Vladimir Nabokov’s relationship with America remains one of great fascination.
Vladimir Nabokov’s relationship with America remains one of great fascination. The Russian-born author arrived on these shores, aged 40, in the year of Pearl Harbor with little idea of where he was going. He’d only recently begun to work in the English language, though in a few short years he would write one of the boldest works his adopted tongue ever offered and would become one of the last century’s great literary masters in the process. That work, Lolita, would take more than a decade to appear. It was too shocking, too sensational for most publishers and the subject of scorn from critics.
Though it is well documented that the seeds of Lolita were planted long before Nabokov’s arrival, it was American life that energized his audacity, encouraged him to take up his pen and move boldly into the future. Some have seen this most controversial of novels as a critique of American life, a world where a middle-aged man falls in love with a young girl and marries her mother in order to remain close to the true object of his desire. Only, as the saying goes, in America? Maybe not, but the author saw his new home in an often less-than-favorable light. Though he found some of the financial security he’d lost in Russia, there remains evidence that he never fully embraced his adopted home’s many contradictions and its tendency to champion the lower artistic rungs.
Some might suggest that he was too busy with his teaching post at Cornell to fully grasp the nation, but Nabokov traveled widely, spending time in California and chasing his beloved butterflies here and there. He also wrote a great deal, completing some of his most complex and fascinating works while living in Ithaca, including Speak, Memory and Pnin. Other works began to emerge during that time, including Pale Fire and a wide range of short stories. He had at least found a place that suited his artistic development and allowed him the space that imagination needs to thrive.
Author Robert Roper has done biography before, capably chronicling Walt Whitman via Now the Drum of War: Walt Whitman and His Brothers in the Civil War, though he has also penned his share of fiction. Though some find it difficult to reconcile his role as a fiction writer with that of a biographer, his experience in the fiction writer’s world serves him well as he charts Nabokov’s American life. He also plays the role of critic (one that, a cliché suggests, is native to us all), finding sources for Lolita and suggesting ways in which the work influenced other writers who succeeded Nabokov in the world of letters.
Roper succeeds in painting a portrait of Nabokov the American, the man of playfulness, of great spirit and imagination who remains enigmatic and sometimes problematic all these decades later. Were he less controversial, less daring with his words and imagination we might not have a work such as this, nor would we likely find Lolita a flashpoint for debate.
Roper captures that and more in prose that moves along like the relatively short years that his subject spent living in his adopted home. Nabokov would eventually leave (in 1962), living out his final years in a hotel and concentrating full-time on writing. It may have been a fitting final chapter for a man who never quite found a permanent home and who, it’s easy to imagine, hoped that one day he might return to the land of his birth and the riches that had once belonged to his family. What he may have lost in that time and from that world, he returned to us all in his novels.