Given the fact that Vladimir Nabokov, the most private and mendacious of great writers, designated in his will that his personal papers and letters could not be made public until 75 years after the deaths of his wife and son, "VN: The Life and Art of Vladimir Nabokov" by Andrew Field is certainly the most exhaustive and revealing biography of the writer we will see until well into the next century. It is a fine piece of detective work and analysis, a hybrid work that would please Nabokov, if any biography could.
Field delves into Nabokov's work with a seriousness and sensitivity that is impressive, making longshot connections between the writer's life and art that create the sense of a successfully completed jigsaw puzzle. Yet, at the same time, Field treats the writer's life as if it were a movie star's life and gives the reader juicy, gooey details about Nabokov's womanizing and literary politicking that are worthy of any good Hollywood star bio. All of this makes the book absolute heaven for the true Nabokov addict. For anyone who isn't already convinced that Nabokov's laundry lists are worthy of literary analysis, this book might prove to be as soporific as a bottle of Valium.
Field starts with the assumption that Nabokov is one of the 20th Century's great writers. The author of "Lolita," "Pale Fire," "Ada," and earlier works such as "Despair," "Laughter in the Dark" and "King, Queen, Knave," Nabokov must be ranked with Joyce and Proust in terms of his literary achievements. More than this, though, his life was so much more varied and fascinating than theirs, and his linguistic achievements all the more stunning because of the polyglot nature of his work. In "Finnegan's Wake," Joyce, showing off his knowledge of scores of languages, performed an intricate and ultimately perplexing literary dance that did little to illumine any truths about human nature but much to demonstrate the brilliance of Joyce. Nabokov certainly was one to show off, to demonstrate with every sentence that he was more brilliant than his reader could ever hope to be. But language was not quite so pyrotechnic for him. Instead, it was the sea he swam in, and his transition from the brightest and best young Russian emigre writer to a great English-language writer is a feat that must fascinate anyone with an interest in the act of writing and the way language shapes the writer.
My bias here is clearly showing. Iam one of those who would read every laundry list (see Editor's Note, below) Nabokov cached away in drawers at the Montreaux Palace Hotel, where he lived his last years. I am, therefore, also one of those for whom Field wrote this book, and I found the Nabokov minutiae in it wondrous.
Nabokov, who was born in 1899 and died in 1976, was forced to flee Russia with his family when he was a teen-ager, after living a life of extreme privilege, decadence and acknowledgement of his gifts. His gypsying around Europe afterward, in England, Germany, Czechoslovakia and France, frequently in impoverished conditions, was colored by a deep sense of irredeemable loss, which became one of the great themes of his work. But he was also much feted as Sirin, his nom de plume, author of poetry, essays, stories and novels that best captured Russian emigre life.
Field describes this phase of Nabokov's life with loving detail, and communicates brilliantly the way Nabokov always lived secure in the knowledge of his own brilliance. Few other writers have enjoyed that kind of security, though they may have had more security in the more banal aspects of existence. This makes Nabokov's life both curious and interesting, and Field uses this as an important clue to the writer's vastly enigmatic personality.
The book is excellent, as well, in its analyses of two of Nabokov's greatest works, "Lolita" and "Pale Fire." Field has done his homework, and his use of existing Nabokov scholarship and his own remarkable ability to connect reality with literature makes these chapters treats, as close as one can get to feeling privy to Nabokov's creative process. He cuts through Nabokov's frequent lies about his own work and uses the author's misdirection quite cleverly, looking for the correct path under the bogus one, and frequently seems to find it. Field's devotion, hard work and intelligence cannot be questioned.
My only quibble with Field concerns his estimation of "Ada." Field dismisses "Ada" as the work of an overripe old writer, a writer past his prime, and calls it self-indulgent. Because of this, "Ada" gets little attention. As a Nabokov fan who loves "Ada" for its poignancy and richness, I felt cheated of Field's incisive scholarship on the subject of my favorite of Nabokov's works. But, if one's only complaint about a biography is that one wished for more, this complaint is really a compliment in disguise.
Field gives the reader many delicious Nabokov bits. Upon arriving in Ithaca after a long train ride, "Nabokov raised his hands and clapped smartly for a porter. They were perhaps hundreds of miles from the nearest porter. It was clear that Nabokov, though politically an American patriot, had in terms of his life reverted wholly to being a European." In anecdotes like this, Field captures perfectly the inner conflicts out of which Nabokov's great body of work grew.
EDITOR'S NOTE. Nabokovophiles who wish more along the laundry list line than even Field provides may wish to acquire Michael Juliar's "Vladimir Nabokov, A Descriptive Bibliography" (Garland Reference Library of the Humanities, Vol. 656: $80; 800 pp.). To be released in November, this volume includes, according to its publisher, not just the more usual stuff of bibliographies but also "prepublication items, such as galleys and proofs, scientific articles on lepidoptera, books to which Nabokov contributed, periodical appearances, translations of his works by others, adaptations (to the stage screen, phonograph and tape recorder), Braille and recorded editions, interviews, drawings, ephemera, and piracies. Included as well are 200 illustrations, a general introduction, chapter introductions, a glossary, a selective secondary bibliography of monographs and a comprehensive index." A hasty perusal turns up no laundry lists, but photographic reproductions of all the author's copyright pages may serve to measure a devotee's devotion.