Vladimir Nabokov claimed, teasingly, to be as “American as April in Arizona”, but he was actually a Russian exile who arrived in the US with his Jewish wife and their son during World War II. From the early 1960s through to his death in 1977 at the age of 78, he lived in retirement in Switzerland, in a suite in the Cygne wing of the Montreux Palace Hotel, overlooking Lake Geneva, paid for by book and film royalties from his 1958 best-seller, Lolita.
It was perhaps the nearest he could get to the Russia of his idyllic childhood, swept away by the Communist Revolution of 1917. Born into a family of Russian aristocrats, Nabokov was a child prodigy – chess, mathematics, lepidoptera – who grew up to become a polymath: a world expert on butterflies, as well as a phenomenally gifted novelist ranked alongside James Joyce, Virginia Woolf and Samuel Beckett. His family fled from Bolshevik Russia to Berlin, where his politician father was assassinated and where Nabokov wrote his early novels.
His authorised biographer, Brian Boyd, opens the introduction to his substantial and generally impressive Stalking Nabokov with a kind of Nabokovian knight’s move, as prelude to showing us around Nabokov’s singular “castle of fiction” in the miscellany of essays that follow. A “Dr Boyd” appears in Lolita. He has a walk-on part as a lecturer who gives a talk with a popular psychology theme at a hotel where Humbert Humbert is hiding out with Lolita. Brian Boyd surmises, based on his researches, that Nabokov could have been writing this episode on or about the day that Boyd the biographer was born.
Boyd, now indeed Dr Boyd and a professor of English at the University of Auckland, is nothing if not an ardent disciple and, as Stalking Nabokov proves, among the closest of close readers, with an encyclopaedic knowledge of his subject – if occasionally both over-ingenious and somewhat exhausting in his thoroughness, almost a character out of Nabokov: that slyly playful creator of fictions that are halls of mirrors.
Boyd’s obsession with Nabokov began in his senior year at high school in Palmerston North, where he discovered Nabokov’s novel Pale Fire and read it with “rapture”, becoming then and there a convert, having already read Lolita when even younger. At university, Boyd wrote a thesis on Nabokov, forwarded on by the examiner to Nabokov’s widow, Vera, living in Montreux. She called it “brilliant”, and ultimately it led to his producing the acclaimed two-part biography in the early 1990s.
Since then, Boyd has been busy, not only on Nabokoviana (he promises that Nabokov’s juvenilia, marginalia, letters, screenplays, poetry, translations, collected interviews, uncollected lectures – everything, in fact, except the unbuttoned table talk – are in the offing), but also on a variety of other projects, including a biography of Karl Popper.
Consequently, it’s not surprising Stalking Nabokov sometimes seems hastily assembled, prolix and even repetitious, as if anxious to score points. But at their best, Boyd’s step-by-step explications are sensible and enlightening. He puts the egregious Australian academic Andrew Field in his place (“riddled with envious rivalry, wild guesses and astonishing errors”) and judiciously establishes Nabokov’s debts to Shakespeare, Leo Tolstoy, Alexander Pushkin, Marcel Proust, Nikolai Gogol, Andrey Bely, Edgar Allan Poe and others.
Best of all, his enthusiasm for Nabokov’s verbal pyrotechnics, for his comically self-deluded heroes pursuing elusive objects of desire, for the ability to depict life itself, joyously “swarming with inexhaustible diversity and delight”, sends you back to read the books, all of which contain remarkable things: “the extraordinary perceptual discriminations”, as Boyd puts it, of one of literature’s greatest masters.
STALKING NABOKOV: SELECTED ESSAYS, by Brian Boyd (Columbia University Press, $75).
David Eggleton is a poet and writer, and editor of Landfall.