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Waiting for Solzhenitsyn
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On October 6, 1974, Russian novelist Vladimir Nabokov and his wife Véra sat in a private dining room of the Montreux Palace Hotel in Switzerland, waiting for Alexander Solzhenitsyn to join them for lunch. The two men had never met.
By then the Nabokovs had been living in the opulent Palace Hotel, tucked along the eastern shore of Lake Geneva, for thirteen years. During those years, literary pilgrims had traveled to Montreux in hopes of an audience with the master. When they were lucky enough to meet with him, Nabokov had fielded their questions and returned biting, playful answers. They had sipped coffee, tea, or grappa at lunchtime with one of the most celebrated wordsmiths in the world, and plumbed his cryptic statements for meaning. Pursuing him as he pursued butterflies, they had climbed the Alpine slopes that vaulted up behind the hotel.
The seventy-five-year-old Nabokov saw himself as Russian and American, yet lived in rented rooms in neither country, continuing to work on new books and translations at an exhausting pace that Lolita 's breakthrough more than a decade before had rendered financially unnecessary. He had grown accustomed to being courted, and to delighting his guests. But a visit from Solzhenitsyn was something different.
The morning of October 6 revealed itself early on as a rainy day, but in truth, the weather on the drive south from Zurich may not have mattered to Solzhenitsyn. Only eight months earlier, Solzhenitsyn had been sitting in a cell at Moscow's Lefortovo Prison, charged with treason against the Soviet Union. The deportation that followed his arrest had been bitter, but there were, he knew, more permanent penalties than exile.
Solzhenitsyn had dreamed of face-to-face confrontation with Soviet leaders, believing that pressure at the right moment by the right person might topple the whole system of repression, or at least begin its destruction. Instead, expulsion had delivered him into Frankfurt, Germany, and an uncharted life. And so he was not in prison, not shouting his defiance to the Politburo or meeting privately with Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev. After a spring and summer spent making his way in the new world, he instead found himself cruising the Swiss countryside with his wife Natalia, circling Lake Geneva, traveling Montreux's elegant Grand Rue on his way to see one of the most celebrated authors in the world—a man he himself had nominated for the Nobel Prize just two years earlier. Yet Solzhenitsyn was nervous.
At that moment, it would have been hard to find two bigger literary superstars than the man who had written The Gulag Archipelago and the author of Lolita. They were both Russian, but the nineteen years between their births had destined them to grow up in separate universes. Nabokov had come of age in the last days of the Tsar and Empire, ceding Russia to the Bolsheviks, sailing away under machine-gun fire before the infant Solzhenitsyn had learned to walk. Solzhenitsyn had grown up in the Soviet state, spending years inside its concentration camps and prisons before emerging from behind the Iron Curtain on a mission to reveal a reign of terror and end it forever.
Physically, the men were as dissimilar as their histories. With Nabokov, molasses candy and modern dentures had created a plump, mild professor from a gaunt émigré, while Solzhenitsyn's scarred forehead, wild hair, and prophet's beard marked him as a more volatile presence. Their writing voices, too, stood distinct one from the other, Nabokov's exquisite language and baroque experiments contrasting with Solzhenitsyn's open fury and direct appeals to emotion.
Even their most famous books seem opposite in nature. The Gulag Archipelago chronicles the entire history of the Soviet concentration camp system, bluntly cataloguing the abuse of power on an epic scale, while Nabokov's Lolita maps a more individual horror: the willful savaging of one human being by another. A microscopically detailed account of a middle-aged man's sexual obsession with a young girl, Lolita has been variously described as "funny," "the only convincing love story of our century," and "the filthiest book I have ever read." Humbert Humbert's tale of the two-year molestation of his stepdaughter describes their relationship, her escape with another man, and Humbert's revenge on his romantic rival in merciless, vivid language. The narrator's frankness about his desire for and relations with a child destined the book to pass through scandal on its way to immortality.
Lolita had started her long reign over the American bestseller lists in 1958, by which point Nabokov had been garnering critical attention on both sides of the Atlantic for decades. But it was his nymphet novel—and the risqué film Stanley Kubrick made from it—that launched him into notoriety, then celebrity. Banned in Australia, Buenos Aires, and at the Cincinnati Public Library, Nabokov's novel had managed to sell more copies in its first three weeks in America than any book since Gone with the Wind.
And just as Solzhenitsyn mapped a uniquely Soviet geography in The Gulag Archipelago, Nabokov laid out the landscape of postwar America in Lolita. It was an entirely different archipelago—one of roadside motels, sanatoriums, hotel conferences, pop psychology, immigrant drifters, a Kansas barber, a one-armed veteran, Safe-ways and drugstores, sanctimonious book clubs, and an unnerving religiosity. It was a glorious, expansive, intolerant, and amnesiac backdrop, one that revealed just as much as Solzhenitsyn's opus about the country in which it was set, a stage perfectly suited for a story of betrayal and corruption.
