Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0023760, Wed, 13 Mar 2013 13:09:48 -0700

Revlet of Andrea Pitzer’s The Secret History of Vladimir Nabokov

Review of Andrea Pitzer’s The Secret History of Vladimir Nabokov

Nabokov’s fiction was rarely overtly political, although he freely (and often vehemently) aired his socio-political views in interviews and elsewhere. In her new book Andrea Pitzer presents a revisionist view arguing that much of Nabokov’s fiction obliquely encodes his scathing critique of Soviet (and Nazi) power. The author bases her argument upon a survey of the author’s biography and her decoding of selected elements in his fiction, primarily the English novels. It is an unusual treatment including both biographical and literary aspects. The book does not present any analysis of Nabokov’s fiction as art, but rather of transformed socio-political realia in the novels’ texts. The book’s first and final chapters are both entitled “Waiting for Solzhenitsyn” and frame the intermediate chapters which offer Nabokov’s personal history, brief summaries of most of his novels, and explicate their little noticed allusions to the underside of the Soviet state with its “secret” internal prison empire of the GULAG. In chapter I the Nabokovs await the arrival of their invited guest, the recently expelled Solzenitsyn, to their Swiss hotel abode. In the final chapter (XIV), they are still awaiting their expected guest who (unbeknownst to the Nabokovs) has departed. (Not unlike 1969 Nobelist Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, no?) The counterpointing of Solzhenitsyn and Nabokov is a catchy literary device based on rather slender grounds. Neither writer ever visited ever visited the infamous prison peninsula on Novaya Zemlya, although Solzhenitsyn featured it in his monumental Gulag Archipelago whereas one of Nabokov’s naval seafaring ancestors had a river there named after him in the early 19th century. Nabokov’s (and Kinbote’s) fantasized Nova Zembla in Pale Fire derives from “semBlance,” at least as much as it does from the USSR’s Novaya Zemlya.

Andrea Pitzer traces the lives of Vladimir and Vera Nabokov in their European and American lives drawing heavily on Brian Boyd’s and Stacy Schiffs’ biographies, adding some new details, and perfunctory accounts of Nabokov’s early writings while seeking out more or less covert allusions to politically-tinged atrocities. Both the short stories and some of the novels such as Invitation to a Beheading have allegorical political undertones that become more overt in Nabokov’s first “American” novel Bend Sinister. Oddly, the political element becomes more prominent in the novels begining with Lolita which early on recounts mad Humbert’s veiled allusions to his experiences in Canada where many suspect European refugees were interned in (and after) the war years. Pale Fire is the high watermark of Nabokov’s politicalization where he merges Kinbote-Botkin’s Zembla with Novaya Zemlya, the remote site of a notorious Soviet prison camp and the early test ground for Soviet A-bomb development. Pitzer has meticulously traced out the latter from press reports (mostly The New Times) and US government documents. Her research has also turned up some little known bits and pieces of Nabokov’s biography. It is an impressive job but is, au fond, not of great importance for understanding Nabokov’s art. Nabokov’s anti-Nazi and anti-Soviet views are well known from his numerous personal and public statements. Pitzer has, however, added substantially to our knowledge of how Nabokov subtly interwove these views into his art.

D. Barton Johnson

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