Tuesday, March 30, 2010
Filling in one of the holes in my Nabakovoid backlist; I know the English-language novels pretty well, but one or two of the Russian-language ones have so-far slipped my net. In fact I had previously been put off reading this one by Julian Symons’ strangely simpering blurb-quotation on the back cover of my 1974-vintage Penguin paperback (my Dad’s old copy): ‘a quiet charming novel about the upbringing of a Russian émigre with a passion for trains and a yearning romanticism about girls.’ It turns out that this endorsement is not only watery, it’s wrong in every single word, except the antepenultimate one.
Well, I suppose it’s right about the hero of the tale being a Russian émigre. But the novel is much more forceful, more brightly coloured, and more (deliberately) glorious than Symons lets on. Martin, the hero, grows up in Russia; flees the Revolution with his mother to Switzerland, and thence to Cambridge university to study. The novel as a whole makes a salutary counterexample to those who think Nabakov’s schitck was an ‘aesthetics of cruelty’; for it is a novel about goodness, and beauty, and quite deliberately lacks melodramatic tension, although it is actually brimming with Nabokov’s trademark rapturous gorgeousness. Actually, it’s a sort-of precursor to American Beauty, without this latter text’s suburban clunkiness and mauvaise foi. In his introduction, Nabokov notes that the ‘certainly very attractive working title (later discarded in favour of the pithier Podvig, “gallant feat”, “high deed") was Romanticheskiy vek, “romantic times”, which I had chosen partly because I had had enough of hearing Western journalists call our era “materialistic”, “practical”, “utilitarian” etc.’ The novel assiduously seeks out the aesthetic rapture of its versions of, as it were, the plastic bag stirred by the breeze:
Uncle Henry’s bête noire was to him the twentieth century. Now this amazed Martin, since in his opinion one could not imagine a better century than this one in which he lived. No other epoch had such brilliance, such daring, such projects. Everything that had glimmered in previous ages—the passion for exploration of unknown lands, the audacious experiments, the glorious exploits of disinterested curiosity, the scientists who went blind or who were blown to bits, the heroic conspiracies, the struggle of one against many—now emerged with unprecedented force. The cool suicide of a man after his having lost millions on the stock market struck Martin’s imagination as much as, for instance, the death of a Roman general falling on his sword. An automobile advertisement, brightly beckoning in a wild, picturesque gorge from an absolutely inaccessible spot on an alpine cliff thrilled him to tears. The complaisant and affectionate nature of very complicated and very simple machines, like the tractor or the linotype, for example, induced him to reflect that the good in mankind was so contagious that it infected metal. When, at an amazing height in the blue sky above the city, a mosquito-sized airplane emitted fluffy, milk-white letters a hundred times as big as it, repeating in divine dimensions the flourish of a firm’s name, Martin was filled with a sense of marvel and awe. [120-21]