After Lolita 's phenomenal launch, Nabokov had sold the film and paperback rights for six figures each. Traveling to Hollywood, he rubbed shoulders with John Wayne, whom he did not recognize, and Marilyn Monroe, whom he did. He left his career as an American college professor, becoming the subject of New Yorker cartoons and late-night television comedy. On overseas trips, he was accosted by the press and written up in a half-dozen languages across the continent.
His morals were called into question ("utterly corrupt," raged one New York Times critic), but over time his detractors tended to be mocked as puritans and killjoys. The sexually swinging era that followed Lolita's creation was not of Nabokov's making, but its mores helped influence the perception of the book in subsequent years. By the time Solzhenitsyn arrived in Germany, Lolita had become part of a stable of stories about older men with an itch for underage, promiscuous partners. Webster's, Nabokov's favorite dictionary, would eventually add Lolita's name to its pages, offering up the off-kilter definition of "a precociously seductive girl."
The book's linguistic richness and power vaulted it into an existence in which it took on meanings independent of its creator. In vain would Nabokov describe how his nymphet was one of the most innocent and pure among the gallery of slaves he had created as characters; to no avail would Véra remind reporters of how a captive Lolita cried herself to sleep each night.
Setting aside those who thought Lolita a tease and her author an arted-up dirty-books writer, Nabokov had many admirers among the literary set. But it was a peculiar fan club. Despite their cool reverence for Lolita, her most famous fans were prone to calling her author cruel. Bestselling novelist Joyce Carol Oates checked Nabokov for having "the most amazing capacity for loathing" and "a genius for dehumanizing"—and this from someone who liked the book.
Oates's 1973 comment was not even the first shot across the bow. Many others, before and after, took up the same cry, from John Updike, who acknowledged the difficulty of distinguishing the callousness of Nabokov's characters from their author's "zest for describing deformity and pain," to Martin Amis, who would be even more direct decades later: "Lolita is a cruel book about cruelty." Whether they were meant to praise or damn, such comments had a long history. By the time Oates's article on Lolita appeared, Nabokov's fellow writers had been describing his work as inhuman or dehumanizing for forty years.
After the celebrity of Lolita, Nabokov moved to Europe but continued to spark the American imagination. He followed up with Pale Fire, an academic satire starring Charles Kinbote, yet another tormented pedophile, along with a dead poet named John Shade. It was hailed by Mary McCarthy in the pages of The New Republic as "one of the very great works of art of this century." Profiled in LIFE and Esquire ("The Man Who Scandalized the World"), Nabokov had become so popular that his fifteenth novel, Ada, a convoluted narrative smorgasbord of brother-sister incest, won him the cover of Time magazine—a portrait of the writer as an enigma. Before it was even published, one Hollywood mogul after another flew to Switzerland to be permitted a few hours with the manuscript.
As time went on, the world came more and more to Nabokov, and he went less and less into the world. Despite occasional thoughts of moving elsewhere, he ended up settling with Véra into a protected existence in Montreux. He welcomed visitors for what he called interviews, giving written answers to questions submitted in advance, and trying to restrain the untamed journalists who preferred to use words he had actually spoken aloud.
When he could, he worked to script his television appearances just as completely, hiding note cards among the potted plants and tea cups of a studio set. Collecting his interviews with The New York Times, the BBC, and other organizations, he revised them to be more to his liking and published the Nabokov-approved versions in a separate book. He was a man in almost perfect control of his public persona, and the persona he created was that of the reserved, jolly genius who was both a master and a devotee of his art.
His genius may have been beyond judgment at that point, but Nabokov was himself more than willing to judge. He had a lifetime habit of mocking other authors, calling T. S. Eliot "a fraud and a fake" and despising the moral lectures of Dostoyevsky (whose characters were "sinning their way to Jesus"), Faulkner (filled with "skeletonized triteness" and "biblical rumblings"), and Pasternak ("melodramatic and vilely written"). He likewise dismissed Hemingway, Henry James, Balzac, Ezra Pound, Stendhal, D. H. Lawrence, Thomas Mann, André Gide, Andre Malraux, Jean-Paul Sartre, and women novelists as a group. While he sometimes disapproved of the phrase, Nabokov had become an avatar of art for art's sake: a playful experimenter for whom the stylistic needs of a story trumped all moral consideration.
He ranked pride between kindness and fearlessness on his list of the highest human virtues, and he wielded that pride like a surgeon's knife in literary exchanges and mocking repartee that, in his younger days, had earned him at least one bloody nose. More often, however, Nabokov was gracious when met on his own terms. And since Lolita 's success, he had more and more often been able to impose those terms.
In the heyday of political activism, he was inclined to abstain. He had never made a secret of his loathing for the Soviet system, which came up even more frequently than his disdain for Freud (which came up often). But he never voted, he never put a yard sign out for a candidate, he never signed a petition. He did, however, coyly send a congratulatory telegram to President Lyndon Johnson in 1965, praising his "admirable work." Were the accolades for sending troops to Vietnam to fight the Communist menace, or for the Civil Rights Act of 1964? Most likely it was both. And he equally coyly avoided criticizing Joseph McCarthy's tactics by saying they could not, at any rate, be compared to Stalin's. It was his habit not to run for office, endorse candidates, or otherwise enter the political fray. He had settled, in fact, in an entirely neutral country, which was itself occasionally criticized as mercenary and uncaring—one which had, at the time of Nabokov's arrival, not fought in a war for a hundred and forty-six years.
