Look at the Harlequins! / Vladimir Nabokov

(London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1975)

A fictional memoir in the voice of an emigre Russian novelist, who was born to a noble family, fled to Western Europe, studied at Cambridge, and made his name as a writer first in Russian on the Continent then in English in the United States. Nabokov presents this fictionalized, distorted version of his own life story in several parts, most of which correspond to the several wives of the narrator. The narrator uses his own novels as signposts to his own tale, and these novels have a funhouse-mirror correspondence to Nabokov’s own books. There’s a thinly-veiled Lolita (“A Kingdom by the Sea”), a Pale Fire (“See under Real”), even a Speak, Memory (“Ardis”)…. Reading this book after Nabokov’s real autobiography, Speak, Memory, the parallels and the distortions are all the clearer. It seems that he took the happy episodes and circumstances of his life — his privileged childhood, his loyal wife and son, his lepidoptery — and imagined what it would have been like for them to be as deeply unhappy as possible.

The usual obsessions make their appearance: butterflies, chess, life in exile, nymphets. Unfortunately they feel over-familiar to me, because it makes the book self-referential to the point of
self-indulgence. Perhaps that was the point, to recount a bad dream about a possible life that mercifully did not unfold. At least that’s how I read it at the moment. I’ve been a bit down lately and I feel better after reading this book!

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