When Vladimir Nabokov died in 1977, the English-speaking world lost one of its most daring and accomplished writers--a novelist of supreme gifts who never tired of pushing in all directions to test the limits of his craft. If Nabokov had written only his English novels, from "The Real Life of Sebastian Knight," "Lolita," "Pale Fire" and "Pnin" through "Ada" and "Transparent Things," he still would have earned his place in the Pantheon. What seems almost unimaginable is that Nabokov must also be deemed a great Russian novelist. Even Joseph Conrad, another polyglot master of the novel from Eastern Europe, didn't manage to write a dozen or so novels in Polish as well as "Heart of Darkness" and "Nostromo."
The problem with writing a biography of such a man, however, is made especially complex by the fact that Nabokov was himself his best biographer. He had a genius for exile, and each of his books, even his delicate first novel in Russian, "Mary," is suffused with the sense of a lost world that bathes each of his paragraphs in a kind of clairvoyant nostalgia. "Speak, Memory" is peerless in its evocation of Nabokov's first years, from 1903 until 1940--pretty much exactly the same years covered by Brian Boyd in "Vladimir Nabokov: The Russian Years," the first installment of his projected two-volume work. But whereas Nabokov is endlessly suggestive, elliptical and aphoristic, Boyd writes with the steady hand of a scholar; his narrative at times looks a bit pale beside Nabokov's, as it almost necessarily would. Prof. Boyd, however, has done his homework with almost superhuman diligence, tracking his subject to the far ends of the Earth, and it shows.
Apart from all the footwork involved, Boyd could not have had an easy task. The Nabokov nuclear family, which consists of Nabokov's widow, Vera, and her son, Dmitri, are intensely private people who guard the Nabokov shrine as zealously as any similar shrine ever has been guarded. Nabokov's previous biographer, Andrew Field, ran up against all sorts of problems in writing "VN: The Life and Art of Vladimir Nabokov" (1986), which is--to put it kindly--a fairly incoherent, unreadable book. Perusing Boyd's acknowledgements, it seems clear that he enjoyed access to all relevant materials and that the family cooperated with him admirably.
Nabokov's early years in Russia are movingly summoned, giving the reader a fine sense of the wealthy yet marvelously intimate family in which he was lucky enough to grow up. Nabokov's father, V. D. Nabokov, was a leading political figure of the day, an aristocrat with liberal leanings who was tragically murdered during a political rally in Berlin shortly after the Nabokov family went into exile there (after a brief, unsuccessful period in England). This terrible event obviously was one of huge importance to Nabokov, who exchanged endless letters with his father and looked to him for advice on nearly every aspect of his life. If anything, Boyd has underplayed the event and its effects on Nabokov as a developing writer.
In general, Boyd does an awe-inspiring job of invoking the emigre scene in Berlin and France. He has a solid grasp of the political ins and outs of the Russian revolution, and he is able to allude to a wide range of personalities and shades of opinion in a way that makes the whole scene understandable. With admirable detail, he follows the course of Nabokov's life through his undergraduate years at Cambridge University, in England, to the years in Berlin when, writing as "Sirin," he developed his characteristic literary persona and style.
But perhaps life is not quite the right word for the way Nabokov was living. As Boyd notes, "In the last decade and a half of his European immigration, Nabokov's life--or at least the record of his life--takes on a special texture. Toward the end of his career he would write that the story of his past resembles not so much a biography as a bibliography."
In the later years--lived mostly in America on college campuses--Nabokov was a much more public person, having to lecture most days to students at Wellesley and Cornell. But in Berlin and Paris he was a full-time writer, and his day-by-day life was ritually transmogrified into fiction and poetry. Boyd takes us patiently through this bibliographical whorl without seeming pedantic or losing the reader's interest in the overall story of the author's life.
One of the most affecting aspects of Nabokov's life in these years is his marriage to Vera Slonim, the daughter of Evsey Slonim, a wealthy lawyer from St. Petersburg who--like everyone else--lost everything in the Bolshevik Revolution. Vera's father was among the leading Russian-language publishers in Berlin, which managed to sustain a large number of emigre journals, newspapers and book publishers. Nabokov had contact with Slonim well before he actually met Vera.