SOME will say this is a better biography than the author of the scandalous ``Lolita'' (1959) deserves; some will say it tames Vladimir Nabokov (1899-1977), the great dandy of the 20th-century novel. Instead of the dazzling nonsense of the works, it can be argued, this biography sticks to the facts and draws from the works suchdefinite themes as happiness and individual responsibility. Indeed, biographer Brian Boyd argues that far from being the skeptic most academic reference works say he was, Nabokov was a metaphysician whose work explores being in terms of space, time, thought (human consciousness), and something further.
Until now, Nabokov has been widely held to be an exceedingly inventive but ultimately obscure and even trivial writer with a passion for chess and butterflies and perhaps little girls (did he not, in the process of writing ``Lolita,'' invent the word ``nymphet''?). True, it's argued, Nabokov effectively skewered poshlost (conventional thinking and feeling) wherever he found it in the arts, politics, and scholarship. But few can sympathize with his petulant outbursts at his critics or his insistence on his own genius.
Boyd wastes no time defending Nabokov. Criticism often has a grain of truth. But after reading this book it's clear that the commonly held view of him illustrates a dominant theme of these times, the rejection of metaphysics.
Boyd writes: ``The dismissal of metaphysics is itself a metaphysical issue; its dismissers have themselves been dismissed; and metaphysics will not die until humanity does. As Nabokov poses these problems, ... he makes them seem worth facing afresh and injects into them an urgency only the numb would not feel.''
Nabokov's metaphysical urgencies become ours as we read this massively documented study of his life and works (that is, his life until he left France for the United States and began to write in English; the second and final volume will be published next year). We come to see why Nabokov had a need to explore the dimensions of being to the point of going outside normal reality.
As the child of an old, great, and wealthy Russian family, Nabokov was always nostalgic. That paradise faded as the radicals took over the legal reform movement in which his father, a jurist and journalist, played a prominent role. We learn, for example, that Nabokov's hatred for the death penalty goes back to his father's reform movement, as does his opposition to anti-Semitism.
Fleeing St. Petersburg, the family went to Berlin and Nabokov to Cambridge, where he studied Russian and French. His time as a Cambridge undergraduate would prompt nostalgia in the harsh, narrow, depleted world of the Russian 'emigr'e community in Berlin, where his father was accidently killed by a right-wing Russian assassin. At 30, Nabokov had witnessed the destruction of his way of life in the Bolshevik revolution; by 40 he had witnessed the rise of Hitler. His pose as an apolitical aesthete cannot be taken at face value, though it has been until now.
Along with brilliant historical and domestic scenes Boyd provides searching reviews of Nabokov's poetry, plays, and novels. He will send many a reader back to the Russian novels (which Nabokov helped translate into English); I have been enjoying, for the first time, the crucial novel ``The Gift,'' in which he questions the artistic, though not the political, standard of socialist realism. Talk about your poshlost!
Boyd shows how and why ``The Gift'' outraged the Russian 'emigr'e community, a fact foreseen in the novel when the hero's manuscript is returned to him by an angry editor who says, ``There are certain traditions of Russian public life which the honorable writer does not dare to subject to ridicule.'' The censoring of ``The Gift'' by his 'emigr'e publisher provides a fittingly ironic close to the period covered in this volume.
When he began composing in English, Nabokov had become the leading Russian novelist of this century. Sobered by the fate of his father's liberal politics, Nabokov sought order in realms outside society and found it from childhood in the inscrutable ways of the game of chess and even more among the lepidoptera, the butterfly world that would remain a great source of consolation throughout his life.
The excessive design found in the order of lepidoptera (to which he would contribute Lycaeides samuelis Nabokov 1943 when he explored the eastern US) suggested that there was more to matter than so-called materialists had room for. Discussing one of the Russian novels, Boyd says, ``We all have a measure of creative suppleness ... but without constant attentiveness to the unique, unpredictable particulars of existence it can too easily decay into a rigidity of vision that both deadens our world and diminishes us.''
The true scandal of Nabokov seems to be that he bears witness to the universal ideal of the pursuit of happiness - in all its ramifications. This is a great biography. Without reducing the complexities of the art and life of Nabokov, Boyd's complex portrait compels assent. It captures both the historical sweep of Nabokov's life and its unique, intimate particulars, the precious details of the works and their grand, fateful themes. Above all, Boyd gives his readers a glimpse of the vision so compelling to Nabokov - a glimpse of the world as ``a gift of absurd generosity.''