Before Vladimir Nabokov was ten years old, the Russian Revolution of 1905, tsarist political tyranny, and the imprisonment of his father, a deputy in the First Duma, all had affected his life. Briefly a millionaire when he inherited his uncle’s vast fortune in 1916, he was, for a period, the wealthiest writer since Ludwig Wittgenstein. He was, however, forced to make an abrupt adjustment to wrenching exile and extreme poverty, and later claimed he was no more aware of getting his inheritance than he was of losing it.
He narrowly escaped the Bolsheviks in 1919 and in Speak, Memory describes how, ignoring the machine guns strafing his ship as it left the Crimea, he coolly played chess with his father. After his father was assassinated in Berlin in 1922, Nabokov continued to defy history. With his Jewish wife and son, he fled from Germany before Hitler’s invasion of Poland and escaped from France to America a few weeks before the Nazi conquest of Paris in 1940.
He was not involved in Russian émigré politics or the Orthodox Church. Even his close friend Edmund Wilson maintained that Nabokov was “totally uninterested” in politics and social change, and had “never taken the trouble to understand them.” But in this bookn Andrea Pitzer convincingly argues that, behind the art-for-art’s-sake façade, Nabokov described “the most profound losses of his life and the forgotten traumas of his age . . . the horrors of his era and attending to the destructive power of the Gulag and the Holocaust.” A dominant theme in his life and work was “the violence of the world and the search to escape it.”
Nabokov’s life is familiar from the biographies of Andrew Field and Brian Boyd, but Pitzer has done her own extensive research and firmly placed him in his historical context. The “Secret History” in the title is, for once, accurate. This book provides a valuable antidote to decades of emphasis on the puzzling preciosity of the writer who seemed to be the Wallace Stevens of modern fiction, “the genteel, charming cosmopolitan, incapable of being dented or diminished by history.” The magician buried his past in his art and Pitzer has exhumed it. She reads the novels for their cryptic hints, oblique allusions and hidden political themes, their cunning fusion of history and art, and reveals new dimensions of meaning. She writes that in Despair Hermann is driven mad in the camps. In The Gift Nikolai Chernychevsky is “half-crushed by years of penal servitude.” There is hardly a “novel in Nabokov’s mature repertoire that does not have a major character shattered by his own imprisonment or haunted by memories of those who perished in the camps.”
Nabokov’s Pnin, Pitzer writes, is “oppressed by the loss of his first love, a Jewish girl killed at Buchenwald.” Echoing his own name, Pnin exclaims, “the history of man is the history of pain.” The theme of anti-Semitism in Lolita and references to Zembla in Pale Fire are well known, but Pitzer extends our understanding of Nabokov’s two best novels. She speculates that Humbert Humbert (the humble humbug) may be Jewish, and connects “the brown wigs of tragic old women who had just been gassed” to Orthodox Jews. Gray Star, the town where Lolita dies, is grauer Star in German, and means a cataract or blind spot that prevents the characters in the novel, as well as the readers, from getting a clear picture of Humbert’s elusive character.
Camp Q, where Lolita spends the summer, was the name of a World War II POW and displaced persons camp in the wilds of Ontario, Canada, where Jewish refugees were forced to share grim quarters with captured Nazi officers. Corfu, Greece, where the Poe-esque Annabel Leigh, Humbert’s first love, dies of typhus in 1923 (Lord Byron and Rupert Brooke had also died of fever and sepsis in Greece), was then a disease-ridden center for refugees from the recent war and the massacre of Armenians in Turkey.
Nova Zembla is actually a group of barren and desolate islands in the Arctic Ocean, north of Archangel. During a Dutch expedition in 1597 a ship’s gunner reigned as the “imaginary monarch in a land of ice and death, a ruler over hope and despair.” In 1922 it became the cruelest Soviet penal camp, and in 1958 was the primary Soviet test site for thermonuclear bombs. Charles Kinbote’s quest for the Zemblan crown jewels echoes the Soviets’ search for the tsar’s crown jewels. Kinbote, the mad fantasist, is a refugee from the Zembla he invented as well as from the historical Nova Zembla, and is burdened by his own tragic past. Pitzer argues that Kinbote is also a distortion of Nabokov’s younger brother Sergei, “another left-handed, imprisoned, homosexual, tennis-playing Russian exile who speaks out against tyranny and dies at the age of forty-four” in a Nazi concentration camp.
Pitzer includes a suggestive comparison of the parallel but very different careers of Nabokov and Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Nabokov, free to write outside Russia, was cryptic and obscure. Solzhenitsyn, constrained and suppressed inside Russia, was blunt and direct. Both men were changed by their worldwide celebrity after Lolita and One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. Both became more distant, imperious, and conservative. Nabokov never criticized the monarchy for the corruption and oppression that sparked the Revolution in October 1917.
In October 1974, after Solzhenitsyn had won the Nobel Prize and nominated Nabokov as a leading candidate, Nabokov welcomed him to involuntary exile and invited him to lunch at the luxurious Montreux Palace Hotel in Switzerland. A date was fixed, but when Solzhenitsyn tried to reach Nabokov by phone and post to confirm their meeting, he received no reply, though the hotel would certainly have sent the message to their most famous guest. Nabokov was usually punctilious about social engagements, but he assumed Solzhenitsyn was coming and was either too busy or too distracted to confirm.
Solzhenitsyn drove to the hotel from Zurich and Nabokov waited in the private dining room he’d reserved for the grand occasion. But, critical of Nabokov’s lack of political commitment, Solzhenitsyn feared they might not be congenial and, like the notorious meeting of Proust and Joyce, that they would have nothing to say to each other. The former Gulag prisoner—possibly intimidated by Nabokov’s aristocratic persona and overwhelmed by the magnificent hotel where he lived like a prince in his portable Winter Palace—suddenly changed his mind and drove away without asking the reception desk if he was expected.
After he was driven out of Russia, Nabokov led a deliberately temporary and transient life in rented dwellings in Germany, France, and America. He rejected ownership because nothing could ever match his Russian possessions and anything he acquired might suddenly be taken from him. Like Joseph Conrad, Arthur Koestler, and Tom Stoppard, who also wrote in English as their second or third language, his dominant motif was loss. For Nabokov, butterflies represented the metamorphosis from one country, life, and language to another, as well as the infinite freedom of the chase in wild mountain landscapes.
Courageous and without self-pity, Nabokov triumphed over the betrayal of history. His cool, elaborate techniques hid years of helplessness and humiliation when confronted by war and violence. “If I was cruel to my characters,” he confessed, “I suppose it was because I saw the world as cruel.” His bold survivor’s theme was similar to that of another émigré, V. S. Naipaul, in A Bend in the River: “The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it.”