I set aside David Lipsky’s review of Nabokov’s Letters to Vera in Harper’s to read this morning, and was rewarded by a truly elegant piece of work. Lipsky doesn’t just review the letters, he provides a succinct and literate overview of Nabokov’s life, his work, his long marriage. “No marriage of a major twentieth-century writer lasted longer,” he quotes from Brian Boyd’s introduction. He manages to cull and quote gems from the 864 pages and relate them to the body of Nabokov’s fiction.
He notes the shocking intimacy of Nabokov’s work–“The hero takes a sleepy, eye-watering yawn–and the world ‘shivered and dissolved in the prism of his tears.’ …Nabokov’s people are constantly yawning scrunching, nose wiping, bug-bite scratching.”
He’s especially funny about the popular “hurricane” of Lolita, published thirty years into Nabokov’s literary career: “There were Lolita dolls, Lolita cartoons (arriving Martian: ‘Take me to your Lolita’), a Kubrick movie, a San Francisco drive-in serving Lolitaburgers.” And Eichmann–instrumental in the murder of (among others, Nabokov’s brother), who finds the book “unwholesome.”
The essay was especially moving to me having visited the Nabokov museum in St. Petersburg–all those many title pages with hand-drawn butterflies dedicated to Vera.
But the real surprise to me was this: “Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Nabokov–born within four years of one another–were all more or less members of the same entering class.” I had never in any way equated the three. It made me reflect on the difference between a cultured European background and a rough American one. Also this sad, beautiful description of Faulkner by Hemingway “His talent was as natural as the pattern that was made by the dust on a a butterfly’s wings. Later he became conscious of his damaged wings and of their construction and he learned to think and could not fly any more because the love of flight was gone and he could only remember when it had been effortless.”