Which is the best Nabokov novel? Any ranking is subjective but the reasons behind a “best of” rank can be illuminating. So I’ve given it a crack. Here is my personal list with notes, which includes a little cheating. Of the eight “best” Nabokov books on my list, you’ll notice only six are novels.
(1) A love of language
(2) Delight in word play, patterns, puzzles, and games
(3) A highly intelligent, narcissistic-sociopath narrator
(4) A resilient victim who is the center of Nabokov’s sympathy
(5) A pre-occupation with perception, consciousness, time, and memory
(6) A belief in fate and the existence of a great design behind what seem to be the random and irrelevant facts of ordinary life
(7) The conviction that art is a refuge from the assault of death
In addition, Lolita is the disturbing story of a successful child rapist. It features brilliant miniature portraits of postwar America – almost Vermeer-like in their lucidity – as well as a phantasmagorical climax that takes place in a fairytale nightmare land. Lolita is funny, harrowing, heartbreaking, and transcendent. It caused a scandal, was a critical and then a popular success, and made Nabokov a mint of money. As art and cultural phenomenon, Lolita excels.
Speak Memory (1966)
Not a novel, but a memoir of Nabokov’s life from childhood to the moment he escapes France weeks before the 1940 German invasion – Speak Memory is a classic of autobiography that leaves most of Nabokov’s story untold.
Instead, it focuses on Nabokov’s most cherished memories of his family and friend; his youth in Russia and his young adulthood in Western European exile; on the natural world and butterfly hunting; on a recital of the Nabokov family’s august history and their liberal politics; on stories of Vladimir’s education and tutors and governesses, including the famous “Mademoiselle O”; on poetry; and more.
Through it all permeates the great Nabokovian pre-occupation and conviction that there is more than darkness before the beginning and after the end of life; that our living persists and this persistence is wonderful; and that the people we love won’t disappear into nothingness after death. You find this theme frequently in Nabokov, but its purest distillation is here in this great book. *
Professor Timofey Pnin is Nabokov’s most deeply comic and deeply human character, and his response to the incessant comic cruelty Cervantes inflicts on Don Quixote. The structure of the novel is slight and episodic (Pnin began life as serial pieces published in The New Yorker) and lacks the dazzling pyrotechnics of books like Lolita, Pale Fire, and Ada. What Pnin offers instead is hilarity, enormous tenderness for the agonies of an ordinary life, and the danger of laughing at rather than laughing with Timofey; which is complicated by the fact that the arrogant narrator of this novel is not a Humbert Humbert or a Charles Kinbote, but Vladimir Nabokov himself.
Pale Fire (1962)
In terms of structure, technique, and pure virtuosity – and as a landmark of post-modern fiction – Pale Fire is Nabokov’s masterpiece. But it is a cold masterpiece.
The novel is constructed from a 999-line poem in rhyming couplets composed by one of the book’s characters (the Robert-Frost-like John Shade), with a forward, commentary, and index written by another (the extravagantly delusional Charles Kinbote).
The major conceit of Pale Fire is that Kinbote’s commentary has nothing to do with Shade’s poem, which creates a WTF experience for the unwarned first-time reader rivaled in English-language novels of the 20th century only by the “Benny” section of Faulkner’s The Sound and The Fury.
Nabokov’s prose in Pale Fire is brilliant; there is no better example of “the novel as chess problem” in his work; and Charles Kinbote is the craziest if not the most dangerous of Nabokov’s narrators (although it is difficult to tell what is “real” and what is imagination in his novels).
However, the human tenderness in Pale Fire – frequently buried in Nabokov’s major works – is particularly difficult to find here. It exists in Shade’s poem, which tells the story of his unhappy daughter’s suicide, and the long grief of Shade and his wife over their lost. But this is overwhelmed by Kinbote’s monumental self-absorption and the intricate innovation of Nabokov’s design. Nabokov’s supreme novel for the mind.