His suite of rooms on the sixth floor of the Palace Hotel were more professorial than palatial. He had an ancient, battered lectern on loan from the hotel, which the staff said had once been used by Flaubert—a writer Nabokov did admire. The unabridged Webster's dictionary lay open as he worked, with his shorts and casual shoes and books and butterfly nets bundled into a private corner of a hotel, the temporary shelter turned permanent, his long residence there serving as conclusive evidence of his own exile.
Exile had been a theme in Nabokov's life since childhood. He had left Russia with his family in the aftermath of the Revolution. He later escaped Hitler's Berlin and Occupied France, though people he loved had not. He had gone hungry with much of Europe during the war, but knew better than to call that suffering. He had not been broken by history; instead, he had in many ways defied it. His Jewish wife and son, a boy who had entered the world in the crucible of Nazi Germany, were still alive. And as if simply living through two wars and a Revolution were not enough, he had also somehow managed to reinvent himself in another language, astounding the world with playfulness, unreliable narrators, and the narrow ledge between coherence and coincidence. He had become both an artist and a symbol of an artist. By writing exactly the kind of books he wanted to, he had reached an iconic level of celebrity, the kind recognized by the preteen girl who knocked at his door one Halloween dressed as Lolita.
Solzhenitsyn possessed another kind of fame—the kind reserved for David fighting Goliath: the fame of the crusader. His 1962 novel about the stark reality of a Soviet labor camp, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, had shocked the West and received praise from unexpected sources—including Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, who had used the book to underline the abuse of power under Joseph Stalin: "So long as we work we can and must clear up many points and tell the truth.... This we must do so that such things never happen again."
Just two years after championing Solzhenitsyn's novel, however, Khrushchev had been forced out of power, replaced by others less interested in addressing the crimes of the past. The Party reversed itself and began to censor and confiscate Solzhenitsyn's writing. His hidden archive was raided. He began to be slandered in meetings. In a plot worthy of Nabokov, a fake double showed up to impersonate Solzhenitsyn, drinking and harassing women in public until the author's friends caught the impostor and turned him over to authorities, who released him.
As long as Solzhenitsyn insisted on writing about Russian history—which was the only thing he wanted to do—it was inevitable that official trouble would follow. In 1968, his works were banned. The Union of Soviet Writers, which had welcomed and praised him when Khrushchev had done the same, became nervous. What should they do about this unpredictable, difficult man? Nobel Prize-winning Soviet writer Mikhail Sholokhov, who had always been a harsh critic of his fellow novelist, advocated not just banning Solzhenitsyn's work but keeping him from writing altogether. And indeed, a year later, Solzhenitsyn was expelled from the Union of Soviet Writers. Expulsion made it impossible for him to publish in the Soviet Union or to hire anyone to help him with his work. He had no legal occupation, reducing him to a state of existence beyond precarious in the U.S.S.R. He was ripe for arrest.
In protest, Solzhenitsyn wrote open letters for Russian and foreign distribution. He met with friends and supporters, seeking their aid. He directed the smuggling of microfilms of his manuscripts to the West, where they would be ready to publish if he could not publish at home.
The world's response was massive. Arthur Miller, John Updike, Jean-Paul Sartre, Muriel Spark, Graham Greene, and Kurt Vonnegut spoke out with hundreds of other writers for Solzhenitsyn, condemning the decision of the Writers' Union. The outcry drew attention to his plight and his work.
Excerpted from The Secret History of Vladimir Nabokov by Andrea Pitzer. Copyright © 2013 Andrea Pitzer. Excerpted by permission of PEGASUS BOOKS.
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Posted May 1, 2013
I've been reading (and re-reading) Nabokov for more than 30 years. I love his books.
As a former prosecutor and a cynical, and practical, lawyer, I thought that I paid close attention to language and details.
Reading The Secret History of Vladimir Nabokov has been a truly humbling, and exhilarating, experience in which I am reminded how risky it is to take anything for granted when I read. I marvel at the insights, historical and other, that Pitzer illuminates in Nabokov's work. It is humbling to realize how much I uncritically skimmed over that was right before my eyes.
Charles Kinbote’s journey, and his relationship with John Shade, take on new dimensions if Kinbote’s escape was not from some fictitious kingdom, but from a place of horror. If you know about Humbert Humbert’s teenage romance, his obsession with Lolita years later is placed in a different context when you realize in full the fate of her “precursor.” I can never again lazily assume that what I failed to grasp in some sentence can be safely ignored as some detached, apolitical, literary indulgence.
This book is a must-read -- and a complete joy -- for anyone who appreciates the majesty of Nabokov’s writing and his contribution to literature. I picked it up and couldn’t put it down until 3:30 a.m., when I turned the last page and wanted to start all over, this time with the corresponding Nabokov novel in my lap. Ms. Pitzer’s work is a real treasure – I cannot recommend it strongly enough.
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