cover image The Secret History of Vladimir Nabokov

The Secret History of Vladimir Nabokov

Andrea Pitzer. Pegasus (Norton, dist.), $29.95 (439p) ISBN 978-1-60598-411-7

Despite the title, this literary study–cum–biography contains little in the way of salacious details from Nabokov’s personal life. Instead, journalist Pitzer argues that Nabokov’s work, and his eventful but not notably scandalous life, intersected with very public history in ways often missed or misunderstood. Many know Nabokov as a Russian aristocrat and refugee from the Bolsheviks, but Pitzer expands on these facts to describe how his liberal reformer father, V.D., fell afoul of both Lenin and czarist supporters. Though the experience made Nabokov staunchly anticommunist, Pitzer’s use of Alexander Solzhenistyn in counterpoint throughout illustrates how much more subtly her subject addressed political violence. The Holocaust also casts a shadow over this account of his life, from his gay, outspokenly anti-Nazi brother Sergei’s death in a concentration camp, to his beloved wife Vera’s defiant assertions of her Jewish identity against postwar America’s more genteel but still pervasive anti-Semitism. Pitzer finds this latter theme running through Lolita in unspoken parallel to Humbert Humbert’s more obvious obsessions, while Zembla, the lunatic narrator’s apparently illusory birthplace in Pale Fire, turns out to correspond to the Arctic archipelago Nova Zembla, a mysterious last stop for Soviet political prisoners. Though Pitzer’s stylized prose is burdened by a vain hope of equaling Nabokov’s mastery, her fresh perspective will likely send readers back to his books. 16 pages b&w photos. Agent: Katherine Boyle, Veritas Agency. (Mar.)