Nabokov in America: On the Road to Lolita, by Robert Roper - book review: Seduced into a metamorphosis

Bloomsbury - £20

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The Independent Culture

Eventually clocking up 200,000 miles during road trips that criss-crossed the West, the Russian-born author Vladimir Nabokov all but devoured his adopted homeland of America. Having fled the turmoil of Europe with his family in 1940, his residence in America would last 20 years, during which he roamed its natural wonders in search of rare butterflies (he was an expert lepidopterist) and his reports of such travels contain shivers of Edenic bliss. America represented an ecstatic liberation for Nabokov.

The beguiling descriptions of his geographical meandering are the strongest suit of Robert Roper’s biography of Nabokov’s midlife “American period”. A novelist himself, Roper has a palpable admiration for the author’s oeuvre, but refuses to get swept away like so many “Nabokovians” before him. He swats away chatter about “genius” and his textual analysis gives pleasingly short shrift to flawed output such as Bend Sinister. Seductive evocations of post-war America help Roper make a good fist of his argument that an innate American audacity or effrontery seized Nabokov’s imagination, and so proved instrumental to his greatest, most daring fiction.

Reading Nabokov often fosters an unnerving sensation that we are not just following a story but being sucked into a lurid psychological hinterland. This effect reaches its apotheosis with the novel that Roper nicknames “Hurricane Lolita” for the disarray it wrought upon Nabokov’s life as well as American culture. Indeed, Nabokov’s stance on its subject matter, a literature professor’s predatory fixation on his landlady’s daughter, can still cause arguments at dinner parties. Roper mounts a staunch defence  without convincingly addressing Martin Amis’s discomfiting observation that almost a third of Nabokov’s fictional stories hinge upon the illicit appeal of prepubescent “nymphets”. Roper is sharp on how its style grows prolix with the garish, unmanageable excitement that follows the explosion of a taboo. But he also retains a touch of frowning sobriety in the face of the fizzing insinuating triumph of Nabokov’s prose as if his subject were a glint-eyed vamp he is determined won’t lead him astray.

Nabokov began his American period as a penurious college teacher struggling with his “second rate” English. In a metaphorical parallel so obvious one wonders why Roper neglects it, he then underwent a metamorphosis on a par with the butterflies he was obsessed by. Roper gives an engrossing and meticulous account of the serendipitous influences exerted by his adopted country. Yet there remains something outlandishly improbable about Nabokov’s transformation and that is no small part of the enduring fascination of his literary career.