NABOKV-L post 0021592, Tue, 3 May 2011 22:41:33 -0400

Contemplating Nabokov ...


The Trouble With Ardor

Contemplating Nabokov, visiting his grave, imitating his style.

This is a true devotional.


Happiness is not the first word that comes to my mind when the name Vladimir Nabokov is invoked. A genius but also a snob and curmudgeon, Nabokov was frequently competitive and unkind, belittling the likes of Faulkner, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Conrad, Jane Austen, Cervantes, Hemingway and Henry James. (In the early 1970s, when asked by an interviewer, "What is your position in the world of letters?" Nabokov replied: "Jolly good view from up here.") He went to war over matters of translation and "topical trash." He rejected edits with devilish diligence. "I carry proudly my ineffable happiness," he once boasted, and gasconading may well bring pleasure.

For Lila Azam Zanganeh, the "experience of happiness" is to be found in reading Nabokov—in contemplating his work, his life, his writerly power. "The Enchanter" is essentially the retrospective account of a young woman's discovery of a writer's talent to enthrall, her celebration of a man who "sends planets spinning." Ms. Zanganeh, who was born in Paris to Iranian parents, tries in a poetic way to relate the vicissitudes of Nabokov's life—his several exiles, various upheavals, his need to cope, more than once, with life in a new language—to those of her own family and herself. But the parallels are all rather vague. We learn few essential facts about her life, her country or her own crises. Ms. Zanganeh becomes known to us, really, only in her Nabokovian ardor and in her frequent diary-like accounts.

"I recall," she writes, "a Mediterranean countryside over a decade ago. The long silhouette of a cypress tree extended its back against the wall of our red-brick house, vying until noon with the prickly stems of caper berry shrubs. . . . I was sitting down on a white wicker chair, studiously wading through Lolita for the first time. . . . I dozed off under the growing heat . . . Lalita Lili Lilita Lilola Lilota Litola Lola Lolita Loll Lolla Lollapoalooza Lollipop Lollop Lolly Lollylag Lollypop."

One has the cringing sense that Ms. Zanganeh is trying to imitate Nabokov himself, who was given to minutely observed descriptive prose and who opened his famous novel with phonetic byplay. ("Lo-lee-ta," "Lo. Lee. Ta.") Throughout "The Enchanter," Ms. Zanganeh appropriates Nabokov's arch and ornate phrases and strains to capture his style in what one assumes to be an attempt at homage. "When I read my second VN novel, Ada (quite uneventfully, in bed, toes splayed, limbs akimbo), every so often I put the book down and strove to visualize its figures of light and shade." Toes splayed? Limbs akimbo?

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The Enchanter
By Lila Azam Zanganeh
(Norton, 228 pages, $23.95)

Adopting the persona of a "creative reader," Ms. Zanganeh explores the magical worlds of three of Nabokov's major works—"Lolita," "Speak, Memory" and "Ada, or Ardor"—and offers, along the way, a mix of quotation, anecdote and comment. She grabs details from Brian Boyd's biography of Nabokov, from Nabokov's own interviews and from her encounters with Dmitri, Nabokov's son and literary executor, whom she hunts down, interviews and frankly exalts. "I looked at Dmitri's clear blue gaze, tuned in to the grain of his voice, so close to his father's as one may catch it in recordings."

Oversimplying the Nabokovian equation, Ms. Zanganeh sees this Russian-American author almost exclusively as "the great writer of happiness." She glances at various kinds of delight and joy in his work, focusing mainly on the theme of love. ("Love—the claire-obscure arabesque of the Nabokovian universe.") In a typical bout of flattery, she holds Vladimir and Vera, his wife, up as a nearly perfect loving couple. Cloyingly she writes: "We know nothing of their private lives. Except that they slept in adjoining rooms. Perhaps he tiptoed to hers. And late into the night, he would look at her, lying naked, supine, gray-blue eyes lifted skyward. Then soundlessly, he would again disappear in the dark haze of his room."

Ms. Zanganeh chooses to remain silent about the many dips in the Nabokovs' complicated relationship of 52 years, citing only one of his several adulteries and praising the ever dutiful Vera as his "lover, reader, typist, agent, chauffeur, chess partner, and private banker." (May I add "guard dog"? In college I once mailed to his hotel in Montreux, along with a gift of butterfly stamps, one of his novels for him to inscribe and was immediately sent back, along with the unsigned novel and rejected gift, a scolding letter from Vera telling me not to bother them.)

In a kind of literary sleuthing, Ms. Zanganeh haunts many of the places where Nabokov lived, visits his grave in Clarens, Switzerland, detects portents that link her with him, celebrating fluky coincidences between Nabokov and herself and correlations that conjoin them in some sort of "relationship," although she does point out that she was only 10 months old when he died on July 2, 1977. This is a true devotional. At one point, Ms. Zanganeh unabashedly confesses that she proceeded to buy a net and shorts to go out catching butterflies.

But she misses the core. What Nabokov valued, perhaps above all else, was what he could preserve in memory and save from oblivion. He located and fixed the past in much the way that in his lepidopteral experiments he fixed his beloved butterflies. "I confess I do not believe in time," he once said, and indeed time did not exist for Nabokov in quite the way it is commonly understood. A passage from the story "A Letter That Never Reached Russia" conveys something of the exile's redeeming constant: "The centuries will roll by, and schoolboys will yawn over the history of our upheavals; everything will pass, but my happiness, dear, my happiness will remain, in the moist reflection of a streetlamp, in the cautious bend of stone steps that descend into the canal's black waters, in the smiles of a dancing couple, in everything with which God so generously surrounds human loneliness."

Mr. Theroux is a writer in West Barnstable, Mass.

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