Have you ever been pleasurably lost? Have you ever realized you had no idea where you were, but didn’t care, because the wind was blowing softly, gently, at the right heat on your skin as it played its familiar rushing tune through bending reeds.
Rain may have been falling at midnight outside your window, but, within the book in your hands, the flowers were so bright, their colors blade-sharp, you could taste them, drops of candied pearls on your swelling tongue; a green landscape gathers around you, gently swelling and falling in endless
The broad band of blue river winds on one side while, on the other, a butterfly flutters, the two of you following the trail as it bends out of sight with the easy curve of the river’s bank.
What’s around that bend? you wonder. There’s not another place in the world I need to be.
That was how I experienced The Gift by Vladimir Nabokov, a novel—and I’m not sure that’s the word— that is indeed, a gift. I moseyed through it over a couple of months, the kind of book that made me take pleasure in my twice-weekly bouts of insomnia. You read this book in a quiet spot, a favored comfortable chair at midnight; or by a brook with the sun breaking through the leaves, painting its waving patterns on the page; or in a nearby rose garden, in May, when the first blooms burst, pink and scarlet.
Oh, don’t mind me . . . I pour Nabokov into my head, this is what comes out, foolish glitter. . . .
Vladimir Nabokov (whom you know—or should—as the author of Lolita) wrote The Gift in the late 1930s. It was the last novel he wrote in his native Russian, nearly the last before he and wife, Vera, and their only son Dimitri fled as the Nazi wave rolling over Europe caught at their heels.
Though set in a highly charged atmosphere of émigré Russian ex-pats in Berlin in the 1920s, nothing really happens in The Gift (though it’s set during the decade when Nabokov’s father was murdered by Czarists). There’s infighting at the edges, but no black-leathered Stalinist agents, no one getting killed, though death’s chilly eye slyly winks, here and there. Conversations take place that are largely fictitious, little plays acted out on the secret theater of a young man’s mind.
That young man is a poet—name of Fyodor—whose mind opens into new awareness as he wanders through the large Russian émigré community, a community whose hopes of returning to their lost Russian homeland are fading as the Bolsheviks tighten their grip and Nazism’s stench still waits to smoke its way across the world.
In the roaming course of this novel, Fyodor publishes a book of poetry read only by a few. He’s asked to write a book about a young suicide and declines. Somewhere along the way, the sight of a pale blue dress inspires Fyodor to move into an apartment and start an affair with a girl living there (even though it’s not her dress).
Fyodor pays tribute to his beloved father, a noted and passionate lepidopterist who vanished on a butterfly expedition in Central Asia; Fyodor conjures himself into journeys he was never able to be part of. One page contained a lyrically strung list of all the butterflies Fyodor’s father had brought home from one of his expeditions. (I noted them down and Googled most them with only lumpy success. Nomenclature is even more slippery than reality, I guess.)
Fyodor also writes and publishes a take-down of a famous Russian Revolutionary writer (and favorite of Nikolai Lenin’s), a project that fails. This section is considered by critics to be a parody of biography, a genre Nabokov apparently disapproved of. The universal disparagement that greets Fyodor’s effort—even the anti-Bolsheviks hate it--comes also, I think, because the project emerges from a false place within himself; his book is a rejection of a world he wants nothing to do with anyway, a diversion from the new world awakening within, a new eye that some people call the soul.
But failure never fazes Fyodor. As he’s already lost one world, he realizes, the world he is in now will soon also no longer be his. There’s no anger, as we roam along with him, seeing the world through his exquisite eye. Even when his clothes are stolen from him on an afternoon walk in the park, there’s no panic, resentment or even a ink blot of bitterness; just an offbeat wonder:
“When he left the forest and started to cross a street, the tarry stickiness of the asphalt under his bare foot proved to be a pleasant novelty.”
As mentioned, I got lost as I wandered through these fields of eloquent prose. Much of the “story” is also taken up with Fyoder’s passion regarding Russian literature (the “hero” of the book, as Nabokov describes it in his introduction), long philosophical disputes about writers I’d never heard of and
even whose This-World existence I faintly doubted. (In the three decades since I first read Pale Fire, I see Charles Kinbote lurking behind every weedy Nabokovian semi-colon, sticking out a comma-root to snag my foot and send me sprawling.) With any other writer, I would have closed the
book and said not a word, even about its brief lifespan on my shelf.
I read on, taking deep pleasure in the not-knowing as I sailed along on the rolling, supple waves of Nabokov’s prose, his skewed, stunning, and somehow true, perspective. Like no other author I’ve ever read, Nabokov saw into things, into life’s slippery, shifting beautiful nature, into how the world cascades by. He must be the most fervent and mystical of literary writers in English.
In her recent novel, Cleaning Nabokov’s House, Leslie Daniels neatly proposes that the secret to Nabokov’s magic lies on how he writes his sentences: “Because the word string and the thoughts behind the words are so original, the reader’s brain can’t jump ahead . . . . So the reader is suspended in the
perfect moment of the now” (quoting from my advance proof copy).
The great genre writer Donald Westlake said Nabokov’s mastery “was to make you feel the emotion in a scene without ever referring to it directly. It all roils below the surface while the surface remains apparently calm.” (Taken from Westlake’s website; that other genre writers, such as Ramsey Campbell and Peter Straub, are drawn to Nabokov's flame—the fire of a fantastic, often exasperating, snob about literature--would make for a small monograph.)
One clue I stumbled on as I took my solitary late-night ride on his supple prose, was the way The Gift revealed how a certain kind of mind blooms. Toward the end, I realized suddenly that the flow of Fyodor's thoughts and observations more than ucannily matched the flow of my own, like two distant—and very different--streams suddenly flowing together and through each other.
Not what I think about things, but how I think about things.
As I thought, again and again, That’s how I think, I saw Vladimir Nabokov’s book as giving voice to human consciousness, to Being,—complex, intricate, intense and always shimmering and shifting. To me, The Gift was an invitation to a quiet spot to see my experience—though distant and comparatively colorless—reflected playfully, lovingly, in another’s.
And so, back goes Nabokov’s Gift on the shelf, a gift, in a way, to him, so that someday, he can present it to me again.
Photos by Author
Thomas Burchfield can also be read at The Red Room website for writers. He can also be friended on Facebook, tweeted at on Twitter and e-mailed at tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net.
Copyright 2011 by Thomas Burchfield