From a specially-bound set of Nabokov’s early Russian poems, inscribed by Nabokov for his wife Vera. Image from Vera’s Butterflies (NY: Glenn Horowitz Bookseller, 1999). Courtesy of the Estate of Vladimir Nabokov.
A commentator from a distant southern land that begins with Z composes an outlandish elucidation of another man’s masterpiece. His startling, perhaps outrageous claims upset certain entrenched academic specialists, and he must flee (a world tour, a centenary), and undergo the ordeals of exile before coming to rest, in some almost successful disguise—as a professor of English at the University of Auckland, New Zealand. An unlikely plot, but the real story is no less exceptional: Brian Boyd, author of the prize-winning two-volume biography, Vladimir Nabokov: The Russian Years and Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years, and of Nabokov’s Ada: The Place of Consciousness and the just-released Nabokov’s Pale Fire: The Magic of Artistic Discovery, is a scholar who changed his mind.
Writing in The New York Observer on Boyd’s “remarkable, obsessive, delirious, devotional study, Nabokov’s Pale Fire,” Ron Rosenbaum called him ‘an ornament of the accidents and possibilities of Nabokov scholarship’ and praised him ‘for having the courage and humility to retract an earlier conjecture and the imaginative daring’ to (as Boyd himself might put it) re-re-reread Pale Fire. Nabokov’s 1962 novel takes the form of an introduction by a scholar named Charles Kinbote; a lucid 999-line poem by an American poet named John Shade; and a commentary and index by Kinbote, whose attention veers continually from the poem to his own unsatisfactory life, from John Shade’s homely metaphysics and painful autobiography to what must be his own entirely irrelevant fantasy—unless he really is Charles the Beloved, the deposed King of Zembla; and that unless unlocks only the first in a series of secret passages.
Has Boyd’s book-length study, written in response to an online discussion, produced a robust thesis or the shadow of a madman’s fancy? All I can say now is that reading Nabokov’s Pale Fire and then Nabokov’s Pale Fire is like being immersed in a medium that clarifies, but not without some shifting and spill of glare, what was before all ooze and squid-ink cloud. Or, at the very least, a different story.
Brian Boyd has edited Nabokov’s English novels and autobiography for the Library of America, is on the editorial board for the Pléiade edition of Nabokov’s collected novels and is coeditor (with Robert Michael Pyle) of the about-to-be released Nabokov’s Butterflies. He is also at work on a biography of philosopher Karl Popper and a critical study of Shakespeare. Without pausing to wonder what the National Security Agency was making of our back-and-forth millennial e-mails with BOMB in the subject line, we conducted a brisk correspondence interview from opposite sides of the planet.
Thomas BoltWhat’s the best Nabokov novel to start with?
Brian BoydDepends who asks the question. I always hesitate to recommend Ada, on which I have worked with what many would think manic and misguided intensity, because I know good readers of Nabokov who recoil from it. Others adore it, and wonder why I cautioned them against it. I read Lolita as a horny 13-year-old who had heard it was a hot book, only to find it cooled my libido and overheated my cranium, but for someone more mature than I was then, it can be a great place to begin. I read Pale Fire at 16 in a state of rapture that revives each time I go near it. If you like human warmth, make a move for The Defense. If you like your laughter punctuated by pathos, sit down with Pnin. If you seek solid backdrops for your fiction, give yourself The Gift. If you delight in intellectual dizziness, search out The Real Life of Sebastian Knight. If you savor perfect prose and poise, try basking in Speak, Memory.
TB Chasing the black squiggles and zigzags through Pnin, watching M’sieur Pierre pop out of the tunnel into Cincinnatus’s cell in Invitation to a Beheading, hearing Ada (at 12, expressing her private philosophy of happiness) say “tower,” or feeling the twang on the screen at the end of Bend Sinister—these are unforgettable instants of writing, with their own specific vibrations and reverberations. Every skilled writer has moments to which only she or he could have given us access; what’s different about Nabokov? Are there just more moments, or are we dealing with what, in speaking of his own favorite writer, Sirin, Nabokov called ‘functional imagery,’ a ‘rolling corollary, the shadow of a train of thought?’ In Nabokov’s Pale Fire you describe one such moment and its echo—Kinbote’s discovery of the secret passage. What other favorite—passages—come to mind?
