Robert Roper’s “Nabokov in America” looks at the life of writer Vladimir Nabokov after he immigrated to America, and how the move shaped and inspired the Russian exile’s work.
‘Nabokov in America: On the Road to Lolita’
by Robert Roper
Bloomsbury, 354 pp., $28
If Vladimir Nabokov had never come to America, he would still be remembered as a multi-nationalist literary giant for what he wrote in Russian.
But in America, and because of America, Nabokov did his greatest work, argues Robert Roper in “Nabokov in America: On the Road to Lolita.”
By the time Nabokov arrived in the United States in 1940, having escaped the Bolsheviks in Russia and the Nazis in Germany, he had written several novels, including his first in English. He had lectured in Europe and some of his work in Russian was being translated into English.
He wrote against the market trend, Roper says, intent on denying “interest in any reality beyond the text.” That meant eschewing politics and social messages or comment, and regularly frustrating readers who sought moral insight or direction in his work.
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What he gave them instead was novelistic art: irony, untrustworthy narrators, suspense, literary allusions, coy witticisms, perfectly chosen words and an unrelenting, morally complex stare at some forbidden thing.
To Roper, Nabokov achieved that most successfully in his books written in America: “Pnin,” “Pale Fire,” “Speak, Memory,” and most notably, “Lolita.”
Pedophilia, of course, is the forbidden thing in “Lolita,” but it appears in other Nabokov books. In his explanations of them, Roper compares the earlier traces of child sex in Nabokov’s work with how he came to handle the subject in “Lolita,” which has become synonymous with the exploitation of a young girl.
The American context, Roper says, was determinative. It gave Nabokov a magnificent landscape, seemingly innocent but capable of hiding corruption in its motor courts with their quaint names, which appear throughout “Lolita.” The America Nabokov “invented,” Roper says, mixed vulgarity with hope, almost always crushed.
Roper’s accessible literary criticism is woven into this book, simultaneously a biography of Nabokov, summaries of his books and a travelogue of the Nabokov family’s wanderings about America — 200,000 miles by car in 20 years.
Most of those journeys were in the West and were largely for the purpose of collecting butterflies by this remarkable man, whom Roper describes as “poet/novelist/lepidopterist/scholar/translator.”
Nabokov’s observations and steady note-taking went beyond his interest in insects. He found a 1940s America slumbering within “stifling social norms,” but with violence and sex simmering just below the boiling point. He picked up American slang from the students he taught at Stanford, Wellesley and Cornell, giving a believable voice to Lolita, his sassy, gum-chewing nymphet. His American experience gave Nabokov the emotional freedom to venture further in his literary quests.
Nabokov needed to change little about America, Roper says; it was perfect as found.
The book jacket and map on the inside covers are worth a lingering look. They provide a quick itinerary of the Nabokovs’ travels across America, with dates when they stayed at particular places, and notes on the significance of those places either in Vladimir’s writings or in his contributions to lepidoptery.
Roper calls his book “an attempt to borrow Nabokov back from the scholars,” who have been heaping reams of interpretations and criticisms on Nabokov for decades.
He succeeds in this, avoiding the arcane while offering insightful explanations of Nabokov’s work. Whether you are new to Nabokov or coming back for more, Roper’s book serves as a valuable guide to this “American” writer.