Blog | Eugene Havens

How Nabokov’s life of exile is now our own

Western culture has become the authoritarian enemy Nabokov fled.

Author Eugene Havens

About Me

Eugene Havens is the founder of The Writing Thing Press. A graduate of the MFA program at The New School, Eugene is the author of Marble on a Table: A Novel. See Eugene's author page.

An artist’s lesson

Throughout his life, Vladimir Nabokov resisted the role before him of an outspoken political figure. Nabokov was perennially outspoken about everything else. Eons before social media existed, Vladimir Nabokov used the power of a troll’s cudgel. Strong Opinions is an aptly-named book of Nabokov’s reviews, essays, and interviews. Nabokov was a master of the pithy quote. He could detest something with poetic flair. Newspaper and magazine journalists pestered Nabokov for interviews throughout his later years. Nabokov often obliged.

Back when he wrote his most famous works, in the 1950s and 60s, serious literature was a mainstream topic. Nabokov held court on literary matters but was asked about politics as well. His answers were as cryptic as his seriocomic metaphysical novels. He gave answers, at least in his mind. They were usually opaque.

Nabokov found himself to be a political football in the first half of the 20th century.

The curiosity over Nabokov’s politics went beyond the usual questioning of a literary writer. Nabokov found himself to be a political football in the first half of the 20th century. At age twenty, Nabokov fled the Russian Revolution. Nabokov escaped Nazi Germany in 1937. Finally, Nabokov was granted entry into the United States as Germany invaded France. In every case, he was fortunate to escape. His brother Sergei died in a Nazi camp.

Other writers, most famously Solzhenitsyn, were similarly embroiled in 20th-century political movements and enmeshed in world events. They would go on to use these rich experiences in their writing. They would campaign for just political causes. These writers would use turbulent life episodes to establish a platform on which to end the kinds of persecution they endured.

One writer didn’t see it this way. Nabokov viewed his fiction as a sacred space. It was the rudeness of dictators and fascists to encroach on people’s lives with their devastation. To give these interlopers access to his fictional worlds was just as barbaric.

Furthermore, Nabokov rejected the notion that literature had a strong connection with real life. To Nabokov’s refined tastes, everyday life was cluttered, boorish, and even illusory. Fiction was a preferable alter-reality for thinking people to embrace. Through fiction, we inhabit a curated world filled with beauty and meaning. The spell of the story was all. Did it come from lived experience? Did it emanate from a writer’s subconscious? The answer was pointless. Was the spell credible? Was it persuasive as high art? Nabokov cared about this goal alone.

The only dictator Nabokov discussed at length was himself. He boasted of his authorial control over his stories. Nabokov’s characters weren’t living, breathing creations, a notion romanticized by E.M. Forster. To Nabokov, it was nonsense. His characters played their assigned roles in his narratives. He fondly described them as “galley slaves.” They did their jobs.

Fiction was a preferable alter-reality for thinking people to embrace.

Nabokov fans can admit, not everyone likes this kind of writing. His prose leads a reader into a myopic landscape of sensory overload and pitch-perfect intelligence. Some have speculated Nabokov was on “the spectrum.” Today, such a question brings a charge of unfairness. And yet, hyper-focus is the gift a fan of Nabokov (this one included) appreciates. If being on the spectrum aided him in this effect, why not? His lens was unique.

Nabokov’s art was so bold, forceful, and, at times, vehement, he is many a would-be author’s first tutor. This writer concedes that Nabokov schooled him, from the page, on his unmistakably unfollowable style. One learns to appreciate the value of detail, however small. Then, as Martin Amis observed, one realizes one cannot write like Nabokov and slinks away chastened.

It’s the effect of Nabokov’s career to argue over his qualities and even his relevance. To some, he’s a statuesque figure of world letters, a Gandalf-like master who writes from another dimension. For others, Nabokov is an overrated prose stylist whose English usage approximates an ambitious skier leaning too far forward and hoping for a spectacular landing.

Nearly a half-century after his death, Vladimir Nabokov remains relevant in literary circles. Not quite the literary lion he hoped to be remembered as, nevertheless, Nabokov continues to be a reference point for money-making literature.

Lolita is an entry-point for pop culture readers, like A Clockwork Orange, a counter-cultural novel that will never die. Nabokov would likely have bemoaned a comparison with the proletarian Burgess. This writer is without sympathy. Lolita is a novel that uses inventive prose to describe morally reprehensible acts. No amount of time or literary distance can change this sad fact. Nabokov’s reputation would be made, and destroyed, by Lolita.

Is Nabokov redeemable for opponents of his most famous novel? This writer favors his Collected Stories over the novels from either his Russian or English periods. When Nabokov wrote economically to limited space, his plots were inventive. His metaphysical forays were more restrained. His prose still shone.

Even when he was alive and world-famous, Nabokov was more easily admired than understood. Fluent in multiple languages, a nobleman by birth, and later an eccentric and a curmudgeon, Nabokov seemingly enjoyed being an enigmatic figure. He never tried to bridge his differences with American readers. Instead, he hoped to educate his audience like college students, a hopelessly optimistic task.

