Wednesday, March 7, 2018

The Secret History of Vladimir Nabokov

Andrea Pitzer's The Secret History of Vladimir Nabokov isn't quite as fugitive, subtle, or revolutionary as its name suggests.  The book is well-researched, and well-written, and offers readers an excellent overview of many of the political themes that Nabokov directly or indirectly addresses in his large oeuvre. However, the book isn't really offering readers an especially novel interpretation of the author's general perspectives on politics.  In any event, reading Pitzer's treatments of Nabokov's life and major works reminds one of the extraordinary way in which a single life can touched by multiple historical tragedies. For Nabokov's life was overturned by the Russian Revolution, and his subsequent exile was disrupted by the rise of fascism in Germany.  In the end, Nabokov and his Jewish wife barely Germany's invasion of France in 1940, but Pitzer notes how his experience with authoritarianism and antisemitism permeated many of his books, including his English-language ones.  By and large, Nabokov chose to remain aloof from politics, but his support for Russian liberalism, and virulent hatred for communism were always well-known.  In fact, Nabokov's growing disgust for Edmund Wilson's socialist sympathies helped to dissolve a long and productive intellectual dialog.  Perhaps the most original aspect of Pitzer's book is to place Nabokov's aesthetic and political life along side those of Solzhenitsyn.  Both writers were of course famous anti-communist Russian exiles who spent time in America and had at least some connection to Switzerland.  However, comparing the two greater writers reminds the reader that only one of them placed his political and moral opinions at the forefront of his literary project. For while Solzhenitsyn wrote about Soviet authoritarianism in The Gulag Archipelago, The Cancer Ward, A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, and various other fictional and nonfictional works, Nabokov attacked his Soviet enemies only obliquely in his novels.  Which author had the greater work on moral and aesthetic history remains to be seen.  Certainly Nabokov he had no business conflating the political with the literary.  But the author dismisses these objections, insisting that Nabokov's worldview is encapsulated in his fiction.  Thus, if Nabokov had a secret history at all, it was primarily a secret he kept from himself.  This may of course explain his vociferous opposition to psychotherapy. 

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