Nabokov's Other Gift

A friend once described my father as a character out of a Merchant Ivory film. He certainly exuded a distinct brand of professorial Englishness. Thoroughly intent and perceptive when it came to the butterflies that were his life's study, he often seemed baffled by or oblivious to the habits and mores of the human world. But there was one subject around which our different lives came together and found deep connection: the author and lepidopterist Vladimir Nabokov.

VN is in the news again, with the long-overdue vindication of his theory about the butterflies known as the Blues, a classification system endorsed many years ago by my dad. My father's link was scientific; mine literary; but this blog needed not become overly biographical. Suffice it to say that that rare enchanter Nabokov has a way of flitting in and out of my sights, as if ever-present, just there, behind my mind's eye.

This witty, wily challenger of all that we know or think we know about life and art, truth and illusion, beauty and beastliness, is brushing up against my thoughts once again. There is no writer who can so arrest me with language, so shock me by the contrast between heavenly mastery of words and the base nature of acts they describe, so wholly conjure grace from even the most banal bits of human experience.

His novels and short stories torture only those who try to tame them. Literary critics were his favorite playthings. He set traps to tease, trap, and trip those who would seek sure answers or neat patterns from the web of existence. But to the true reader - the one seeking to feel pleasure and pain, as they come, as in life itself - I believe, he was most gentle. To me, it's always felt like he understood the human desire to pin life down like a specimen and dissect its inner meaning. (This, of course, he did with his beloved Blues). Maybe, in a sense, his study of Lepidoptera was an outlet for what, as an artist and a man, he knew was a farce.

There is so much in ourselves and in others that we must take on faith. Memories, hopes, illusions, these are all bound up in perception. Tenderly, Nabokov shows us that what is "real" is partially made, partially known, and partially a blessed mystery. Perhaps his finest illustration of this is captured in Pale Fire, his stunning metafictional novel, which is both a poem (by VN's character, mild-mannered poet John Shade) and a much-longer critical commentary (by VN's character, the potentially deranged Charles Kinbote).

The twists and turns of the story within a story are too complex and delicious to render in a blog. Besides, I wouldn't want to spoil the fun of the ride. But please promise me you'll do yourself a favor and dive into Pale Fire's dream world with alacrity. I will tempt you by saying, however, that one of the big literary controversies has been the structure of "Pale Fire," the poem itself - a 999-line series of heroic couplets in four stanzas of equal length, excepting the final one, which is one line shy of the others. What has happened to the last line? Critics, including the fictional Charles Kinbote, whose commentary forms the bulk of the novel, have posited several explanations.

What most excites me is that Nabokov knew full well that competing theories on the "lost last line" would proliferate, falling over each other to justify their reasoning. For me, I can see the logic and appeal of all these conclusions, but the one I've reached for myself is this. I, You, We -- the readers -- we complete the poem. We do this either by accepting some critic's rationale or by devising one of our own, or by simply feeling that by entering the story through our own imaginations, we become the ending. All words lie flat on the page until we inject our own biographical facts and fictions into them. We bring them to life. Why then, should we not imagine that Nabokov gifts them to us to see them through to their unique ends, each time we enter his world?

I return to my father, and to a younger me, when I read VN. I also find myself questioning the future, recognizing my own need to see its logic, set its meaning, and ultimately knowing the folly of this attempt. I don't want to write a final sentence. I want to dwell in possibilities, along with Emily Dickinson. This is the present that Nabokov freely offers. Life in the present and owning the moment. I am grateful.

From Pale Fire (a Poem in Four Cantos)

I was the shadow of the waxwing slain By the false azure in the windowpane; I was the smudge of ashen fluff--and I Lived on, flew on, in the reflected sky. And from the inside, too, I'd duplicate Myself, my lamp, an apple on a plate: Uncurtaining the night, I'd let dark glass Hang all the furniture above the grass, And how delightful when a fall of snow Covered my glimpse of lawn and reached up so As to make chair and bed exactly stand Upon that snow, out in that crystal land!