The Russian Years

By Brian Boyd

Princeton University Press. 607 pp. $25

WHILE Vladimir Nabokov was growing up in St. Petersburg -- he was born in 1899 -- his family employed 50 servants. As a boy, Volodya was chauffeured everyday to and from the prestigious Tenishev School. At 17 a wiry raffish young dandy and already a published poet, he inherited a country estate and the equivalent of several million dollars.

By the end of this first volume (of two) in Brian Boyd's comprehensive, majestic biography, Vladimir Nabokov is 41 years old, virtually penniless, on his way from Paris to New York where he will be offered a job as a bicycle delivery boy. In the next 20 years this Russian exile will coolly transform himself into an American author, create the most brilliant English prose style of his time, compose a handful of masterpieces of which Lolita and Pale Fire are merely the best known, and eventually retire to a life of quiet luxury at the Montreux Palace Hotel in Switzerland. There he will be attended by numerous maids, valets and waiters: Like T.S. Eliot, he might say, "In my beginning is my end."

But all this glimmers in the dove-grey future. In Vladimir Nabokov: The Russian Years, Brian Boyd leisurely chronicles the achievements of a European writer, one who wrote nine novels, a handful of plays, dozens of stories and scores of poems, all in Russian, between 1914 and 1937.

After the revolution, Nabokov's father -- an able and admirable liberal politician -- took his family to Berlin where a flourishing Russian community existed, some 300,000 strong, big enough to support over 80 publishers. While Volodya ambled off to Cambridge to complete his education, his father helped establish Rul', soon the leading emigre newspaper. Not surprisingly the Nabokov family became a center of exiled Russian culture, which in early 1920s Berlin meant that Pasternak, Mayakovsky, Gorky, Shklovsky or Tstvetaeva might drop by. In 1922, though, tragedy struck: Nabokov's father was introducing an old ally at a political meeting when an assassin rushed the podium. V.D. Nabokov wrestled the assailant to the floor, and was immediately shot three times by an accomplice. He died instantly. (Fifteen years later his murderer would be appointed the deputy to Hitler's minister of emigre affairs. Little wonder that in her Berlin years Vera Slonim, later Vera Nabokov, regularly carried a gun.)

"The cradle," wrote Nabokov in the autobiographical Speak, Memory, "rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness." After the death of his father, though, the otherwise irreligious Nabokov reveals an increasing fascination with the possibility of an afterlife, complete with spirits. This sense of other states of being, says Boyd, accounts for both the "proppiness" of Nabokov's fiction and its tendency to modulate into a spectral otherworld. Nabokov's first masterpiece, The Defense (1930), tacitly describes the competition between two spirits for the soul of the chessmaster Luzhin. At the surprising end of Invitation to a Beheading (1938), Cincinnatus simply walks away from his place of execution, abandoning the "flopping scenery" of our world to join "beings" more like himself. The novella "The Eye" (1930) appears to be narrated by a dead man. According to Boyd, Nabokov's fiction, for all its surface dazzle, consistently attempts to "peer past the prison bars of selfhood and time" and in this quest joins the work of Proust and Joyce. When Nabokov therefore advises that in literature and life we should "caress the details, the divine details," he is not merely repeating a formalist doctrine. The divine details may gradually reveal nature's and Nabokov's otherwise unsuspected design.

Boyd returns repeatedly to this theme of self and temporal transcendence, but never so obtrusively as to get in the way of good stories and anecdotes. The Russian Revolution takes place literally down the block while Volodya hardly notices, so intent is he on writing poems for his latest beloved. At Cambridge young Nabokov buys a second-hand edition of Dahl's four-volume Russian dictionary and resolves to read 10 pages a day. He translates Alice in Wonderland into Russian (the heroine becomes Anya), foxtrots with Pavlova, plays chess with Alekhine, works as a cherry picker in Provence and a tennis teacher in Berlin. He chases butterflies everywhere; of this passion for "leps," he says "I didn't choose them. They chose me."

In the 1920s and '30s under the penname Vladimir Sirin, Nabokov quickly established himself as the great White Russian hope among younger emigre writers. A drunken friend even demanded that the new Nobel laureate Ivan Bunin give Nabokov his ring in tribute to the younger man's superior genius. When the future author of Lolita met the author of Ulysses, though, both were tongue-tied; Joyce asked about the ingredients of Russian mead. At a dinner party Nabokov once revealed that he knew his books so well that he could dictate any of them from start to finish. At one low point he was reduced to working in the bathroom, a suitcase on the bidet for a desk, so as not to disturb the sleep of his son and future translator. When people started to warn him about Hitler, he replied, "I am writing my novel. I don't read the papers."

The Russian Years naturally builds toward an account of The Gift (1937), for many the greatest 20th-century novel written in Russian. Like other modernist masterpieces, it tracks the making of a young writer, his meeting (after numerous missed opportunities) with the woman he will marry, and his decision to write the book we have just read. Structurally daring, dense and slow-moving, The Gift challenges the total artworks of Proust and Joyce, incorporating not only poems by its hero, but also a 100-page biography of writer-activist Nikolai Chernyshevksy, a superb evocation of emigre life in Berlin's roominghouses, microscopic authorial subtleties, and a good deal of autobiography. It also contains the kernels of virtually all the fiction that Nabokov will pop up during the next 30 years, from The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (1941) to Look at the Harlequins! (1975). And, above all, the novel is a love song for Nabokov's wife Vera; she is "the gift." Boyd notes, howver, that there can be few if any other novels in which the heroine is introduced by the sound of a flushing toilet.

