ross benjamin

FROM THE (GLASGOW) HERALD, SATURDAY 30, JANUARY 2010

LOST IN TRANSLATION

It takes a literary sleuth with an eye for detail to unravel the maze of Nabokov's work, finds Brian Morton

SPEAK, NABOKOV
Michael Maar,
translated by Ross Benjamin Verso £14.99

Vladimir Nabokov does speak to us down the years, but in such a triple-tongued and tiresomely clever way that he scarcely exists as a biographical specimen. One might be tempted to say, especially after reading the master’s memoir Speak, Memory that Nabokov was his own fictional creation, except that applies equally well to a host of other writers, those who inhabit their works in the way Norman Mailer, or “Norman Mailer”, did, and those who so completely retreat behind a style that we mistake the prose for the person.

To read Nabokov is to enter a house of games in which not just the author is present but, in virtual form, all the critics who might ever exist and show an interest in the work. “Nabokov” is not the body of work but the sum of all that has been written and said about it, including those things written by the author. The key – but only the most obvious – text for this is Pale Fire where the poem and its gloss change places and John Shade addresses us from the meta-textual limbo.

As Michael Maar shows, death and what happens after it is one of the key tropes of Nabokov’s writing. Even Lolita, a book about a middle-aged man lusting after a nymphet, smells sharply of decomposition and speaks from beyond.

Maar digs deeper than the set texts. He shows how The Vane Sisters, which perpetrates a literary trick Nabokov said could only be used once in a thousand years and is concerned with communication from the other side, ends with a 31-word paragraph (including the word “acrostics”) that spells out the message: “Icicles by Cynthia. Meter by me, Sybil.”

The footnotes in Speak, Nabokov are often longer than the body text, a sure sign we are on the Nabokovian gameboard. Maar is a literary sleuth, his method a Holmesian combination of instinct, some intellectual delegation and close reading. He makes John Sutherland seem like bumbling Inspector Lestrade of Scotland Yard. Much of what he brings forward is too detailed and too arcane to summarise in a short review, but his parallel reading of Nabokov and Thomas Mann – ambivalent is too mild a word for that relationship – and surgical dissection of The Real Life of Sebastian Knight are good sampling points.

What energises this new account by Maar, who published The Two Lolitas in 2005, is the posthumous appearance in 2009 of Nabokov’s The Original of Laura: A Novel In Fragments, and the revelation that he once, before being dissuaded by his wife, wanted to write a novel about the sex life of conjoined twins.

Here is where the American Nabokov and the cosmopolitan Russian/German/French Nabokov are hard to separate. I’d offer Maar the possibility that his subject had been reading Mark Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson, where Siamese twins Chang and Eng adumbrate the main text, sharing a life, love, addictions and death. Sibling identity and sibling death are hardly irrelevant to Nabokov’s story.

Young Vladimir grew up trilingual and there is no awkwardness in Ross Benjamin’s rendering of Maar’s German, though the fact it is a translation only adds one more layer to the onion. I wasn’t sure why he or Verso shied away from the original title Solus Rex: die schöne böse Welt des Vladimir Nabokov (The Good and Evil World of Vladimir Nabokov).

It’s a great title for a great book, which reminds me of a PhD candidate who was approached by a man in an American campus who proceeded to tell him everything he could have wanted to know about the work and sources of Thomas Pynchon, ending the conversation with the words, “The one mistake you mustn’t make is thinking I am Thomas Pynchon”.

Is it possible that Maar is another of Nabokov’s creations and that Speak, Nabokov was put in a drawer before the real author’s death in 1977?