What Can You Tell From a Fancy Prose Style?

Vladimir Nabokov wrote Lolita, but he was no mere writer. The famous novelist was also a distinguished lepidopterist, husband, pedant

Vladimir Nabokov wrote Lolita, but he was no mere writer. The famous novelist was also a distinguished lepidopterist, husband, pedant and avuncular cutie–“a fat hatless old man in shorts,” as he described himself–and Lila Azam Zanganeh’s The Enchanter: Nabokov and Happiness (Norton, 228 pages, $23.95) duly showcases these facets of his character. Formally, the book is something of a collage. There are paraphrases, biographical vignettes, interviews and drawings. There are also kooky components, like dream sequences. There are also kinky components. In one chapter, Ms. Zanganeh reproduces a passage of uncomfortable off-road sex from Lolita, then invites us to picture ourselves peering at her through a telescope as she reads it, “sprawled in an armchair … while lace of hem creeps down a Venus thigh.” We have no choice but to stare on, and, as voyeurs, our comeuppance is more or less immediate: “SHABANG! Your third-rate springy telescope folds right back with a snap and hits you on the nose.” Our nose hurts. We are a long way from Lionel Trilling.

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From these disparate parts, the contours of a single idea emerge. Roughly, this is it: “VN’s happiness is a singular way of seeing, marveling, and grasping, in other words, of netting the light particles around us.” Nabokov, Ms. Zanganeh suggests, invented a style of literary perception that retrieved an exceptional amount of beauty, and therefore happiness, from experience. This held true for all varieties of experience, even the grim stuff. “Even in darkness or demise, Nabokov tells us, things quiver with lambent beauty.” How did he do it? “It has to do with the wiles of a new language,” she hints. And then later: “A language recombining elements with such astonishing artistry and ardor as to obliterate the very limits of language as we knew it.” Answer: Something to do with language.

These claims struggle to come into focus. “All it amounts to (in the end) is a certain way of looking,” Ms. Zanganeh writes, 100 pages later. By the end of the book, she has reached this conclusion: “At core, the gift of the Nabokovian novel is this, just this: a call to whom-it-may-concern to capture photon after photon of fleeting life.” Readers may be surprised by the literalness of this; photon is the key word. The Enchanter closes with a montage-like tribute to Nabokov’s evocations of light: “Tentatively, I stepped over the lawn under the pale star-dusted firmament. And all at once it was summer. A radiant night, satiated with moonlight, as bright as an iridescent Persian poem.”

Happiness this may be, but the light show, frankly, kind of makes you miss the peep show.

Nabokovians will be pleased to confirm that the master can still attract passionate disciples, but they may be nonplussed at how little The Enchanter adds to our understanding of him. Ms. Zanganeh has interviewed Nabokov’s son, Dimitri, and she has made pilgrimages to various sites sacred to Nabokovians, where she recorded her impressions. That is all she has done. The rest of the material is secondhand. The Enchanter is a book that is mostly about reading other books.

Readers of The Enchanter familiar with Brian Boyd’s life of Nabokov or Stacy Schiff’s Vera will thus discover that they still remember much from those memorable works. There was the time Nabokov, out butterfly hunting, stepped on a sleeping bear (Mr. Boyd.) Then there was the time that a friend of Nabokov’s father, having looked over Vladimir’s adolescent love poetry, told him his son would “never, never be a writer.” (Mr. Boyd, again.) There was what Vera, Nabokov’s wife, said to their son Dimitri when Vladimir died: “Let’s rent a plane and crash.” (Ms. Schiff.) All of these are wonderful anecdotes, and all appear in The Enchanter. None of them is originally Ms. Zanganeh’s. To her credit, Ms. Zanganeh is candid about her indebtedness to Mr. Boyd and Ms. Schiff; but then credit can only extend so far. All the showpieces in this book are out on loan.

What remains is Ms. Zanganeh’s thesis on happiness. And it is true, Nabokov does rapture better than just about any other writer, ever. (He does rape, sadism and suicide pretty well, too.) Alas, Nabokovians tend to interact awkwardly with the conventions of literary criticism. Ms. Zanganeh calls her book “the true story of an ecstatic writer blended with the looking-glass fancy of a maniacal reader,” and its method creative reading. Creative reading, as she means it, describes the attempt to channel a great writer’s authority by imitating him in your writing about his writing. It is a form that is like pastiche, but equally like karaoke. Sometimes, at the micro-level, it is successful. “[T]he last, drawling days of August” is a phrase worthy of Nabokov, and it is all Ms. Zanganeh’s. As a way of saying something meaningful about another writer, however, creative reading largely does not succeed. The Enchanter may make you want to read Nabokov, but it lacks insight into him.

This is not really Ms. Zanganeh’s fault. Nabokov is a famous writer, but he deserves to be infamous as a disseminator of unhelpful dogmas about writing. His worst ideas, invariably, were about ideas. “Caress the details! The divine details!” Nabokov said. This is sound advice, if a little vague. What is not sound is this, something Nabokov also said: “Style and structure are the essence of a book; great ideas are hogwash.” Nabokov dismissed Henry James as a “pale porpoise” and Joseph Conrad as a “writer of books for boys.”

Nabokov is a towering genius; it is in the nature of Zeus to throw thunderbolts. Still, thunder echoes. Nabokov didn’t believe in great ideas, but he did believe in patterns. And so Nabokovians believe in patterns, too. They believe in them messianically. They think the thrill of discerning a subtle pattern is the highest sensation that art, and possibly life itself, affords. Here is Ms. Zanganeh: “To observant men, these Nabokovian patterns, magically, will offer the inkling of an ‘otherworld,’ the ineffable beauty and concord of which is cause for infinite happiness.” The most compelling statement of this position appears in Nabokov’s book on Gogol, where he defines art as “the dazzling combination of drab parts.” (Adam Thirlwell made this phrase the leitmotif of his excellent recent book The Delighted States.)

This point about drabness tends to get lost. Nabokovians talk about patterns, but what their writing usually suggests is an obsession with décor. Instead of dazzling combinations of drab parts, we get drab combinations of dazzling parts. I lost count of the number of times Ms. Zanganeh used the words “latticed” and “iridescent” and “limpid” and “whisper,” and words like them. Here, for example, is Ms. Zanganeh describing Speak, Memory: “Everywhere, it seemed, blossomed sentences so new, yet which one believed to have whispered in a distant fold of time, under some latticed shade.” This is beautified writing, not beautiful writing.

But it is also recognizably Nabokovian. “Don’t be one of those writers who sentence themselves to a lifetime of sucking up to Nabokov,” Geoff Dyer wrote in The Guardian last year. The paradox of an imposing style like Nabokov’s is that when it is misfiring, it becomes more imposing. The swankier, crankier and hokier Nabokov’s writing got, the more seductive it got. In 1969, in the midst of giving Ada a bad review, John Updike noted, “This deadly style is infectious!” Updike thought Nabokov’s style had gone sour; but he was imitating it anyway, helplessly. “We read to reenchant the world,” Ms. Zanganeh declares. And so we do. But the unromantic truth may be that successful writing, even if done in the name of creative reading, requires disenchantment. If you are going to cast a spell, you cannot be under one yourself.




What Can You Tell From a Fancy Prose Style?