- Solus Rex: Die schöne böse Welt des Vladimir Nabokov
Michael Maar's elegantly titled Solus Rex: Die schöne böse Welt des Vladimir Nabokov begins by evoking the dizzying complexity of Nabokov's works and the diversity of critical opinions concerning it. "Take seven experts," Maar says, "and you will find eight opinions-as the best critics change their minds" (13). What makes these critics differ even with themselves, Maar claims, is the profusion of riddles in Nabokov's works, and the dominating-and at points, domineering -role the author has played in their study. Reflecting on this bewildering state of critical affairs, Maar poses his reader an intriguing thought experiment. "What would it change," he asks, "if, in the attic of a Swiss hotel or a New York archive a literary testament were to surface in which all riddles were solved and all questions answered?" (13-14). To this first question Maar then adds another: "Would not every word remain the same?" (14).
The answer to Maar's second question can only be "Yes and no." Had Nabokov left such glosses behind they would be of the greatest interest, but they would as little close critical discussion as did the will that, to chose a celebrated instance, Raymond Roussel left behind at his death, and in which he explained some of the riddles that shaped his works. One of the disappointments of Solus Rex is that this thought experiment is quickly abandoned. Instead of continuing in this vein, Solus Rex soon turns from the relation of literary riddle to aesthetic experience so as to focus on biographical matters.
Solus Rex has no single thesis or continuous line of argumentation. It does, however, have a single goal. This is to answer the question "Who was Nabokov, really?" ["Wer war Nabokov wirklich?"] (20). (This involuntarily recalls a moment in Bernard Cwagenbaum's documentary Vladimir Nabokov est un joueur d'échecs where one very serious, very pre-May 1968 sorbonnard asks another: "Nabokov, qu'est-ce que c'est, en fait, en définitif?") Maar observes that the "persona" Nabokov presented to the public tends to distract us from Nabokov's "true, inner ego" ["seinem wahren inneren Ich"], what he calls "the inner Nabokov" (20). Few would dispute this, but still fewer would claim to possess the means of recognizing and describing Nabokov's "true, inner ego," and it is on precisely this point that Maar separates himself from the contentious critics who have gone before him. For this complex state of affairs he finds a simple solution. The reason that this "true, inner ego" has not been identified earlier is to be found in the sovereign influence Nabokov's own pronouncements have exercised on studies of his work, and this is something Maar proposes to remedy by abandoning all such "reticence" ["die Scheu"] in his own study (15).
Nabokov famously remarked to an interviewer, "Let us skip sex" (Strong Opinions, 23). As the reader quickly surmises, this is not an invitation that Maar, either early or late, is inclined to accept. Before turning to sex, however, Maar returns to a topic he has explored in his earlier writings on Nabokov: German literature. As many readers of this journal know, Nabokov held a notoriously low opinion of German culture, and, with a very few exceptions (most notably, Kafka), was dismissive of German literature. In Vladimir Nabokov: Blaue Abende in Berlin (1999) Thomas Urban observed that "into no other language were [Nabokov's] works more often translated than German. And yet this was an exceptionally one-sided admiration."1 This uneven exchange has also found expert treatment from the German translator and editor of Nabokov's works, Dieter Zimmer-particularly in the chapter "Nabokovs Verhältnis zu Deutschland" from Nabokovs Berlin (2001). 2 Similarly, Zoran Kuzmanovich has noted that "for all his complaints against the Germans, Nabokov has been served rather well by his German readers," singling out Dieter Zimmer and Herbert Grabes as "among his most sensitive...