BB If I get properly started I’ll never stop. Two favorite moments will have to suggest the spectrum: the paragraph in the last chapter of Speak, Memory that begins “Whenever I start thinking of my love for a person, I am in the habit of immediately drawing radii from my love—from my heart, from the tender nucleus of a personal matter—to monstrously remote points of the universe” and ends “I have to have all space and all time participate in my emotion, in my mortal love, so that the edge of its mortality is taken off, thus helping me to fight the utter degradation, ridicule and horror of having developed an infinity of sensation and thought within a finite existence”; and Greg Erminin hoping to keep talking to Ada for just a moment longer, saying as he is about to leave “I guess it’s your father under that oak, isn’t it?”—only to hear her answer “No, it’s an elm.”
TB A character in a comic novel I finished recently remarks that the great novels of the 20th-century are comic. How much of a stretch is this? I’ll vouch for Joyce’s Ulyssesbeing a comedy, or at least comic. Are Pale Fire and Lolita comedies? If so, how is a Nabokovian comedy different from what we usually think of as comic?
BB In exam questions on Shakespearean comedy or on modern fiction, I have sometimes set up as a springboard for my students Nabokov’s dictum “Genuine art mixes categories.” Ulysses is a very funny novel, as are Lolita, Pale Fire and Ada, but I would hesitate to call Ulysses a comedy, and wouldn’t apply the term at all to Nabokov’s unholy trinity. Proust’s In Search of Lost Time has hilarious moments, but who would call it a funny novel, let alone a comedy? There is something that produces an uneasy twisted smile in Kafka’s The Castle, and even in The Trial, but it would be hard to find oneself further from the comic than when we are lost in those labyrinths of non-arrival. Speaking of non-arrival, Waiting for Godot seems easily the finest comedy of the 20th-century stage, but Beckett, for all the laughter his work can provoke, leaves us harrowed. It’s hard to think of a great novel that does not have great humor, but I can’t think of a novel I could call a comedy and still think great.
TB I have rarely laughed so hard as at some of the books you mention.
BB Don’t get me wrong: I find most of these books often hilarious and altogether wonderful. I suppose what I object to is the idea of “comic novel” or “comedy” as implying (a) a chuckle a minute and (b) a broad smile at the end. A great novel should move more of our facial and mental muscles than that, and far more unpredictably.
TB How important—no, how critical—is humor to Nabokov’s writing?
BB Indispensable. If I return to Nabokov after a while, I’m amazed at how funny he is, and funny without the punchline predictability of, say, Oscar Wilde. He knows we expect things of life, and his extraordinary imagination shows us how there are far more possibilities (in words, phrases, images, people, things, moments, stories, worlds) than those we blandly expect, and he makes us enjoy that sudden surprise when we recognize the gap between what we hadn’t even known we expected and what we actually find: that’s humor. Nabokov uses humor to undermine our attachment to the ready-made, to enlarge our sense of the possible, to whet our appetite for the surprise of life.
TB Is part of it an unwillingness to accept a conventional idea of “seriousness” and what should be taken seriously? These novels bulge with parody.
BB What we take for seriousness is often no more than sharing a common sense of what matters. The great parodists see that as complacent conventionalism, a fake unanimity that bespeaks a lack of imagination and urgently needs subverting.
TB “As often was the way with Sebastian Knight, he used parody as a springboard for leaping into the highest region of serious emotion.” Does Nabokov require that his readers do a different kind of thinking than most authors?
