In his short story “Rich in Russia,” John Updike sends his protagonist, the Jewish-American writer Henry Bech – a one-book wonder – on a goodwill tour of the Soviet bloc countries in the mid-1960s.
Meeting with a group of admiring translators in Moscow, Bech encounters the inevitable question about who is America’s best living writer.
He answers, “Nabokov,” and “there was quite a silence before the next question.”
The brilliance of Bech’s reply – and Updike’s humor – cuts both ways.
The Russians, in their totalitarian state of insulation, sense that they have lost the talent of one of their own (who escaped the Motherland nearly 50 years earlier). Yet they cannot share in the prodigal’s glory, because they do not know who he is.
And America, where Nabokov became a citizen in 1945, apparently has no native son worthy to compete with the Russian’s linguistic wizardry: his penchant for incisive, lyrical prose, full of wordplay and intricate puzzles; his inverted patterns of self-reference; his fierce, imperious intelligence; his outsider’s sensibility; his dark, sardonic wit.
Bech may be wrong in his assessment – as he often is in Updike’s three-volume collection of stories about his alter ego. But what has rarely been in dispute is that Nabokov remains a master of English fiction. Indeed, he is one of the modernists who “reinvented the novel as a vehicle for poetic prose,” according to Thomas Karshan in his introduction to Nabokov’s “Selected Poems.”
That certainly was the view of the American literary critic Edmund Wilson in 1941, when he praised Nabokov’s debut novel in English: “It is all on a high poetic level, and you have succeeded in being a first-rate poet in English.” But, of course, Wilson meant a poetic writer of prose, not literally a poet, as say, Eliot or Pound was.
But if Bech or Updike or Karshan or even Wilson tried to persuade an American audience today that Nabokov should first and foremost be considered a poet, he would be greeted with a silence at least as long as the Russians’.
That’s a reaction that Karshan and Nabokov’s son, Dmitri, hope to change. Together, they have produced a handsome, engaging volume of Nabokov’s best poems (from the hundreds he published during his lifetime), including 28 new translations by Dmitri; all the poems – Russian and English – from Nabokov’s 1969 volume of “Poems and Problems”; and nine new English poems that he never ushered into print.
It makes for an impressive ensemble that demonstrates his effortless facility with traditional poetic forms, thereby adding to the sizeable array of his already inimitable gifts.
And because Nabokov’s American fans can’t seem to get enough of his writings – or writing about him – “Selected Poems” should round out their portrait of the maestro: a highly polished profile of his pleasant, occasionally profound, but always proficient poetry.
Yet even if Nabokov primarily thought of himself as a poet, we still have to assess the significance of what he called his “steady mass of verse.”
His defenders, like Karshan, take the high road, claiming Nabokov’s allegiance to a grand metaphysical theory of art, supported by his widow’s pronouncement that the “otherworld” was the watermark of his oeuvre.
No poet should be punished for aiming skyward, but a more sober reading of “Selected Poems” confirms the verdict of Nabokov’s earliest Russian critics: He shows a meticulous mastery of meter and rhyme, but his content proves surprisingly unoriginal, even banal.
through many a tangled year;
because the sun is there.
On balance, Nabokov’s poems yield the small, quotidian delights characteristic of light verse – his love of “simple tender things.”
This puts him in good company with Updike, for instance, both of whose poems proved favorites of the New Yorker magazine for many years.
In the end, Nabokov’s stylistic genius aimed at revealing the hidden meanings of his world. But as the poem “In Paradise” so poignantly attests, this desire reduces poetry to cataloging the delicate designs of butterfly wings, hardly a vocation of existential profundity.
Thus, however pleasing the handful of truly fine specimens in “Selected Poems” may be – the ones that beg to be read aloud – they can’t supplant Nabokov the brilliant, inventive, ironic novelist, devilishly at play with the shadows of identity, the innate trickery of reality, the perplexing patterns of nature, and the vortex of the modern self in America.
This remains his legacy, as Wilson first heralded: all on an extraordinarily high level, to be sure. Poetic indeed.