These days, biographies seem to be reaching new extremes at both
ends of the "length spectrum." At the long end we have all those
exhaustive multi-volume essays on political figures and the
literary life; at the short end has stood the compact line of
Penguin Brief Lives books that cover everyone from Saint Augustine
to Elvis Presley.
Now comes Overlook Press with the second entry in its Overlook
Brief Lives series --- thin volumes loaded with pictures and text
not much longer than an ambitious New Yorker profile. The first of
these dealt with Samuel Beckett. Now comes a similar effort,
devoted to Vladimir Nabokov and written by Jane Grayson, a British
academic and Nabokov specialist.
Nabokov, who died in 1977 at the age of 78, makes a fascinating
subject. Most general readers remember him best as the author of
LOLITA, that literary sensation of the late 1950s whose title has
become a lower-case noun in our dictionaries. But Nabokov also
wrote several other estimable novels too, in addition to many short
stories, poems, essays, translations and literary criticism (much
of it in The New Yorker). He was also an expert on
butterflies, a master chess player, the constructor of the first
Russian crossword puzzle and the translator of ALICE IN WONDERLAND
He inherited a fortune and a vast estate at the age of 17, but was
forced to leave Russia because of his father's political activities
at the time of the 1917 revolution. He matriculated at Trinity
College, Cambridge (England) and lived and wrote in Germany until
the advent of Hitler. This forced him to seek a livelihood in the
U.S., where he practically had to start his life over again ---
both personally and professionally.
LOLITA was published in Paris in 1955 but was greeted "in silence,"
until Graham Greene singled it out for high praise in a London
newspaper. Publication in America three years later gained Nabokov
instant notoriety on this side of the Atlantic. His tale of sexual
predator Humbert Humbert and a 12 year-old nymphet was condemned as
highfalutin pornography. I was asked to review LOLITA for a
newspaper in Massachusetts, but the paper deemed the review too
long on praise and too short on moral outrage --- so they did not
Nabokov returned to Europe in 1958 and lived out his life in
Switzerland. The biggest event during this time was a sulfurous
literary feud with Edmund Wilson, who had been a close friend
during his years in America.
Jane Grayson covers all of this ground quickly and efficiently in
this short biography. Understandably there is little development of
themes or in-depth literary criticism here, but the basic facts are
laid out concisely. She stresses Nabokov's aloofness from political
action and his butterfly-like agility in crossing borders between
languages, literary styles and nations alike. Her own style is
eminently readable and obvious errors are few (she places the rise
of McCarthyism in the "late 1940s" although it did not begin until
1950 and a picture caption tells us that Boris Pasternak was
"pressurized" into refusing the Nobel Prize for Literature). The
pictures are mostly interesting, though there are a few that are
only vaguely relevant to Nabokov's career.
Vladimir Nabokov was a colorful character, a brilliant teacher and
a masterful writer in two languages. LOLITA put him on the literary
map, but his other novels (PNIN, PALE FIRE, ADA) are worth reading
too. If this little book leads more readers to them, it will have
served a useful purpose.
Reviewed by Robert Finn (Robertfinn@aol.com) on January 24, 2011