Monday, November 30, 2009

Vladimir Nabokov’s Look at the Harlequins!

One Final Masterpiece:

Vladimir Nabokov’s Look at the Harlequins!

Originally Published on’s Classic Literature Page

As a longtime devotee of Vladimir Nabokov, I’ve spent more than half of my life reading and rereading his novels, stories, memoirs, correspondence, lectures, plays, translations, essays, and interviews, and whenever anything previously unpublished crops up, I feel like a kid waiting in line for the new Star Wars film to open. When Nabokov’s son, Dmitri, recently decided to publish the master’s drafts for his final, unpublished novel, The Original of Laura, though, I realized that I had one last book to read before delving into this posthumous treasure. Like many other fans and critics, I’ve always felt that Nabokov’s English fiction peaked during the period of Lolita (1955) and Pale Fire (1962) and that because his belated financial success allowed him to stop teaching and devote himself solely to writing, some of his later works became a bit too oneiric and uninspired by the difficulties of actual reality. I was particularly disappointed by his penultimate novel, Transparent Things (1972), which I admittedly read when I was probably too young to appreciate it in full, and so for some reason I never bothered to read his final novel, Look at the Harlequins! (1974). In preparing to read and review The Original of Laura, then, I somewhat warily decided to examine the state of Nabokov’s art at the end of his life, and in finally reading Look at the Harlequins!, I’ve had to revise my whole view of this amazing writer’s artistic trajectory.

A strange and often hilarious reflection of certain aspects of Nabokov himself, Look at the Harlequins! is set up as a memoir written by a Russian émigré writer named Vadim Vadimovich N., whose life and works resemble (and diverge from) Nabokov’s in a way that allows for a nearly infinite number of intertextual games—as well as for deeply penetrating examinations of art, love, loss, life, and death. Like Nabokov, N was born in St. Petersburg in 1899 and emigrated to Western Europe after the Russian Revolution to become a brilliant, if struggling, novelist in his native language. Then at around the same time that Nabokov did (1940ish), N started writing novels in English and moved to America, where he supported himself by teaching and then gained financial independence after publishing a scandalous international bestseller much in the vein of Lolita. The novel/memoir even begins with a list of N’s Russian and English novels, which amusingly mirror Nabokov’s works, and as Look at the Harlequins! progresses, we see the themes and subject matter of N’s work play off of Nabokov’s real literary career in fascinating ways.

N may share many of Nabokov’s tastes and traits, but it’s also very clear that he’s an intriguing literary invention rather than Nabokov himself, and part of the pleasure of reading this book is in watching how the real author teases us with the invented author’s dissimilarities to himself, while adding profound touches of memory that seem to be reflections of Nabokov’s own. It’s great fun to tease apart the two authors as they weave themselves into a strange mirror-tapestry, but even without these games, this book stands wholly on its own and is so brilliantly constructed—and moving, and funny, and sad—that it could easily be enjoyed by someone who’s never even read Nabokov.

N’s most marked differences from Nabokov also happen to be the two things that make for most of the novels’ most substantial explorations: N has serious mental health problems, and he ends up having four wives throughout the novel who give his life a constantly fluctuating sense of connection and disconnection. Whether Nabokov himself had mental health problems is debatable—he definitely suffered from anxiety, and some of his 1930s stories reflect a pre-Sartrean terror/nausea at the world—but he only ever had one wife (of fifty-two years), the brilliant and steadfast Véra, who in many ways grounded Nabokov and helped enable him to maintain his intense productivity (see Stacy Schiff’s deeply flawed but illuminating biography Véra [Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov]: Portrait of a Marriage). N has several interconnected mental maladies, but while he mostly fixates on one that involves his mind’s difficulties with spatial issues, he seems most troubled by anhedonia—the inability to feel joy. In chapter two, he recalls (or conceives) a particularly incisive exchange (or change) that he had at age seven or eight with one of his grand-aunts:

            “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!
            I did. By Jove, I did. I invented my grand-aunt in honor of my first daydreams, and now, down the marble steps of memory’s front porch, here she slowly comes, sideways, sideways, the poor lame lady, touching each step edge with the rubber tip of her black cane.

