STALKING NABOKOV: Selected Essays ...
‘Stalking Nabokov’ by Brian Boyd
By Larry Hardesty | DECEMBER 09, 2011
JERRY BAUER/VINTAGE BOOKS
Vladimir Nabokov is the subject of Brian Boyd’s various essays.
Brian Boyd’s 1990s two-volume “Vladimir Nabokov’’ is surely one of the great literary biographies. Exhaustively researched, it ventures judicious psychological speculation at exactly the right moments to preserve the narrative momentum. The literary analysis is first rate, and the prose is graceful but not obtrusive. Boyd, a professor of English at the University of Auckland, New Zealand, is also the author of two excellent book-length studies of Nabokov’s most complex and challenging novels, “Pale Fire’’ and “Ada,’’ so among enthusiasts, his first Nabokov book in 12 years is cause for some excitement.
“Stalking Nabokov,’’ however, is not the product of the same type of sustained attention that its predecessors were. It’s a collection of occasional pieces, and it’s a mixed bag. Many of its 26 essays were invited talks, and some of them show the strain of trying to come up with something new to say on short notice. Others - like the one that mainly catalogs Nabokov’s unpublished writings, or the essays on his lepidopterological studies - are probably of interest only to specialists, and the pieces written as introductions or contributions to other volumes lose some coherence out of their contexts. Since each essay was written for a new audience, there is also a lot of redundancy, as Boyd returns to the same passages and anecdotes or offers variations on the same arguments.
Still, despite its unevenness, “Stalking Nabokov’’ advances a consistent and intriguing reading of his work. Boyd’s Nabokov is someone who felt imprisoned both by the linearity of time and the insularity of his own consciousness, and who saw fiction as a way to slip the bonds of both. In “Nabokov as Storyteller,’’ Boyd writes that his “scenes are always saturated by mind, by the hero’s or, briefly, by another character’s, by the narrator’s or author’s or reader’s, able to move with grace and speed within or behind or away from the scene.’’
In elaborating this position, Boyd offers a powerful corrective to a prevailing view of Nabokov (1899-1977) as, for good or ill, a monger of visual detail. As the critic James Wood put it in his recent “How Fiction Works,’’ “Nabokov’s fiction is always becoming propaganda on behalf of good noticing. . . . There are beauties that are not visual at all, and Nabokov has poorish eyes for those.’’
But in close readings of passages from several novels, Boyd shows that the telling Nabokovian detail is so memorable precisely because it slices through a skein of narrative summary, verbal gamesmanship, and first-person characterizations. Take, for instance, the opening of “Lolita,’’ which Boyd analyzes in “Tolstoy and Nabokov.’’ In the first page or so, there’s some high-flown rhetoric (“[m]y sin, my soul’’), a phonetics lesson (“the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps’’), and a lot of fairly amusing background information (“my very photogenic mother died in a freak accident’’), but what everyone remembers are the sudden stabs of detail: “She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock.’’ As Boyd puts it in “Nabokov as Storyteller,’’ “[Nabokov] operates not by steady accumulation of detail but by swooping and swerving in ways that catch our attention . . . for the detail is highly selective.’’
“Stalking Nabokov’’ has other pleasures, such as the chapter that summarizes the intriguing argument of Boyd’s one published book that is not on Nabokov, “On the Origin of Stories,’’ or the wonderful examination of the Pushkin lyric “I Loved You,’’ from “Nabokov as Verse Translator,’’ which comes as close as is probably possible to giving non-Russian-speaking readers the experience of reading the poem in the original. For Nabokov fans, “Stalking Nabokov’’ may not be the essential reading that Boyd’s previous books are, but taken a la carte, it’s still plenty rewarding.
STALKING NABOKOV: Selected Essays
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