The Sanest Insane Man In All The World: the cheerful darkness of Nabokov

The Works of Nabokov

Several years back as I read Nabokov’s Glory on my lunch break, a coworker asked, ‘Are you reading that for school?’

‘Nah, I’m just reading it,’ I said. ‘You ever read him?’

‘No,’ my coworker responded. ‘I never really got into the Russians.’

Hearing this was strange at the time. But why? Nabokov is unmistakably Russian. But if there is anything Russian about his actual writing, it is a Russianness he has imposed onto the country and not the other way around. His writing has an alien feel, but this didn’t seem sufficient to say to capture his singularity. So, having known that Nabokov had spent some time living in Oregon, I said, ‘No, he definitely wasn’t Russian … He was an Oregonian.’ But he could have been Californian, Swiss or French. He could be anything as long as there were butterflies to be found there (he was a champion, obsessive lepidopterist).

Better known for his feat of acrobatic, playful language that is Lolita, he seemed to come out of the creative womb almost fully formed with earlier works of such synesthesiac intensity and maze-like thought architecture that one wonders if he was ever even young. A silly curiosity, really. He was obviously young at one time, we know, for how obsessed he was with memory. When an interviewer once asked him if he considered his fixation with memory Proustian, he responded, ‘I consider it Nabokovian.’

When asked why some of his novels played with very similar themes, he said that originality had nothing to imitate but itself. An Invitation to a Beheading, for instance, is the highly imaginative story, set in a fictional country, of a man in a room—a prison cell. He’s been sentenced to death for ‘gnostical turpitude,’ a crime we’re led to believe means, simply, that people don’t happen to feel good about him. People have compared this novel to Kafka’s The Trial, but Nabokov claimed he had not heard of Kafka at the time and did not know German, though he would later go on to praise Kafka as one of the four greatest writers of the 20th century.

Bend Sinister gained comparisons to Kafka’s The Castle. This one is set, again, in a fictional country—this one called ‘Padukgrad,’ after its theocrat, Paduk. We follow Adam Krug, a prominent philosopher who happened to go to school with Paduk, whom he bullied mercilessly. As Krug’s colleagues urge him to form some sort of alliance with Paduk to save their own hides, Krug remains apprehensive considering the amount of times he sat on Paduk’s face when they were in school together. The novel starts off darkly comic but spirals into the most refined territory of nightmare as Krug’s son, David, is kidnapped by Paduk’s people. The ending is probably one of the darkest and most stomach-turning conclusions in literature of the past two-hundred years, while the very last sentence offers us nothing but an impulsive cry of rage answered only by violent silence. We start to think that the manipulation which Humbert Humbert visits on Deloris in Lolita is pretty mild compared to the horrors visited on Krug’s son in Bend Sinister.

And where does it all come from, this darkness? Nabokov referred to his childhood as ‘perfect.’ His marriage to Vera was non turbulent and mysterious—he dedicated every single one of his novels to her. ‘We were always laughing,’ she told Martin Amis when he interviewed her. He was revered at the universities where he taught and gained enough financial success with Lolita that he was able to quit teaching. It wasn’t all perfect of course. There was the expected reaction to Humbert Humbert’s pederastry—they tried to ban the book, citing it as obscene and pornographic. Nevertheless, publically, Nabokov always kept his composure, remained stoic, and never showed more than mild annoyance.

Despite how often Nabokov tried to paint his childhood as uneventful and happy, one gathers from his history that it was not only eventful, but that it had all the makings of being unhappy. His family was forced to leave Russia in 1917 after the Bolshevik revolution, after which he remained nomadic for most of his life. What lasting effect did we ever see on him? Annoyance … a bittersweet sort of longing for the Russia of old that he remembered from his boyhood, gone, lost in the dusts of time. But in his work, in his interviews, in Speak Memory, even when the dewiest of memory romance melts away, he seems to merely shrug and trot forward, or if not forward, then high into the mountains, deep into the forests, looking for butterflies, looking for the perfect rays of light in his personal havens of nature. He hated political messages in literature, probably because he had a political childhood. As a matter of fact, he hated any message of any kind in all of literature and claimed that he had absolutely nothing to say or to teach the reader. He detested Dostoyevsky for his pessimism. He preferred Tolstoy’s Anna Karenin to War and Peace, which he felt was a large, preachy mess. In his notes and lectures on literature, when he appreciates something, we get a sense that he appreciates it out of a sort of fetishization of sense perception; that the thing itself is good enough, and the word-objects used to describe it are better than any message.

For as often as we try to get to the bottom of the darkness in Nabokov’s work it seems that, just as often, we see a light he constantly pushes toward, even if it is only in his own mind and memory. In a letter to someone in his last days, as he described the composition of his unfinished novel The Original of Laura, he imagined himself as some kind of magician in the forest with a great birdlike beak, commanding other creatures to dance and play. He claimed to get so little sleep at night that he should have been insane, and went as far as to refer to himself as ‘the sanest insane man who ever lived.’

How refreshing it is that, in pessimistic times, a man who brought that much attention to darkness (with such immense talent) was, in fact, very easy on himself, well-loved by those around him, and ever attentive to language, even in real life—He was once asked in an interview about similarities between him and Joseph Conrad, to which he responded, ‘I’m afraid that Joseph and I differ Conradically.’

In a Switzerland summer, thirty four years ago, the world lost a man who proved that, sometimes, behind a shroud of darkness, it is still possible to find butterflies, sunrays, and a little hard candy.

Click here to read about Nabokov's place among the walking writers