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Nabokov and the Real World: Between Appreciation and Defense
Robert Alter
(Princeton University Press, 248 pages, $20)

Robert Alter’s new book Nabokov and the Real World: Between Appreciation and Defense (March 2021) presents a fascinating study of the works of Vladimir Nabokov (1899–1977), one of the most controversial writers of 20th-century literature. Nabokov is best known for Lolita (1955), the beautifully written but shocking tale of Humbert Humbert, a middle-aged man who kidnaps and seduces his 12-year-old stepdaughter, Dolores. Dr. Alter, professor of Hebrew and comparative literature at the University of California, Berkeley, who achieved critical acclaim for his biblical literary analysis and translations, has also published textual explorations of literary giants including Stendhal, Fielding, Kafka, and Malamud in addition to Nabokov. Alter, whose first article concerning Nabokov, a review of the novel Ada, or Ardor, appeared in Commentary shortly after the book’s release in 1969, has written extensively about the author’s Russian and English works for the past five decades.

Alter’s latest offering is a compendium of his past articles along with two new essays written for this publication. His titular opening chapter, “Between Appreciation and Defense,” highlights the chasm between Nabokov’s supporters and detractors: “His admirers are passionate about him… On the opposing side, there are some readers who cannot abide Nabokov, finding little in his work but coy literary devices, mannered or overwrought prose, and a pervasive archness.”

While Alter acknowledges that Nabokov at times succumbed to flights of fancy and produced self-indulgent prose, he argues that for the most part he maintained control of his narrative and that his detractors misinterpreted his literary intentions. Alter’s goal in Nabokov and the Real World is to demonstrate that his subject’s “self-reflexivity,” use of imagery, code, literary references, parody, and other stylistic techniques serve as not an escape to a literary never-never-land but rather a “vehicle for engaging” in the real world.

Nabokov and the Real World is both a meticulously crafted look at Nabokov’s vast canon of novels, short stories, poetry, translations, and Cornell University lectures on classic writers such as Dickens and a culminating literary achievement from Alter. The author’s thesis is that Nabokov was

deeply concerned with representing humanity in the toils of emotional experience and moral dilemmas, struggling with relationships, constricted by the harsh vise of historical circumstance. He is in this way more deeply anchored in the great tradition of the novel than is often thought. The flaunted artifices of his novels, the codes and complicated games he deploys in them, are not an impediment to this representational enterprise but among the principal means through which he realizes it.

Alter posits that Nabokov’s fondness for metaphors, anagrams, alliteration, and other linguistic tools reflects his proclivity for details. Nabokov was a lepidopterist, or a person who studies butterflies and moths, and he spent many summers with his wife, Vera, and his son, Dmitri, collecting butterflies. He delights in the specific classifications and vivid visual, auditory, olfactory, and tactile descriptions of the organisms and elements in his environment.

Alter, whose Nabokov commentary was in part influenced by Brian Boyd, the author of Vladimir Nabokov: The Russian Years (1983) and Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years (1993) shares with Boyd the observation of a connection between the “meticulous empiricism of Nabokov’s activities as an entomologist and his concerns as a writer.” Consequently, for Nabokov, it is life’s infinite garden of aromas, nuanced rainbow colors, and broad sound spectrum that makes human existence tangible and therefore believable and tolerable.

Nabokov’s writings are also peppered with references to Adam and Eve, John Milton’s Paradise Lost, and ruminations about fictional kingdoms. Alter submits that Nabokov’s preoccupation with a lost or stolen heritage is rooted in his personal traumas. His family was forced to flee from Russia to Crimea in 1917 in response to the Bolshevik Revolution, and his father, Vladimir Dmitrievich Nabokov, who previously held a role in Russia’s provisional government, was assassinated in 1922 in Berlin by Russian monarchists Pyotr Shabelsky-Bork and Sergey Taboritsky, whose intended target was a leader of the Constitutional Democratic Party-in-exile named Pavel Milyukov. Nabokov was tremendously impacted by his father’s death, and consequently the role of accidental death figures prominently in his works.

Nabokov’s musings about bygone and fictional dominions are particularly prevalent in Pale Fire (1962). The writer’s ambitious novel, presented as a 999-line poem with prose commentary, is the story of a character named Charles Kinbote, who is engaged in the stealing of a work of poet and scholar John Shade. Kinbote, who is obsessed with Shade, inhabits a complex interior world where he imagines himself to be the deposed monarch of the fictional country Zembla. Alter allows that Pale Fire’s verse format against a backdrop that includes “a fictitious American state and university and a far more fictitious European country with its language, folklore and poetry” has frustrated many a reader. But he avers that Nabokov uses this elaborate hall of invented mirrors to evince “his deepest troubled reflections on mortality, the threat of modern political violence and the sheer randomness of destruction, and the dangers of living too much through the imagination.”

