It’s easier to ask what motivates novelists to participate in the currents of political debate than what motivates one like Nabokov not to. There is self-serving and flattery in the kind of fiction – ‘stark’ and ‘realistic’ – that offers insights into civilisation’s woes and discontents, those our professional politicians have either missed or are not capable of forming themselves. That the Nabokov oeuvre was destined to find enrichment without that currency might not have been so obvious given his provenance. His grandfather, Dmitri Nikolaevich Nabokov, was a minister of justice (under Alexander II and his son), and it might be said of his father, Vladimir Dmitrievich Nabokov, that involvement in politics led to a political, premature death (he took an assassin’s bullet).
Typically the Nabokov novel has as its central character an exotic male of highly developed aesthetic sensibilities, who rather suffers than is part of a middle-class social and professional milieu, and bears through it his own flaws wittily. Artistically the landscape is dominated by cliché-ridden hacks, and a receiving public in thrall to writers of soaring reputation, if mediocrities nonetheless. These latter, in the Nabokovian conception of things, are held permanently responsible for the tonnage of ‘stark’ and ‘realistic’ fiction referred to already, which the world is all too willing to line its bookshelves with. Often too the debunking process involves the Freudian school of psychoanalysis, whose founder is dismissed as the ‘Viennese Quack’, though one suspects slight irritation that Sigmund got to business a bit ahead of Vladimir, the doctor mapping out the id before the poet could. Martin Amis would seem to think there might be something in this, but tells us ‘…it is Nabokov, and not Freud, who emerges as our supreme poet of dreams…and our supreme poet of madness’ (Amis, ‘The problem of Laura’, The Guardian, 14th November 2009).
Nabokov’s first fame as a writer was among fellow-émigré Russians in Berlin and Paris, after the Bolshevik Revolution, which dispossessed him and his family of extensive property and wealth. More spectacular fame came in the late 1950s and early 1960s, when Nabokov and his wife Véra had long been established in the USA – Nabokov now writing in English. The book that brought that fame was Lolita, the story of a middle-aged man’s illicit pursuit of a pubescent girl. Purists would not like to think that with the success of so supremely styled a poetic fiction Nabokov had stumbled on the right commercial formula, and under that constraint must go on adding not simply more of the same, but the same under ever more shocking conflations. Obsessive sexual mores noticeably proliferate in Nabokov’s later fiction, if prefigured in earlier books – though what else could he have written about, a man in the last decades of his biblical allocation, and a poet of the sensual and of surface appearance?
Well, there might have been that hardy perennial, war, and the material exploitation of populations plunged in war. Then of course there’s love, for which humans have an endless capacity – delusional as that may be. There is politics too, though by what authority does an ousted Russian aristocrat anatomise the affairs of Western states, where we see at least the theoretical possibility of free speech and the promise of social mobility…
An ocean of reviews and reviewing sentiment has been the predictable response to the recent publication of some few tantalising fragments – all that exists – of the novel Nabokov was working on when his own death was imminent – The Original of Laura, with that happy subtitle Dying is Fun. It’s a tale of cuckoldry and self-negation, and consists of 138 index cards, pencilled with notes, passages and paragraphs, in whose unfinished state the author left instructions for their incineration. There is mixed opinion as to what, exactly, this legacy is. Tom Stoppard insists Nabokov’s final wishes should have been honoured, with the cards committed to flame (Times Online). Boyd Tonkin (The Independent) quotes from these fragments themselves: ‘…do not linger over your own ruins…’ (Laura, p181). Amis reads these same fragments as ‘a longish short story struggling to become a novella’ (Amis, ‘The problem of Laura’). He further notes a decline and falling-off in those of Nabokov’s last novels that are complete, summarised as ‘a horrible brew of piety, literal-mindedness, vulgarity and philistinism’, though one could argue that might just be the point, given something intellectually debauched in the organising intelligence supposedly narrating.
Nabokov’s prose is the prose of a poet, which at its intoxicating height is both scintillating and terrifyingly effortless, the cost of which was a technique worked at indefatigably. I personally don’t believe that would have been jettisoned had Laura reached its final form.