It’s possible the least-valued aspect of Nabokov, at least by Nabokov himself, will help to inspire modern writers.

Nabokov has even less in common with today’s writers and readers, save a steady stream of Lolita rubberneckers. It’s possible the least-valued aspect of Nabokov, at least by Nabokov himself, will help to inspire modern writers. It’s his flight from tyranny in the 1940s and his staunch opposition to communism afterward.

When Nabokov lowered himself to talk about dictators, it was to warn the West against Stalin. Nabokov’s family lost everything when the communists took over Russia. And yet, it was communism’s belief in censorship that disgusted Nabokov, possibly even more.

In 1940, Nabokov arrived in the United States. Clearly, it was a night-and-day difference between Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia. Even the most jaundiced revisionist historian of today would admit the United States was a free society in comparison. The obvious differences in the lack of concentration camps and harsh government control; it doesn’t even bear comparison. The United States was not a fascist country. Germany and the USSR were.

From Nabokov’s point of view, the writer was free to explore his artistic world and move throughout the country without a problem.

And yet, for Nabokov, there were hints of fascism on the wing.

He arrived in the US needing a job. He was the author of several Russian-language novels written under the pseudonym Sirin. They were well-regarded in the Russian emigré community of Berlin. In the United States, Nabokov’s novels were obscure. He would need good fortune to get a teaching position at an Ivy League college.

How to respond to the discovery that American academia was sympathetic to the Soviet experiment, as it was called?

Nabokov would have to play his cards right. How to respond to the discovery that American academia was sympathetic to the Soviet experiment, as it was called? The USSR was technically an ally of the United States in World War II. Stalin was actively duping the West over the false paradise of communism. In 1944, the US Vice President was conned into believing a Soviet penal labor camp was staffed by volunteers. The New York Times wrote one favorable article after another about the USSR. Nabokov was incensed.

What demoted Nabokov before his American peers wasn’t a hatred of Stalin. It was Nabokov’s withering critique of his countryman Dostoevsky. It was all but certain that Nabokov was denied a teaching position at Harvard for trashing The Brothers Karamazov and laughing at Dostoevsky’s overall lack of taste. Nabokov learned that United States academia wasn’t as free as advertised.

Cancel culture came early for Nabokov. He took a job at Cornell.

Later, Nabokov would be freer to speak, owing to the success of his novel Lolita. He used his platform sparingly. He attacked censorship, and he attacked Stalin. It wasn’t as much as he could have said. For him, a few comments were a lengthy discourse.

Of course, Nabokov would be vindicated in his view of Stalin. The West would recant its favorable impression of the USSR. It would accept having been duped. Nabokov would also outlast the temporary censorship of his novel Lolita. It was published in the United States in 1958, three years after its appearance in Paris.

Nabokov would become a change agent for American cultural society.

Without intending to be, Nabokov would become a change agent for American cultural society. He pushed boundaries with his controversial novel, boundaries that were never seen again in America. Since Nabokov, artistic license is now the de facto reason for the mainstreaming of prurient entertainment.

When Nabokov died in 1977, the life story of a Russian emigré and one-time political prisoner seemed to be a wholly American one. He spoke boldly. He prevailed. And yet, what would Nabokov think of the America we’ve inherited in the last ten years?

Today, those who praise Lolita are now the censors.

The Stalin-admiring academia that Nabokov encountered, warily, has blossomed into an ideological proponent of censorship. Unapproved viewpoints are shouted down or silenced. Personal opinions are labeled as political dissent and are stifled.

The trouble Nabokov had in critiquing Dostoevsky’s books is now shared among people who disagree with a new social orthodoxy. The topics that land one in trouble with gatekeepers are extensive. You don’t get published in New York today apart from this orthodoxy.

Gone is the humanistic study of life that Nabokov gave himself to. The canon is being rewritten.

If you are published, it necessitates the writing of politically-minded books. Gone are the spellbinding narratives that Nabokov obsessed over. Gone is the humanistic study of life that Nabokov gave himself to. The canon is being rewritten. The goal is to engineer human discourse into something artificial and untrue.

As Nabokov quoted Lenin in a college class:

“Every artist has the right to create freely; but we, Communists, must guide him according to plan.”

Vladimir Lenin

This country, which Nabokov fled to in 1940, now shares values with the fascist countries Nabokov fled prior. What would he think? A stubborn man of deep conviction, Nabokov would abhor censorship even by his admirers. He would prove enigmatic once again. “Readers are born free and ought to remain free,” he said.

Nabokov lived in exile from his Russian homeland for 58 years. He would never return. He managed the tragedy of his alien status by creating rich fictional worlds. It wasn’t his escape. It was an act of defiance. He would finally be published in his own country nine years after his death. It was another vindication.

We have woken up to a country Nabokov would not recognize. How will we respond? What might we create in our own defiance?

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