Master of the Hall of Mirrors

Picture Vladimir Nabokov. In the hall of mirrors that is popular culture, he is the dirty man who wrote the dirty book “Lolita,” about a 12-year-old “nymphet” — he invented the term, by the way — and her affair with an older man.

Vladimir Nabokov

Vladimir Nabokov

Angle the mirror another way, and he is one of the founders of the modernist novel, which to some people — myself included — that’s a damning phrase. “Modernist” and “post-modernist” literature seems a) self-referencing to the point of egotism; b) dedicated to the advancement of decedent themes, and to score big points as a writer, pile it on, brother; and c) obsessed with the discovery that the “arts” — whether books, pictures or movies — are artificial, and that we use them to create, well, books, pictures and movies.

Unless you think I am making it up, here’s an example drawn from real life: a few years back, a Charlotte museum mounted an exhibition of a painter’s work, one of which was a canvas whose front side was turned toward the wall, exposing a paint-stained frame. A newspaper reviewer breathlessly informed the reading public that the artist did this “to inform the viewer that most paintings are rectangular.”

Now, a reasonably intelligent person could probably reach that conclusion without much effort, but discoveries like these seem to drive those who tread into the “modern” era of art.

So Vlaidmir Nabokov’s reputation is caught between two very opposing poles. He either panders to the worst tastes of man, or the worst tastes of art.

Fortunately, he is neither, and the Library of America agrees. The non-profit publisher throws its reputation behind Nabokov as a writer worth reading by publishing all of his English-language novels in three volumes. The first volume covers his work from 1941 to 1951: “The Real Life of Sebastian Knight,” “Bend Sinister,” and his memoir, “Speak, Memory.” The middle work contains the notorious “Lolita,” “Pale Fire,” “Pnin,” and the “Lolita” screenplay Nabokov wrote for Stanley Kubrick. The concluding volume contains “Ada,” “Transparent Things,” and “Look at the Harlequins!”

But of these works, only “Lolita” stands alone. It is not a dirty book, and one should pity those American and British tourists who, in the mid-1950s, bought the pale olive-green two-volume paperbacks published in Paris by the notorious Olympia Press. Those expecting frankly pornographic stories like “The Story of O” and “How to Do It” would have been sorely disappointed in Humbert Humbert’s self-confessed defense of his rape (not “seduction,” which implies a willingness to be seduced) and exploitation of Delores Haze, “Lolita, light of my life,fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.”

Even Olympia’s publisher was taken in, telling a mutual friend that he though Nabokov was Humbert, and that he was attempting to popularize nymphet love.

What does become apparent after reading through the volumes (and aided by an excellent two-volume biography by Brian Boyd) is that there is much more to Nabokov than meets the eye. Delving deeper in his works reveals a funhouse hall of mirrors that can lead to a definitive end, and there’s not much in modernist fiction that could substantiate that claim.

What sets Nabokov off from other writers is his use of the language. Raised in Tsarist Russia, Nabokov was a child prodigy who was taught Russian, French and English at an early age. His prose is elegent, his command of English astounding. It’s close to the prose of Henry James, but except for the foreign phrases, which the Library editions provide translations and explanations, far more understandable.

Descriptions pulled at random from “Lolita” ring as if English was a newly minted language, capable of expressing humor (“The bed was a frightful mess with overtones of potato chips”) and snobbish anger (“Lo had grabbed some comics from the back seat and, mobile white-bloused, one brown elbow out of the window, was deep in the current adventure of some clout or clown”).

Even, when Humbert meets his Lolita long after she escaped his clutches, when he believes that he still loves her, heart-rending: “In her washed-out grey eyes, strangely spectacled, our poor romance was for a moment reflected, pondered upon, and dismissed like a dull party, like a rainy picnic to which only the dullest bores had come, like a humdrum exercise, like a bit of dry mud caking her childhood.”

This is not casual reading, but neither is it reading-as-masochistic exercise, with furrowed brows and an exasperated flipping of once-read pages. There is a surface meaning that is easily accessible, but there are deeper meanings, in-jokes, ironies and moral questions worthy of consideration.

The best volume of the three is the second, which contains “Lolita,” the screenplay he wrote for Stanley Kubrick (which was not used), the comic novel (for Nabokov at least) “Pnin” and “Pale Fire.”
But good works can be found in the other volumes as well. “The Real Life of Sebastian Knight,” in the first volume, is the author’s account of his biographical research on his half-brother, the brilliant writer Sebastian Knight, who had died recently of a heart condition after writing a half-dozen novels. It bears all the hallmarks of the post-modernist novel replete with a self-absorption with writers, spurious biography, an unreliable narrator and ironical references. “Speak, Memory,” also in the first volume, is Nabokov’s memoirs about growing up in Russia.

Indeed, the only disadvantage to reading Nabokov is that it may cause a nagging niggling in the back of your head, while reading novels in the future, that they just cannot compare to those composed by the American from Russia.