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Or something like that. As Robert Roper opens his splendid account of Vladimir Nabokov’s years in the United States, “The slender Russian man is on vacation. He has an arrogantly beautiful face and an oddly tall little boy accompanying him as he stalks up and down a trout stream in the Wasatch Range, a few miles east of Salt Lake City, Utah.” They both have butterfly nets. “Nabokov concerns himself with Lycaeides melissa annetta, a pretty little shimmery blue butterfly.” It’s 1943 and although Nabokov came to the United States three years earlier to support his family by teaching, it’s difficult to determine if it is butterflies or writing that give him the most delight. Along with his wife, Véra, and his son, Demitri, the Nabokovs will cross the country summer after summer for nearly twenty years, as Vladimir frantically collects butterflies, eventually putting 200,000 miles on their vehicles.
Nabokov learned English when he was four, before he learned Russian, so his later extraordinary use of the language should come as no surprise. Several of his novels had been published in Russia before he came to the United States; it was his hope that their English translations would quickly be accepted by American publishers. That was not as he had expected. One novel was sent to sixty publishers before an American publisher accepted it. Were it not for Edmund Wilson who helped Nabokov find outlets for his shorter pieces, the going would have been quite difficult. Even with the teaching, initially the assignments were short term. Roper tells us that “The Nabokovs had been through the historical wringer. They were Zelig-like figures of twentieth-century catastrophe, dispossessed of their native Russia by the Bolsheviks, hair’s-breadth escapees of the Nazis in Berlin and Paris….” They had escaped famine and the extermination camps. Véra was a Jew.
Teaching provided Nabokov with a measure of economic stability, and no mater where that was, he quickly became a campus figure. His courses focused on Russian and European literature. At Stanford, “Interested faculty and others started sitting in. He was indulgent toward his students, accepting of the flawed work they produced, but ferocious toward famous authors not up to the high standards he propounded.” He had missing teeth, wore hand-me-down clothing from other professors, no socks, and, typically, had “froth at his mouth,” but he was “charismatic, the ‘real thing.’” Véra usually sat in the front row taking notes.
After Stanford, there were longer teaching gigs at Wellesley and Cornell. Summers were almost always spent in the West: in Utah, Wyoming, Oregon, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico, chasing butterflies. Nabokov became well known for his scholarly papers in lepidopterology, something that had interested him since he was a child. He had Guggenheim fellowships twice—once to work on a book about Gogol and the second time to complete his lengthy translation of Eugene Onegin. Royalties were almost always modest. One thing is certain, as he said numerous times: he loved America, especially because of the country’s sexual openness.
And that takes us to Lolita, which Roper clearly believes is Nabokov’s masterpiece. Though he wrote several earlier works that involve an older man lusting after a pre-pubescent girl, none match the richness of Lolita. Nabokov began writing the novel in 1947. He worked on it for five years; but, once completed, no American or British publisher would touch it. One publisher remarked, “We would all go to jail if the thing were published.” So Nabokov made the decision to have the book published in France, in France, in 1955, by the Olympia Press, a publisher known for its soft- and hard-core pornography in English. By the time it was published in the United States, in 1958, by Putnam’s, a potential controversy was avoided because of on-going trials about the works of James Joyce, D. H. Lawrence, and others. It helped that Lolita did not contain a single obscene word.
Roper says that the influences on the novel include J. D. Salinger, Herman Melville, Chateaubriand, Shakespeare, Eugene Onegin and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Moreover, Nabokov’s exhaustive notes made during his travels across America (the landscapes, the inexpensive motels, the small towns) worked their way into the story and the descriptions. Changing mores about sex also helped. Interestingly, some of Nabokov’s closest friends and editors he had worked with did not like the book, which—when finally published—received stunning reviews.
Nabokov himself became rich and instantly famous. Roper refers to the book’s publication as the “Lolita hurricane.” The novel spent weeks at the top of the New York Times fiction best-seller list. Numerous translations quickly appeared. Stanley Kubrick paid $150,000 for the movie rights, no small figure at the time. Soon, the Nabokovs moved to Switzerland. As the years passed, Nabokov became pro-Richard Nixon, pro-war in Vietnam, and jealous of any other Russian writer (such as Boris Pasternak) who took something away from his own glory. There was also a break in the decades-long friendship with Edmund Wilson.
Véra made much of her husband’s work possible. Stacy Schiff, “her biographer, exhaustively documents her services to her husband as chauffeur, classroom attendant, housekeeper, house hunter, and amanuensis.” She did the driving until Demitri was old enough to take over. The Nabokovs moved from house to house, never settling down anywhere in the United States, even when they remained at one university for several years. Nabokov had been unfaithful to her early in their marriage but not after they came to the United States.
I have dwelled on Lolita but Roper gives equal space to the other novels Nabokov was writing during his American years as well as the translations he undertook. They are also explained contextually was “American” works, in the broadest sense of what that means. Significant space is also given to both Véra and Demitri, whose education—in spite of their meager finances—was never given short shrift. One especially interesting observation is Roper’s belief that there is no evidence that Nabokov was a pedophile. Humbert Humbert, the protagonist of Lolita, was likely based on the life and activities of another American professor Nabokov knew.
There is much to praise in Robert Roper’s glorious account of Vladimir Nabokov’s years in America, including passages like this one where he provides the kind of insights we relish about our country’s major writers: Nabokov “had looked around him and recognized a curious, half-asleep people—a perky populace with gloomy secrets, inhabiting a magnificent landscape that it tended to crap up, prone to stifling social norms best depicted via caustic comedy. Gunplay would arrive in the last act, as it did in so many of the nation’s stories. Sex would be the springboard for all else—nonstandard, indeed perverted, sex, because the country in its youthful aspect was fresh and sexy but also strapped in with prohibitions. The author swore he had no reforming purpose, did not wish to cause any sort of ‘awakening,’ and in this he can be trusted: America for a writer of his kind was perfect as found.”
America liberated Vladimir Nabokov, but he also liberated America.
Robert Roper: Nabokov in America
Bloomsbury, 368 pp., $28.00
Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University in Washington, D.C. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.