- Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years
"A throaty voice from the heart." So Nabokov, with unerring precision and style, describes a cigarette commercial in one of the many previously unpublished snip-pets from letters and diaries and private papers that make this volume, the follow-up to Boyd's volume on Nabokov's Russian years, definitive. Boyd continues his chronological method, tracing his hero day by day and pausing, every time a major work is published, for an extended analysis of its art and themes. Much has been written about the art of biography, and Boyd is not immune from the temptation to cast his subject in the most flattering light, to echo Nabokov's famous style (particularly adverbs like "supremely"), or to follow his guidelines to his novels. Yet the key task of the biographer as drudge is the time line, pieced together from all available scraps of information, as well as numerous interviews to fill in gaps. Nabokov was increasingly private after he came to America in 1940. Boyd has not the number of living witnesses that made Robert Caro's biography of Lyndon Johnson so gripping or—and I am fully serious—make Kitty Kelly's steamy slander of Nancy Reagan so convincing. If he lacked witnesses, comparatively speaking, Boyd more than makes up for their missing voices by his untiring efforts in the Nabokov archives in Montreux, which required his ingratiating himself with Véra and Dmitri Nabokov, the great man's widow and son.
A project of this scope required Boyd in effect to dedicate his life to another man's image. One hestiates to gauge the mental strain of such a maneuver, itself the theme of Nabokov's The Real Life of Sebastian Knight. A biographer of such dedication must be convinced of the truth of his enterprise. In Nabokov's case, the truth is, finally, not what kind of person he was. I myself never had any urge to meet the man while he was alive. Instead, the truth, as Nabokov himself said, lay in his style: not the throaty voice, but the ironic ring to the description. It is a voice to which Boyd is always in tune, an unfailing cicerone.
One might quibble that Boyd is a little ungenerous with previous literary critics, as in failing to mention the MFS special issue on Nabokov in 1979. Nonetheless, some of the literary criticism is of a very high order, as in Boyd's discussion of our foreknowledge of quilty in Lolita or the difficult task of promoting Transparent Things. For my money Boyd's greatest moment comes when he points out the simple fact that Nabokov intended his translation of Eugene Onegin to be printed as an interlinear text. This typography would make clear at once his need to preserve an iambic meter. Nothing is more frustrating to a translator than others' failure to appreciate the aural quality of a line, or its centrality to literary art. [End Page 479]