Prospero's Progress

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    I Would Kiss Your Hand
    In 1941, with the help of Nabokov's most influential American friend, Harvard Critic Harry Levin, "The Real Lite of Sebastian Knight", Nabokov's first novel written in English, was published. A haunting, accomplished and entirely Nabokovian novel about a man who loses his own identity trying to write the fictional biography of his lost brother, it appeared almost unnoticed. By the time he reached Cornell he had published "Bend Sinister" (1947), a study of a police state, parts of "Speak, Memory", one of the most beautiful autobiographies in English. Yet he was barely known on campus as a man of letters, much less a literary genius.

    Vladimir, acquaintances remember, was handsome, courtly, occasionally terribly amusing at parties. It was not for Nabokov, though, to commit the hilarious gaffes of his comic creation. the emigre Professor Timofey Pnin. Years of having to conform with dignity as an outsider had marked his manner. Mrs. Yvor Winters, widow of the critic., recalls that Nabokov would never kiss a woman I s hand, as many other refugees did. "If I were in Russia," he once confided to her, "I would kiss Your hand."

    The Nabokovs entertained sparingly and cared only to see a few close friends. They were too busy. Besides, science (lepidopterology) was once again coming to the aid of Vladimir's art. Its handmaIden was technology in the form of a 1952 Buick, bought mainly to search for specimens in the West. Vera did the driving. Nabokov, with the security of a man who is good at nearly everything, easily concedes he cannot handle a car, adding generously, "There are some people who can refold maps, too, but I am not one of them." Every summer they coursed up and down Arizona, Utah, Wyoming and Oregon in search for the feeding grounds of Nabokov's beloved "blues." Between butterflies, Vladimir sat beside Vera jotting on 3 by 5 cards. His notes were about a man named Humbert Humbert. General Motors, so far as anyone knows, has paid scant heed to the historic fact that much of "Lolita" was written in a '52 Buick.

    Mad Humbert's sad obsession with twelve-year-old Dolores Haze went off in the U.S. of the late '50s like a shot in church. At first, U.S. publishers were afraid to touch it. Vera was afraid Nabokov might lose his job at Cornell if they did. When it finally came out, reviewers, not yet used to such material in serious literature," flew into rages of indignation and feigned boredom. New York Times Critic Orville Prescott, in particular, earned a gargoyle's niche in literary history by exclaiming, "Dull, dull, dull." But "Lolita" in due course was recognized as the masterpiece it is, and it made Nabokov rich, setting him free for the first time in his life, at 59, to write full time.

    The first fruit of that freedom was "Pale Fire". Spectacularly unread, it made no concessions to popular tastes while proving that a genius can write a brilliant novel consisting of a 999-line poem and scholarly comment on it. The book is a wintry, touching parable concerning two of Nabokov's persistent themes -- the feeling of being unloved and the horror of willfully inflicted pain. "Pale Fire" elicited the high-water mark of Nabokov's critical acceptance. Perhaps the most perfect tribute came from Mary McCarthy, a critic rarely given to generosity or overstatement: this work, "half poem, half prose," she wrote, "is a creation of perfect beauty, symmetry, strangeness, originality, and moral truth. Pretending to be a curio, it cannot disguise the fact that it is one of the great works of art of this century."

    Today, Nabokov is a distant and revered personage safe in Switzerland; his judgments and comments are no less candid than ever. Along with a great many writers (see box p. 82), the informal list of his jocular pet hates includes such things as: progressive education; "serious" writers; confessions in the Dostoevskian manner; book reviewers, most of whom, Nabokov contends, "move their lips when reading;" people who say "excuse me" when they belch. Clearly, in an age practiced in the smooth piety of mock humility and slackly trained to believe that sincerity is an excuse for nearly everything, the public Nabokov must appear as some kind of cultural curmudgeon.

    His views on what he regards as the two principal scourges of the century -- Communism and Freudianism -- are staunch. Nabokov sees both as dreadful infringements upon creative freedom. "The social or economic structure of the ideal state is of little concern to me," he says. "My desires are modest. Portraits of the head of government should not exceed a postage stamp in size. No torture and no executions. No music, except coming through earphones or played in theaters."

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