- Hardcover: 352 pages
- Publisher: Pegasus Books; 1 edition (March 13, 2013)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 9781605984117
- ISBN-13: 978-1605984117
- ASIN: 1605984116
- Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.5 x 9.3 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.3 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 29 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,349,582 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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The Secret History of Vladimir Nabokov Hardcover – March 13, 2013
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*Starred Review* In a personal note Nabokov sent to Solzhenitsyn in 1974, on the day the dissident writer was expelled from the Soviet Union, Pitzer recognizes a telling connection between two writers who shared more than most critics have realized. For beneath the consummate artifice of Nabokov’s tales, Pitzer discerns a hidden historical vision aligned to a surprising degree with Solzhenitsyn’s. Largely undetected, the same nightmarish world of Communist brutality that Solzhenitsyn exposed in his Gulag Archipelago lies embedded in the recesses of Nabokov’s major works, including Bend Sinister, Pnin, and Ada. The ugly historical effects of the Soviet Union’s open-air nuclear testing lie behind otherwise puzzling features of Pale Fire. Perhaps most surprising is the presence in the depths of Nabokov’s (in)famous Lolita of the horrific history of the Nazi death camps. Through her historically grounded readings of his fiction, Pitzer discredits the widespread but misleading perception of Nabokov as an art-for-art’s-sake writer indifferent to the moral and political exigencies of his day. But as readers explore his devious strategies for veiling sobering historical realities in aesthetic illusions, they slowly become aware of the interpretive responsibilities that Nabokov places on the reader. A penetrating analysis certain to compel a major reassessment of the Nabokov canon. --Bryce Christensen
“Vladimir Nabokov (1899–1977) always claimed that art and politics don’t mix, but this new biography suggests his own art tells a different story. In her first book, Pitzer focuses on one of the lingering mysteries about Nabokov: How could anyone so acquainted with the horrors of the Soviet Union (which killed his father) and Nazi Germany (which killed his brother) be so detached from the real world in his work? According to Pitzer, in his own imaginative way, Nabokov was bearing witness to the horrors he knew. Drawing on new biographical material and her sharp critical senses, Pitzer reveals the tightly woven subtext of the novels, always keen to shine a light where the deception is not obvious. A brilliant examination that adds to the understanding of an inspiring and enigmatic life.”
- Kirkus Reviews, STARRED REVIEW
“Pitzer, like Nabokov, is a beautiful writer and gimlet-eyed observer, especially about her subject; even as an impoverished refugee living in America, she writes, “Nabokov was never shy about his sense of self.” Her attention to history’s moral components is refreshingly blunt: “The dead are not nameless,” she writes of the writers and others killed in Stalin’s Great Purge of the late 1930s. Inviting us to reconsider Nabokov, Pitzer also introduces herself as a writer worthy of attention.”
- The Boston Globe
“Certainly the most remarkable and insightful book on Vladimir Nabokov in many years. It is by taking big history with its small devastating details into account that Pitzer brilliantly manages to unlock a secret door in the oeuvre of the often misunderstood Mandarin. A must for even non-Nabokovians.”
- Michael Maar, author of Speak, Nabokov and The Two Lolitas
Journalist Pitzer tackles the life and work of Vladimir Nabokov (1899–1977) from a critical and refreshing viewpoint different from previous biographies. She aims to connect the turbulent events in the author’s life to the events in his fiction. A writer known for his appreciation of aesthetics over historically and politically themed plot lines, Nabokov lived through the Russian Revolution and the Holocaust (his brother Sergey died in a concentration camp). Pitzer shows how Nabokov’s work relates these events in a way hidden from the reader. Drawing on the novels of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, she compares the authors’ lives and literary styles to illustrate the differences in how their fiction represents history; for example, Humbert’s background in Lolitareflects such events as the Armenian genocide and the German concentration camps. Also, the speculation that he is Jewish perhaps represents the figure of the Wandering Jew.
VERDICT Pitzer accomplishes her goal of revealing the indirect appearance of Nabokov’s biography in his most celebrated fiction. Highly recommended for all Nabokov fans who as a result of reading this will probably wish to reread the works analyzed here”
- Library Journal, STARRED REVIEW
“Pitzer shows history―if not politics―was never far from Nabokov’s considerations. Nabokov was, for example, an ardent enemy of anti-Semitism and a supporter of civil rights in the American South. Pitzer depicts him as fully engaged with the concerns of the world―though he was far too courtly, too genteel, to shout his convictions from the rooftops.”
