Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov is dead at 78. It is a loss that a world in short supply of both moral acuity and literary genius can ill afford. The caste that produced Nabokov was without doubt the pinnacle of Western society to date. His father, a jurist and liberal, was imprisoned by the Czar and assassinated in Berlin by rightwing extremists. His generation bequeathed to Nabokov a sense of social responsibility as well as a sense of individual worth (which became a dominant theme in Nabokov’s writing) and an appreciation of the intellectual and cultural treasures of civilization. They lacked only the selfish aggressiveness that might have enabled them to survive.
Nabokov fled Russia for London in 1919 after the Bolshevik Revolution, just as he and his Jewish wife, Véra, would have to flee from their Berlin home to Paris in 1938, and finally to America in 1940. It took the 1958 American publication of Lolita to make his name familiar to general readers. “Without doubt it is the filthiest book I have ever read,” said British critic John Gordon. Retorted Dorothy Parker in Esquire: “Lolita is a fine book, a distinguished book—all right, then—a great book. And how are you, John Gordon, Esq., of the London Sunday Express?” Nabokov was discovered. His style ranged enormously from the straightforward prose of Pnin (for some of us his finest work) to the experimentation of the
prose/poetry of Pale Fire. In this sense he was a true literary child of the Berlin of the 1920s where trends like dadaism and futurism sprouted happily every week. Only Nabokov’s enormous common sense prevented him from ever falling into sterile literary cul-de-sacs, although his attitude as a stylist was influenced by formalist experiments.
The body of Nabokov’s work is enormous, much of it uncollected, some of it still untranslated from the Russian which he exchanged for English in 1938. Since then, his Western reputation has been based both on his original works in English—whose stylish range and virtuosity are without peer in the English tongue— and reworkings of his Russian novels. It would be reassuring to suppose that this oeuvre, filled with its cutting insights into the banality of contemporary fashions— such as the “psychoasinine” characters in Pnin who worry about how their sevenyear-old offspring scores on the Augusta Angst Abstract Test—and the exquisitely evocative autobiographical Speak, Memory, would be assured its proper place in literary history. But literary appreciations shift and change with the times, and posterity can be as fickle as a present-day audience. Nabokov’s position as an exceptionally fine writer (apart from his reputation as one of the world’s greatest authorities on butterfly genitalia), should be assured but if, as it sometimes appears, we are entering the new Dark Ages—a world populated by community college graduates, party workers, little red books and, at best, Jesus freaks—indeed the kind of world Nabokov describes so perfectly in Pnin, chances are in a decade or two there will be no reader left to appreciate the erudition, wit, humanity and compassion of the late Russian master. BARBARA AMIEL
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