‘Nabokov in America’ looks at how U.S. shaped novelist

Michael Dirda in the Washington Post:

ScreenHunter_1204 Jun. 01 10.40Robert Roper isn’t a specialist in the study of Vladimir Nabokov or his fiction. In fact, he is himself principally a novelist, though one who has also published a study of Walt Whitman and a biography of legendary mountain climber Willi Unsoeld. Still, as Roper says in the introduction to “Nabokov in America,” he has loved his subject’s sometimes controversial books for 50 years, “especially the ones written while he lived in the United States.” The most famous of these is, of course, “Lolita” (1955).

Today Nabokov’s early works, composed in his native Russian though later translated into English, tend to be respected rather than loved. “The Gift” (1938) has been called the greatest Russian novel of the 20th century, but most readers — this one included — find it hard slogging. The late books, starting with “Ada” (1968), tend to be overly fancy and precious, self-reflexive exercises appealing only to the most ardent devotees. In effect, these lesser works are European, whether composed by a young exile fleeing the Russian Revolution or a world-famous candidate for the Nobel Prize (which he never won).

But the work of the roughly 20 years from 1940 to 1962 reveals, in Roper’s words, “the sheer flabbergasting Americanness of Nabokov’s transformation, the way he opened himself to ‘local influences’ ” once he arrived in this country at age 41 with his wife, Véra, and son, Dmitri. Before then, he’d been too much the aesthete, while “the American context . . . fed meaning and amplitude into fancy’s brew.” Nabokov’s finest work celebrates what his character Humbert Humbert calls “the lovely, trustful, dreamy, enormous country” that he and Lolita see by car.

More here.