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Reviewed by:
  • Vladimir Nabokov
  • D. Barton Johnson
Jane Grayson . Vladimir Nabokov. Overlook Illustrated Lives. Woodstock and New York: Overlook Press, 2002. 146 pp., 40 color & 71 b/w photographs and illustrations. ISBN: 1-58567-263-7.

Jane Grayson, author of this small elegant volume, is the leading British Nabokov scholar. Her 1977 Nabokov Translated: A Comparison of Nabokov's Russian and English Prose is a fundamental work in the field. It has been followed by series of diverse studies on Nabokov and other Russian modernists. Most of her work has been directed toward an academic audience. The present handsome volume, an American edition of a British Penguin series called Illustrated Lives that is in turn modeled upon the ALBUM titles in the Bibliothéque de la Pléiade series, is directed toward a more general audience.

Grayson follows the framework initiated by Nabokov in Speak Memory, utilizing "border crossings" as an organizational motif that defines the evolution of his life and art—Russia: 1899–1919; Europe: 1919–1940; America: 1940–1959; Return to Europe: 1959–1977. These arcs are bracketed by thoughtful opening and closing sections. The first poses the border-crossing theme in broad terms: geographic and linguistic; reality and fantasy; sense and nonsense; sanity/ madness; love/lust; comic/cosmic (8). In each case, the artist precariously [End Page 215] balances on the border. The closing section offers the synthesis of the artist into his legacy.

Concision, dictated by the publisher's requirements, would seem to work against providing an adequate coverage of such a complex author and his history. This limitation is more than offset by the wealth of well-chosen color and black and white illustrations of the most varied sorts. This is the rare case where the visual images are not simply stuck into a text but rather conceived as a major aspect of the work. Nor is the whole a case of the text serving as mere annotation to the pictures. The work is an integrated whole and much the richer for it. The pictures, over a hundred of them, include some unfamiliar even to the specialist. In addition to the inevitable photos of family and friends, we find everything from garish paperback covers to the austere four-volume Onegin set, butterfly sketches, maps, scenery, lecture notes and drawings, manuscript pages, and figures from popular culture—Chaplin, Marlene Dietrich, Rupert Brooke, Bunin, Solzhenitsyn (!?), John Updike, Edmund Wilson and Mary McCarthy, Sue Lyons, and so on. The volume is a visual feast, printed on high quality paper that presents the pictures to best effect. The book is compact enough to be held in one hand, a blessing in these days of double-decker literary biographies.

Nabokov is not an easy author to approach for the first time and, for many, Grayson's graceful overview should afford entrée to a complex life and its works. Only a person with Grayson's deep knowledge of Nabokov's life and work could have synthesized that knowledge into such concise polished prose that incorporates broad outlines of a life along with the telling detail. The volume contains a chronology, a bibliography of Nabokov's works and of a few carefully chosen studies of various aspects of his life, as well as a list of the illustrations. Grayson's work is a pleasure to read and its illustrations a joy to behold. Highly recommended.

D. Barton Johnson
University of California at Santa Barbara


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pp. 215-216
Launched on MUSE
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