(Vintage)In our review of Vintage Amis, we complained about Anonymous Editor who did the picking and choosing --- an editor that (we now see, with good reason) Vintage chose not to name. We have the same beef about Vintage Nabokov --- but with somewhat more pith.
We've always found Martin Amis to be only mildly amusing. Nabokov? He's at the pinnacle of 20th Century letters, at least in our book. If we are going to get a mere 200 pages culled from the seventeen novels, six volumes of short stories, interviews, biography and criticism, those that end up in this collection should be the best of the best.Mind you, with Nabokov's s astounding output in three languages, it should not be too easy to fail. Even his most ardent fans admit that the early works in translation (Russian to English, mostly rendered by son Dmitri) do not stand up to the giant novels of his later life, above all, Lolita and Ada. The first is well represented here --- the entire first chapter ("Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul, Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.") but our lovely, beloved Ada with its merry, soft, bucolic future is nowhere to be found.Those who know and treasure Nabokov will also admit that his autobiography, Speak, Memory is a praiseworthy piece of autobiographical lore, one that can stand side-by-side with the other 20th Century master autobiography, Sartre's Words. This last suffers, possibly, from being the only work from the pen of the noisy Existentialist that will persevere into other times, other generations.Speak, Memory is well represented in the Vintage Nabokov, but in sneaky fashion. The exegesis on the author's first love, sweet Tamara, is reproduced in full here as Chapter Twelve. "Mademoiselle O" --- also from Speak, Memory --- appears here, but is listed as being "from The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov." A perfect Nabokovian double in place, but in disguise.
All masters have their off days, witness "Two Gentlemen of Verona" or Wordsworth's later turkey-poems, or the ultimate, demeaning verbiage of Pound. "A Forgotten Poet," does not belong in Vintage Nabokov, and perhaps not the O. Henry lookalike, "The Return of Chorb" There are, in all, including those listed above, another eight stories in the volume.
What is not included, for some reason, is that perfect Persian miniature, that which might well have been the distillation of another novel, "Scenes from the Life of a Double Monster." Who of us Nabokovians can help but be Nabokovéd into a tailspin by reading of the Siamese Twins, who, on first seeing a "normal" boy, saw "aitches" and "eyes."
Children came too, at all times, and were shooed away by our jealous nurses; but almost daily some black-eyed, cropped-hair youngster in dark-patched, faded-blue pants would manage to work his way through the dogwood, the honeysuckle, the twisted Judas trees, into the cobbled court with its old rheumy fountain where little Lloyd and Floyd (we had other names then, full of corvine aspirates but no matter) sat quietly munching dried apricots under a whitewashed waft. Then, suddenly, the aitch would see an eye, the Roman two a one, the scissors a knife.
And, just delivered, on being presented to their innocent mother:
Both components of the double series before her staring eyes were healthy, handsome little components, with a silky fair fuzz on their violet-pink skulls, and well-formed rubbery arms and legs that moved like the many limbs of some wonderful sea animal. Each was eminently normal, but together they formed a monster. Indeed, it is strange to think that the presence of a mere band of tissue, a flap of flesh not much longer than a lamb's liver, should be able to transform joy, pride, tenderness, adoration, gratitude to God into horror and despair.
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Even a collection as uneven as this one cannot help but dazzle the unwary, transfix those new to the games and quixotic but always lordly phrasing of Nabokov. In "The Aurelian," anonymous hotel room, from "out of the black generous night, a whitish moth had dashed in and, in an audible bob dance, was kissing its shadow all over the ceiling." Mind you, the night is not just "black" --- it is "generous."
The author's affection for railroad trains is well known, and who among us can forget the wires in Speak Memory leaning down, then rising sharply to be hammered down again by the cross-bars of the telephone pole. In "Cloud, Castle, Lake,"
The locomotive, working rapidly with its elbows, hurried through a pine forest, then --- with relief --- among fields ... how enticing it all is, what charm the world acquires when it is wound up and moving like a merry-go-round ... the badly pressed shadow of the car sped madly along grassy bank...
From "Mademoiselle O," the author, a life-long insomniac, afraid of the dark, dreams of paradise "as a place where a sleepless neighbor reads an endless book by the light of an eternal candle" --- reminding us, in this elegant triad, that Nabokov was, too, a poet. Indeed, at all times, tiny vistas are converted to poetry: Humbert Humbert once had a job in arctic Canada, where "we may have been tracking to its lair ... the wandering and wobbly north magnetic pole." "Wandering." "Wobbly." "Tracked to its lair" like a white bear.
Detail, detail --- rendered in such pixie fashion. This is a boy in "Time and Ebb," on a ship, crossing the Atlantic, "My grandmother read me a tale about a mermaid who had acquired a pair of feet."
The inquisitive breeze would join in the reading and roughly finger the pages so as to discover what was going to happen next.
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Vintage Nabokov suffers from, perhaps, a plethora of competition from the author's own massive output, but we can thank our anonymous editor for a couple of jewels new to this reader. In "Signs and Symbols," we are granted a peek into the soul of madness, where our young hero finds himself haunted by "phenomenal nature":
Clouds in the staring sky transmit to one another, by means of slow signs, incredibly detailed information regarding him. His inmost thoughts are discussed at nightfall, in manual alphabet, by darkly gesticulating trees. Pebbles or stains or sun flecks from patterns representing in some awful way messages which he must intercept. Everything is a cipher and of everything he is the theme.
And then, to our surprise, VN gives us a science fiction fantasy, "Lance." After roundly condemning that literary form, he proceeds to deliver a gem of a story in the very same genre.
With a love for mock heroic tales out of Joyce's own precis of early English in Ulysses, we get a very Nabokovian list, each of which will ring a bell for those of us who have labored over The Faerie Queen, the Arthurian legends, the French idylls, Chaucer. VN trades on names which sound vaguely familiar, but, knowing him, are made up --- he is creating wholecloth a VN history of the medieval romance, with all the appropriate noises, forms, and nomenclature:
"Lanceloz del Lac" occurs for the first time in Verse 3676 of the twelfth-century Roman d la Charette. Lance, Lancelin, Lancelotik --- diminutives murmured at the brimming, salty, moist stars. Young knights in their teens learning to harp, hawk, and hunt; the Forest Dangerous and the Dolorous Tower; Aldebaran, Betelgeuse --- the thunder of Saracenic war cries. Marvelous deeds of arms, marvelous warriors, sparkling within the awful constellations ... Sir Percard the Black Knight, and Sir Perimones the Red Knight, and Sir Pertolepe the Green Knight, and Sir Persant the Indigo Knight, and the bluff old party Sir Grummore Grummersum, muttering northern oaths under his breath--- Lolita Lark