REVIEW: Devil’s advocate

Book: Nabokov and the Real World: Between Appreciation and Defense
Author: Robert Alter
Publisher, price: Princeton, £14.99

Vladimir Nabokov has been, and remains, one of the most controversial and polarizing writers. His critics describe him as a self-indulgent stylist, who was deliberately elitist, obscure and, worse, a purveyor of sophisticated pornography. His admirers — this reviewer is among them — consider his large body of work as brilliant and visionary. As Robert Alter puts it, “The sheer quantity and variety of his literary output, through constant economic hardship, traumatic bereavement, romantic involvement, and occasional bouts of debilitating illness, are astounding.” Born in an aristocratic family in Saint Petersburg that became Leningrad, he eschewed politics to a great extent while adhering to his father’s staunch liberal outlook. His father was murdered by a right-wing extremist. Nabokov’s brother was arrested by the Nazis for being a homosexual and died in a concentration camp. The bearing these traumatic experiences had on his work, such as Invitation to a Beheading, is referred to by Alter.

Given his anti-communist stance till as recently as 1987, Nabokov was a forbidden writer in the country of his origin, read only clandestinely. His switch from Russian to English and the international success and acclaim of what is arguably his most controversial novel, Lolita, written almost three-quarters of a century ago, made him persona non grata for the Soviet regime, which described him as a scandalously indecent writer. Nabokov, however, argued that Lolita’s protagonist, Humbert Humbert, considered himself to be monstrous and had been institutionalized in asylums several times for his insanity. The reader is deliberately made most uncomfortable because the middle-aged Humbert describes in the first-person his brutally carnal acts with a helpless pubescent girl. Alter suggests that, “Nabokov, devoted as he was to the supreme importance of art, had been concerned… with the phenomenon of the perverted artist, the person who uses a distorted version of the aesthetic shaping of reality to inflict suffering on others...” Alter is of the view that the “central paradox” of Lolita and what makes it a “great” novel is that it is not just the story of a psychopath but also one that “simultaneously recoils from its narrator and is drawn into both the anguish and the lyric exuberance of his point of view.”

He elaborates on such other Nabokov novels as Pale Fire, Speak, Memory and Ada. Ada, which is about the taboo topic of brother-sister incest, was written when Nabokov was 70. It is “ambitious, formally elaborate, fantastically inventive… [and] was... intended as a culmination of the distinctive artistic enterprise to which he devoted half a century.”

Alter describes Nabokov’s novels as “elaborately inventive” games of chess that he plays with his readers, “perhaps excessively ingenious and rather too cerebral”, but that he was also compassionate while “evoking the plight of the helpless” and prodding their “moral imagination”. Nabokov demanded a lot from his readers for he was rather fond of “word games... coded signals and cunning literary allusions but perhaps above all in the elegant shapeliness and invented zest of his style”.

Alter elaborates on Nabokov’s dislike for Sigmund Freud, Joseph Conrad, Thomas Mann, Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. At the same time, he expressed Nabokov’s admiration for Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, James Joyce, Franz Kafka, Fyodor Dostoevsky and Leo Tolstoy.

This is a book meant not only for Nabokov’s fans but also for students and teachers of literary criticism.

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