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A really good writer, I mean, good enough to be great, can pull off the following opening: “Once upon a time there lived in Berlin, Germany, a man called Albinus.  He was rich, respectable, happy; one day he abandoned his wife for the sake of a youthful mistress; he loved; was not loved; and his life ended in disaster.”  And by “pull off,” I mean you read the entire book even after the plot's been handed to you.  In the hands of most writers, this opening would be a cheap ploy.  You read on because this particular opening happens to have been penned by Nabokov.  You aren't disappointed.  You may even read the book down to its final sentence, turn immediately back to the first sentence, and read again.   

The quote comes from Laughter in the Dark, which isn't one of Vladimir Nabokov's top five novels.  Possibly it makes the top ten.  Next to his masterpiece Ada, the beautifully lyrical Lolita (consistently rated one of 20th century's finest novels by people far further up the literary ladder than me), and the extraordinarily unorthodox Pale Fire, not to mention scores of brilliant short stories and other novels, Laughter in the Dark is just a set-piece background to a great spectacle.  And yet, it still outshines practically everything else in the literary Milky Way -- a novel of imagery and metaphorical wit whose only real parallels are in his other works. 

A great story requires no justification.  If you put down a book and feel any doubt as to why it exists, then the writer has failed.  The best writing asks nothing beyond itself.  To read it is not to pass the time.  It is to have an experience.  Reading Nabokov is an experience.  Nabokov, who wrote some of the most dizzyingly beautiful prose that has ever made the journey to the printed page.  Nabokov, who said the only important critic was the one who faced him in the shaving mirror each morning.  Who said he saw colors in words and emotions in their sounds.  Maybe you can only have an experience reading a book if its author had one writing it. 

I first encountered Nabokov in the basement of my parent's house, pawing through old cardboard boxes for something free to read.  There was Ada, first-run paperback edition (1969), complete with psychedelic cover, pages red-edged -- not a chance, I thought, throwing the book back on a Strawberry Alarm Clock LP.  The next time was in France.  Broke, in the cheapest bookstore I could find, there was Ada again, cheaper than a coffee.  I bought it, but only managed to wade through the first few chapters, deceived by the thicket-thick prose, the littered French and Russian phrases, the strange flying devices.  It stayed in my duffle bag until a year or so later, in Japan, when I finally dived in deeply enough to recognize the presence of greatness. 

Overwhelmingly so.  Reading Lolita next, I was dazzled by this sorcerer's word-play that saw Humbert Humbert, in love with the nymphet Lolita, transformed into one of the most superbly piteous characters in all literature.  The preface warns the reader not to expect any cheap thrills, despite the subject matter.  What a feat, to instead create a genuinely tragic love story.  In a twist Nabokov would probably grimace at, I learned that in Japan, an unhealthy love for young girls is known as rori-kon, or, “Lolita Complex.

After, there was Pale Fire.  For a writer, this book: A) causes you to despair at your miniscule talent, and B) reminds you that the possibilities are endless by the vast range of its prose, at its pure reading pleasure.  The likely-mad exile Charles Kinbote (the exiled king of Zembla?) describing the high esteem in which he is held by his famous poet neighbor and wife, when in fact, utterly unbeknownst to him, they can barely stand him -- this sly sleight-of-hand is burned in my brain.  If I ever pull off such a feat, I'll consider my job as a writer done.  A feat which, of course, is only a very small portion of a book whose cinematic equivalent is Sean Connery as James Bond: cultured and smooth as hell. 

Vladimir Nabokov was born in Russia in 1899 into a moneyed family at the pinnacle of pre-Soviet society.  His childhood, which he described as marvelously happy, was one of lavish luxury.  He was forced into permanent exile by the Russian Revolution, enduring decades of near-poverty as he wrote and wrote and wrote.  Along the way, his father was assassinated by a rightist reactionary and he was forced to flee the Nazis, emigrating to the US.  In mid-life, he abandoned his native Russian to begin writing in English.  Lolita became a bestseller in 1955, allowing him to write full-time.  Accused of being both a pervert and a snooty elitist, Nabokov steadfastly continued with the two things he considered himself placed on earth to do: writing and collecting butterflies.  He died in Switzerland in 1977 without ever seeing his homeland again. 

Nabokov refused to stoop to polemics against his critics or the totalitarian regimes that haunted his steps -- Bend Sinister and the short story “Tyrants Destroyed” are the closest to condemnations you'll find, and these are ninety-nine parts lyricism to one part social commentary.  He declined to discuss criticism or politics at all.  His art, he said, was the thing.  Which, he also said, he created only for himself. 

I can't say exactly why Nabokov not only makes reading an experience unto itself, but makes that experience seem like the most natural thing in the world.  Perhaps his writing contains universals truths; I don't know; I don't know any universal truths.  I do know that his writing is absolutely inimitable.  It makes me wonder if any more beauty can be coaxed out of the English language.  Nabokov's words seem to be leaping gladly into position.  Nabokov rests on the summit of a tall tall mountain.  Even if you only get half-way up, it's still going to be a hell of a view.    

I've got Laughter in the Dark in my hands.  I'm reading through it.  What a task that is. 

--by Court Merrigan

BORN  April 23 (or about) 1899
July 2, 1977
19 novels, several works of poetry, plays, short stories and non fiction
He considered his best work to be  "Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle"

The Works of Nabokov

Mary (1926)
King, Queen, Knave (1928)
The Luzhin Defense (1930)
Glory (1932)
Laughter in the Dark (1932)
Despair (1934)
The Gift (1938)
Invitation to a Beheading (1938)
The Enchanter (1939)
The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (1941)
Bend Sinister (1947)
Lolita (1955)
Pnin (1957)
Pale Fire (1962)
Ada, Or Ardor: A Family Chronicle (1969)
Transparent Things (1972)
Look at the Harlequins! (1974)
The Original of Laura (1976)
The Short Stories of Vladimir Nabokov
Tyrants Destroyed: And Other Stories (1981)
The Man from USSR: And Other Plays (1984)
Nabokov's Butterflies: Unpublished and Uncollected Writings (2000)
More Stories Strange and Sinister (1967)
The 7th Fontana Book of Great Ghost Stories (1971)
A Century of Short Stories (1977)
Black Water (1984)
First Love(1909)
Spring in Fialta (1938)
The Visit to the Museum (1958)


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