Caress the details

This review of The Enchanter: Nabokov and Happiness by Lila Azam Zanganeh appeared in the Irish Times.

Vladimir Nabokov: the enchanter. Photograph: Horst Tappe/Hulton Archive/Getty ImagesIN 1969, about 10 months after Vladimir Nabokov had completed his novel Ada , Lila Azam Zanganeh sent a short letter requesting an interview to his home in Montreux, Switzerland, where the novelist and his wife, Véra, had lived since 1961. To Zanganeh’s surprise, Nabokov replied and invited her to join them on the shores of Lake Como, where the couple was spending the summer. Nabokov greeted Zanganeh among “profusely fragrant pines” and led her to a whitewashed cottage overlooking the lake. Installed in a wicker chair and thumbing a brand-new copy of Dante’s Inferno , he submitted to a photograph with his young visitor, then began to dilate on his years in the United States and the theme of happiness in his fiction.

Except, of course, he didn’t. Because Zanganeh was born in 1976, a year before Nabokov died, and this delicate scene, like much of The Enchanter , is a flagrant invention by the Iranian-born writer and journalist. Her book, she says, is “the record of an adventure” with Nabokov’s novels, and its author so enthralled – at best, playfully and reflexively enthralled – by the Russian master that she frequently intrudes herself into his presence, or among the lusty shades of his characters. In a series of rhapsodic chapters that circle the subject of bliss (the key term in the novelist’s art and life, we’re told), Zanganeh spies on the bucolic teenage lovers of Ada , inveigles her way into tawdry motel rooms with Humbert and Lolita, and even takes up – or professes to take up – butterfly hunting in homage to her hero’s lepidopteral obsession.

On the face of it, The Enchanter is just the sort of ludic and ecstatic essay that Nabokov demands and deserves at this juncture. Both the writing and the life have been so thoroughly pored over (notably by Brian Boyd, who has attended to both) that an avowedly oblique and personal approach seems refreshing. Even one that verges – and Zanganeh does more than verge – on whimsy. Reading Nabokov, or any writer whose work one comes truly to inhabit, is according to its author, “something akin to falling in love, a haunting feeling of native otherness”. The Enchanter may be compared to such literary-critical billets-doux as Nicholson Baker’s U and I (on his vexed romance with the novels of John Updike), Adam Thirlwell’s flirtations with Nabokov and Flaubert in Miss Herbert and Elif Batuman’s recent The Possessed , with its memoiristic forays into Russian literature.

Zanganeh thankfully exhibits none of Thirlwell’s excitable pretence to critical authority – in fact, she tells us, she’s lazy, even somnolent, in the presence of much fiction – but she also has little of Baker’s lightness of touch or exquisite self-scrutiny as a reader. This is surprising, given the autobiographical background to her intense fandom. Zanganeh’s family fled Iran shortly after the 1979 revolution, and she lost an uncle in the aftermath. Other rhymes with Nabokov’s exile punctuate her book, but though she seems to want to make them stand for something profound in her relationship with his novels, she also weirdly disavows the connections, telling us with apparent (but, one suspects, confected) insouciance that her “genuine aversion to politics (in which I keenly join VN) precludes me from expanding on the accidents of geography”.

Instead, among curt summaries of Nabokov’s plots and some serviceable readings of the style and structure of the novels, Zanganeh topples Alice-like (a favourite motif of her beloved VN’s) into a protracted act of clumsy ventriloquism. Any writer on Nabokov must surely grapple with the temptation to ape his style, and it would be eccentric not to try in the presence of such a teacher, but Zanganeh seems blithely untroubled by the anxiety of influence. Accordingly, she treats us to sentences like this one, regarding the famous dappled and vertiginous first page of the autobiography, Speak, Memory : “Time’s pale fire now wheeled the weight of the world, shedding light on the discreteness of things, cracking open the dormer window of consciousness.” Or this, on Nabokov’s imagination: “a stab of rapture and recapture, perceiving past, present and future in a single instant, conjuring the cycle of pure time, and thus quietly blowing clocks apart”.

The problem here is not so much the coy reference to Nabokov’s own Pale Fire or the alliterative, assonantal texture, as the fact that Zanganeh has wholly mistaken how the novelist’s style works in the first place. Nabokov’s prose was many things – languid and vicious by turns, arch and sometimes pompous, bejewelled with dictionary treasures – but one thing it was not was “poetic” in this slackly abstract sense. (Zanganeh’s efforts in this line read more like the figurative mush of Michael Ondaatje than they do like Nabokov.) There is much to admire and enjoy in The Enchanter , including Zanganeh’s funny little drawings of details in the novels and her insistence on their centrality, but she seems frequently to forget her own point in favour of these airy and at worst bathetic excursions into eloquence. Its a cliche of Nabokov criticism to even mention it at this stage, but a shame she has not taken more to heart his own dictum: “Caress the details! The divine details!”

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One response to “Caress the details

  1. “figurative mush” – perfect
    “poetic” in this slackly abstract sense – perfect
    Thanks

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