Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Nabokov: First Phase of Exile

Lolita—book or movie—seems quintessentially American in many ways. It’s about suburbia, modernity, motels, and road trips. But its hero is vaguely European, and its author is precisely Russian. The first of half of the massive Nabokov biography--Brian Boyd's Vladamir Nabokov: the Russian Years--is dedicated to the Russian years, including his early years in Russia as well as exile in the White Russian Diaspora.

Vladimir Nabokov

The book spends too much time analyzing the long series of Nabokov’s Russian language novels, but the life is exceptional in every respect. The book begins with a description of Nabokov’s wealth, supremely self-confident, courageous father—who became a popular February Revolution politician until the October Revolution forced him to become one of the leaders of the counter-revolutionary Diaspora. In exile, Nabokov Senior was killed defending another politician during an assassination attempt. Nabokov Junior, who worshiped the memory of his father, didn’t take up the political cause. He didn’t follow in his political footsteps. Instead, he became poet and novelist, eventually the equal of Ivan Bunin.

The magic of Nabokov—aside from the art—stems from his acute intelligence, mastery of Russian as well as English, aristocratic inheritance, love of logic and language, and self-confidence. The paradox is that Nabokov carried the cultural legacy of Russia’s old world with him but also epitomized Western modernity. Of course, Russian cultural modernity predated the revolution. And literary modernism is traditionally associated with an obsession with the past, Proust’s Temps Perdu. So Nabokov’s nostalgia was, in the end, perfectly compatible with innovative writing, modernism, and perhaps even post-modernism. And the life he led, which included displacement, diaspora, exile, multiculturalism, and stints in Petersburg, the Crimea, Berlin, Prague, London, Paris, and America--hints at the affinities between post-modern biography and post-modern literary trends.

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