Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0004520, Mon, 25 Oct 1999 11:21:06 -0700

Clarence Brown's Review of NABOKOV'S BLUES (fwd)

Posted at 08:23 p.m. PDT; Sunday, October 24, 1999

Book review

Nabokov's life story floats like a butterfly

by Clarence Brown
Special to The Seattle Times

Vladimir Nabokov would probably have liked the title of this book, for he
dearly loved deception of every kind, especially that of the double

Expelled from his native Russia by the Bolsheviks and then from
Europe by the Nazis (his wife was Jewish), Nabokov experienced all the
agonies of bereavement (his father was assassinated by monarchist thugs),
expulsion, exile and poverty (until his novel, "Lolita," made him famous
at the end of the '50s, he led a precarious life, barely able to support
his wife and son).

So he would have been entitled to clinical depression, let
alone occasional blues. But the blues in question are butterflies, and his
lifelong interest turned him into a world authority on this particular

Nabokov, also author of "Ada" and "Pale Fire," led three lives and
had three different constituencies, mutually ignorant of each other for
the most part.
Lepidopterists (scientists who study butterflies) knew him as a
colleague and might have been surprised to learn that he wrote novels.
Literary scholars (those who knew Russian, and then, after "Lolita," all
of them) knew him as a writer and might only have heard rumors of his
insect hobby. Finally, the tiny, highly specialized community of
chess-problem enthusiasts knew him as an ingenious composer of
such, who probably also had a day job.

His adored father bequeathed him the interest in
butterflies, and he never lost it. Nor was it a separate compartment of
his psyche, for the life cycle of the butterfly (the ugly caterpillar that
with draws into its cocoon for a period and then emerges as the
spectacularly beautiful winged creature of the imago form) str
providential metaphor for what he did as an artist.

From the gross untidiness of everyday messy experience
(caterpillar), the artist contrives (in the hidden cocoon of his own
mind), to produce the beautiful work of art, the imago, from which nearly
every trace of humdrum or disgusting origin has magically vanished. The
process is called metamorphosis, change of form, and was for Nabokov the
artistic process as well as that of his favorite bug.

I hope my snobbishness is not showing, but I must say that I was
not prepared to find in this book so elegant a style nor such expert
knowledge of the master's literary work, including the poetry. Johnson and
Coates have written an absorbing account of an indispensable side of one
of the greatest writers of the age.

Copyright 1999 The Seattle
Times Company