Nabokov’s Gift

Roger Boylan in the Boston Review:

Vladimir_nabokov1He finds the right word, however unexpected. Any sampling of his work shows this; take a random sentence from the beginning of the story “Cloud, Castle, Lake”:

The locomotive, working rapidly with its elbows, hurried through a pine forest, then—with relief— among fields.

Whenever I reread this story I share anew the hardworking locomotive’s unexpected relief. And in Speak, Memory, that glowing memoir, we find an echo of Shakespeare (except for the pure Nabokovian parenthesis):

How small the cosmos (a kangaroo’s pouch would hold it), how paltry and puny in comparison to human consciousness, to a single individual recollection, and its expression in words!

Or this, from the opening pages of The Gift (1963):

In the curds-and-whey sky opaline pits now and then formed where the blind sun circulated.

Opaline! The heart sings. And in the same opening pages Stendhal’s famous comment about the novel being a mirror carried along a highway is neatly subverted and made into art.

As he crossed toward the pharmacy at the corner he involuntarily turned his head because of a burst of light that had ricocheted from his temple, and saw, with that quick smile with which we greet a rainbow or a rose, a blindingly white parallelogram of sky being unloaded from the van—a dresser with mirror across which, as across a cinema screen, passed a flawlessly clear reflection of boughs sliding and swaying not arboreally, but with a human vacillation, produced by the nature of those who were carrying this sky, these boughs, this gliding façade.

This is what John Updike meant when he said that Nabokov wrote prose “the way it should be written, that is, ecstatically.”

More here.