Alter maintains that much of the criticism of Nabokov’s novels is the result of the reader’s failure to understand what is truly going on beyond the specific plot elements. Nabokov relied heavily on the use of parody in both description and dialogue to build his characters and to advance his plots. Parody plays a critical role in the author’s most eyebrow-raising novels, Lolita and Ada.

Published during Nabokov’s 70th summer, Ada, the story of a forbidden romantic relationship between Van and Ada, two first cousins who later discover that they are half-siblings, was intended to be his crowning achievement as a novelist. Not surprisingly, this sprawling, nearly 700-page novel was dismissed by the author’s critics for its subject matter and its literary self-indulgence but celebrated by his fans as his career-culminating chef d’oeuvre. In his essay “Ada, or the Perils of Paradise” (1979), Alter critiques Ada as an “exasperating near-masterpiece that lacks the perfect selectivity and control of Lolita and Pale Fire.”

While Alter stipulates the novel’s imperfections, he argues that some readers dismissed Ada because they failed to grasp the novel’s intrinsic parody. Consider this early encounter between 12-year-old Ada and 14-year-old Van:

Her plump, stickily glistening lips smiled. (When I kiss you here, he said to her years later, I always remember that blue morning on the balcony when you were eating a tartine au miel; so much better in French.)

The classical beauty of clover honey, smooth, pale, translucent, free flowing from the spoon and soaking my love’s bread and butter in liquid brass. The crumb steeped in nectar.

Alter depicts Ada’s honeyed bread as reminiscent of Marcel Proust’s madeleine in À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time, 1913–27) and the seedcake in James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922). On one level, Nabokov is playing homage to the literary archetypes of writers he admires. He is, in parallel, satirizing several cultural touchstones, including Adam and Eve’s fall from grace in the Garden of Eden and the sonnets of the English Renaissance. By selecting a woman’s name as the title of a book with a plot line involving incest, Nabokov is turning the tradition of revered chaste love on its head. The selection of the name “Ada,” which is a derivative of the Russian word for hell, was also a deliberate effort to contrast directly with the Renaissance poets’ frequent use of the name Celia, which is rooted in the Latin word for heaven. Moreover, this name choice reinforces the hellish state created by the societal impossibility of Ada and Van’s relationship.

Alter, obviously aware that a contemporary publication about Nabokov would be incomplete without a discussion of Lolita, addresses the novel’s parody in his new essay “Lolita Now.” Nabokov is once again poking fun at the concept of idealized romantic love with Humbert’s deranged choice of a love object: a nail-biting, gum-popping 12-year-old. Alter reiterates the well-dissected conundrum of Lolita that has persisted for close to 70 years. Readers and critics have had difficulty reconciling Lolita’s brilliant mélange of tragedy, comedy, social commentary, and lyrically beautiful language with its repugnant subject matter, the sexual exploitation of a minor child. This artistic dilemma has been exacerbated by the rise of the Me Too movement and the global spotlight on the sexual abuse and trafficking of children. Many literary critics and readers believe that it would be impossible to publish Lolita in today’s climate regardless of its literary value.

Alter is unwavering in his perspective that the sexual abuse of a child is a crime that cannot be whitewashed. To that point, he references various contemporary articles and anecdotal reader commentary that the book was well written but difficult to get through due to its subject matter. He also cites some of the particularly egregious textual descriptions of Humbert’s relationship with Dolores, such as a rather detailed depiction of an erection he experiences while she sits on his lap.

Yet Alter argues that we should continue to read Lolita despite its subject matter because Nabokov, who had a fascination with the “phenomenon of the perverted artist” deploying “a distorted version of the aesthetic shaping of reality to inflict suffering on others,” is presenting Humbert as the most extreme personification of this phenomenon. And when we first meet Humbert, who has been in and out of sanitariums and is currently awaiting trial for murder, it is patently obvious that he is keenly aware of his own monstrosity. While readers may appreciate the eloquence of the written and spoken language attributed to Humbert, which vacillates between poetry and biting satire, Nabokov makes it clear that readers should have no empathy for this madman and offers no excuses for his sexual and emotional manipulation of Dolores.

Alter’s Nabokov and the Real World provides an engaging analysis of Nabokov’s robust body of work and artfully articulates how he weaves a tapestry of linguistic tools, literary devices, nuanced visual descriptions, and empirical classifications to create beautifully crafted stories that help us better to understand the complex spectrum of human existence. As Humbert writes at the end of Lolita, “I am thinking of aurochs and angels, the secret of durable pigments, prophetic sonnets, the refuge of art. And this is the only immortality you and I may share, my Lolita.”

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