaves,” “everything prettily frosted with rime,” “the sadness of balanced meals.” But the novel, as a purportedly humorous character study, has not aged well.

The humor is too gently slapstick, and Professor Pnin’s mental universe — centered mainly on the minutiae of Russian literary journals — is far too narrow to intrigue. Yet, as if this were the postmodernist’s quintessential escape hatch, Mr. Nabokov leaves the reader dangling: Is it parody of the emigre professor or merely lazy borrowing from the author’s own experience (he taught at Cornell from 1948-1959)?

Or what to make of “Pale Fire” (1962), a 999-line tone poem purportedly written by one John Shade with lengthy annotation by a demented scholar Charles Kimbote, who, it turns out, is the exiled king of a mythical kingdom? Lines 383-384 read: “I think she always nursed a small mad hope. I’d finished recently my book on Pope.” The mock annotations then tell us: “The title of this work which can be found in any college library is ‘Supremely Blest,’ a phrase borrowed from a Popian line, which I remember but cannot quote exactly.” While the eccentric format allows Mr. Nabokov to exercise or exorcise his vast erudition — you can almost hear him chuckling to himself — it feels, for the most part, like a sophomoric academic stunt.

But again, is it parody of literary criticism’s parasitic overkill, or the author’s own vain and less-than-subtle reach for more elevated recognition? “While I keep everything on the brink of parody,” Mr. Nabokov once noted, “there must be on the other hand an abyss of seriousness, and I must make my way along this narrow ridge between my own truth and the caricature of it.”

To flirt so obsessively with the borders of parody — a habit that has long bothered many critics — was perhaps the last refuge for a poetic genius struggling within the confines of novelistic convention. But the flippancy with which he approached his craft suggests a salon-variety boredom — writing fiction as a rainy-day mind game, one notch above solitaire.

For all his prolific output, “Lolita” rightfully graces the top of the pyramid. For once, at least, Mr. Nabokov struck the right balance between the cerebral and the sleazy, between world-weary asides and illicit sex, between — most notoriously — a creepy cosmopolitan’s charm and Lolita’s bubble-gum defiance.

It’s a rare convergence in American letters that a writer’s most commercial novel is also his best. But if, at the very least, novels are escapes from the pedestrian Everyday, perversion sells darn well, particularly when it’s so elegantly wrought. That may be Mr. Nabokov’s final joke on the reader. We’ll probably never know.

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