Nabokov criticism is entering a new era. Until recently, the field has been dominated by heroic exegetes, whose labors taught the rest of us to read Nabokov as a glittering trickster, a solitary performer in the brilliant but cold ether of aesthetics. This image, of course, was carefully cultivated by Nabokov himself, whose formidable public persona, reinforced by Strong Opinions, exerted a near strangle hold on a generation of critics. In the last few years, however, a "new wave" of Nabokov criticism has arisen, which resists the author's tyranny, surveys the oeuvre as a whole, takes the puzzles and word-play for granted, and offers a new perspective on the man with the butterfly net. Seen through this revisionist lens, Nabokov metamorphoses from a mocking virtuoso into a stern moralist and latter-day Romantic.
Laurie Clancy's The Novels of Vladimir Nabokov is a good example of this trend. Although Clancy acknowledges the value of previous criticism, he rejects its "unquestioning reproduction of the author's assumptions and judgements written in a manner that seems a feeble imitation of the master's own." Because of Nabokov's insistence on "the individual imagination as a primal source of truth," Clancy calls him "the last great Romantic" and argues that "Nabokov is a great moral writer and critic of life."
Such ideas have been lurking in the background of Nabokov studies for a while, but Clancy is the first to pursue them consistently through the major novels. And, in a bracing departure from the adulatory tone of much earlier criticism, Clancy refuses to be cowed by the author's proscriptions and preemptive maneuvers. He confronts Nabokov on the novelist's own ground—language, structure, imagery—and occasionally finds him wanting. For instance, Clancy considers Pale Fire a failure, arguing that Nabokov's narrative technique is ultimately confused. Although many would dispute this analysis, it is refreshing to find a critic fundamentally sympathetic to Nabokov who nevertheless discerns "conspicuous failures of tone and tact."
Making discriminations among Nabokov's novels is Clancy's aim, and his rankings are sure to prove provocative—Bend Sinister is a failure; Despair, "confused [End Page 757] and overloaded"; Pnin, that universal favorite, "flawed and minor." On the whole, Clancy deplores Nabokov's tendency to defile or undermine his creations with reflexive displays of malice, irony, and technical virtuosity. Almost blasphemously, Clancy concludes that Nabokov's novels work best when "his obsessions slip in by the back door . . . breaking down the coldly glittering and intricately but harshly patterned prism of his intelligence."
Surprisingly for a critic so attuned to novelistic self-indulgence, Clancy reserves his highest praise for Ada, and here he parts company with Alan Levy. In The Velvet Butterfly, the third of his "Portrait Books," Levy calls Ada "the end of growth," the last posturings of an old magician running out of tricks. Levy defines his Portrait Books as "works of enthusiastic journalistic scholarship," and The Velvet Butterfly includes five sections; "The Man," an expanded version of Levy's 1971 profile for The New York Times Magazine; "A Portrait in Quotes"; "Experiencing Vladimir Nabokov," a chatty, knowing, and intentionally unscholarly introduction to the novels; and a bibliography and chronology.
The core of Levy's book is a somewhat sycophantic account of butterfly-hunting in the Alps with Nabokov, whom he affectionately characterizes as "septuagenarian Hulot." Inevitably, their association ended badly, with Nabokov publicly repudiating Levy's original article because he took offense at two sentences. Nevertheless, Levy's book, with photographs by Horst Tappe, is lively and entertaining, a good introduction for the incipient Nabokophile.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Charles Stanley Ross's brief Vladimir Nabokov: Life, Work, and Criticism. Although Ross covers his ground conscientiously, his prose is far from felicitous, and the book strikes an uneasy balance between general overview and the elucidation of pet...