In February, Russian news sites reported that vandals had scrawled the word "pedophile" on the wall of the Vladimir Nabokov Museum in St. Petersburg, clumsily linking the author to one of his more monstrous creations. For better or worse, the public will always associate Nabokov first of all with his 1955 novel "Lolita," an account by the character Humbert Humbert of his romantic relationship — consensual, he says — with his 12-year-old stepdaughter. Indeed, perhaps more than any other 20th-century author, Nabokov gets accused of creating "art for art's sake" and standing aloof from history, to the point that "Lolita" is dismissed as a self-involved celebration of style at the cost of a young girl's suffering. But if we read the book only this way, claims Andrea Pitzer, we miss something essential.
In "The Secret History of Vladimir Nabokov," Pitzer chronicles the wandering novelist's life in revolutionary Russia, Nazi Germany and Cold War America, all the while seeking reflections of those historical contexts in his fiction. Her desire for "the events and the people in his books to matter … beyond their unblinking submission to his stylistic gifts" has even influenced her book's structure: The first and final chapters are both titled "Waiting for Solzhenitsyn," in a nod to another Russian author whose work she seems to find more satisfying in its straightforward engagement with history.
Solzhenitsyn, in fact, may have voiced the book's strongest critique of Nabokov and other Russian émigrés, which Pitzer quotes: "To what did they devote their precious freedom? To the female body, to ecstasy, to sunsets. … They wrote as if there had been no Revolution in Russia, or as if it were too complex to explain." But as Pitzer observes, that history mattered greatly to Nabokov, and he placed it in his fiction alongside the sunsets, ecstasy and all the rest, just as he described it firsthand in his masterful memoir "Speak, Memory."
Pitzer metes out her conclusions slowly, holding us in suspense until she reveals a "secret history" hidden in each of Nabokov's major novels — in particular "Lolita" and "Pale Fire" — typically involving a momentous tragedy like the Gulag or the Holocaust. Certainly, careful readers of Nabokov's work will not be surprised that the author despised tyranny and satirized it throughout his fiction. He even said as much in the introduction to "Bend Sinister," his first American novel, acknowledging "certain reflections in the glass directly caused by idiotic and despicable regimes … worlds of tyranny and torture, of Fascists and Bolshevists, of Philistine thinkers and jack-booted baboons."
Without question, the horrors of the 20th century have always rumbled beneath the surface of Nabokov's novels, and Pitzer's new book is a fine guide to their nightmarish underbelly.
Jamie Olson teaches in the English Department at Saint Martin's University, just outside of Olympia, Wash.