On Nabokov: 'the goodness of his greatness, the greatness of his goodness'

October 20, 1991|By Stephen Margulies

VLADIMIR NABOKOV:

THE AMERICAN YEARS.

Brian Boyd.

Princeton University.

783 pages. $35.

What an awesome surprise: I realized that I was happy and hopeful when I finished this book, the second volume of Brian Boyd's two-part biography of the Russian-American novelist (the first part was "Vladimir Nabokov: the Russian Years"). I continued to hold the fat, pretty volume in my hands, almost fondling it. What could that mean? Usually -- when one has finished even the most scandalously informative of recent biographies -- one has about as much desire to continue holding it as if it were a pet that has just died. Usually, one thinks: Well, the life was really disgusting, but the writings survive, or the paintings live on . . . or whatever. But there is little gratification. Life and work seem to have died together. Does a recorded life exemplify anything except entropy?

Victorian biographies may have been somewhat dishonest but at least they left the reader with a sense that the subject could serve as a role model or that human life could be seen as noble struggle. In a world devoid of supernatural faith, this could be useful. Modern biographies, on the other hand, purport to be as dutifully revealing as a laboratory -- but what they leave you don't always want to have. Truth turns out to be as refreshing as formaldehyde.

Like other biographies, Dr. Boyd's "Vladimir Nabokov: the American Years" ends with the "hero's" death, which occurred at the age of 77 in 1977. The cause, appropriate for a passionately mysterious author, was a mysterious fever, still undiagnosed. But unlike other biographers, Dr. Boyd sees his "hero" as a hero, in both flesh and spirit, in both his life and his work.

Yet Dr. Boyd is justifiably modern in his attempts at necessary frankness; and his healthy scholarship delights in fact just as Nabokov himself delighted in the caressable ruddy details of both life and art. Dr. Boyd is gleefully convinced that Vladimir Nabokov, who wrote masterpieces in both Russian and English, is the greatest writer of the twentieth century. But Dr. Boyd -- and this is new! -- also is convinced that Nabokov was a good human being, despite his reputation for coldness, elitism and arrogance. Certainly, Dr. Boyd spent much time with the woman who was the true heart of Nabokov: his widow, Vera.

This book has been gorgeously nourished and perhaps a little hampered by Dr. Boyd's close working relationship with Vera, who died very recently. Dr. Boyd has emerged from this relationship vividly affirming his belief in the goodness of Nabokov's greatness and in the greatness of his goodness.

Conventional opinion about Nabokov -- encouraged by the novelist himself -- either condemned or praised him for separating art fromlife. With passionate precision, with a swagging net full of warm anecdotes, Dr. Boyd proves the eerie connection between Nabokov's life and art; and suggests that Nabokov believed in the transcendent magic of kindness as much as he believed in the magical transcendence of art. Kindness is one of the keys to his books. Kindness is one of the keys to his life.

The character of Vera, too, is one of the healing gifts of this biography. With the modesty of brilliant integrity, she never promoted herself; but it becomes gradually obvious that she and Nabokov were -- despite a serious setback -- utterly united in both work and love. Lovely and deeply talented, she was his lifelong muse and constantly sustained him, even teaching some of his classes and writing some of his lectures. After his death, Vera, in the heroic frailty of old age, labored to translate some of his English work for a Russian people who thirsted for it. Nabokov, poet of love and freedom, had become "the writer of perestroika."

Life itself may be too finite to hold its own sweetness. Art, though thrilling, is but a shadow of what it could be. Only when art and love and life are fused in the true kind regal glow of Vera Nabokov is there a chance for hope. Vera Nabokov "discloses the true, priceless link between love and art: at their depths both offer a way beyond the self," Dr. Boyd writes.

When Vera was away sick in a hospital, Nabokov, usually a brave and strong man, experienced the feeling of ". . . utter panic and dreadful presentiment." Without Vera, Nabokov might have remained locked up in the narcissism of a spoiled child of the Russian aristocracy brought up in a pre-Revolutionary household "stupendous wealth." With Vera, his enchanted sense of happiness could survive the loss of his family's wealth, his exile from Russia and later from Europe, the murder of his father by fascists, long years of poverty, and even the friendly weirdness life as a houseless college professor in the United States.

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