I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

What the Microscope Does Not Reveal: Watching Nabokov

by David Selden
April 14, 2012

On Nov 19, 1958 CBS’s rather stodgy and conservative culture strand, Close Up was interrupted at short notice to accommodate Vladimir Nabokov’s defence of his incendiary novel, Lolita. Nabokov confronts (or evades) Lionel Trillingi, who is every inch the debonair literary butterfly, poised with a cigarette.

Nabokov with Microscope 

Trilling and Nabokov affect to be shocked, enacting some weird literary dance whilst the host, John Daly is a largely mute, if strategic, referee, somewhat dazzled by the two men’s brilliance. Shortly before the original transmission of this broadcast, on Fighting Words, Nicholas Monsarrat (the bestselling author of The Cruel Sea) had called for Nabokov’s novel to be banned and Nabokov and Trilling’s encounter serves as a haughty rebuke.

A stylist of formidable wit and intelligence, the novelist, poet, multilingual essayist, chess player and lepidopteristii, Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov (1899­1977) is widely regarded as being amongst the greats of 20th century literature. His books, Lolita in particular, are still widely read years after his death and bear comparison to the short list of writers, among them Joyce and Proust, which he claimed as inspiration.

Born in St Petersberg in 1899 to minor nobility, Nabokov emigrated to England ahead of the Russian Revolution in 1917 and graduated from Cambridge five years later. He was to describe his childhood years in pre-revolutionary Russia as idyllic and would carry memories of it with him throughout his life and his writing, mining it extensively for his autobiographical novel, Speak, Memory (1951)iii.

Growing up in an intensely privileged milieu, Nabokov was fluent in Russian, English and French from a young age. The darling of the family, he was a precocious, synesthetic child with a profound sense of entitlement and self-assurance that would never leave him.

His father V.D Nabokov was a journalist who was despised by Trotsky and, whilst his family were associated with liberal and progressive causes, Nabokov (though a harsh critic of totalitarianism and anti-Semitism) would later express his disdain for the student radicals of the 60s, as well as harboring a deep homophobia which seemed in part to have stemmed from a difficult relationship with his estranged brother Sergei, who had died in a Nazi labour camp.iv

In Berlin, in March 1922, Nabokov’s father was assassinated by a Russian monarchist as he tried to protect the real target, Pavel Milyukov, the founder of the Constitutional Democratic Party. This theme of arbitrary death, as a result of accident or misunderstanding was to haunt his work.

Having achieved recognition from the large Russian émigré community in Berlin, Nabokov decided to stay, writing under the name V.R Sirin. Despite remaining for 15 years, the writer developed little affection for the city and spoke barely a word of German, nonetheless penning vivid portraits of its various milieusv. In 1937 he escaped the city, as it fell beneath the Nazi boot, and spent time in the South of France.

In 1940, Nabokov moved to the U.S and held the position of professor of Russian literature at Cornell from 1948 until 1959, where he was notorious for flirting with his students and became and admirer of Nixon. In 1959, after the success of Lolita, he moved to Switzerland. The novels first film adaptation, by Stanley Kubrick in 1962, indelibly associated Dirk Bogarde with the character of Humbert Humbert. The film was to win Nabokov an Oscar for best adapted screenplay.

Four years earlier, on Close Up, Nabokov seems to have been relishing the attention his book is bringing him. Lolita’s original publication with Olympia Press, in 1955, had led to a ban, which had lasted two years. Now in its first American edition, the book was a huge success. Described by the editor of the Sunday Express as “the filthiest book I have ever read,” Lolita went on to become the first novel since Gone With The Wind to sell 100,000 copies in its first three weeks.

Laying into the literary cannon, dispensing bon mots and laying out his infamous inspiration for the novel that was to become a bestseller, Nabokov explains how his tale of solipsistic obsession and transgressive desire drew its inspiration from an ape, who having learnt to draw, drew first the bars of its own cage.

He's full of elaborate and brilliant denials, riffing on his erudition as everybody tries to keep up. Lolita was a calculated scandal, a sexual chess problem. It would add both its title and the word “nymphet” to the English language. The author was to be finally reckoned his due, the acclaim and wealth to which he always felt entitled was now to be his. It is not an entirely appealing spectacle. Nabokov comes across as slightly puffed up and preening, clearly enjoying his moment in the spotlight.

For all its febrile brilliance there is a certain sterility in Nabokov’s performance, his tone somewhat patrician. He seems rehearsed by too many dinner partiesvi. Amongst his detractors the Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko said that “he could hear the clatter of surgical tools in Nabokov's prose,” and Martin Amis, whilst in thrall, notes the writer’s horror of the body, an ambivalence that seemingly grew with agevii.

Perhaps the most fitting memorial to Nabokov is his butterfly cabinet still preserved at Harvard. Eschewing developments in genetics and chromosome counting, the author had spent years making microscopic observations of butterfly genitalia, obsessively categorizing the Polyommatus blue genus until his sight was ruined.

The elaborate theory he expounded about the origins of the butterfly, between dismissing Freud as Poshlost, composing chess problems, translations, novels and criticism, was finally vindicated using the sequencing techniques of which he, ever the traditionalist, had been so dismissive.


Achtung Baby: Nabokov Archives

Nabokov Archive at the New York Public Library

Conservative Comrades:Vladimir Nabokov and William F. Buckley, unlikely friends.

Nina Khrushcheva. Russia ! 2008


i “I have one of the great reputations in the academic world,” he wrote in his journal after being promoted to full professor in the Columbia English Department, in 1948. “This thought makes me retch."

iii His publisher dissuaded Nabokov from titling the work Speak, Mnemosyne, fearing, not unreasonably, that the public would not buy a book whose title they could not pronounce.

iv For the tragic story of Nabokov’s brother Sergei, see The Gay Nabokov. Lev Grossman. Salon. 2000

v Visually and socially this is the same Berlin as Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929) but what these two writers do with it defines their distinctiveness: one political, the other a fabulist.

Nabokov in Berlin , Lesley Chamberlain. slowtravelberlin.com. 2012

vi “All interviews with him had to begin with submission of written questions. If he approved them, he’d see the interviewers only after answering in writing too. The answers – published exactly as written, their copyrights resting with him – would constitute the bulk of the given articles.”

Talking about Nabokov . George Feifer. Russia Beyond the Headlines. 2010

vii The problem with Nabokov , Martin Amis. The Guardian 2009

After a long international career exhibiting video installation and photography, David Selden renounced the art world in favor of the far less superficial drag scene and became intimately involved with a number of notorious London fetish clubs. ‘Retiring’ to Berlin in 2007 having run out of pseudonyms, he has written about music for Dorfdisco and about art for Whitehot Magazine as well as contributing numerous catalogue essays and translations for a variety of publications and websites. His misadventures in the world of anti-music can be endured at affeprotokoll.tumblr.com