Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov, to give him his full patronymic due, died 30 years ago at age 78. Distilled to his essential selves he would be, in no particular order, a patrician, a husband and father, a lepidopterist, and one of the most surprising and subversive authors of the 20th century—also, one of the funniest. “Nabokov,” observes his biographer, Brian Boyd, “uses humor to undermine our attachment to the ready-made, to enlarge our sense of the possible, to whet our appetite for the surprise of life.”
(image: www.news.cornell.edu/chronicle/98/8.27.98/Nabokov.html)His humor reflected his soul, for he occupies a rare position in the annals of literature—especially modern literature—as that oxymoronic creature, the happy writer. The torments and angst of a Kafka or a Dostoevsky were as alien to him as the politics of the day. He was happy mainly because he loved being Vladimir Nabokov and he knew that his genius demonstrated the near-infinite possibilities of language and life and art. He cared not a whit for the carping of critics and the sour grapes of lesser writers, and, 30 years after his death, his overall influence as a one-man mission civilisatrice is still growing. He remains the master of the art of beauty in exactitude. Unexpected yet precise words are connected in his writing like the fine, unbreakable links of a silver necklace. Lesser writers settle for second best; he never does. He 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.