The OF Blog: Lila Azam Zanganeh, The Enchanter: Nabokov and Happiness

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Lila Azam Zanganeh, The Enchanter: Nabokov and Happiness

One cobalt-blue morning of butterfly hunting, in August 1971, after climbing a Swiss mountain, looking tanned and serene, net in hand, Vladimir Nabokov told his son Dmitri he had fulfilled all he ever dreamed and was a supremely happy man.  It is on this mountainous peak that I like to imagine him, VN, exclaiming like his elated creature Van Veen:  "I, Vladimir Nabokov, salute you, life!" (p. 1)

Too often biographies can be staid, prosaic affairs.  The subject (yes, a "subject" rather than anything resembling a fascinating human being) is prodded, poked, and pinned to the narrative board in a fashion similar to the butterflies that acclaimed Russian-American author Vladimir Nabokov used to hunt in his own pursuit of happiness.  Those dull, listless non-fictions do little to promote interest in the "whys" of the biographed's importance, instead settling for rote "hows" that can drain the reader of interest in the person supposedly being immortalized.  Readers, especially those seeking to know more about creative geniuses, frequently are left wanting.

However, there do occasionally appear biographies that manage to capture that elusive élan in which the original composers crafted their masterpieces.  Last year, Sarah Bakewell's biography of Montaigne, How to Live, was much more than a recapitulation of that famed essayist's essays on various parts and motivations of life.  She made Montaigne live again in those pages and that in turn spurred me to read his Essays in translation. 

Another biographer takes a different tack to covering her subject.  Iranian-French writer/professor Lila Azam Zanganeh in her first book, The Enchanter:  Nabokov and Happiness, tackles her love for Nabokov's writing and the sense of profound happiness (although other adjectives might come closer to describing the complex array of emotions he evoked in his writings and in his life) that he expressed in his fiction and life.  Perhaps "biography" is not the most apt word for Zanganeh's book:  it is in turns an exploration of Nabokov's life, Zanganeh's introduction (told in three distinct fashions; one or more of which might be "imagined" rather than "real") to Nabokov's fiction, an "interview" with the dead author, and a quasi-love letter from an older Lolita to a more demure Humbert.

For some, Zanganeh's approach might be too flippant and light on profundity.  But for others, including myself, Zanganeh's inventive approach toward biography was refreshing.  She obviously has a great respect for Nabokov, but it is tempered with some reserve, most notably when discussing Nabokov's (or VN, as she often refers to him) relations with his wife Véra and with women writers in general.  She does not cover his life from birth to death, with the usual itinerary of important authorial milestones.  Instead, she explores Nabokovian concepts of happiness in thematic chapters that vary from the academic to the intensely personal:

"Those most extraordinary eyes..." Kafka's, but also his own.  I became obsessed with imagining those eyes, VN's staring into Kafka's.  And what those two glances (stippled amber, pitch black), briefly crossing on that unlikely afternoon, might have expressed.

My own maternal grandparents had lived in Europe before the war, during those same years.  In a mirror reflection:  Paris first, then Berlin, roughly 1923 to 1939.  And as I tried to visualize VN's features in those German years, I began to consider if perchance, circa 1935, just as he himself had fancied seeing Kafka on a tram, my curious grandmother, restlessly wandering about town, might not have caught a glimpse of the young Nabokov.  I liked to picture her walking in the black-and-white Berlin of pre-war years, with that lid of dark lead hanging over the city roofs.  Although she is alone, she is not afraid (or at least this is what she tells herself).  On a day in late winter, she is sauntering in low-crouched streets, the windows a succession of opaque frames behind which she must sense here and there, the dark gleam of a human presence.  She watches the sky moments before the lanterns are lit, as the clouds dissolve, mother-of-earl drawing slowly on ash.  While the night closes in, she starts walking faster, her steps quick, almost shuffling on the blacktop, when at the turn of a street she discerns a tiny door and a window - an artisan's atelier, or a dilapidated shop.  A young man, gaunt limbs, forehead leaning toward the glass, amber eyes, is peering through the window at items she cannot tell apart.  And what attracts her attention is the eeriness of his gaze, its diffuse wonder, reaching into its own reflection, yet a world removed.  A flicker of amber in this engulfing grayness. (p. 74-76)

This passage is representative of Zanganeh's approach toward covering Nabokov.  The personal nature of this musing can be captivating, but there are also times where it feels self-indulgent in its digressions.  Yet the overall effect does not detract from the book.  Rather, it provides The Enchanter with a charming quality in which its occasional lapses into sloppiness and diversion ultimately add to a sense of the admirable qualities of the biographical subject and, even more importantly, his literary creations.  This alone makes The Enchanter a wonderful reading experience; it is an added bonus that it also has left me wanting to re-read Nabokov's writing.  What more could be asked from a biography of a famous author?

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