As a child of seven or eight, already harbouring the secrets of a confirmed madman, I seemed even to her (who also was far from normal) unusually sulky and indolent; actually of course, I kept daydreaming in a most outrageous fashion.
“Stop moping!” she would cry. “Look at the harlequins!”
“What harlequins? Where?”
“Oh, everywhere. All around you. Trees are harlequins, words are harlequins. So are situations and sums. Put two things together – jokes, images – and you get a triple harlequin. Come on! Play! Invent the world! Invent reality!”
(Look at the Harlequins Vladimir Nabokov 1974)
I love Nabokov’s final novel more and more, and on some days most of all. We now know that it was not meant as a farewell – VN was fully immersed in writing a new novel right up until the time of his death – but in its reinvented autobiography it has that elegiac feel. It also contains – as quoted above – one of the most beautiful and evocative descriptions I have ever come across of what precisely it means to be a writer.
I read Lila Azam Zanganeh’s The Enchanter and was enchanted by it. What I loved was its sincerity, its passion. I didn’t mind that occasionally her close and clever pastiching of VN’s (in truth) inimitable style left me wishing she would use her own voice with a little more confidence. I didn’t mind, because there will be time enough for her to learn to do that, and this was a book she clearly felt an urgent need to write. And having an urgent need to write is, perhaps, the one true prerequisite for becoming a writer in the first place.
Zanganeh ‘gets’ Nabokov in a way that far too few of the major critics and experts do. She taps straight into his first and really only subject, which is the way in which our human mortality is redeemed by art. I felt, quite simply, joy in her epiphany, and privileged to witness it in one with such a power of expression. Too many commentators, especially British and American ones, tend to see VN as a trickster, a caricaturist, a ‘master stylist’ whose arrogant self-satisfaction makes him interested only in displaying his own linguistic brilliance. They dismiss his tender and emotive characterisations as mere puppetry. There has even been latterly, I feel sad to report, some embarrassingly embarrassed attempts to suggest he might have shared – at least in his fantasies – some of the sexual abberations of his own Humbert Humbert.
There was a spate of programmes and features on Nabokov a year or so back, to commemorate the release of his unfinished novel The Original of Laura. One of the programmes featured a longish interview with Martin Amis, who for years has cited VN as his literary hero. You could say I’m not a huge Amis fan, but as a VN fan this was something I had to see. I was shocked to discover that Amis, by his own admission, had only actually read about half of Nabokov, that his ‘expert’ knowledge is largely based on VN’s early, satirical novels (Laughter in the Dark and King Queen Knave, those novels which in fact – if we can say such a thing – are closest to Amis’s own) and Lolita, and that Ada, arguably VN’s masterpiece, had thus far eluded him.
He’d tried to read it three times and each time failed. Not to be beaten, he set himself the task, specifically for this programme, of finally slogging through to the end. Not liking or not understanding what he read, he described it as ‘stillborn,’ VN’s failure to recapture the high ground he’d won in Lolita.
I’m using Amis’s experience as an example here not to have a go at Amis (although that might be fun, too) but to illustrate the misconceptions so many seem to have about Nabokov: that he is ‘difficult,’ or ‘precious’ or simply incomprehensible. These are misconceptions that Lila Zanganeh does not entertain even briefly. She shows, in a variety of delightful, original and audacious ways, how Nabokov is a writer to be read, not studied, a writer to get passionate over, to argue about late into the night, a writer who can inspire us on a daily basis.
The one thing she doesn’t get is the butterfly thing, which is a shame, because without any doubt ‘The Aurelian’ is my favourite VN story.
I finished the first draft of my new ‘Martin’ story today. To celebrate I went for a stroll along the Stade, a working fishing beach that is more or less unique to Hastings and one of its many delights.
It also features in the story, and I had the curious sensation while walking there that I was intruding on one of my own fictions.