THE ENCHANTER, By Vladimir Nabokov, Translated by Dmitri Nabokov, Putnam. 127 pp. $ 16.95
VN: The Life and Art Of Vladimir Nabokov,By Andrew Field,Crown. 417 pp. $ 19.95
ONE OF THE pleasures of reading Vladimir Nabokov's short stories written in Russian in the 1920s and '30s (and later included in his English-language collections of stories) is the discovery that some of them are embryos of his later novels in English. Thus, his 1925 story "The Return of Chorb" was later expanded into Transparent Things (1972). "Tyrants Destroyed" (1938) gave rise to the novel Bend Sinister (1947). With the publication of The Enchanter, we get the English translation of "Volshebnik" (1939), the last story Nabokov was to write in Russian. It has never been published in any language and its main interest is as an early sketch of Nabokov's most popular novel, Lolita.
The theme of heterosexual pedophilia has attracted Russion writers at least since the time of Dostoevsky, who evoked it in several of his novels. The plot strategem of a man marrying a widow because he desires her daughter was present in The Gift, the most perfect of Nabokov's Russian novels, dating from the mid-1930s. The unnamed protagonists of The Enchanter are a French jeweler of about 40, an almost faceless girl of 12 with whom he falls in love when he sees her roller-skating in a park, and her unpleasant, hypochondriac mother, whom the jeweler marries in the hope of getting his hands on the daughter. The mother conveniently dies shortly after the marriage, the protagonist tries to molest the girl in a hotel room while she is asleep, her screams bring in the other hotel guests, the man rushes out in despair and throws himself under a passing truck.
The Enchanter is also a satire on French bourgeois mores ("bourgeois" in the Flaubertian sense rather than the Marxist one, as Nabokov would have insisted), just as Lolita is a sendup of the foibles of the American bourgeoisie. But any comparison of The Enchanter with Lolita is bound to be invidious. Humbert Humbert, Charlotte Haze and Lolita herself were delineated in vivid, unforgettable detail. Their earlier French counterparts were barely traced and not particularly interesting to begin with. The enjoyment of reading The Enchanter is comparable to the one afforded by studying Beethoven's published sketchbooks: seeing the murky and unpromising material out of which the writer and the composer were later able to fashion an incandescent masterpiece.
The brief text of the story is followed by a substantial essay by Nabokov's son and translator, Dmitri Nabokov. The essay outlines the origin of the story and its relationship to Lolita and also addresses itself to the two currently controversial issues in Nabokov studies. One is the unconvincing efforts of Nikita Struve, a Russian scholar resident in Paris, to attribute to Nabokov a Russian book originally published in Paris in the 1930s, Novel with Cocaine by a certain M. Agheyev. It recently appeared in French and English with some success. It is Dmitri Nabokov's contention that this book was written in Istanbul by a Russian Jew named Mark Levi, whose Parisian publisher chose to change his name to Agheyev. The stylistic similarities of Novel with Cocaine to Nabokov's work are explicable by Levi's imitation of Nabokov, whose novels were highly valued by some of the exiled Russians.
THE OTHER ISSUE taken up in Dmitri Nabokov's essay is the publication of VN, Andrew Field's third critical biography of Vladimir Nabokov. Nabokov's son calls this book an "odd concoction of rancor, adulation, innuendo and outright factual error." Is such an assessment fair? Andrew Field's first book on the subject, Nabokov: His Life in Art, subtitled "A Critical Narrative," came out in 1967, when Field was something of a Nabokov prote'ge'. At that time, much of Nabokov's earlier work -- novels, stories, poetry -- was not yet translated into English. Field informed the readers of the English-speaking countries (many of whom still thought that Lolita was Nabokov's first novel) of Nabokov's output in the 1920s, '30s and '40s and asserted its importance for appreciating the writer's art. Despite a deliberately difficult scrambled structure, Field's 1967 book performed the useful task of acquainting Nabokov's admirers with the whole of his work and biography. It was written with the full cooperation of Vladimir and Vera Nabokov, who gave Field access to their archive and recollections and who helped him correct, I was told, over a hundred major errors of fact and translation when his book was already in the page-proof stage.
Between the publication of Field's first book on Nabokov and his second one, Nabokov: His Life in Part, 1977, the relationship between the writer and the biographer soured. During a visit to Montreux in 1973, I found Nabokov sad and angry about what he saw as Field's breach of confidence. To give Field a deeper perspective during his work on the first biography, Nabokov told him of some personal and family matters that were meant to be off the record and not for publication. To Nabokov's chagrin, Field intended to include this information in his new book. He also went about interviewing people in the Russian exile community whom Nabokov considered his personal enemies. As we learn from a passage at the end of VN, it took a "four-year legal struggle" to resolve what confidential information could or could not be revealed in the 1977 book.
