Happy Birthday Vladimir Nabokov!!!
April 10, 22/23, 1899*
All hail the power of Vladimir Nabokov!
Each creative person has their idols, including those who embody the ideal traits of their own chosen vocation—the role model who both exhilarates one with their downright awesomeness while simultaneously depressing one for that very reason. They’re too goddamn good; their talent seems almost tinged with the supernatural.
As a person who has worked with words in some capacity or another for years (from hack writer-for-hire to blue-pencil-wielding editor), Vladimir Vladimirovitch Nabokov is that divine bugbear whose work inspires ecstatic, sky-high joy within me as well as the disheartening ground-thudding conclusion that writing perfection has been achieved. Yep. It’s done. There should be no more writing, ever, because this man did it so well. No more novels. Ever. I mean, could you ask for a more enduring swan song for literature than Lolita?
It was over a decade ago that I came across an annotated volume of Lolita during a bored summer afternoon spent at the library. One page in and I was hooked, enthralled, and absolutely mesmerized. I don’t think there’s ever been a more lyrically lovely and intriguing opening to a novel.
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.
She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four foot ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.
Did she have a precursor? She did, indeed she did. In point of fact, there might have been no Lolita at all had I not loved, one summer, a certain initial girl-child. In a princedom by the sea. Oh when? About as many years before Lolita was born as my age was that summer. You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.
Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, exhibit number one is what the seraphs, the misinformed, simple, noble-winged seraphs, envied. Look at this tangle of thorns.
I read the book through once in a single day, stark raving drunk on the words and oblivious to the annotations. But as I reread the book, flipping frequently to the back to unearth the treasures promised in those little footnotes, my awe only increased. Who the hell was this man? How could anybody’s writing be so rich, so dense with allusion and dripping with obscure puns?
Mr. Nabokov’s background was the kind that few of us modern-day slobs can even imagine: born to prosperity in pre-Revolutionary Russia, little Vladimir was dropped off at school in a Rolls Royce and had unlimited access to the family library (which had its own librarian, lucky bastard). He was trilingual from birth—speaking Russian, English, and French—and a multimillionaire, through inheritance, by the age seventeen. And then… the Revolution.
With one fell swoop from the hammer and sickle, Nabokov became an exile from a country that no longer existed and a life-long nomad (he would never own a house besides the one he inherited so shortly before his childhood world turned upside down). He was educated at Cambridge, began a family and completed his greatest contributions to Russian literature while ensconced in the cozy émigré community in Berlin, gave reading tours across Europe, and finally fled to America as the Nazis situation grew out of hand.
Mr. Nabokov flourished in the United States: he achieved rock star professor status at Wellesly, Cornell, and other universities while crisscrossing the country by car, frequently stopping to chase and collect butterflies (one of his greatest passions). And he began writing his contributions to the English-language canon; rich in theme, packed solid with meaning and metaphor—especially Lolita, which despite Nabokov’s country of birth, just might be the Great American Novel.
His contributions to English literature continued in Switzerland. It was here that he wrote Pale Fire, which is a delightfully peculiar volume. What’s not to love about a poem with a plot in the footnotes? And, Lordy, the poetry itself…
There was a sudden sunburst in my head.
And then black night. That blackness was sublime,
I felt distributed through space and time:
One foot upon a mountaintop, one hand
Under the pebbles of a panting strand,
One ear in Italy, one eye in Spain,
In caves, my blood, and in the stars, my brain.
There were dull throbs in my Triassic; green
Optical spots in Upper Pleistocene,
An icy shiver down my Age of Stone,
And all tomorrows in my funnybone.
Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle was another shining example of his Swiss period work. This was another volume I checked out of the library on a bored summer afternoon, but it wasn’t a quite as (relatively) breezy read as Lolita. It’s a complex and dream-like book; exquisitely-written and almost hypnotic in it’s effects. If Lolita is the intoxicating wine of literature for word junkies, Ada is its delicious opium. Not to mention that it contains one of the best sex scenes in literature (has surreptitious and awkward adolescent coitus ever sounded so poetic?):
For the first time in their love story, the blessing, the genius of lyrical speech descended upon the rough lad, he murmured and moaned, kissing her face with voluble tenderness, crying out in three languages—the three greatest in all the world—pet words upon which a dictionary of secret diminutives was to be based and go through many revisions till the definitive edition of 1967. When he grew too loud, she shushed, shushingly breathing into his mouth, and now her four limbs were frankly around him as if she had been love-making for years in all our dreams—but impatient young passion (brimming like Van’s overflowing bath while he is reworking this, a crotchety gray old wordman on the edge of a hotel bed) did not survive the first few blind thrusts; it burst at the lip of the orchid, and a bluebird uttered a warning warble, and the lights were now stealing back under a rugged dawn, the firefly signals were circumscribing the reservoir, the dots of the carriage lamps became stars, wheels rasped on the gravel, all the dogs returned well pleased with the night treat, the cook’s niece Blanche jumped out of a pumpkin-hued police van in her stockinged feet (long, long after midnight, alas)—and our two naked children, grabbing lap robe and nightdress, and giving the couch a parting pat, pattered back with their candlesticks to their innocent bedrooms.
Mr. Nabokov may have shuffled off his mortal coil on July 2, 1977, but thanks to his work he is forever one of the immortals. He will continue to be the delight and despair of many a word-loving dilettante like myself; he will continue to guide us to Zembla and Terra and other realms beyond our imaginations. And, beneath the breathtaking prose and idiosyncratic vocabulary and the stratum of meaning, there is a very simple lesson to be learned from his work. Once, when Mr. Nabokov was about to set off on a lepidopterological excursion, a distraught student accosted him over some issue with her exams. Visions of the butterflies to be caught no doubt fluttering in his mind’s eye, he stopped her short by saying, “Life is beautiful. Life is sad. That’s all you need to know.”
Happy birthday, Mr. Nabokov. And thank you for showing us those unique and beautiful shades of happiness and sadness through your work.
Click here for Hux’s favorite Nabokov resources.
* Yes, there is a reason there are three dates listed as his birthday. It has to do with calendars and such; find out more here. I have posted this piece on the date Nabokov preferred.
April 23, 2010 at 11:19 am | Happy Birthday! | No comment