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By Larry Woiwode
The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov
"The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov," edited by Dmitri Nabokov. Alfred A. Knopf, 640 pp.; $35
"Vladimir Nabokov: The Russian Years," by Brian Boyd. Princeton University Press, 619 pp.; $15.95, paper
"Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years," by Brian Boyd. Princeton University Press, 790 pp.; $16.95, paper
Vladimir Nabokov (or gnaw-BOAK-uff, as he pronounced it) is perhaps best remembered by those who never read him as that nasty old man who wrote the dirty book Lolita. Rather than attempt to polish Nabokov's image for the Christian reader, as certain aficionados of Saint Augustine try to shine him up for the secular public by emphasizing his attraction to heresy and whores, it seems best to quote from a letter Nabokov wrote to his mother as a young man, in an effort to console her in her continuing decline after her husband had been killed:
Three years have gone--and every trifle relating to father is still as alive as ever inside me. I am so certain, my love, that we will see him again, in an unexpected but completely natural heaven, in a realm where all is radiance and delight. He will come towards us in our common bright eternity, slightly raising his shoulders as he used to do, and we will kiss the birthmark on his hand without surprise. You must live in expectation of that tender hour, my love, and never give in to the temptation of despair. Everything will return.
This was written in Russian in 1925 and still conveys, even in translation, not only the scent of another century but the affectionate familial warmth of an earlier Russia, before its language, even, suffered the warp necessary to serve the pragmatics of "dialectical materialism." The extract is taken from the exhaustively detailed (over 1,400 pages) and truly exceptional biography by Brian Boyd, published by Princeton University Press in two volumes in 1990 and 1991, and now available in paperback--the proper place to begin for anybody who wants to know about the real Nabokov. The year Nabokov wrote that letter ...