A Passion for Intellectual Literacy Conclusion of Two-Part Nabokov Biography Explores 'Synthesis' of His American Experience

By Merle Rubin. Merle Rubin regularly reviews literature and contemporary fiction . | The Christian Science Monitor, September 27, 1991 | Go to article overview

A Passion for Intellectual Literacy Conclusion of Two-Part Nabokov Biography Explores 'Synthesis' of His American Experience


Merle Rubin. Merle Rubin regularly reviews literature and contemporary fiction ., The Christian Science Monitor


IN his autobiography, "Speak, Memory," Vladimir Nabokov characterizes the outline of his life history in terms of Hegel's model of thesis, antithesis, synthesis: an idea or theme that generates its opposite, which in turn points the way to a fresh combination.

For Nabokov, the oldest child of a wealthy and distinguished family, his first 20 years in Russia (1899-1919) constitute the thesis. The following 21 years of emigration and exile in Europe (a Cambridge University education, 15 years in Berlin, flight to France in 1937) are the antithesis: a time of loss, hardship, and nostalgia, during which he launched upon his career as a Russian author.

Beginning anew in America at the age of 40, still facing financial hardships but delighted with the free and easy outlook of Americans, Nabokov found his "synthesis" - and the necessary impetus to make the momentous switch from writing in Russian to writing in English.

Brian Boyd, a lecturer in English at the University of Auckland, New Zealand, has divided his massive and masterly biography of Nabokov into two volumes.

The first (published in 1990) covered the Russian-speaking years: Nabokov's serene and happy childhood, his difficult years of exile, his Russian-language writings ("King, Queen, Knave,The Defense," "Laughter in the Dark,The Gift"), his early romances, and his marriage to the beautiful, highly intelligent woman who devoted herself to fostering his talent.

In the second and final volume, "The American Years," Boyd tracks the less dramatic but no less remarkable second half of Nabokov's life, including the scandalous success of "Lolita," the critical success of "Pale Fire," Nabokov's famous friendship - and subsequent feud - with the curmudgeonly American man of letters Edmund Wilson, and the mixed reception accorded some of the later works, like "Ada" and "Look at the Harlequins!"

An apolitical man whose outward life was shaped by the forces of politics, Nabokov revered the example of his father, an outstanding Russian liberal murdered by right-wing Russian monarchists who were trying to assassinate someone else. Nabokov's younger brother Sergey, an outspoken opponent of the Hitler regime, died in a Nazi concentration camp.

Nabokov did not like politics, but as a Russian immigrant, he was expected by the American colleges and universities that offered him ill-paying, part-time teaching positions to keep students informed of the latest developments in the literature of America's newfound wartime ally, the Soviet Union. His refusal to teach the works of writers he regarded as crude propagandists made it harder for him to find a full-time position.

But as much as he despised communist hacks, he also hated being lumped together with the motley crew of die-hard czarists, Russian Germanophiles, and philistines distressed at losing their material possessions to the Revolution. What he most valued about democracy is the freedom it gives individuals to take part in politics or ignore it as they choose, without fear of repression or reprisal.

"Democracy," wrote Nabokov, "is humanity at its best, not because we happen to think that a republic is better than a king and a king is better than nothing and nothing is better than a dictator, but because it is the natural condition of every man ever since the human mind became conscious not only of the world but of itself. …

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