Prospero's Progress

  • "0ne cannot hope to understand an author if one cannot even pronounce his name," Vladimir Nabokov has observed. The point, originally made about Nikolai Gogol (pronounced Gaw gol), applies to Nabokov himself. Over the years he has repeatedly complained about the damage inflicted on the Nabokov name in its passage through foreign ports of articulation. Nab -o-kov, Nab- o -kov. Nah-bo- kov , are frequent errors. Rare mutations, he reports, include Nahba-cocoa and Na-"bob"-kopf. The correct sound, says the man who made the name famous, is Nah boa koff. Slipping on the mask of a straight face for an instant, he continues: "Vladeemir, as in 'redeemer.'"

    This last is just the sort of phonetic parallel Nabokov relishes. Similarly, he is fond of insisting that, with minor adjustments for Julian and Gregorian dating systems, he shares an April 23 birth date with William Shakespeare. But then, he adds, "So does Shirley Temple."

    This little charade is just a conversational pleasantry. Or is it? Who can ever be sure with Nabokov? Perhaps he has something more in mind. Devout Nabokov watchers might find clues in those references to Julius Caesar and Pope Gregory. They might see implications of the fall of Rome, the rise of Byzantium, and a consequent gap between East and West that makes comparisons impossible between Anglo-Saxon writers (Shakespeare) and Slavic Writers (Nabokov).

    Slightly pedantic word play, cultural booby traps, brisk leaps from the Bard of Avon to the "Good Ship Lollipop", elegant "divertissements" for all occasions -- such things can be expected of Nabokov. But that is far from all. Russian by birth, a U.S. citizen who now lives in Switzerland, he has become, at 70, the greatest living American novelist, and the most original writer and stylist since Joyce. He is also an exile, a man who has triumphantly survived this century of the refugee, a man who has lost everything, yet transformed his losses through art and levity into a habitation of the mind.

    Nabokov's literary province is a bizarre, aristocratic, occasionally maddening amusement park in part devoted to literary instruction. It has many sideshows but only one magician. The general public, which chose to read "Lolita" as a Prurient tale of pedophilia, enters through the main gate, hoping to meet the creator of that doomed and delectable child. A more sophisticated clientele moves beyond the midway to seek out and applaud Dr. Nabokov, the butterfly Chaser, dealer in anagrammatical gimcracks, triple-tongued punster, animator of "Doppelganger", shuffler of similes. Prolonged exposure to Nabokov reveals much more. What he calls his "ever-ever" land of artifice opens on intriguing distances, There words transform the world into metaphor and time is held exquisitely at bay by memory.

    "Ada, or Ardor: A Family Chronicle", Nabokov's latest novel, is already a bestseller. Nabokov's peculiar fascination -- and enduring power -- escapes conventional measurement, but by any standard, the range and volume of his work in two languages is prodigious. It includes 15 novels (nine Russian, six English) and translations of other writers' work. His fiction differs from most novels in much the same way that a poem differs from a political treatise. One is an end in itself. The other, however intricate and elegant, is a means to an end. In a classic sneer at the use of plot in poetry, T. S. Eliot has compared it to a lump of meat thrown a house dog by a burglar (the writer) to keep him busy while the real business is attended to -- rifling the silver cupboard or dealing in the wizardry of words. Nabokov feels the same way.

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