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For Little Nabokovs

Books

By James Gleick

WHEN VLADIMIR VLADIMIROVICH Nabokov says he writes, ideally, for a lot of little nabokovs, he's not just talking about people who share his eccentric view of "reality" (always in quotes) or his predilection for lepidoptera. To fully appreciate Nabokov's work you need at least a portion of easy brilliance, his fluency in three languages, and his passion for the purest and most pointless play with words. Beyond that, to enjoy his latest novel it helps to have a passing familiarity with his entire oeuvre.

All this isn't necessarily bad. We've come to expect a reasonable share of obscurity and allusiveness from the Modern Novel, and if Nabokov prefers to allude only to his own work, okay. The first sign that all is not well between Nabokov and the reader is the compulsive desire to anagram every unfamiliar name (or else run to a Russian dictionary) so as not to miss some crucial symbolic connection. Next comes the realization that there isn't really all that much there to miss.

Look at the Harlequins! purports to be a writer's memoirs, an "oblique autobiography," although at times the mask slips and we find ourselves looking over the narrator's shoulder at his memoirs-in-progress: "I was eighteen when the Bolshevist revolution struck--a strong and anomalous verb, I concede, used here solely for the sake of narrative rhythm." Sometimes, indeed, the effect is rather witty.

In broad outline, the narrator's life resembles the author's: When the Bolshevist revolution strikes, Vadim Vadimovich N finds it expedient to leave his native Russia; after a few years at Cambridge and a few in Paris as a writer-in-exile, he crosses the ocean to become a writer-in-residence at a prestigious Eastern university. The memoirs at hand dash through some fifty years, four wives, and a series of books (first in Russian and later in English) that correspond, more or less, to Nabokov's own.

Look at the Harlequins! looks most devotedly at the wives and the books, being at once a catalogue of Vadim's loves and "catalogue raisonne of the roots and origins and amusing birth canals of many images in my Russian and especially English fiction." We don't get a satisfying view, though. Wives and books--all, apparently, harlequins-- remain "outlines directed by reason" (to use the words of a younger Nabokov) seen as though through "the faceted eye of an insect." Vadim's wives are never more than shallow foils for his self-indulgence. One can't help suspecting that he needs so many (real-life Vladimir has married only once) for no better reason than to provide, as he proposes to each in turn, four different opportunities to describe an odd mental dysfunction: Vadim cannot imagine turning around since what is a simple physical movement in real life requires him, in his mind, to rotate the whole visual world before him.

LIKE A LOT in this book, this is a potentially intriguing thought that never comes to much. Nabokov uses his literary persona as license to play various sorts of games with words while avoiding the standard obligations of fiction writing, like characterization. A bit of solid, readable narrative would seem a relief to even the most liberal-thinking of readers after endless pages of more or less dazzling feats of verbal fancy on the order of:

The only feature to rate a shiver of squeamishness was the glistening sweep of bronzy silks coming down on both sides of the beastie's body.

or,

I felt lacquered from head to foot, like that naked ephebe, the bright clou of a pagan procession, who died of dermal asphyxia in his coat of golden varnish.

There are translation jokes: Keats' "A thing of beauty is a joy forever" goes through a Russian sieve and becomes "A pretty bauble always gladdens us." There is a half-hearted sort of dabbling with modernist experimentation: Vadim suspects that he is subject to the whims of a higher authorial power, and is bothered by

a dream feeling that my life is the non-identical twin, a parody, an inferior variant of another man's life, somewhere on this or another earth. A demon, I felt, was forcing me to impersonate that other man, that other writer who was and would always be incomparably greater, healthier and crueller than your obedient servant.

The references to Vadim's novels scattered like confetti through Look at the Harlequins! (the complete works are conveniently listed in the front, under the heading: "Other Books by the Narrator") are in the same category. They contribute to the sense of parody, the feeling that Vadim is an "inferior variant" of Vladimir, but aside from that they serve only as another vehicle for still more exercises of arcane wit. Nabokov aficionados will take pleasure in matching up these variant titles with the originals, or comparing, say, Vadim's precocious daughter with Nabokov's Lolita, but no real light is shed by the kind of wordplay that turns the real-life Camera Obscura into the fictional Camera Lucida, or by a stereotyped sketch of another Lolita.

Nabokov is a brilliant wordsmith and an impressive artificer. If that were enough, Look at the Harlequins! would be a very good book, and as it is, little nabokovs will find it entertaining and, often, funny. Others may find it empty--Nabokov's narrator takes a poke at "readers who are all head," but there is not much pleasure for the heart in this book.

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