Vladimir Nabokov (1899–1977) always claimed that art and politics don’t mix, but this new biography suggests his own art tells a different story.
In her first book, Pitzer focuses on one of the lingering mysteries about Nabokov: How could anyone so acquainted with the horrors of the Soviet Union (which killed his father) and Nazi Germany (which killed his brother) be so detached from the real world in his work? Born in the twilight of Czarist Russia, Nabokov fled the post-revolutionary landscape and spent years making his name among the émigré writers in Berlin, where he would also be forced to flee, with his Jewish wife and their young son, as Hitler came into power. Arriving in America and landing a teaching position, Nabokov focused on his writing and, as some saw it, forgot the past; he never spoke out against injustice, signed petitions, made speeches or even voted. While Solzhenitsyn was suffering in a Soviet prison camp, Nabokov was crafting an intricate novel about a middle-aged pervert’s passion for a 12-year-old “nymphet.” Yet, according to Pitzer, in his own imaginative way, Nabokov was bearing witness to the horrors he knew. Drawing on new biographical material and her sharp critical senses, Pitzer reveals the tightly woven subtext of the novels, always keen to shine a light where the deception is not obvious. She suggests that Humbert Humbert, Lolita’s predatory narrator, is a Jew who has been destroyed by what he experienced during the war years. Hermann in Despair, the title character of Pnin and Kinbote in Pale Fire—all bear similar psychic wounds, victims of history who sometimes become villains.
Though no substitute for Brian Boyd’s definitive two-volume biography, this is a brilliant examination that adds to the understanding of an inspiring and enigmatic life.