Robert Roper isn’t a specialist in the study of Vladimir Nabokov or his fiction. In fact, he is himself principally a novelist, though one who has also published a study of Walt Whitman and a biography of legendary mountain climber Willi Unsoeld. Still, as Roper says in the introduction to “ Nabokov in America ,” he has loved his subject’s sometimes controversial books for 50 years, “especially the ones written while he lived in the United States.” The most famous of these is, of course, “ Lolita ” (1955).
Today Nabokov’s early works, composed in his native Russian though later translated into English, tend to be respected rather than loved. “The Gift” (1938) has been called the greatest Russian novel of the 20th century, but most readers — this one included — find it hard slogging. The late books, starting with “Ada” (1968), tend to be overly fancy and precious, self-reflexive exercises appealing only to the most ardent devotees. In effect, these lesser works are European, whether composed by a young exile fleeing the Russian Revolution or a world-famous candidate for the Nobel Prize (which he never won).
But the work of the roughly 20 years from 1940 to 1962 reveals, in Roper’s words, “the sheer flabbergasting Americanness of Nabokov’s transformation, the way he opened himself to ‘local influences’ ” once he arrived in this country at age 41 with his wife, Véra, and son, Dmitri. Before then, he’d been too much the aesthete, while “the American context . . . fed meaning and amplitude into fancy’s brew.” Nabokov’s finest work celebrates what his character Humbert Humbert calls “the lovely, trustful, dreamy, enormous country” that he and Lolita see by car.
“Nabokov in America” is consequently almost a geographical study, as its subtitle, “On the Road to ‘Lolita,’ ” implies: Roper emphasizes Nabokov’s travels, largely his summer excursions out West in pursuit of rare butterflies, but also his early sojourn in California, where he taught Russian and writing briefly at Stanford, and his lecture tour to the South in 1942, when he spoke at Spelman College and met W.E.B. Du Bois. All in all, as Roper calculates, during his 20 years in America, Nabokov traveled upwards of 200,000 miles by car. That said, Roper nonetheless lingers, as he must, on the crucial years in Ithaca, N.Y., where between 1948 and 1960 Nabokov taught European literature and produced nearly all his greatest works:
“He worked prodigiously at Cornell. While there, he wrote parts of ‘Lolita,’ ‘Pnin’ and ‘Speak, Memory,’ short stories, poetry, and translations of his own works and others’. He also composed his 1,895-page annotated translation of ‘Eugene Onegin,’ as well as an annotated translation of the Old Slavonic epic ‘The Song of Igor’s Campaign.’ In addition, he conceived and began work on ‘Pale Fire’ and ‘Ada,’ his ambitious novels of the sixties.”
That’s an extraordinary amount of research, note-taking and writing, but then Nabokov never attended faculty meetings or kept office hours.
Though essentially biographical, “Nabokov in America” is also a work of criticism. Roper neatly compares “Lolita’ to Indian captivity narratives, to aspects of “Moby-Dick” (zeroing in on the relationship of cabin boy Pip and Captain Ahab), and to the once-banned “Memoirs of Hecate County” by Nabokov’s friend, the critic Edmund Wilson. He also speculates about the possible influence of J.D. Salinger, one of the few contemporary American writers Nabokov was known to admire. As he observes:
“Nabokov’s emergence, its crucial stage, coincided exactly with Salinger’s. Eleven chapters of the future ‘Speak, Memory’ appeared in the New Yorker just in the years (1948-50) when Salinger was publishing ‘A Perfect Day for Bananafish,’ ‘Uncle Wiggly in Connecticut,’ ‘Just Before the War with the Eskimos,’ and ‘For Esmé — with Love and Squalor.’ ”
Roper then considers echoes of “The Catcher in the Rye,” in “Lolita,” especially its portrayal of Holden Caulfield’s little sister, Phoebe.
In seeking to illuminate Nabokov’s metamorphosis into an American writer, Roper also looks at how other creative Europeans such as filmmaker Billy Wilder managed this transition. Roper’s outstanding example is unexpected and absolutely right: Ayn Rand, his near contemporary. From a Jewish family similar to Véra’s, Rand was “a writer of different attainments but, like Nabokov, determined to write for the movies and in the fifties the author of a giant bestseller (‘Atlas Shrugged’). Rand was also from St. Petersburg, had also fled the Revolution, and her arrival in the United States began a period of intense self-education and a wholesale embrace of what she took for Americanism.”
In general, Roper’s observations are at their sharpest when he discusses “Lolita” and “Pale Fire.” Humbert Humbert, he points out, studies little Dolores Haze as intensely as Nabokov studied insects. He emphasizes that the writer’s great theme isn’t sex per se, but “amorousness: the disposition to become obsessed, to fetishize a lover.” Calling attention to the “shrill note, wiggling, head thrown back, teeth biting lip,” he daringly wonders if Lolita might have experienced an orgasm while sprawled on Humbert Humbert’s lap. And in a particularly astute summary, he talks of the complicitousness one finds in Nabokov’s books:
“Nabokov was an intimate writer. His reticences, his formal estrangements, his denial of interest in any reality beyond the text all need to be measured against that. Maximum closeness: not the closeness of ostentatious empathy but the closeness of one mind addressing another in the most thrilling terms. He speaks into the ear, sometimes dripping a little poison. He contrives to have a reader identify intimately with a protagonist or narrator, but even that is not enough; the reader receives secret handshakes from the author himself, behind a narrator’s back.”
Those “secret handshakes” are particularly prevalent in “Pale Fire” (1962). That book, comprising a long poem by John Shade and a massive set of end notes by Professor Charles Kinbote, is perhaps the trickiest, or tricksiest, work of modern literature. “The poet Shade’s confessions in verse yield to the infinitely more self-revealing confessional of the mad, ever-burgeoning commentary, and meanwhile Nabokov and the reader exchange looks over Kinbote’s shoulder: so sad, he is, but so much fun! Such a shameless liar!” Liar? Or madman?
Most unexpectedly, Roper devotes considerable attention to Dmitri Nabokov, who was — during the period when his father was writing “Lolita” — the same age as the doomed nymphet. He suggests that the Nabokovs’ highly protective attitude toward their only child is a dark mirror to that of Humbert Humbert’s attempts to control and virtually imprison his step-daughter as a sex slave. Still, Roper doesn’t fully answer the question of why Nabokov wrote so often about “nymphets.” As Martin Amis has observed, “Of the nineteen fictions, no fewer than six wholly or partly concern themselves with the sexuality of prepubescent girls.”
“Nabokov in America” is rewarding on all counts, as biography, as photo album (there are many pictures of people, Western landscapes and motels) and as appreciative criticism. Not least, Roper even avoids the arch style so often adopted by critics faintly trying to emulate their inimitable subject.
Michael Dirda reviews books for The Washington Post on Thursdays.
For more books coverage, go to washingtonpost.com/books.
NABOKOV IN AMERICA
On the Road to “Lolita”
By Robert Roper
Bloomsbury. 354 pp. $28