Nabokov: His Life In Part by Andrew Field
Andrew Field holds the Chair of Foundation Professor in the School of Humanities, no less, at Griffith University in Australia. With his free hand he writes about Nabokov (critique, bibliography) and Russian literature. He has also published a novel of literary life and pretensions. Oh. A novel. That's an attempt at the Field style, which takes some getting over. Even its pauses can be ironically pointed, like music; the meaning is not just between the lines but among the spaces. Even so, the book displays manifest strengths and gifts, such as linguistic flair, literary insight, originality of approach, deep personal involvement - all the qualities, in a word, that count as creative on the campus. But they may rank as tares, not wheat, in the biographical field. As the (presumably solicited) testimonial emblazoned on the jacket proclaims – “When a biography is as inventive as this one, we may certainly call it a work of art.” Perhaps so; but may we as certainly call it a biography? In that context, “inventive” might strike many authors and readers as a punishing and painful backhander. After only a few pages of this art-work I began to sigh for the old-fashioned craftsmanship of plain exposition by means of factual data deployed in coherent sequence.
We begin with a chapter of magazinestyle interview, wherein we meet the master and his wife chatting in ostensibly relaxed ease to their talented and trusted young Boswell. But the old folk remain wary, sometimes tense. At one point Mrs Nabokov, could restrain herself no longer. “Andrew…, what is your angle?” A good question; and the answer is too often oblique and tangential. The title is a fair warning. It is avowedly an admission and declaration of inconclusive evidence, of “freedom from the fat of irrelevant fact ...” But despite this disclaimer the proof of the padding is in the reading:
Once I asked Vera Evseevna what she thought her life would have been like had the revolution not occurred, and she was only midway through the second sentence of her speculation when Vladimir Vladimirovitch lost patience and interrupted with forced gruff humour: “You would have met me in Petersburg and we would have married and been living more or less as we are, now!
Field's gift for encapsulating very little in several carefully recorded words becomes even more marked in the following section, which is spent in looking through the yellowed leaves, or none, of the family tree. This investigation is well summarised, after another 30 pages, in the words: “The most important things I know and wish to convey about the Nabokov family are the very things which are impossible to prove or even state with any precision.” Exactly; but not everyone will be quite so satisfied with the resulting vagueness of voice and tone, especially when it is accompanied by sweeping and rather empty gestures. “The most formative and significant pattern that I have been able to trace to the present from the furthest known reaches of Nabokov family history” (come off it) is an “undemonstrable factor”, namely that the family tended to have happy childhoods.
This strain of self-indulgence is, it seems to me, a demonstrable factor in weakening what might otherwise have been a powerful work. The grasp of sources and data can become slack, e.g. in misrepresenting what Nabokov says in Speak, Memory about his return to Cambridge. There are unnoticed inconsistencies, sometimes within the same paragraph; thus the accounts of Nabokov as a student (p.138) and as a chess-player (p. 155) are self-contradictory as well as prima facie implausible. There is little attempt at reasoned argument, and what there is lacks cogency. The paternal library contained psychological case-histories; Nabokov acquired a taste for such reading; this is a “sufficient explanation” of the origins of his neurotic and psychotic characters. There are unspoken prejudices – “Mirsky, whose politics were leftist but whose literary opinions are almost always scrupulously fair and exact…” Resonance takes precedence over relevance – “Above the playing field there was a sea of windows with Mondrian-like panting on the outside perimeters on three sides of the trapezoidal court …” Finally, the conjunction of subjective content and idiosyncratic style almost suggests a biography of Andrew Field by V. Nabokov.
However, the perspective improves sharply once the actual subject is officially born, on p. 89, and embarks on his long odyssey from affluence in his native Russia via comparative poverty in Europe and increasing rewards in America to a Lolita-subsided lap of luxury in a Swiss hotel. A model round which to drape the biographical material affords a better view of its style and finish. It has durable quality too, in the fabric of first-hand commentary about formative places and people, and the astute relation of character and incident to particular novels. But if, as Nabokov himself is recorded as saying, the first biography casts a certain shadow on the others, then he seems likely to remain a shadowy figure for some time to come. No, new light is thrown, so far as I can see, on the nature or the stature of his art, or the psychology of its creation; and these are surely the uncharted areas that many readers would wish to explore. Here is a mind passionately concerned with languages, lepidoptera, chess, cipher and crosswords. What is the significance of this Romantic obsession with defined and patterned images; what precisely is being seen, with what vision and insight? What is the quality of emotive and evaluative life and experience behind the Nabokovian art-work; how are language and thought modified by a life of wandering exile, with so many more routes than roots? This book is too busy being “evocative and brilliant”, as the blurb has it, to step back and survey Nabokov's life and personality in the depth they demand.
© the new statesman, 1977