BB Any novelist has to know and work with the way we all think, or risk never finding readers. Nabokov knows us so well he knows we can perform better than we suppose, if he does not ask too much of us (as Joyce sometimes can) at the wrong moment. He stretches us, not like a drillmaster but like a tennis coach who sends down hard shots calibrated just so that we can zing them back with style when they looked impossible to reach. By the sheer pleasure of our performing at this level, he teaches us to see more sharply, to move more nimbly, to swing more boldly. Or (quick change of sports gear) while he makes his novels dazzling rather than difficult on the surface, he lures us into their glittering depths, he teaches us to be more curious, more imaginative, more retentive, more alert to the surprise of the world’s particulars and patterns, he invites us to dive for discoveries that lure us down to deeper wonders, because he senses that the world itself is a vast reef of inexhaustible color and endless discovery.
Brian Boyd. Photo by Bronwen Nicholson. Courtesy of Princeton University Press.
TB Are Nabokov’s novels constructed in layers—where a succession of what D. Barton Johnson calls “worlds in regression” become available to us in stages? Do other writers use these techniques? Is it always conscious (or self-conscious) on the part of the author?
BB In one sense it’s very common in literature for stories to be constructed in layers, so that at the end we have a quite different understanding of a situation than we could at first, before all the information is in. After all, it’s a universal experience for us to see something one way and then discover some time later how much more has really been involved from the start. A Dickens, Faulkner, or Barth can shape a story in terms of layers of plot or perspective. A Joyce or Eliot add layers of complication, through symbolism or allusion, that may take time to penetrate. But I don’t know of anyone except Nabokov who offers a series of surprises on a first reading as well as a new set of surprising, transforming discoveries when we reread, and again when we re-reread.
What attracts me to this aspect of Nabokov is that it is not just an exhilarating literary device but an expression of his epistemology and metaphysics. His novels incorporate successive stages of discovery because, as he says in an interview, “You can get nearer and nearer, so to speak, to reality; but you never get near enough because reality is an infinite succession of steps, levels of perception, false bottoms, and hence unquenchable, unattainable.” The delayed discoveries in his fiction reflect other facets of his thought, too: his sense, for instance, that linear time, while amazingly bountiful, is also a prison, that we might be able to understand things so much better if we could somehow get outside of time, into a space where all our past is present; his sense that there seems to be some kind of conscious design behind things that has created endless levels of complexity precisely for the purpose of its being rediscovered by mortal minds.
TB Can you give us a specific example of how this shifting focus and amplified perspective works?
BB In Pale Fire, for instance, on a first reading we tend to focus on Kinbote, the commentator to Shade’s poem. If we have the energy and the confidence to follow Nabokov’s clues, we can discover that Kinbote is not simply who he says he is. His secret identity becomes more and more luridly vivid as we read, however we read, until just before the end we discover that it is far more likely to be megalomania than fact. But on rereading, Shade’s fate at the end of the novel hangs over the story in a new way, and so radically reconfigures our attention.
The sublime joke of the novel is that the wild imaginings of Kinbote’s line-by-line commentary to Shade’s staid stay-at-home poem have nothing to do with the poem at all. But on rereading, we become haunted by the innumerable correspondences between Shade’s and Kinbote’s contributions, for all the initial comic shock of the disparity. In Ada, Nabokov suggests ‘that some law of logic should fix the number of coincidences, in a given domain, after which they cease to be coincidences, and form, instead, the living organism of a new truth.’ The promise of some ‘new truth’ around the corner, explicit in so many of Nabokov’s novels, is never stronger than in Pale Fire. On an early rereading we still cannot identify the deeper sources of either Shade’s poem or Kinbote’s commentary.
But on a re-rereading, it proves possible, at least so I argue, to identify these sources with figures in the novel we had thought quite ruled out, and this leads to a cascade of creative consequences, an answer to the preoccupations of Shade’s poem, an unexpected resolution to the trio of tragedies in the novel. You know what I mean, Tom, because you are steeped enough in Pale Fire to have recrystallized it into Dark Ice, and because you have read my book. But because you’ve read my book you also know I refuse to give away, to anyone who hasn’t read and reread the novel, the surprises in Pale Fire that allow access to the deepest layers of the novel.
