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Saturday, 1 June 2013

Vladimir Nabokov, father of Gonzo

While it's important to get the dates right in any history I'll have to fudge that of this photo of novelist Vladimir Nabokov and just say that it's from his youth. Some people might be familiar with photos of an older Nabokov - that heavyset geezer dressed in shorts and carrying a butterfly net, perhaps - that date from the time of his eventual commercial success, a time that was suddenly full of photographers and journalists looking for topical content, but I imagine that this photo shows what the man looked like when he studied at Cambridge in the years immediately following the Russian Revolution, an important event in the life of a boy born into the minor nobility in Russia in 1899.

With studied aplomb the family made sure the young man got a good education despite the chaos of their quotidian lives. After graduation in 1922 Nabokov settled in Berlin and stayed there for the next 15 years mainly living within the Russian emigre community, where he met a young Jewish woman, Vera Slonim. They were married in 1925 and some 10 years later, in 1936, Vera lost her job because of her ethnicity. The Nabokovs finally began to look for ways to emigrate to somewhere in the English-speaking world. The search took them to France and then, in 1940, they got on a boat evacuating refugees from Europe that took them to the US; the same boat hit a floating mine on its return voyage to Europe, and sank.

Living in Berlin for all those years, before political events again forced him to flight, Nabokov got by financially by tutoring, teaching tennis, and whatever else was necessary to enable him to continue writing. Vera's commitment looks pretty extraordinary when you consider the slender financial means at Nabokov's disposal. His books were published in the emigre press - in Russian, of course - but there was no adequate market for his work and it could not have provided much, and in any case his work was unusual. Nabokov continued, however, to publish on his own terms. Between 1935 and 1937 for example he worked on a novel, The Gift, that came out serially in an emigre magazine with the exception of chapter four, which failed to appear because the editors objected to it; the chapter in question is a biography of the Russian writer Nikolay Chernyshevsky, Lenin's favourite author.

After his relocation Stateside - his Russian-language novels no doubt a dead weight in suitcases and then serving as ornaments on bookshelves - Nabokov took to America, and America took to Nabokov. He taught at Wellesley College in Massachussetts from 1941 to 1948 and at Cornell University in upstate New York from 1948 to 1959. These jobs provided the wherewithal to live - and he was suitably grateful, becoming naturalised in 1945 - but in his head Nabokov still existed surrounded by the images and flavours of Russian literature, so it is not at all surprising to see him return to literary biography in 1944, during his Wellesley years, this time to tackle a bigger subject (perhaps) than Chernyshevsky: the Ukrainian novelist Nikolai Gogol.

The Gogol book attracted some critical attention but cannot have made much difference to Nabokov's bank account. It was clearly unusual, but it in fact uses the same techniques Nabokov had forged from experience and from the life of his mind in Berlin a decade earlier, and that had resulted in that novel - The Gift - that contained the biographical chapter on Chernyshevsky that so upset the editors of the magazine it was to appear in that they refused to publish it. In the novel, the putative author receives some critical attention from people in the emigre community as a result of his biography's publication (the meta-narrative, the self-conscious authorial approach, is essential to The Gift, and in a sense defines it) and in the end his happiness - he gets the girl, he's writing - contradicts his poor material circumstances. Fyodor's attempt at biography is motivated by something that can only be understood by reading the book, but the Berlin streets he walks through on his way to the library, where he conducts his research, are the same streets that were becoming animated by popular forces that were leading to the global catastrophe of WWII.

Chapter four of The Gift (the novel came out in English in 1963) and Nikolai Gogol (published by avant-garde house New Directions in San Francisco in 1959, the year he finally left teaching) - works that neatly bracket Nabokov's flight from Europe, although they only appeared in English as US demand for his work skyrocketed after the fantastic success of the watershed novel, Lolita - did something new: transforming the personal feelings and elements of the understanding of the writer into a filter that sits like a screen in front of the historical subject being studied. By injecting the author into the narrative in this way, Nabokov achieved effects that would somewhat later become celebrated with the emergence of the New Journalism in America in the boom years following the war, and in the aggrieved brilliance of the journalism of Hunter Thompson, which appeared around the same time. These approaches embodied an aesthetic protest against stale instruments in the public sphere, and were very much a product of the postmodern age, replete with pastiche and play. That Nabokov had predicted the appearance of this approach a generation earlier is a testament to his extraordinary originality.

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