As a biographer, Boyd, a professor of English at the University of Auckland, writes a plain reader-friendly prose, at once clear, efficient and meticulous. Occasionally, he will belabor interpretations of Nabokov's poems or fictions (nearly all of them seem to look back to childhood at the summer estate of Vyra or prefigure elements in later books), but never does he resort to academic jargon. Neither does he fall prey to a self-conscious pseudo-Nabokovian style of elaborate wordplay and contrived literary conceits. Now and again, Boyd will tip his hat to the master, as when he labels the unscholarly Nabokov of his Cambridge years "a chirping cicada, not an industrious ant, a playful otter, not an eager beaver." But these moments elicit a smile rather than a grimace. The scholarship is exemplary: Nabokov once expressed admiration for a remark in H.G. Wells' The Passionate Friends; Boyd has taken the trouble to read the novel (and discovered that that one passage is the sole Nabokovian element in the book). Only once did I feel that Boyd had missed a chance to identify a reference. In a late interview Nabokov alluded to a favorite childhood book that "depicted squirrels preparing leaf-wrapped honey for a despotic owl -- one of the squirrels,, my representative in 1904, made bold fun of the brutal bird." This is almost certainly Beatrix Potter's 1903 classic The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin (which, oddly enough, was also haunting the young C.S. Lewis at just about this same time).

In every respect then, this is yet another of those masterly literary biographies of recent years, eligible to sit at the right hand of Richard Ellmann's James Joyce.

That said, any follower of the Nabokov publishing industry -- a diverting pastime in itself -- will wonder how this new life stacks up against Andrew Field's pioneering biographical studies. Late in Nabokov's life the novelist gave interviews and personal files to this young scholar, who in due course produced Nabokov: His Life in Art, a useful study of the fiction. Sometime thereafter a falling out took place between master and disciple, further exacerbated by Field's eccentric biography, Nabokov: His Life in Part, which, it was said, violated the Nabokovs' trust and privacy, as well as being carelessly inaccurate. In VN: The Life and Art of Vladmir Nabokov, an amalgamation of the earlier two books, plus new material, the renegade Field speculated that Nabokov's personality was essentially narcissistic, maintained that he called his own mother Lolita, and alleged that the faithful husband of Vera had had an affair in 1937 that almost destroyed their marriage. Dmitri Nabokov steadfastly defended his father of these charges; family loyalty has been for generations a dominant trait of the Nabokovs.

Now, Boyd's biography is not precisely authorized, but he was granted access to the Nabokov archives and in return allowed Vera Nabokov "to see all I wrote," taking note of "her painstaking comments on matters of style, fact, and interpretation in every part of my text." He stresses that "lively, even fierce, disagreements have never impinged a jot on my freedom to write what I construe the evidence requires." (A footnote reveals that Vera would have preferred not to have been mentioned in the book at all!) For all his independence, Boyd belongs squarely in the Nabokov family's camp: Footnotes that refer to Field stress his errors and start off with phrases like "Field absurdly supposes" and "Field completely muddles the idea." Some of these assertions are impossible to verify; but such insults sound unprofessional even if warranted.

And on at least one major sticking point, Nabokov's alleged 1937 affair with poodle trimmer Irina Guadanini, Field is shown to have been right. In his 1986 afterword to a translation of his father's novella The Enchanter, Dmitri blasts "Field's overblown claptrap about an extramarital affair." In last years Selected Letters one loving letter to Vera actually mentions Irina, denying any amorous involvement. (Dmitri's footnote insists that she was one of several Irinas who flirted with the handsome young novelist.) But Boyd, with a measure of diffidence, reveals that there was a very serious affair and that Nabokov seems to have both lied to Vera and considered leaving her for Irina. Field's account emphasizes the sensational aspects, but both biographers are in essential agreement about the facts.

To my mind, Field's VN is somewhat eccentric but generally serviceable, though marred by wild psychologizing (about incest, narcissism, etc) and a chip-on-the-shoulder tone; it is hardly a smear job. Boyd's work is better written, more critically astute and fuller (usually -- he does pass over Nabokov's frankly sexual poem of 1928, "Lilith"); besides a life of Nabokov, he also offers substantive and useful analyses to all his major works: The emigre world he depicts -- rippled with assassination, secret societies and betrayal -- shows that Nabokov's dark farces are more than just flights of artful fancy. Still, The Russian Years does slow somewhat in the 1930s, when biographical material is scarce, to dwell a little too expansively on the written work. Boyd and Field, it seems to me, share a relationship rather like that of James Boswell and Sir John Hawkins; Boswell's masterpiece utterly overshadowed Hawkins' earlier life of Samuel Johnson, but there are suggestive details in Hawkins not in the greater work.

But make no mistake: Vladimir Nabokov: The Russian Years is a terrific biography: intelligent, compulsively readable, indispensable. Brian Boyd brings to his work a passionate scholarship comparable to that in Nabokov's own encyclopedic edition of Pushkin's Eugene Onegin. You just can't do better than that.

Michael Dirda is a writer and editor for Book World.