TB Today, this afternoon (as you read this in Nova Zealand), which Nabokov characters are your favorites? Is there in fact something of the ‘human interest’ that Nabokov parodied so mercilessly and variously present in his own novels?
BB In fiction like Tolstoy’s, it makes sense to ask who is our favorite—Natasha or Pierre, Anna or Lyovin?—since a huge part of the pleasure of reading such work is our response to characters and our engagement with their fates. In Nabokov this pleasure is far from absent, but the imaginative thrill of our creative cooperation with the author plays a still larger role in our response.
Nabokov is a great creator of character. Like Shakespeare, he can stretch human possibilities into unforgettable new configurations. In that sense my favorite characters inventions almost of the order of Iago or Falstaff, would have to be Humbert (Lolita) and Kinbote (Pale Fire). Of course I would not want to spend time with either one outside of fiction. Who in Nabokov’s cast list do I warm to as people?
Luzhin (The Defense), so gifted as a chess-player, so uncertain what moves to make in the game of life, stirs my sympathies, as his heroic and doomed wife, so selflessly devoted to this man she does not really understand and cannot really help, fires my admiration. Still more engaging, and less thwarted, is John Shade, neither young, attractive nor outwardly heroic, but touching, tender, talented, true. He makes the most of his world as he observes it moment by moment, as he responds to others, and then as he offers it back to them amplified by his art.
TB Are you writing something on Shakespeare?
BB Yes, I have a book well under way. We were talking earlier about layers in Nabokov. Now Shakespeare is the most inexhaustible writer of all, yet he does not work at all as Nabokov does, arranging successive stages of discovery on successive readings. With Shakespeare, a single exposure to a play has to convey it all, and yet so many moments have an explosive multidimensional charge, such a long reverberation time, that we cannot hear the whole play in any single run-through.
What I am trying to do in Shakespeare Shapes Here (although it’s only the flow of these questions that makes me suddenly notice this contrast) is to look not at successive stages of reader response, as in Nabokov, but at successive stages of authorial design. In the case of Nabokov, although he’s so much closer to us in time, although he has left manuscripts behind, although I have even written his biography, I haven’t a clue how he arrived at the ideas for his most complicated work, but I think I can figure out the sequence of deepening responses he has prepared for us. And the sequence of reader responses seems to explain why, if not in what order, he thought up this or that novel.
With Shakespeare, it’s almost the reverse. We all respond in a single performance or reading (provided it’s not one that artificially narrows the text through the mania of a director or the myopia of a critical fashion) to the sequence of effects Shakespeare has planned, yet moment after moment contains such a charge of possibility that we can cut many courses through a particular play. In order not to skew it by overstressing some secondary reverberations or some possible intonations, we need to try to rediscover how and why Shakespeare shapes the play as he does.
He almost always refashions existing stories. Centuries of scholarship have found copious evidence of the multiple sources he drew on. Twentieth-century criticism has also recovered the tradition of multiple plot structures he worked with. I think I have also discovered another device Shakespeare invented for shaping his plays, developed from the central character type (the Vice) of the late Tudor morality plays that were the staple drama of his youth. I dub this Vice-derived device the Verso.
With all three keys in hand, it now seems possible to gain an entry to Shakespeare’s workshop, to reconstruct the successive transformations he made to the sources of many of his plays in order to turn them into the finished works we know. This not only clarifies our sense of his aims and structure—and answers writers from Jonson and Johnson to Byron and Nabokov who have wrongly thought his structures poorly articulated—but it also reveals how much, and often why, he adds to the structural skeleton the marvelously resilient flesh of each new line.
