To Vlad the impaler, a timeless toast
by Jamie MacKinnon

Fall 1999

It was a dark time in Canadian journalism. Our literary memory seemed to have fallen down the oubliette.

Months went by, and not a word to mark the hundredth anniversary of the birth of Vladimir Nabokov, light of my reading life, and the greatest prose stylist of the century.

Shakespeare, who probably has the same birthday as Nabokov, was toasted. On the great day itself, April 23, The Ottawa Citizen profiled "The Mask of Zorro" actress and reviewed four films (two of which it didn’t much like), and the NHL schedule was discussed in some detail. Sometimes I think I lack a feel for what, in the world of culture, is truly important.

But forget “important.” Focus on bliss. Reading Nabokov is bliss: a shock, a thrill . . . a depth charge of delight.

In my teens I was given a copy of King, Queen, Knave, a Nabokov-translated version of his second novel, written in Russian and originally published in 1928. Reading this odd book (a presbyopic look at love, manners and would-be murder by drowning) was the first time I got goose bumps from prose style. And I was introduced to a motif that recurs in Nabokov: how in many of us (sadly) “the bright perception [becomes] the habitual abstraction.”

I worked backward to Mary, his first novel, a love story written in 1925, and then forward to the dark, inverted world of Invitation to a Beheading, in which the hero’s crime, for which he is sentenced to death, is “gnostical turpitude,” i.e. he questions common knowledge. It occurs to me now that Imagining Argentina by Lawrence Thornton would be a good companion volume. Both books deal with the flame of the individual imagination and how it flickers in the anaerobic chamber of ideology. Books for Serbian and NATO soldiers to read between sorties.

I read the claustrophobic but enchanting The Defence, surely the greatest chess novel – if that is what it is – ever written. I moved on to the first novel Nabokov wrote in English, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, a send-up of the biography genre, and a reminder that real life and the human soul are as invisible as time, and when put into words, wonderfully wrong.

And lovely Lolita. Nabokov’s comic masterpiece of obsession and . . . well, I won’t do it. Those capsule descriptions –“greatest love story ever written,” “wry travelogue,” “the saddest book I ever read,” “obscene,” “Europe looks at America,” etc. – are just too reductive, too Kinbotean to apply to this mutable, marvellous book.

Some readers will recall, in an ironic echoing of Humbert Humbert’s solipsism (though not of his wit), that a Reform-Alliance party philistine called for Lolita to be banned, or perhaps merely banished from the parliamentary precinct, without having bothered to read it. Nabokov, asked to define the word philistine, said, “ready made souls in plastic bags.”

I remember the time – exquisite, ticktockless, charged – I spent reading Pale Fire. I was in my late 20s. In mad multimedia fashion, I read the foreword by the character-scholar Dr. Charles Kinbote, then just half a page of the 999-line poem, written in heroic couplets by the character-poet John Shade, before I skipped to the first and second of the Kinbotean endnotes that make up the bulk of the novel, and then back again to the poem or to the now-untrustworthy foreword. With Kinbote as my guide, I roared down the dirt track of academic idiocy, only to realize that a murder mystery (and much else) trailed in the dust behind. If you haven’t read Pale Fire, don’t let the fact that it’s been called “the most perfect novel ever written” deter you. It’s a glory, a thrill, and a wonder to read.

And re-read. Lolita and Pale Fire, like the northern lights, put on a different show each time.

One of Nabokov’s major works remains unread by me, Ada, “a great work of art . . . radiant and rapturous” the New York Times Book Review tells us. I will read Ada, but not just yet. I’m not quite ready. Or rather, I want some rapture to await me on the shelf beside my bed. As a child at dinner I often saved the best for last.

All Nabokov’s novels have given me pleasure, as have his short pieces and some of his poems. I’ve learned that prose style alone – diction, metre, sound, voice, frame – can make the hairs on my neck stand up, can leave me dazzled. His style is precise and iridescent, scientific and poetic – never prosaic, never precious. It’s mind-arresting. You stop dead on a sentence, rethink your suppositions and return, discombobulated, to the page. Nabokov, George Steiner noted, “moved into successive languages like a traveling potentate.”

Nabokov was a champion of and translator of Pushkin. He was a lepidopterist of note, and a keen tennis and soccer player in his youth. In his literary autobiography, Speak, Memory, he wrote, “The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness. Although the two are identical twins, man, as a rule, views the prenatal abyss with more calm than the one he is heading for (at some forty-five hundred heartbeats an hour).”

The darkness at one’s stern, Nabokov thought, was of equal interest to the darkness that loomed off the bow, and “over and over again,” he wrote, “my mind has made colossal efforts to distinguish the faintest of personal glimmers in the impersonal darkness on both sides of my life.” This, despite the absurd and annoying fact that the darkness was “caused merely by the walls of time separating me . . . from the free world of timelessness.”

In reading Nabokov attentively, in imbibing Nabokovian potions, readers experience what he yearned for: escape from the prison of time. Arms become wings, and we soar in the world of bright perception.

Nabokov had few Canadian connections, but his aesthetic is a northern one. Growing up “a perfectly normal trilingual child in a family with a large library,” Nabokov internalized the spare beauty of his Russian youth as he read, collected butterflies, and fell in love. Like Robertson Davies, he was a “rigid moralist” (as he called himself), “kicking sin, cuffing stupidity, ridiculing the vulgar and cruel.” He escaped, by the skin of his teeth, Soviet tyranny in 1919, and left France with his wife and son in 1940, a half-step ahead of the Nazis. He could not abide bullying or the abuse of power.

All important writers are more or less alike in their importance, but a superb stylist is superb in his or her own way. Nabokov’s physical worlds are empirically and perceptually real. His characters reflect the complexities and the shimmering vagaries of human consciousness. More deeply and beautifully than any other novelist, Nabokov struggled with metaphysics and refracted the struggle in poetic prose.

To mark the 23rd of April, I had a drink with friends at the Arrow and Loon, a fine pub (real ale, real conversation) in central Ottawa. I ordered Nachos Supreme, and asked for the pub’s help in commemorating the supreme novelist. I was pleased to see the black olives, stuck in a cheesy blanket, arranged as two large letters: VN.

So here’s to you, Vlad, impaler of dogma, banality, cliche. I raise my glass again.

“I don’t believe in time,” you once wrote. A chronoclast like you won’t mind the timing of this toast.

Jamie MacKinnon - all rights reserved. Copyright 1999.

Related reading

Vladimir Nabokov: The Russian Years and Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years by Brian Boyd (Princeton University Press) is the most ambitious and intelligent of Nabokov biographical work.

The Nabokov-Wilson Letters: Correspondence Between Vladimir Nabokov and Edmund Wilson, 1940-1971. Edited, annotated and with an introductory essay by Simon Karlinsky (Harper & Row) gives a good sense of Nabokov’s cast of mind in his early years in America, as well as of a warm literary relationship that cooled.

Zembla, the official web site of the International Vladimir Nabokov Society, can be found at: It contains biographical information, criticism, bibiographies and indexes.