I have a particular fondness for books about books and the experience of reading, and I know I’m not alone. It’s a genre that has steadily withstood the vagaries of the commercial market for non-fiction, especially in America. In the past week alone I’ve come across intriguing reviews for books written about the world of Narnia, and the genesis of Charlotte’s Web. A little while back I saw that a Harvard academic, Lila Azam Zanganeh had published a book about her love affair with Nabokov’s work, entitled The Enchanter: Nabokov and Happiness, and enthusiastically, I secured myself a copy. I began it yesterday, full of expectations for this ‘creative biography’ only to realise within a few pages that I had stumbled on the worst book I’d read by far in 2011.
But these things are subjective, and never more so than with a book like this one. So I’ll try to do it justice (first). Zanganeh grew up an Iranian exile in Paris and then American. Never a keen reader, she nevertheless tackled the books of Nabokov that she knew her mother loved, and found the experience transformative. It took her four months with a dictionary by her side to get through one of Nabokov’s novels, but this slow process of reading brought her such satisfaction and fulfilment that she knew she would one day want to write about it. This book is not-quite biography, not-quite literary criticism and not-quite a memoir, but it has elements of all three. In her own words, it is the ‘record of an adventure’, that aims to evoke, not the straightforward details of a life, nor an interpretation of a great author’s work, but a whimsical, quirky account of the relationship between Nabokov and his doting fan.
In a style that aims to mimic Nabokov’s distinctive voice, Zanganeh gives us glimpses of the author’s life and work, adding her own commentary; there are lots of typographical tricks and unusual structures; she produces an imaginary interview with him, and riffs on some of his most significant principles, such as the Nabokovian notion of consciousness. She also creates an eccentric glossary of some of her favourite words, with her own definitions. At all times, Zanganeh seeks to unite her voice with Nabokov’s in an attempt at an unusual kind of harmony between reader and writer that is also an expression and account of the happiness his work may bring.
And now I’m going to stop being fair and just, so you may choose to look away. The main problem lies in Zanganeh’s attempt to mimic Nabokov’s voice. I’ve only ever come across one writer able to overwrite his sentences outrageously and get away with it – and that’s Nabokov. There’s a distinction between enthusiasm and pure gush, between homage and pastiche, and Zanganeh’s hyperbolic sentences all too often fall on the wrong side of the dividing line. ‘Even in darkness, Nabokov tells us, things quiver with lambent beauty’, she writes, which sounds okay, but what does it mean? How about this for a mouthful: ‘Time’s pale fire now wheeled the weight of the world, shedding light on the discreteness of things, cracking open the dormer window of consciousness.‘ The definitions she provides in the glossary are sometimes more baffling than the words. For ‘bliss’, we are given ‘A Batch of Lucid Images Sliding over Sibilants. Also, the thrill of seeing dark nebulae slowly turning into luciferous spheres.’
I could go on: ‘Bashfully yielding details of a world which emerges in a trail of ellipses’ and ‘Amid spinning planets, where nothing is impossible, and mad lovers are immortal, details are the only spell.’ Genuine poetic language is accurate and specific. Beauty is clarity. What this sounds like is the kind of first year essay I used to be given by students trying too hard.
‘Are you attempting to sound like the lectures you’re attending?’ I’d ask.
‘Well… yes,’ the student would reply.
‘Do you understand what the lecturers are saying?’
I would hand the essay back. ‘Then it can’t be a good idea to write like that, can it?’
There’s a further dimension to this verbal adulation of Nabokov that’s a tad disconcerting, and that’s the way the narrator of the story inserts herself in relation to him. There’s a big picture of Zanganeh on the back flap and she’s young and very beautiful. She describes how she read Lolita ‘in my washed-out red bathing suit’, covering the pages with stains of suntan oil. She invites the reader to peep through a telescope, where ‘you’ll glimpse a reader sprawled in an armchair, legs stretched out on a hassock. When zooming in, you might also catch a besotted grin and twinkling brown eyes. Fancy ablaze, forefinger gliding on the page, it is none other than I, your narrator….. SHABANG! Your third-rate springy telescope folds right back with a snap and hits you in the nose.’ So yes, all this is getting a little too close to comfort by aligning the narrator with Humbert Humbert’s love interest. Whenever she describes ‘herself’ as the book goes along, the parts she refers to are relentlessly naked. In a fantasy sketch where she tries to hunt butterflies, the sun is on her ‘naked back’. In another fantasy she creeps out of the house to meet Nabokov, stepping ‘with naked soles on the freezing sun-mottled bricks.’ It’s all a bit icky, you know? It’s one thing to be an intrusive narrator, but this is going a tad too far. Male readers may of course get more benefit from it.
What I felt in the end, was that, although this was a book about being a devoted reader, it had very little concern for the actual readers of the book. We are cast as malleable audience, addressed sometimes as ‘you’ and hauled into the pages for some audience participation, whether we like it or not, or left to watch Nabokov and Zanganeh perform a dance of the veiled voices, marvelling at their brilliance and creativity. I liked the bits that were ordinarily biographical, where I was learning something about Nabokov’s life. But the rest of it left me cold. What, for instance, was the point she was making about happiness? I had no idea; it had something to do with lots of descriptions of light. I was annoyed; this is the kind of thing that gives literature a bad name as pretentious writing, as being up itself, as too clever for its own good.
But, as I say, all this is highly subjective, and I have tried to quote Zanganeh a lot so that you can see and judge for yourself. I’m sure some readers really like this sort of thing and good for them. I’m with Geoff Dyer, who suggests ‘don’t be one of those writers who sentence themselves to a lifetime of sucking up to Nabokov’. And I’ll conclude with Zanganeh’s thoughts on the matter:
‘One summer alive through a century.
(And as far as this reader is concerned, one moist-lilac morning of giddiness, in a room beyond the looking glass.)
At present again the world spins. It runs through my fingers. And quietly I cast my net.
“Pure Time, Perceptual Time, Tangible Time, Time free of content, context and running commentary…”
Nothing is forfeited in the radiant now.
A firefly pursuing darkness.
A palm resting on a naked shoulder.
A single word making light of gravity.’