Award-winning Nabokov biographer Brian Boyd wrote an MA thesis that Vladimir Nabokov called “brilliant” and a PhD thesis that Véra Nabokov thought the best thing written about her husband to date. Boyd, editor of Letters to Véra, chronicling the decades-long love story between Vladimir and Véra, picks the 10 best Nabokov books.
Vladimir Nabokov’s Letters to Véra, edited and translated by Olga Voronina and myself, publishes on November 4 (Knopf). The letters cover a span from 1923, the year the couple met, to 1976, the year before Nabokov died. Véra famously helped Vladimir as first reader, editor, typist, secretary and agent, although not, despite the rumors, as co-author. But Nabokov did once write to her: “I read parts of your little card (about the move—terrible! I can imagine . . . ) out loud to Ilyusha and Zinzin and they said they understood now who writes my books for me.” We can see glints and shadows or more of Véra in four of the books on this top ten list, in Pale Fire’s Sybil Shade, The Gift’s Zina Mertz, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight’s Claire Bishop, and Speak, Memory’s “you.”
Martin Amis is not alone in rating Nabokov the greatest writer of the twentieth century while ranking Ulysses as the century’s greatest single novel. The top two novels below, though, have both rated higher than even Ulysses in some published lists. Don’t take such orderings too seriously, but do take the books into your life.
1. Pale Fire (1962) - Crystalline perfection within fractured form makes for what has been called the world’s first and best hypertext novel, and the greatest novel of its century. An Appalachian campus poet’s long autobiographical poem is commandeered and annotated line by line by his insanely egoistic neighbour, whose notes foreground himself and Zembla rather than poem and poet. A torrent of stories, a magic whirl of opposites, poetry and prose, realism and untrammelled fancy, solid homeliness and wild exile, stasis and haste, sanity and madness, serenity and despair, hilarity and heartbreak. Beneath the radiant surface that dazzles from the first lie endless depths and echoes, sunken cities with trapdoors into more mysteries and wonders.
2. Lolita (1955) - Nabokov’s most accessible masterpiece, told by one of literature’s most seductive monsters—and another novel often rated the greatest of the century. A handsome 38-year-old pedophile hunts and traps the 12-year-old love of his life. Perhaps the only scandalous work to shock later readers even more than its initial audience, it assaults our imaginations as it mingles memory and desire, passion and playfulness, tenderness and cruelty, love and its contraries: lust, self-love, hatred. Endless variations on the hunter hunted offer surprises and ironies that deepen as we reread. For all its accessibility Lolita may still elude us more than even the mirage world of Pale Fire or the opulent antiworld of Ada.
3. Ada (1969) - The novel in the Nabokov canon that provokes the wildest disagreement. Many hate this saga of ardent sibling incest, others think it Nabokov’s supreme achievement. Indisputably his richest work, it offers a narrative match for Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights, full of topsy-turvy couplings, paradise and hell, ardent youth and lecherous age, and a literary, amatory and culinary degustation banquet, from elegiac parody of nineteenth-century fiction and romanticism to proto-steampunk science fiction. Readers who dislike it suppose Nabokov cannot disentangle himself from his super-endowed hero and heroine; readers who love it see his critique of the abuse of privilege of every kind, from wealth, class, intelligence, confidence and energy all the way to birth order.
4. Speak, Memory (1951) - The most artistic of autobiographies, with Nabokov’s finest prose—and since he has often been called the greatest prose writer in English (or even in any language), that’s saying something. The precision of detail, the controlled radiance of feeling, the force of thought, the evocative attention to unique people and places, the shapeliness within the accidents of history and the wear and tear of time, the interweaving of subtly concealed themes—all make this as enchanting as Nabokov thought the best fiction should be.
5. The Gift (1938) - To many Russian readers, Nabokov’s greatest work. An émigré writer in Berlin, his quick mind engaging with his slow world, discovers his true art and his true love. Fyodor does not let us see until the end that the love story that emerges only halfway through this long novel has actually shaped it from the start, a recognition that magically redeems what had seemed his lost time. Nabokov challenges Proust and Joyce in his portrait of an artist discovering how to render his life into art, his frustration into fulfillment. At the same time he offers his amplest exploration of Russia’s literary heritage, in the nineteenth century and in the emigration, and its historical fate and geographical spread, east into Asia and west into exile. Orhan Pamuk has learned much from this novel.
6. The Defense (or The Luzhin Defense, 1930) - One of Nabokov’s two most heartwarming works, and the one I often recommend to wary readers as the place to begin: the story of a chess genius who finds chess patterns invading the non-chess world just when that has started to mean so much more to him. Luzhin’s endearing but painful awkwardness in everyday existence falls away as he soars over the chessboard, but his sublime concentration there makes life ever harder to return to.
7. Pnin (1957) - Nabokov’s other most heartwarming novel. Outwardly, Professor Pnin, with his impossible English, seems only a comic figure on campus; inwardly, he is nobly selfless, dedicated, infinitely lonely and sad. The novel examines humor and sympathy, dislocation and human displacement. Even a version of Nabokov himself adds to Pnin’s woes and threatens all he has left, his precarious independence.
8. The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (1941) - Nabokov’s first novel in English, a drolly frustrated biography by a Russian émigré, V., of his half-English brother, the novelist Sebastian Knight. In the course of his thwarted quest for Knight and the woman who may have precipitated his death, V. seems unwittingly to re-enact his brother’s wildly inventive stories, so much so that the biography itself starts to seem like another of Knight’s works. Using parody as a springboard to the region of highest emotion, this light, swift novel explores life, art, exile, loss, and the shift from one language or love to another in ways painfully close to Nabokov’s experience at the time.
9. Invitation to a Beheading (1935-36) - A poetic dystopian novel of a man condemned to execution for the opacity of his mind in a world of transparent souls. Written the year Hitler consolidated power and as Stalin tightened his grip, this novel is both one of Nabokov’s most topical and his least constrained by the outer world. Despite imprisonment and the sentence of death, despite the incomprehension of others, Cincinnatus’s minds runs and even walks free.
10. The Stories - Written between 1923 and 1951, mostly in his Russian years, Nabokov’s stories show his gift for vivifying people, places and times meeting his gift for metaphysical quest and artistic challenge. Among the best are the novel-rich “Spring in Fialta,” the agonizingly unresolvable “Signs and Symbols,” the eerie “Ultima Thule” and “The Visit to the Museum,” the perfectly posed riddle of “The Vane Sisters,” and the variously vulnerable inner worlds of “Cloud, Castle, Lake,” “The Aurelian,” “Perfection” and “Christmas.”