Vladimir Nabokov, “Houdini of history”?

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tags: LA Review of Books, Vladimir Nabokov

IN THE INTRODUCTION to his novel “Bend Sinister” (1947), Vladimir Nabokov writes the following:

I am not “sincere,” I am not “provocative,” I am not “satirical.” I am neither a didacticist nor an allegorizer. Politics and economics, atomic bombs, primitive and abstract art forms, the entire Orient, symptoms of “thaw” in Soviet Russia, the Future of Mankind, and so on, leave me supremely indifferent.

Nabokov was no stranger to the political atrocities of the 20th century. In 1919, he and his immediate family fled revolutionary Russia on the last ship out of Sevastopol, a vessel aptly named “Nadezhda” (“Hope”). In 1937 he escaped Hitler’s Germany by fleeing to France, and in 1940, just weeks before Paris fell to the Nazis, he boarded a French ocean liner’s last voyage to New York with his Jewish wife and son. So, was his insistence that his art was independent of politics and society fact or fiction? In “The Secret History of Vladimir Nabokov,” Andrea Pitzer suggests that such pronouncements were merely part of Nabokov’s public façade — “the genteel, charming cosmopolitan, incapable of being dented or diminished by history.” The Nabokov that Pitzer presents to us “is more vulnerable to the past than he publically led the world to believe,” recording events “that have fallen so completely out of public memory that they went unnoticed.” Pitzer is particularly interested in tracing how Nabokov planted references to concentration camps in his art. To prove her point, she chronicles historical events as they unfolded in the course of Nabokov’s life and shows how Nabokov’s works “refract” these events. While the result is an admirable work of archival research, Nabokov’s art, unfortunately, comes out as a mere apparatus for capturing history — a heroic service no doubt but one that raises the question: if all you wanted to do was record events, why go through the trouble of writing fiction? Pitzer suggests that, by burying “his past in his art” and waiting “for readers to exhume it,” Nabokov had devised a new and different method for documenting inhumanity and the history of violence....

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