In Vladimir Nabokov’s 1933 short story “The Leonardo”— written in Germany just as Hitler came to power— the reader is presented with a trio of main characters: two thuggish German brothers living as roommates, and a mysterious lodger who moves in as their neighbor. The lodger is a poet, we’re told, working quietly in his room each night, leading a cloistered life which stirs the brothers to suspicion. The brothers bully the poet using increasingly violent tactics, culminating in a murder plot. In a cruel twist, the narrator reveals that the poet was not who we thought he was—he was an impostor of sorts, a producer of beautiful counterfeits—and the rug is swept out from beneath the reader as the brothers are somewhat vindicated; a case of two criminals having “only” murdered another criminal.
“The Leonardo” illustrates, in miniature, what has come to be the popular characterization of Nabokov’s style: beautiful, cold, apolitical and purely aesthetic, with the ever-deceptive Nabokov displaying an unrelenting cruelty to his characters in story after story. As Andrea Pitzer notes in The Secret History of Vladimir Nabokov, “Nabokov is fond of trumping what we think we know about a character with new information that rattles our expectations.” Pitzer sets out to rattle the popular conception of Nabokov by asking the question, What if Vladimir Nabokov was doing more than just making “art for art’s sake”?
Bookended by a historic near-meeting between the ostensibly apolitical Nabokov and the decidedly political Alexander Solzhenitsyn in 1974, Pitzer’s story follows Nabokov and family across war-torn early-20th-century Europe as they flee first from the Bolsheviks in post-Revolution Russia, and then from the Nazis in Germany and France. Pitzer emphasizes the humanistic themes in Nabokov’s work along the way, from his early short stories and plays all the way up to his final novels.
Many of the biographical points in this book were new to me, such as the fact that it was Vera Nabokov’s multilingual abilities and talents as a technical writer that supported Vladimir and their son Dmitri for many years, while Vladimir played the role of stay-at-home dad. The fact that Nabokov’s homosexual brother, Sergei, perished in a Nazi concentration camp (a point which is only granted a single sentence in Nabokov’s autobiography, Speak, Memory) also came as a surprise. In Sergei Nabokov’s story lay the heart of Pitzer’s argument: given the profound ways in which anti-Semitism and the specter of Russian and German concentration camps personally touched Vladimir Nabokov’s life, and given how fond he was of folding puzzles into his work, isn’t it likely that Nabokov’s works still contain undiscovered commentary on the brutal history of 20th-century Europe?
I must admit, I was skeptical when I first picked up this book. My first thought: If Nabokov had folded these political plums into some of his most famous works, wouldn’t he have chided the public for failing to pick up on his clues at some point, perhaps in one of the many harsh letters-to-the editor he fired off from his permanent residence in the Montreux Palace Hotel in Switzerland? After considering Pitzer’s methodically laid-out case, however, it becomes hard to argue that her reading of Nabokov’s oeuvre could be anything but spot-on. Suddenly, the idea that Nabokov may have intended Pale Fire’s delusional narrator, Charles Kinbote, to be a former prisoner of a remote Soviet concentration camp becomes obvious. The most surprising thing about this book is not the claims that Pitzer makes about Nabokov’s most famous novels, but how persuasively those claims are supported by evidence.
At times the book feels as though it strays into excessive recapitulations of World War II history. While many of the details concerning pre- and postwar Soviet concentration camps will be new to readers (as well as essential to understanding many of the references in Nabokov’s work), some of the pages that Pitzer devotes to rehashing details such as the Nazi Party’s rise to power felt unnecessary—well-worn territory that doesn’t need the space devoted to it here.
For the most part, however, the historical information is strongly relevant to Nabokov, and Pitzer’s handling of her material is so engaging that the book ends up offering something for everyone: the reader with a passing interest in Nabokov will gain a solid introduction to Nabokov’s life, as well as a refresher course in the political turmoil that surrounded it, and Nabophiles will be treated to new understanding, especially in the final 1/3 of the book, where Pitzer unveils her readings of Pale Fire and Lolita. Pitzer also gives us a wonderful, painstaking historical reconstruction of Sergei Nabokov’s final days in Nazi captivity at Neuengamme—a loving addendum of sorts to Speak, Memory.
The Secret History of Vladimir Nabokov presents an engaging argument that there may be jewels hidden within the works of the greatest prose stylist of the 20th century that have, for the most part, gone shamefully unappreciated.