Brian Boyd


On his book Stalking Nabokov

Cover Interview of November 07, 2011

The wide angle

Nabokov looms as one of the giants of recent literature. But his breadth fascinates as much as his height: his stretching between modernism and postmodernism, Europe and America, Russian and English, art and science. He hated whatever might curb the unruly individuality of things, and in this as in much else he helped shape me.

In my Ph.D. thesis in the late 1970s I initiated the metaphysical turn in Nabokov studies, explaining Nabokov not merely as a Daedalian artificer but as a writer with an originality of philosophical thought that profoundly shaped his styles and stratagems.

Understanding his metaphysics does allow us to see vivid depths beneath his dazzling surfaces, but like many new discoveries this recognition has for some hardened into routine, turning from an open space for free exploration into an automatic mental shortcut at odds with the whole spirit of Nabokov.

In Stalking Nabokov I consider as many different facets of man and writer as I can fit within one fat book: the relationships between his life and art; between the material archives that survived him, with all their accidents and erasures, and the perfections of the finished designs; between the immediacy of his diary and the controlled distance of his memoir; between his final effects, his revealing afterthoughts, and the unfinished manuscript of The Original of Laura; between his much-admired prose and his underrated poetry; between his timeless sentences and his swift spurts of story; between his literary art and his science, as they collaborated, cross-fertilized, and competed; between his literary creativity and his literary scholarship; between his reading and his writing, and between his spirit of fierce creative independence and his deep sense of indebtedness to the inspiration of a Pushkin or a Shakespeare; between his Russianness and his American and European milieus; between his humor and his seriousness; between his antipathy to what passed for psychology in the mid-twentieth century and his deep own engagement with the mysteries and possibilities of the human mind.

I explore revealing contrasts, like Nabokov and his compatriot Tolstoy, and revealing congruences, like Nabokov and Brazil’s Machado de Assis, a chronological contemporary of Tolstoy who seems artistically much closer to Nabokov and Beckett.

I first read Nabokov at about 13 and first began stalking him at 16. Nabokov wanted nothing more than to turn his readers into stalkers, by planting little clues along the fictional trails he blazed, challenging them to catch up with him. Which leads us to . . .