The Gift (1937)
The last and best of the novels Nabokov wrote in Russian, The Gift is a portrait of a young Russian writer, Fyodor Konstantinovich Godunov-Cherdyntsev, finding his way as an artist and falling in love with the woman who would become his wife.
Nabokov transforms this commonplace premise into a novel which is dense with detail, filled with examples of Godunov-Cherdyntsev’s writing, and convinced that fate is working secretly to assure the young writer’s happiness.
Nabokov’s powers of observation and description come to the forefront in The Gift, particularly since the novel, like many lives, is short on plot. This will please fans of modernism (if you like Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, I think you’ll like The Gift) but there are metafictional touches as well.
The novel features a 90-page chapter entirely devoted to a book by Fyodor called The Life of Chernyshevski as well as a generous sample of hostile reviews of it. Most especially, at the end, you see Fyodor coming up with the idea to write a book that will become The Gift itself.
Ada is Nabokov’s Finnegan’s Wake. Meaning that you can see Ada as either the summation of Nabokov’s artistic vision which pushes to their limits his genius as an author, the form of the novel, and the abilities of the audience. Or you can see Ada as a deeply self-indulgent, over-intricate and deliberately obscure, reader-hostile mess.
I’m inclined to the former view, although I think Ada is a good example of the axiom that more is not always better, and even Nabokov fans will need to endure a fair amount of confusion, re-read the novel several times, or rely on expert help (such as Brian Boyd’s Nabokov’s Ada or the chapters in his biography of Vladimir).
Ada is occupied with the 80+ year love affair between Van and Ada Veen who are, as it turns out, brother and sister and which takes place on a parallel / alternative Earth sometimes called Anti Terra and sometimes Demonia. All seven of the Nabokov qualities are in evidence, plus a fair amount of literary parody as well as a few science fiction touches and other assorted material that will keep readers so inclined to puzzle out Ada happily at work.
Bend Sinister (1947)
Nabokov always insisted he was indifferent to politics, but Bend Sinister suggests he wasn’t indifferent to the cruelty governments inflict on individuals.
The novel takes place in the nightmare city of Padukgrad, run by the dictator Paduk and his “Party of the Average Man”. Paduk wants Adam Krug, a renowned philosopher, to give a speech in support of his government. When Krug refuses, Paduk threatens his son, and the bungling brutality of Paduk’s thugs leads to tragedy.
In Bend Sinister, Nabokov focuses on Adam Krug’s love for his son and his cheerful contempt for the dictator Paduk, a childhood acquaintance. Although the novel takes place in a fictitious country, and feels like other Nabokovian worlds, Bend Sinister is an accurate portrait of the dynamics of the total state. What is fantasy, and what gives the novel its final punch, is when Nabokov reaches into the novel and mercifully saves a character from the suffering that state inflicts. (For a longer discussion of Nabokov and totalitarianism, see my post Tyrants Destroyed: Politics in the Novels of Vladimir Nabokov.)
Strong Opinions (1973)
Readers of this collection of interviews, edited to the last comma by Nabokov himself, could be forgiven for concluding Vladimir was even more arrogant and imperious than his reputation.
Nabokov does spank the hell out of just about everyone in Strong Opinions: Freud; a long list of “second rate” writers including Balzac, Dostoevski, Lawrence, Camus, Sartre, and Faulkner; consumers of “poshlost” or cheap, vulgar sometimes popular and sometimes exalted culture; Westerners duped by Soviet propaganda; members of any literary, social, or political group; fans of “general ideas” and “everyday reality” and “social interest” and “moral messages” in novels; Edmund Wilson and his grasp of Russian. The spanking goes on.
Nabokov does condemn cruelty and brutality in all its forms. He expresses a great sunny and personal happiness. And he provides useful facts, such as the pronunciation of his last name (“Na-bo-kov. A heavy open ‘o’ as in ‘knickerbocker’”) in his September 1965 interview with Robert Hughes. As complete a portrait of the public Nabokov as Speak Memory is a portrait of the private.
* Equal to Speak Memory as autobiography is My Mother’s House by Colette, which I also review on this blog.