I won’t say in detail how the Verso helps Shakespeare to reshape and reanimate any particular source, but let me just note that his Versos are often the most unexpected and theatrically vivid characters in his plays, from Aaron and the Bastard in his earliest phase, to Bottom and Falstaff in his early and Malvolio and Parolles in his late middle years, to Autolycus and Caliban at the end of his career.
From the dedication copy of Pale Fire, inscribed by Nabokov for his wife Vera. Image from Vera’s Butterflies (NY: Glenn Horowitz Bookseller, 1999). Courtesy of the Estate of Vladimir Nabokov.
TB Speaking of drama—Lolita is the most-filmed Nabokov novel. Is it also the least filmable? I think some of the short stories, “A Matter of Chance” for instance, would make the transition to film wonderfully. Which of Nabokov’s novels would make good (or better) films—or should filmmakers give up?
BB I wouldn’t think Lolita any more difficult to film than The Gift or Pale Fire. In very different ways all three novels exist in the gap between extraordinary inner lives and mundane exteriors. But I don’t think that makes them unfilmable, it simply (“simply”!) requires radical rethinking of what film can do.
TB Humbert Humbert’s energy is almost entirely mental; he comes off as a sodden sad-sack on film, in both Kubrick’s and Lyne’s Lolitas. What’s missing?
BB The disparity between the openness and airiness of Humbert’s mind and the obsessively, stiflingly close focus of his thought and conduct. The films show only his glum concentration. Without a sense of his equally remarkable mental freedom, we can’t see how much he limits himself, let alone how much he denies or at least forever diminishes in Lolita.
TB Kamera Obskura or Laughter in the Dark is not only filmic but concerned with film—and there are movie theater scenes in Pnin and Lolita, and a movie being made in Ada. Why is film so interesting to Nabokov?
BB Because of his intense visual and narrative sense. Because he is attracted to art of all kinds, from literature and painting to comics and sign-writing, and to the evolutionof art. Because he was fascinated by the gap between original and imitation (object and description, text and translation, story and adaptation) and hence between prose fiction and its film reflection. Because anything—art, science, or the life in between—offers him a new range of possibilities, perspectives, prisms.
TB Some biographers seem judgmentally intrusive; others indulge in a postmortem PR campaign. If I were a biographer, I’d like to think I would help people to see the subject’s life “in its own terms”—not that that approach precludes serious criticism.
BB Certainly you want to try to understand your subjects’ lives in their own terms, although that’s already multifaceted: their terms at the time, their terms in retrospect, their presumed readiness to agree to your account in light of information they might themselves never have had. You have to try to reconstruct your subjects’ understanding of particular problem situations they find themselves in, yet also to reconstruct what the situations might objectively have been. You have to try to see through your subjects’ eyes, but you also want the view from the side or the glimpse of what’s going on behind their backs.
TB What isn’t a biographer’s business—or ours? When the decision of whether or not to keep something private or make it public comes down to you, how do you decide?
BB If it would hurt innocent living people, you have to think hard. If it would distort too much if omitted, or if it would cause more trouble should someone else later air the information without explaining the context, then you may have to go ahead and publish anyway. But that sounds as if there are clear rules. You have to rely on intuition, compassion, your consciousness of the horrors you’d want to avert if someone began to write your life.
TB How much of biography (and narrative history) is fiction, like it or not?
BB This may not sound very hip, but I don’t think anything in a biography should be fiction. Of course biography involves hypothetical and imaginative reconstruction. But any human explanation involves hypothesis, because the brain isn’t an organ that can just soak up predissolved truth and then squeeze it out for others. But a hypothesis should be testable against evidence or argument. Any part of a biography may be wrong, and if demonstrably wrong, it should be criticized in light of the evidence. Fiction just can’t be challenged in that way. No doubt biographers sometimes plug gaps with nothing more than imagination and gall, on the assumption that no one will ever unearth evidence that could challenge what they have imagined, but to me that is just biographical bad faith, the confidence man’s confidence that one can get away with writing fiction.
