"THERE IS NOTHING more splendid than lone thought," a character says in "Ada," the 1969 novel of Vladimir Nabokov. The splendidness of Mr. Nabokov was that he played so deftly and confidently with thought that his writing never seemed the work of a lone imagination. It was as though a composite had been created, with the head of a genius storyteller, the heart of a philosopher and the hand of a prose stylist ever celebrating the delights of language. One critic said "there is more pleasure to be derived from a Nabokov novel than from almost anything else availble in contemporary literature." Another said Mr. Nabokov was "incapable of composing a dull book [or] of writing a graceless sentence."
In the public mind, unfortunately, Mr. Nabokov's light shone less brightly. He was known as the writer with the unpronounceable name who wrote an erotic book about a nymphet named Loita. But for readers who refused to be secretaries taking dictation from mass opinion, the rewards were many. In one of his novels, Mr. Nabokov reflects on the obligations of a writer.The narrator recalls a moment from his childhood when a great aunt tries to cheer him by directing him to the harlequins. The child asks, "What harlequins? Where?" She answers."Oh, everywhere. All around you. Trees are harlequins, words are harlequins. So are situations and sums. Put two things together - jokes, images - and you get a triple harlequin. Come on! Play! Invent the world! Invent reality!"
Mr. Nabokov, born in Russia, lived in the United States from 1939 to 59. The two decades were enough for him to sink emotional roots and become an American citizen working as an American writer. He taught a Wellesley, Cornell, Harvard and Stanford. He received a number of official honors in this country, as well as the unofficial one conferred annually by critics who believed that Mr. Nabokov, of all the world's literary giants, deserved a Nobel Prize. That he never won it said more about the judgement of the Swedish Academy than the talent of Mr. Nabokov.
Honored or unhonored, few writers of the 20th century more consistently produced literature that truly did "invent the world."