Boyd biography is first to make Nabokov human




Brian Boyd.

Princeton University.

607 pages. $25. Since Vladimir Nabokov died in 1977, it has become clear that he is one of the great word-shamans of the 20th century. Moreover, despite his ivory-tower reputation, the magic of Nabokov's novels seems both necessary and healing for the last wounded years of this century. With a kind of giddy, even tricky integrity, he shows us how to bring together the aching fragments of our experiments: science and poetry, the isolated self and the possibility of love, and even the cultures of Russia and America.

For all his suave slyness, Nabokov is in the long run our most persistent and outrageous spokesman for love -- which he sees at last as transcending death itself. And until very recently, his lifelong devotion to his brilliant and beautiful wife, Vera, seemed to be, for the author's fans, proof that the master's character was as perfect as his novel's craft.

For though Nabokov often wrote about our century's expertise in the way of hell, his style proclaimed the way to heaven -- a heaven to be found in the imagination and in devoted love. And strangely enough -- while Nabokov denied that there was any connection between life and art -- his own life seemed to follow the happier patterns of his more sun-blessed novels, like "The Gift."

He and his wonderful wife and child carried their invulnerable private bliss through the obnoxiousness of poverty and the terror of war until, living a true fairy tale, the success of "Lolita" restored the wealth of the family and returned the clan to an idyllic version of Europe called Switzerland. On the mild mountain peak of his fame, Nabokov boasted of his paradisal ordinariness: "My own life is fresh bread with country butter and Alpine honey."

At the same time, it was becoming obvious that Nabokov was a moralist in the Russian tradition as well as an untamed firebird. He prophesied the "triumph of magic over the brute" and insisted that the best that one can do is "to be kind, to be proud, to be fearless."

Already a classic that will be endlessly discussed, Brian Boyd's new biography of the first half of Nabokov's life (a second part is in preparation) does not impair the adoration of Nabokov addicts. But it is the first biography to make the master shaman seem fully and amazingly human. At the same time, Nabokov's life seems both more contradictory and more coherent than before.

"Nabokov: the Russian Years" is lucidly entertaining proof of the connection between Nabokov's philosophy, life and art. Who before now even knew that Nabokov had a philosophy? And the very private Nabokov family used to excoriate anyone daring enough to see a connection between their lives and the increasingly famous novels.

But although Mr. Boyd was given the incredible privilege of free access to family papers, he also was placed under little serious restraint. Perhaps impressed by the dedicated and graceful precision of his research and his prose, the family has refrained from umbrage. It seems to accept now what must be accepted: Even a good man can be a sinner. And yet, Nabokov still shines.

Mr. Boyd, better than anyone else, tracks the shining trajectory of Nabokov's life back to the pure burst of living light that was his childhood among the happiest and wealthiest of Russian families. Nabokov's father was a liberal aristocrat, a scholar, a moral hero and martyr to fascism. His mother was a woman with one simple rule that she needed: "to love with all one's soul and leave the rest to fate," as Nabokov says of her in his memoir "Speak, Memory."

They adoringly favored their son, and he adored them and LTC incorporated their strength. It may be the ultimate secret of Nabokov that his ingenious life involved combining the adventurous and realistic mind of his father with the sensuous "mysticism" of his mother. Thus, his wild imagination was a thing of palpable and lofty reality. Drawing from both admirable parents, he could believe in what he calls "the passion of science and the precision of poetry."

What make this biography an instant classic is that Mr. Boyd manages to follow Nabokov's precision, and thus he gives us the very texture and shape of his life in Russia, and thereafter in the exile of Berlin and Paris, ending just before the family miraculously found refuge from Hitler in merry America.

And the main point about Nabokov's life and art becomes the main point about Mr. Boyd's biography. If you caress the texture of life withpassionate precision, you will discover the magical pattern that is hidden inside supposed banality.

Nabokov believed strongly in the value of pity. He knew that suffering and boredom are as inevitable as the humiliation of our limitation. But Mr. Boyd is right to emphasize the centrality of happiness in Nabokov's life and work: "Life teems with happiness, Nabokov felt confident, if only we can learn not to take our world for granted. That primary disposition . . . shapes all his work, its curiosity, its openness, and above all its sense of grateful wonder."

But it is his very openness to life that could cause intense anguish. A generosity that -- in art and in life -- could connect all things lovingly also could experience the limitations of such connections with greater than average pain. Mr. Boyd says of Nabokov that "he sees consciousness as the space of freedom . . . and yet consciousness . . . is also, being only human, the site of our confinement . . . The intensity of [his characters'] emotion seems to raise them to new heights of tenderness and the point of self-transcendence -- and right here . . . they become their most blindly selfish and cruel."

But it is the details that count -- both in Mr. Boyd and in Nabokov. One takes away from this fine book permanently delightful memories of remarkable Nabokov. It is a luminous fact that Nabokov instantly fell in love with his lifelong companion when he saw her costumed in a mask -- and he prophesied their life together in a poem. Such love survives anything.

And Nabokov's tenderness really did know few limits. Like his beloved Chekhov, Nabokov liked to rescue mice from traps, as he notes in a typically tender letter to his wife: "I am saving mice. . . . the maid wanted to kill the one she caught, but I took it out into the garden. . . . I've already let three go that way -- or perhaps it's all the same mouse."

Mr. Margulies is a poet and a curator at the Bayly Art Museum of the University of Virginia.

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