Review: ‘Vladimir Nabokov: America’s Russian novelist’

by G.M. Hyde (London, Marion Boyars, 1977. 225 pp. £6.95)


John Pilling


Despite a number of full-length books on his work Nabokov has yet to become the centre of a really huge academic industry, like Joyce or Beckett. No doubt the need to be possessed of first-rate Russian has been a factor in this, or it may be that the very diversity of his oeuvre has prevented critics from offering us their various versions of Nabokov in a single image. There have, however, been signs in recent years that the impulse to increase exegesis to industrial proportions is being resisted with difficulty, and with Nabokov now dead it is difficult to see the impulse being resisted at all. Nabokov’s self-reflexive archness and hauteur, allied to a whimsical and somewhat defensive sense of humour, are bound to appeal to academics, however daunted they may be by confronting an internationally-known lepidopterist and teacher of literature who contrives to write more seductively and experimentally in his adopted tongue than most of his commentators can write in their native one. It ought to be an exercise in humility to write about Nabokov, and yet all too often it has proved in practice to be an irresistible opportunity to try and emulate him, increasing the complexity of his work to forbiddingly Byzantine proportions, or imitating (disastrously in all cases) the special amalgam of cerebration and wit that was the private property of the maestro. It is arguable indeed, as George Hyde suggests towards the end of this excellent new study, that Nabokov repaid the dubious honour the academics had done him by writing in his last books in a manner more calculated to please them than to express his own idiosyncratic genius. What was self-evidently needed to arrest this self-perpetuating version of eternal regress was a critic wise enough to keep his learning in the background, expert enough to ground his occasional irritation with Nabokov in something more than mere scepticism, and stylish and commonsensical enough to offer readings of Nabokov’s work that would send us back, refreshed, to those works of his (The Gift, Lolita, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, the Pushkin commentary, the book on Gogol, the incomparable Speak, Memory) that will certainly last, and those (The Defence, Pnin, Pale Fire) that are only a stone’s throw from being masterpieces. It is splendidly apt that in this, the first book on Nabokov to be published after his death, George Hyde has shown himself to be the ideal man.


‘Nabokov criticism,’ writes Hyde in one of his many exquisitely turned footnotes, ‘is distinguished by a holy terror of banality. The reader will note that the present writer does not share this fear.’ The reader will also note that this need not mean trivialisation or simplification. Those who prefer their Nabokov complex will find much on which to exercise their wits in Hyde’s lucid, challenging, compelling account. What it does mean, though, as all true Nabokov admirers will applaud, is that certain crucial statements (crucial in that Nabokov would be the lesser artist if they were not true) are for the first time clearly made. It is especially refreshing to find Hyde prepared to state categorically that ‘the aim of [Nabokov’s] endeavour is not so much to transcend the world as to give it back to us afresh’ and to go so far as to say that this ‘could be described quite properly as a moral end.’ Hyde is perhaps the first critic to give full weight to, and explore the significance of, Nabokov’s claim, in the 1965 preface to The Eye, that ‘the forces of imagination in the long run are the forces of good.’ This enables him to discuss, with great subtlety, the difference between the magic of truly creative imaginative strategies (as Nabokov knows it) and the potentially mind-destroying hell of simulated imaginative conundrums (as so many of his characters experience it). Hyde’s decision to begin with The Gift—that most difficult (for monoglot readers) but most rewarding of Nabokov’s experimental works—is splendidly vindicated as the subsequent chapters reveal how much of Nabokov’s later (and indeed earlier) oeuvre may be read as a series of footnotes to problems first adumbrated there. But in no sense is the chapter on The Gift a set-piece designed to deflect the reader from inadequacies elsewhere. Each chapter contains any number of felicities, stylishly and intelligently presented, with each novel given just the right amount of coverage, and each novel judiciously considered in terms of its own strengths and weaknesses, without any attempt to place a strait-jacket on Nabokov’s inventiveness.


