Brian Boyd


On his book Stalking Nabokov

Cover Interview of November 08, 2011

A close-up

[I recount the story of a shirtless Nabokov catching butterflies in the mountains of Utah in 1943 and responding only slowly to John Downey, a student stopped beside the coal truck he was driving. Downey told Nabokov he too was interested in butterflies, but Nabokov needed proof, quizzing him as butterfly after butterfly flitted by as they walked down the mountain road. Partly thanks to Nabokov, already becoming the world expert in the Blues, Downey would become the world authority on the Blues in the next generation.]

What strikes me about Nabokov’s encounter with Downey in Cottonwood Canyon is the demands he makes, the conditions he imposes, on this grimy truck driver: You can walk with me, but I will test you a little. If you pass the test, I will let you see who I am, and I will even offer you all that I have found, so that you can go on to make your discoveries in turn.

As much as the chess problem [that Nabokov describes in Speak, Memory], the story suggests Nabokov’s demanding but ultimately generous relationship to his readers, which reflects his sense of the demanding but ultimately generous world that life offers us.

That seems to me the key to Nabokov. He was a maximalist: someone who appreciated, as much as anyone has, the riches the world offers, in nature and art, in sensation, emotion, thought, and language, and the surprise of these riches, if we animate them with all our attention and imagination. Yet at the same time he felt that all this was not enough, because he could readily imagine a far ampler freedom beyond the limits within which he feels human consciousness is trapped.

He celebrates with unique precision and passion the delights of the visible and tangible world, the tenderness and force of human feelings and relationships, the treasures of memory: the thetic pleasures of life, if you like. He planned to call his first novel Happiness—until he realized that might be just a little too unguarded.

Yet Nabokov also has a deserved reputation for his acid imagination, his savage irony, and his trenchant ability to deflate, to register disappointments, humiliations, and horrors. His stories offer endless evidence of the comic, ironic, tragic limitations of human life, and he never lets us forget the absurdity of the very conditions of the human mind: of the solitary confinement of the self, as he defines one central aspect of his work, or of the prison of time, as he defines another. At this level Nabokov registers the “antithetic torments” of life and writes books entitled not Happiness but Laughter in the Dark or Despair.

But readers who stop there, and think that he stops there, in modernist irony or a postmodernist abîme, miss altogether his positive irony, his attempt to encompass all the negatives, as he suspects life itself does, and reverse their direction in the mirror of death. The search for that possibility is what makes Nabokov different and what makes him write. He believes that the fullness and the complexity of life suggest worlds within worlds within worlds, and he builds his own imagined universes to match. Although we cannot see his hidden worlds at first, he allows us to find our own way to them, just as he thinks whatever lies behind life invites us to an endless adventure of discovery in and beyond life. At this “synthetic” level, Nabokov writes books with titles like The Gift, whose hero in turn thinks of writing “a practical handbook: How to Be Happy.”