TB What interested you in Karl Popper?
BB Popper I find the most exciting 20th-century thinker I know of. He too has fame, although a very uneven one: he has been repeatedly called the foremost philosopher of the century, and yet his work is generally ignored by philosophers, especially in the USA.
Popper accounts for our human position, in a century where science has done so much to change our world and our sense of it, and yet where it has also come to be seen (often, though this has been forgotten, thanks to his work) as uncertain, as anything but a body of certainties.
Postmodernists deny that there is such a thing as truth or the search for truth, yet this seems no more than a posture, or at best an argument they think they have acceded to but do not in practice accept. After all, they maintain as true the claim there is no truth, and, like anyone else, they feel outraged when individuals or institutions lie to them, and want to refer to the evidence that shows up the lie. Popper stresses the inevitable uncertainty of our knowledge, that what we so often have thought to be the truth turns out not to be, but he explains also the growth of knowledge, especially scientific knowledge, toward truth. He shows that we can often find when an idea is wrong, that we can learn when we have made mistakes, although when we posit large-scale explanations we can never establish that what we think we have found out is true. No doubt we may often hit on the truth (although any particular idea may still turn out to be wrong in ways we cannot yet see), but we cannot attain certainty.
Popper’s deeply antiauthoritarian epistemology does not throw away the authority of truth, since that may be the only appeal we have recourse to when someone, especially someone with power, claims to be in possession of the truth. For if there is no such thing as truth, in the postmodernist sense, there is no such thing as falsehood, just opinion backed with more or less widespread agreement and force. And if there is no such thing as truth, we cannot challenge those who wish to impose their own conclusions by showing them false.
TB How do Popper and Nabokov compare?
BB In many ways they could not be more different. Popper disliked words and loved ideas, Nabokov disliked ideas and loved words. Popper valued science’s powerful generalizations, Nabokov preferred unpredictable individual details. Popper worried intensely about whatever could be found out by human effort, and shrugged away the rest as un-knowable; Nabokov was fascinated above all by what the human mind seems constitutionally unable to know: does consciousness of some sort lie behind life or beyond death?
But they also had much in common. Both were supremely assured, highly independent, at odds with their time. Both, above all, were committed to the creativity and freedom of the mind, and to its endless quest to discover an open-ended and boundlessly rich world, a world that, for all their formidable erudition, they each realized we ultimately know very little of.
TB As a lifelong reader of Nabokov, as a researcher, biographer, and scholar, how well do you feel you know Nabokov?
BB I feel I know Nabokov’s works perhaps better than he expected them to be known so soon. He always seemed genuinely and pleasantly surprised when someone discovered something he had hidden in one of his novels, even if it seems rather obvious by the standard of other things he concealed. He knew he had hidden a great deal in such a way that it could eventually be rediscovered, but much of this, both in its details and in its implications, he seems to have expected would not be unearthed for a long time indeed.
But Nabokov himself? I know the dates in his life better than he did; I have reconstructed situations in his life, and explained them in a way that would, I hope, have seemed accurate to him and to others involved; but the man himself? The philosopher Thomas Nagel asked, “What is it like to be a bat?” and answered that we, with our human minds, could never know. Were we to acquire the brain of a bat, we would not be thinking like humans any longer, we would lack a linguistically formulable understanding of the experience; were we to retain human cognition, we could not have yet entered the experience of battiness. In that sense, I just have no idea what it would be like to be a Vladimir Nabokov—what it would be like moment by moment to have a brain of such different dimensions and powers.
“Little was left of the square. The platform had long since collapsed in a cloud of reddish dust. The last to rush past was a woman in a black shawl, carrying the tiny executioner like a larva in her arms.
“Desperate Russian critics, trying hard to find an influence and to pigeonhole my own novels, have once or twice linked me up with Gogol—but when they looked again I had untied the knots and the box was empty.”