Nabokov and Books about Nabokov
Although I haven’t read all of his works, Vladimir Nabokov is one of my personal favorite writers. I love Pale Fire and Lolita, but also like the less tricksy novels, like Laughter in the Dark. (Which was on Lost!) And for the past year(s) I’ve been planning on reading The Gift and Ada, or Ardor, both of which I’m even more excited to get to after reading about Lila Azam Zanganeh’s new book The Enchanter. From The Guardian:
In The Enchanter, Lila Azam Zanganeh attempts to create a new genre: the Bildungs-romance. The book details its author’s love affair with Nabokov, and tells how she learned to read books from his novels, using them as doorways to magical worlds.
Rather than attempt conventional biography or literary criticism, she portrays a series of encounters with moments from Nabokov’s biography – his last months in Switzerland, his childhood in Russia, his early love affairs. She invents an interview with “VN” about his years in the USA, and provides a whimsical anti-glossary for some of his flamboyantly obscure vocabulary.
All of this is interwoven with Zanganeh’s responses to Nabokov’s writing, particularly Ada, but also Lolita and Laura, with the theme of happiness always central. By this, Zanganeh explains, she does not mean “platitudinous happy characters”, but “deep joyousness”, “bliss”, or “ecstasy”. This is a feeling “connected to the edge, an experience of limits (in its quasi-mathematical sense of an open-end), which in turn becomes one of extreme poetry”.
Lila has moderated any number of French-literature related panels that I’ve attended, always coming off as quite brilliant and composed. (In my mind, her composure is in stark contrast to my shambolic attempts to run a panel. And since we usually go right after one another, her preparedness is even more accentuated . . . ) Which is another reason why I’m excited to get a copy of this. And why I’m excited she’s been getting so much attention for this book.
In addition to the above review, the Guardian also ran this interview:
Zanganeh’s love of Nabokov led her to want to write about him. Not surprisingly, given her academic background (before going to Harvard she studied at the Sorbonne and the École normale supérieure), her first thought was to write “something serious”. “But then I thought, wait a second, Nabokov hated didactic works. How could you say, ‘Listen people, Nabokov is a writer of happiness, so let me show you in a serious and well-constructed disquisition’? It would have been boring to death!” She was also put off by reading Nabokov critics, who are obsessed, she says, with questions surrounding the morality of his work. “But the whole point is that his work lies outside the realm of morals, beyond good and evil. He said in the afterword to Lolita that there is no moral in tow, that it is a magnificent game of chess with the reader.”
And then in The Daily Beast there’s a piece about how she met Dmitri Nabokov in order to get permission to quote from his father’s works in her book:
Dmitri himself, now 76 and looking uncannily like his father at about the same age, was seated in a wheelchair, at the head of the dining table. To his left was Ariane, a blond lady with an edgy sense of humor who turned out to be an old friend of Dmitri’s, and like him a former opera singer. Dmitri’s ice-blue eyes looked dazed and sleepy that night. Ever the gentleman, however, he announced that he, together with Ariane, had read and appreciated the first two chapters. The most conventional ones from a narrative standpoint, I immediately thought to myself, and felt my temperature drop. He had read only a fragment, and everything remained uncertain. I joined them at the table for a three-course meal, and tried to ease into a semblance of small talk. He could yet hate, and kill, the book I had worked on for the last several years. A moment later, Dmitri Nabokov looked up, smiled, and declared he had come up with a good idea. He was too exhausted to read the manuscript, he confessed, so would I kindly read it out loud to him over the span of the next few days? I glanced at Ariane, who nodded in agreement. [. . .]
As the days and nights unfolded, my heart often pounding, I read to Dmitri passages from Lolita, Ada, or Ardor, Speak, Memory, and countless short stories, but also imaginary interviews and fictional accounts of his father’s erotic life. The page at times elicited fierce reactions, even fits of anger (“Why, please tell me why you need to invent this? It almost sounds too close to home!”), but also moments of gentleness. His critical ear remained sharp throughout the reading. He not only critiqued and edited, but also corrected grammar (“Is it onto or unto?”), diction (“Vladimir and his mother would never ‘argue’ over a weak serve! Perhaps you meant ‘squabble’?”), and, most precious of all in my sense, pronunciation. Dmitri or I often picked up the dictionary to check British and American variations, and sometimes, to my relief, found we were both right, as in the case of “skein” (pronounced both “skeen” and “skeyn”). Dmitri also taught me to pronounce the names of butterflies (Ly’caeides Samue’lis), myriad plants, and the Latinate shades of many other words I had read and written but never said aloud.
Sounds like a fun experience, and an interesting book. If possible, we’ll run a full review of this in the not-too-distant future.