May 2013

Mike Innocenzi

nonfiction

The Secret History of Vladimir Nabokov by Andrea Pitzer

It's easy to understand why, nearly four decades after his death, Vladimir Nabokov continues to fascinate literary types. As an individual, he was an elusive figure despite his strong opinions; as an artist, he sprinkled his work with "plums" that hint at hidden realities before twisting back on themselves like Möbius strips and inviting a perpetual reckoning by his careful readers.

Until now, that reckoning has largely focused on the spectacular flourishes of his prose -- the wordplay, literary references, and "false scents" he left behind. Nabokov is known primarily as a master stylist, a writer who made no apologies for his reputation as a champion of "art for art's sake," even if the phrase itself bothered him.

It was a problematic stance for any prominent writer to take during the tumult of the twentieth century, but especially so for a man whose father was assassinated, a man whose family was driven from their homeland, and a man whose closest family members embodied the very faces of those victimized by the crushing brutality of the century.

But what if this isn't the full story? What if Nabokov, a man as capable of unreliability as his own narrators, had woven a secret pattern of tragedy into his works, then waited silently, trusting that pattern would eventually be discovered and provide insight into the injustices that haunted him? The Secret History of Vladimir Nabokov, Andrea Pitzer's exploration into the writer's personal life and work, seeks to assure us that he was indeed deeply effected by the events around him and sought to memorialize history's victims, including many in his family, within his stories.

Pitzer bookends her detailed examination by contrasting Nabokov with fellow Russian writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who was to visit Nabokov and his wife, Vera, at their lavish hotel home in Montreux, Switzerland, in autumn 1974. Solzhenitsyn, nearly two decades Nabokov's junior, grew up in the tumultuous Russia that Nabokov narrowly escaped. Solzhenitsyn would be forged in war as both a soldier and a prisoner. He would be a champion of "art for man's sake" and by the time of their scheduled meeting in Montreux would represent, in Pitzer's view, Nabokov's "distorted Soviet double." Surely, the two men would find themselves as odds.

But before Solzhenitsyn arrives at the Palace Hotel, Pitzer embarks on a history of the young Nabokov's Russia. Here, the book begins to bring into sharp focus aspects of Nabokov's childhood of which many of his readers will have had only a general inkling. Pitzer carefully places each piece on the board -- friends, relatives, upheavals, tragedies -- then puts her theory into play.

Starting with Nabokov's earliest published stories, including "The Wood-Sprite" and "Agasfer," Pitzer juxtaposes personal events with the writer's fiction. He was already "Folding the details of his life into the story in such a way that no one [but those close to him] would recognize them."

As Nabokov matured as a writer, he refined the way he encoded this secret history into his work, beginning with The Defense, his novel about a brilliant but troubled chess master: "Nabokov began to move his characters onto the periphery of history's epic violence, showing how even bystander status cannot protect them from madness or keep them from being hobbled by the past." Pitzer goes to great pains to detail that epic violence and Nabokov's exposure to it, going so far as to recount the daily newspaper reports he was likely to have read as the Russian expat wended his way through Berlin and Prague and Paris.

She chronicles Nabokov's subsequent novels and short stories and the specific ways each addressed the tyranny and injustices he saw as he traversed a Europe, where the tragedies of the coming world war followed him and his family closely at every stop. Pitzer details how the secret themes continue with the books Nabokov wrote in the relative safety of America and Switzerland. His major works, from Lolita to Pnin to Pale Fire, get detailed treatment, with revelations that are sure to make Nabokov fans revisit each in order to see the evidence for themselves.

Does Pitzer make a convincing case? Couldn't these details have been happenstance: convenient ephemera a skilled fiction writer drew from his experience and used to color in the background of his fairy tales? A book that goes into lesser depth might leave this question hanging in the air, but it takes a barren imagination to conclude from the evidence Pitzer marshals that the breadcrumb trail of history Nabokov left behind was an accident.

The Secret History of Vladimir Nabokov makes a strong case that Nabokov's life and work supports a dramatic rethinking, that there is a subtext in his art that has been narrowly missed. Which brings us back to the Palace Hotel in Montreux.

Solzhenitsyn, like many of his colleagues and countrymen, respected Nabokov as a writer, but felt that he had squandered the opportunity to use the power of his art to address the injustices Solzhenitsyn and others inveighed against. Would Solzhenitsyn come to realize upon meeting Nabokov that they had much more in common as artists than Solzhenitsyn ever imagined? In the end, Pitzer reveals the truth of that 1974 meeting.

Whatever happened, the treasure trove of history would remain locked in Nabokov’s work for another forty years, waiting, like his other treasures, for a careful reader to discover it.

The Secret History of Vladimir Nabokov by Andrea Pitzer
Pegasus
ISBN: 978-1605984117
352 pages