It is difficult to convey the range and excellence of Hyde’s judgments, but which of Nabokov’s other critics tells us all the following things: 1. that the conclusion to The Gift is his warmest and happiest, evidently prompted by a sense of personal fulfilment at this stage of his own life; 2. that Mary is the most Chekhovian, Pnin the most Gogolian, King, Queen, Knave the most Hoffmannesque and Laughter in the Dark the most Tolstoyan of Nabokov’s novels—Hyde is of course a comparativist, but a most restrained and sceptical one; 3. that Glory and Look at the Harlequins! are thin, and Ada and Transparent Things, in their different ways, superficial; 4. that the death of Nabokov’s brother helps to explain his changed attitude to history between Invitation to a Beheading and Bend Sinister; 5. that ‘An evening of Russian poetry’ is ‘perhaps the best of his few good poems’; 6. that Nabokov’s introduction to his translation of Lermontov’s A hero of our time is a model of its kind; 7. that Despair is ‘the novel in which Nabokov’s infallible humour, controlling the most unpleasant material, comes closest to abdicating’; 8. that it is the integration of Lolita which makes it more compelling than the other novels; 9. that Proust has become more and more important to Nabokov the longer his exile has lasted; 10. that Nabokov’s book on Gogol is itself a kind of skaz and that his anti-humanitarianism in the book is somewhat fake; 11. that Nabokov is administering self-criticism and exerting self-control in the pervasive Augustanism of Pale Fire; 12. that Nabokov is not a political indifferentist; 13. (to complete a Nabokov dozen) that Transparent Things, however dry it may appear in execution, is immensely sad in its implications.


One might think this were riches enough for one monograph, but George Hyde has also managed to digress (or appear to digress) on such interesting subjects as Bergson’s Le Rire—resuscitating that work in a manner bound to appeal to those who are weary of having it evoked in discussions of Beckett—Eikhenbaum’s influential articles on the skaz and Gogol, T.S. Eliot, Pushkin’s Journey to Erzurum, Nabokov’s partial affiliations with the Russian Formalists (pointing out in passing that Mendilow, in Time and the Novel, had learnt from Shklovsky long before it became fashionable to do so), and the conflict, in nineteenth century writers, between embodying the consciousness of the age and exploring the inner workings of their own consciences.


There is a price to be paid for this of course; there is rather more of R.D. Laing in the section on the unjustly neglected novella The Eye than is necessary to Hyde’s (very able) exposition, and a certain modishness in citing Mandelstam’s ‘portable Petersburg’ (Nabokov’s phrase, in Glory) as the finest after Biely’s when Biely’s great novel is not even discussed. Biely continues to be neglected in England (see my recent article in Poetry Nation Review for a discussion of some of the reasons why), yet Nabokov regarded his Petersburg as one of the four great twentieth-century novels, and acknowledged, with uncharacteristic humility, the influence on him and his Pushkin translation of Biely’s classic study of Russian prosody. Personally I also regretted the absence of a cross-reference to the unforgettable description of Nabokov’s ‘hypertrophied sense of a lost childhood’ in Speak, Memory at the point where Hyde quotes the elegiac old general of The Defence saying ‘it was not Russia we expatriates regretted, but youth, youth.’ But it would be presumptuous and superfluous to censure George Hyde for omissions in what does not claim (inevitably in the case of Pale Fire and Ada) to be a comprehensive account that will answer every student’s question and unravel every labyrinth, and his footnote on the distressing proliferation of ‘querci’ (very long novels) establishes that Hyde is a lot less modish and uncritical about modern (and Modernist) excesses than many of his peers.


No reader should miss the footnotes, where Hyde is ready to criticise himself, to speculate, to extend an argument (or suggest the direction in which others might usefully extend it), and to interpolate the occasional (mercifully un-Nabokovian) joke. It is a real pleasure to have one’s feelings about Nabokov so concisely contextualised, the ‘frequently misleading’ prefaces stringently but not cruelly criticized, his anti-Germanism and anti-Freudianism coolly assessed. When we see how the careful distinction of Nabokov’s achievement from that of other Modernists (especially Borges) paves the way for the discussion of far more fruitful parallels with Lewis Carroll and (of all people) Hilaire Belloc, one is happy to agree with his general editor John Fletcher’s contention that George Hyde has written a stimulating and sensitive contribution, not only to Nabokov studies, but to our understanding of modern literature as a whole.