VN is meant to be an updated synthesis of the first two books. Its distinct advantage over them is that instead of the convoluted sequence in which they were couched (in apparent imitation of some of Nabokov's narrative structures), the story of Nabokov's life and writings is told here in a coherent and chronological order. It also contains (another first) a reasonably complete index. The aim of the 1967 and 1977 books was to assert the greatness of Nabokov's literary art. In VN, Field still admires some of Nabokov's writings, but this is undermined by his seething animosity toward not only the writer himself, but also his family and ancestors. Field has clearly gone out of his way to interview a number of Nabokov's surviving Russian contemporaries who for one reason or another resented Nabokov's international success and his often aloof stance. As one of his prime sources for VN, Field cites Princess Zinaida Schakowskoi's scurrilous 1979 memoir In Search of Nabokov, published in Paris in Russian. Field calls it "excellent" and "essential." In fact, its treatment of Nabokov and its ad feminam attack on his wife Vera often border on character assassination.
I HAVE ALWAYS found Andrew Field something of a puzzle. After decades of writing on Russian literature and culture, at times brilliantly, he can still come up with statements about them that are so naive or so misinformed as to leave one gasping in disbelief. On p. 2 of the introduction to VN, Field asserts a similarity between Vladimir Nabokov and Czar Nicholas II ("a weak and foolish man") because they both "came from cosmopolitan St. Petersburg, which played with politics and culture and took a Faberge'-service picnic to the edge of a volcano." But of course the snobbish, superstition-bound court of Nicholas and Alexandra was neither cosmopolitan, nor aware of the innovative cultural flowering that marked their reign, while Nabokov's resolutely anti-monarchist family was close to the center of that flowering. The memoirs of Nabokov's father, published in English by Virgil D. Medlin and Steven L. Parsons in 1976, show the absurdity of such a juxtaposition.
At the beginning of his annotations to VN, Field recommands to the reader Renato Poggioli's The Poets of Russia, 1960, as one of "the best guides to early 20th-century Russian literature and culture." Uninformed and error-ridden in the first place, Poggioli's book has been rendered totally obsolete by the vast amount of critical and scholarly material published during the last two decades both in the Soviet Union and in the West on early 20th-century Russian poets. Nor does Field bother to mention some of the most important studies of Nabokov's novels that have appeared in English since the publication of his 1967 biography. After the pioneering essays by Edythe C. Haber on Glory (1977) and Alex de Jonge on Mary and The Gift (1980); after Ellen Pifer's Nabokov and the Novel (1980), which is an indispensable study of Nabokov's ethics and his perception of reality; and after Brian Boyd's magnificent, book-length analysis of Ada (1985), Field's discussion of the novels in VN, mostly repeated from his first two books, can't help appearing pallid and pedestrian.
But VN also contains some new conjectures, and for some of them the only appropriate adjective is "preposterous." One of these is Field's guess that in Nabokov's letters to his mother he addressed her as "Lolita." Field then qualifies as "brazen compulsion, the ultimate gesture of contempt for everything Freudian" Nabokov's later "giving his mother's nickname to the heroine of his greatest novel." But of course polite Russian usage would preclude a respectful son, such as Nabokov was, from addressing his mother by a nickname, even if such a nickname as "Lolita" existed in Russian, which it doesn't. As Dmitri Nabokov explains in the afterword to The Enchanter, Field misconstrued the actual salutation, which was Radost' ("My Joy").
Even more bizarre is Field's explication of the name Zina Mertz in The Gift. This is Nabokov's most attractively depicted female character (Field oddly leaves her out when discussing the pleasant and unpleasant women in Nabokov). Also, as Field is aware, Zina is the closest Nabokov came to producing a literary portrait of Vera Nabokov, ne'e Slonim. "Zina," Field insists, "isn't a Christian Orthodox name." How could he have failed to notice that Russian life and literature are full of women named Zinaida, whose friends and family usually call them Zina? Mertz, Field admits, "is a perfectly plausible russified German Jewish name." But no, he prefers to derive it from an art movement among the German Dadaists in the '20s (the painter Kurt Schwitters, pace Field, coined the word Merz from the German word for "commerce"). From this, through some leap in logic, it follows that the name Zina is an "easy anagram for Nazi." First, this anagram would never work in Russian, the language in which The Gift was written (the name would have to be "Tsina"); and second, why would Nabokov want to name the irresistibly appealing young half-Jewish woman, who was in part a portrait of the wife he loved, with an anagram for Nazi?
In such passages of VN, both scholarship and common sense take a nosedive. Whatever value other portions of Field's book might offer, one thing is clear. A writer of Vladimir Nabokov's stature deserves a biographer who is more at home in Russian culture and has more respect and sympathy for the man and his achievement than Field now does.
Simon Karlinsky, professor of Slavic languages and literatures at the University of California at Berkeley, is the editor of "The Wilson-Nabokov Letters" and author of "Marina Tsvetaeva: The Woman, Her World and Her Poetry."