ISSUE DATE: May 23, 1969
Slightly pedantic word play, cultural booby traps, brisk leaps from the Bard of Avon to the Good Ship Lollipop, elegant divertissements for all occasions —such things can be expected of Nabokov. But that is far from all. Russian by birth, a U.S. citizen who now lives in Switzerland, he has become, at 70, the greatest living American novelist, and the most original writer and stylist since Joyce. He is also an exile, a man who has triumphantly survived this century of the refugee, a man who has lost everything, yet transformed his losses through art and levity into a habitation of the mind.
Nabokov’s literary province is a bizarre, aristocratic, occasionally maddening amusement park in part devoted to literary instruction. It has many sideshows but only one magician. The general public, which chose to read Lolita as a prurient tale of pedophilia, enters through the main gate, hoping to meet the creator of that doomed and delectable child. A more sophisticated clientele moves beyond the midway to seek out and applaud Dr. Nabokov, the butterfly chaser, dealer in anagrammatical gimcracks, triple-tongued punster, animator of Doppelgänger, shuffler of similes. Prolonged exposure to Nabokov reveals much more. What he calls his “ever-ever” land of artifice opens on intriguing distances. There words transform the world into metaphor and time is held exquisitely at bay by memory.
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