Winston Churchill once characterized Russia as “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” What would he have made of Vladimir Nabokov? A great prose stylist, but what did he mean by it all? In interviews, when asked about the meaning of his work, he would vehemently deny any meaning at all. He claimed to approach the crafting of a novel just he would approach the crafting of a chess problem.
I’ve just read two of his early novels, Despair and The Eye. Can’t really say I enjoyed either one of them, but at least they were short. Both are also ‘about’ problems of identity. The protagonist in Despair meets a man who, he thinks (erroneously?) looks exactly like him, and eventually murders him in order to collect his own life insurance. The protagonist in The Eye kills himself early in the book and then spends the rest of the novel trying to prove that he exists.
An interviewer once asked Nabokov to discuss his interest in the Doppelgänger, (actually, Nabokov insisted that interview questions be submitted in writing, and then returned his own written answers) to which he replied that the subject was so trivial and boring that he had nothing to say about it.
Many of his interviewers used to try to get him to identify writers he admired. Usually that would be a signal for him to shut down, but he does admit to liking Joyce, Wells, Borges, and Robbe-Grillet. Curious about Robbe-Grillet, I checked out Repetition, the only novel of his we have in the library here. What’s it about? Don’t know yet, but I’m 52 pages into it and so far, the protagonist, a spy who has been shadowed all his life by a Doppelgänger has already met one set of identical twins.
Like the unreliable narrator of Repetition, the more I read of Nabokov the less I feel I understand him. The interviews I’ve read have been collected in a volume he called, accurately enough, Strong Opinions. He might very well have called it Negative Opinions, as other than the crafting of chess problems (sorry: novels) and the catching of butterflies he mostly defines himself by the things he dislikes. Oh, wait. That’s not true. He loves America and thoroughly enjoyed teaching at our universities, but mercilessly lampoons both in his novels. His teaching style, like that of German university professor, was to read, word for word, lectures he had prepared years before. His wife corrected his students’ essays. A man of strong pet peeves, he’s extremely fond of listing reasons for giving out low grades. For instance, he would fail any student who could not intelligently discuss the paired dream motif in Ulysses and Anna Karenina.