Trick or treat

The Magician's Doubts
June 23, 1995

Who is Vladimir Nabokov, and where do we find him? We define him by his virtuosity with the written word and his own stated belief in his ability to command it. We might recognise genius, confidence, even arrogance. His consummate trickery, deceit and verbal acrobatics leave us disconcerted, subjugated and terribly pleased. However, this may be an incomplete portrait: Michael Wood believes that the arrogance and trickery are disguises for another man and other motivations. The Magician's Doubts is an impressively wrought portrayal of the four men who comprise Vladimir Nabokov: the historical man of biography, the arrogant mandarin "attitude" on display, the habitual literary stylist and the hidden person - tender, diffident, doubtful. The Magician's Doubts is not a biography, it is the pursuit of Nabokov the person in the writer's natural habitat - the language of his fiction.

Finding Nabokov is all a question of approach. Concentrating on ten fictions originally written in English, Wood demonstrates that Nabokov's language is not about him, but that he is about language. There is a hermetic relationship between his language and his philosophies, his content and his form. Because Nabokov experiences the world in words and their arrangement, we must commune with his language in order to understand the various Nabokovs. Despite Wood's focus on language and its structure, his is not a formalist or structuralist approach; he applies no schooled theory. More convincingly, he examines the protagonists as if they were people, analysing them according to the words they use and their possible reasons for forming them the way they do within their world of the text. For example, the key to understanding Humbert Humbert's motivations in Lolita is through the content and structure of his language. As narrator, he is the filter through which the story comes to us, and he chooses his words, sentences, and images to suit his modulating moods and perceptions. Wood insists that Humbert's language is the measure of his doing and undoing, and is a more primary indicator of who he is than his actions. Throughout his book, Wood dares to have an "intimate dialogue with provocative texts", and this is why The Magician's Doubts succeeds.

The tempting death-of-the-author approach will not help us appreciate Nabokov's fiction because, Wood declares, his texts subsist on his being alive in them. More significantly, he is alive in ways and places where we might not see him. One way to divine this enigmatic writer in the text is through his "signature" - defined as his dazzling, writerly mark - which, Wood posits, reflects meticulous control of a fictional world. Another way to recognise another Nabokov is through his "style", the secretive, intricate dispersal of feeling in "syntax and small words". Style is the aspect of his writing that conjures and haunts, reflecting a person with a disciplined vulnerability to the shocks of an historical world. Typically and deservedly, we revere the master Nabokov for his ingenious signature, his self-assured, literary swashbuckling. However, we must look beyond the signature puns and sleights-of-hand, not by simply exposing or decoding them, but by understanding how these techniques reveal Nabokov's deep humanity.

Nabokov's early life defines itself by loss: of his Russian homeland to the 1917 revolution, of his father (assassinated), of his family (dispersed across Europe) and, most poignantly, of his native language. Portrayals of loss and memory's efforts to redeem it take many forms in his canon. In Speak, Memory, Wood discerns the tensions in Nabokov the autobiographer as he tries to reconcile the author's public role as "memory's proud agent", who ensures that nothing in one's past is lost, with his covert sense that one must accept the loss of time. Nabokov's translation of Alexander Pushkin's Eugene Onegin, because it is a translation, is a "metaphor for missing things"; a translation is an act of memory, a mirror of a disappearance. V, the fictional biographer in The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, seeks to reconstruct the lost life of novelist Sebastian Knight. Van, the nonagenarian narrator in Ada, tries to understand how love and happiness fade with time.

The writer who gave up the Russian literary language he had worked on and in for 20 years is the person who discovered the intimate meanings of uncertainty, deprivation and marginality. Wood reveals this deeply humane dimension by unveiling pity's manifold and intricate manifestations in Pale Fire. Bend Sinister is less about the torture of a child than it is about how our awareness of it brings an end to the moral world. Again, for Wood it is the content and form of Nabokov's language itself, and not comparisons with theories and philosophies foreign to the realm of his fictions, that provide the key to understanding and appreciation.

Wood's work is remarkable because he humanises the writer who confounds and delights us with trickery, delves into the disquiet that lurks within his language, and uncovers a complete Nabokov virtually without leaving Nabokov's chosen realm of the fictions themselves.

Gregory LeStage teaches at Oriel College, Oxford and is writing a D.Phil thesis.

The Magician's Doubts: Nabokov and the Risks of Fiction

Author - Michael Wood
ISBN - 0 7011 6197 3
Publisher - Chatto and Windus
Price - £18.00
Pages - 252

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