In order to feel any kind of joy, N invents. Even seemingly inventing the relative who induced him to invent, N is only at ease when manipulating dreams and memories into fiction. The novel/memoir itself even contains a serious inconsistency about N’s parents: In an early part of the narrative he writes that they divorced when he was very young, and then later he tells a bookseller friend that his father died six months before he was born, and at the narrative opening of the next chapter he continues this possible fabrication to become the novel’s more substantiated truth about his parents.

While his relationship to “dementia” (a nearly incarnate manifestation of his mental-health problems) remains fairly constant throughout the novel, his wives change constantly. What’s wonderfully enjoyable about this is that each wife is so uniquely and individually drawn that their entrances and exits from his life read like short-story frames within the novel, making it constantly renew its scaffolding as we find ourselves adjusting to and caring about each successive woman. While all his wives are entirely vivid—his first and last wives being the most compelling—the most powerful and touching relationship he has is with the daughter that he has with his second wife. The marriage is a bizarrely forced disaster, and his wife leaves him, taking their daughter, but when a tornado kills the mother several years later, his pre-teen daughter, Bel—another one of Nabokov’s brilliant (and only slightly disturbing) Poe-lita-like inventions—comes to live with him. Their emotional, artistic, and intellectual connection is perhaps the most profound and moving relationship that Nabokov ever created, but it’s so intense and unorthodox that in order to keep up appearances he marries again, which drastically changes Bel’s outlook and relationship to her father. Not wanting Bel around, wife number three sends her to a boarding school in Switzerland, which further alienates her and causes her to run away with a fashionably idealistic communist for the abyss of the Soviet Union.

Before she disappears and is still at school in Switzerland, N’s melancholy longing for their perfect relationship inspires him to write A Kingdom by the Sea, the Lolita-like novel that makes him rich and famous. Becoming ever more distant from his meandering and philandering third wife, N eventually receives a letter from a friend of Bel’s in St. Petersburg and undertakes a convoluted journey to try to help/rescue her. Failing, he returns home broken, but life and art still continue.

At a certain point in the novel/memoir N begins to write parts of the book in the second person, to “you” (the way that Nabokov wrote his famous memoir, Speak, Memory, to his wife, Véra), and just as he’s making a change to his life that’s both a literal resignation and a step toward complete self-determination, he finally meets the book’s “you.” The same way that the novel/memoir works as a summation of N’s (and Nabokov’s) literary career, the ensuing relationship is a kind of summation of N’s loves, and as a final, healing, caduceus-like intertwining of art and love, the woman who’s to become his fourth wife helps him solve a problem in a chapter of his last novel, Ardis (a play on Nabokov’s own antepenultimate novel, Ada)—the spatial problem that’s been plaguing his mind all his life.

With her insightful twist correcting his troubled conception of time and space, N suddenly realizes that he’s cured of his mental illness. But he also realizes that he isn’t. He knows that her solution is merely a linguistic “trouvaille”—or perhaps just a caduceus-like cadeau—and that at this point in his life he’s simply happy to accept happiness rather than to continue his search for a true solution to his condition. Which is perhaps true healing in itself: the acceptance of the happiness that he’d never been able to feel before and that his whole life had been a search and preparation for. Abstractions such as time and space were never his true problem anyway. It was his inability to see the harlequins.

V & V
Like this final gift that N receives, Look at the Harlequins! is itself a final gift of art and love from one of the twentieth century’s most ardent artists. Finally reading this masterpiece after all this time, it gave me not just an insight into the unflagging power of Nabokov’s later years, readying me for the dazzling harlequins dancing through the fragments of The Original of Laura, but it made his career retrospectively form itself into an entirely different shape in my mind. Both Look at the Harlequins! and The Original of Laura find Nabokov at his most relentlessly creative and innovative, and the fully polished Look at the Harlequins! especially alters the arc of his artistry. Joining Lolita and Pale Fire as perhaps his greatest English-language novels, this amazing work sums up just about everything that Nabokov could do, leaving one last full testament to his genius in its hall-of-mirrors portrait of the artist as an old man.

—David Wiley

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