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Vladimir Nabokov: Genius or narcissist?

With publication of yet another florid paean to Lolita's creator, Viv Groskop asks what it means to be the ultimate 'writer's writer'

Sunday 29 May 2011 00:00 BST

No one inspires the devotion of writers quite like Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov. Here's Jake Arnott, the author of The Long Firm (Favourite Nabokov: The Real Life of Sebastian Knight): "He has this uncanny ability to be simultaneously precise and obscure with language; a conjuror diverting our attention with each trick."

Mark Crick, the author of Kafka's Soup (his favourite? Pale Fire), says: "Almost everything about Nabokov entertains and amuses me: his habit of writing in pencil on index cards; his eccentricities as a teacher; his butterfly collecting; his decision to live in the [Montreux Palace] hotel in Switzerland; his intense dislike of Dostoevsky."

A new book by the French-born, New York-based writer Lila Azam Zanganeh, The Enchanter (Allen Lane, £20), proclaims Nabokov as the ultimate writer's writer. Passionately in love with the work of the man she calls "VN", Zanganeh intends this tribute as "a profound and sweet-hearted guide to the singular, devotional love that can develop between a reader and a writer".

The Enchanter already has stellar fans. "Intimate and alluring," says Azar Nafisi, the author of Reading Lolita in Tehran. "Delightful," says Orhan Pamuk. Salman Rushdie is in raptures: "Her book is a joyful response to the joy that inspired all of Nabokov's art."

To the average reader, though – even the most enthusiastic and bookish among us – The Enchanted has a lot of the same problems as Nabokov's work. Beautiful though many of its stories are, it's hard to avoid the creeping sensation that it is all, well, a bit up itself.

Elif Batuman (Favourite Nabokov: "Pale Fire – it really is the most incredible book"), the author of this year's surprise non-fiction bestseller The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and People Who Read Them (Granta, £16.99), has a wonderful theory on Nabokov: "He plays to the fantasies of artsy people with the chess, the butterflies, the Russianness, but he's the ultimate crossover artist. He gets all the role-playing fans with Zembla; he gets all the aesthetes with nostalgia and Rimbaud; and he gets the creative-writing types with the incredibly vivid pictures of Americana. I think he tried to be everything to all people, like Shakespeare."

But how, apart from the obligatory Lolita, do you find a way in? It is tempting to take the view of Linda Grant, the Booker-shortlisted author of How to be Good (Virago, £14.99): "Sorry. But I don't really get him." This is the problem with Nabokov, isn't it? You admire him. How can you not? He wrote nine novels in Russian and then switched effortlessly into English. But do you actually want to read him?

Perhaps he's only a writer's writer. And a certain kind of (self-regarding?) writer at that. Martin Amis: "I bow to no one in my love for this great and greatly inspiring genius." Rushdie again: "The most important writer ever to cross the boundary between one language and another." Others bowing in worship include John Updike, Don DeLillo, Jeffrey Eugenides and Zadie Smith. But these maybe aren't people you look to for book recommendations. In The Complete Polysyllabic Spree, Nick Hornby's brilliant reading diary of accessible must-reads, Nabokov features not at all.

Are we wrong to be put off? Rupert Thomson, the author of This Party's Got to Stop (Granta, £8.99), says: "I find the phrase 'writer's writer' something of a back-handed compliment as it suggests a certain obscurity. It might even be a euphemism for 'not widely read'. Given that Nabokov wrote Lolita, an international bestseller, he hardly qualifies. To my mind, 'writer's writer' ought to be the highest of compliments. What is a writer, after all, but the most acute and passionate of readers? Look at it that way and a writer's writer is actually a reader's writer."

Thomson cites – persuasively, seductively – his favourite lines. "Here's Humbert Humbert, towards the end of Lolita, describing what he has written: 'It has bits of marrow sticking to it, and blood, and beautiful bright-green flies.' Nabokov took extraordinary liberties with the language, precisely because it wasn't his."

Thomson does, however, sound a note of caution: "I sometimes find his writing overwrought. There's a look-at-me quality, a narcissism that sends me running back to the Chekhovs of this world. I forget who bitched that nobody thought more highly of Nabokov than Nabokov himself but if I was to be ultra-critical, I'd say it is apparent in his work." This is another reason why Nabokov is the writer's writer: he's the ultimate in self-belief, and if you are to be a great novelist, you need that more than anything.

We should be wary, however, of concentrating too much on Nabokov the man, says the author and feminist Natasha Walter: "To be honest, I'm not interested in his life. I've skimmed some of Brian Boyd's biography and have his collected letters, but I find the man himself uninteresting, even disappointing, compared to the work. Which is fine – it's often the case with great artists. I think he is incredibly witty but not in a way that makes me laugh. There's very often something cruel in his wit."

Walter's favourite Nabokov is Ada. "I fell in love with it when I was a teenager and, although I can see why people find it self-indulgent, whenever I go back to it I am completely won over again. It is an unashamed paean to love. Nobody writes prose as beautiful as Nabokov's. You can savour the cadences of his sentences as if they were poetry and yet he also has all the wit and emotional truth that you want from a novelist."

Nabokov, then, is perhaps doing us all a service. He shows writers what writing can do, and to the humble reader, well, he just shows off. As Walter elegantly puts it: "His work has inspired me not to write fiction."

Lolita By Vladimir Nabokov (Penguin £8.99)

"Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta. She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita."

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