- Alexander Nazaryan, The New Republic
Andrea Pitzer has given students of Nabokov a startling gift: a fundamentally new way to read one of the English language’s preeminent prose wizards. She demolishes the false distinction between the literary gamesman we know Nabokov to be and the historically engaged writer he supposedly isn’t. His famous characters’ psychoses, it turns out, are bound up inextricably with those of the horror-drenched century through which their creator navigated. In a feat of fascinating literary detective work, Pitzer supplies a long-overdue map of these connections.”
- Christopher Goffard, author of You Will See Fire and Snitch Jacket
“In a personal note Nabokov sent to Solzhenitsyn in 1974, on the day the dissident writer was expelled from the Soviet Union, Pitzer recognizes a telling connection between two writers who shared more than most critics have realized. For beneath the consummate artifice of Nabokov’s tales, Pitzer discerns a hidden historical vision aligned to a surprising degree with Solzhenitsyn’s. Largely undetected, the same nightmarish world of communist brutality that Solzhenitsyn exposed in his Gulag Archipelago lies embedded in the recesses of Nabokov’s major works, including Bend Sinister, Pnin, and Ada. The ugly historical effects of the Soviet Union’s open-air nuclear testing lie behind otherwise puzzling features of Pale Fire. Perhaps most surprising is the presence in the depths of Nabokov’s (in)famous Lolita of the horrific history of the Nazi death camps. Through her historically grounded readings of his fiction, Pitzer discredits the widespread but misleading perception of Nabokov as an art-for-art’s-sake writer indifferent to the moral and political exigencies of his day. But as readers explore his devious strategies for veiling sobering historical realities in aesthetic illusions, they slowly become aware of the interpretive responsibilities that Nabokov places on the reader. A penetrating analysis certain to compel a major reassessment of the Nabokov canon. ”
- Booklist, STARRED REVIEW
“Fifty years is long time to wait for a decryption device but one has been furnished by Andrea Pitzer, the author of The Secret History of Vladimir Nabokov, not just one of the most beguiling literary biographies to come out in years but also a first-rate addition to the shelf of Nabokov studies.”
- The Daily Beast
“The Secret History of Vladimir Nabokov shows how the specters of history and politics shaped one of the twentieth century’s most important writers. In clear and bracing prose, Pitzer demonstrates the complex engagement with politics in the deepest recesses of Nabokov’s most famous novels, including Lolita and Pale Fire. This book manages the impressive feat of being at once a wide-ranging introduction to Nabokov’s life and work as well as a game-changer for those readers who thought they knew his writing cold.”
- Steven Belletto, author of No Accident, Comrade: Chance and Design in Cold War American Narrives
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Nabokov was always unabashed about his anti -Communism, which, after all, had a solid personal basis in his life experience. While in the US, he would be more conservative than liberal. Later, when already living in Switzerland, he applauded LBJ's civil rights legislation. Unfortunately also his Vietnam policy.
Normally he abstained from political partisanship, and he postulated a kind of 'art for art's sake' theory of literature. The man was not a joiner.
Solshenitsyn was also not a joiner, but otherwise the direct opposite ... Art in the service of man. This book tells us that the gap between the two men was smaller than we thought.
Apart from interpretations, the book has interesting gossip. Nabokov and Solzhenitsyn really did try to meet in Montreux, not long before N died.
Ayn Rand, when still called Alisa Rosenbaum, was friends with N's little sister in St. Petersburg, when paradise was still real.
Another story that was new to me was the relationship between Vera's sister Sonia and versatile propagandist Carl Junghans, who was a former Communist and a former Nazi, with a record of cooperation with Riefenstahl on the 36 Olympics movies. That man must have been an ideal inspiration for one or the other of N's villains. This book sees him as a part of Humbert Humbert's ancestry.
With reference to Lolita, Pitzer tells us the rather shocking story that the name Camp Q, where Lolita spends her summer before her abduction, was in real life the name of a Canadian camp for suspect aliens during WW2, and that German POWs would be interned there together with Jewish refugees, even with survivors from concentration camps. Shocking.
One aspect of Lolita, that Pitzer elaborates on, is the frequent presence of 'daily' antisemitism in this novel. I had noticed those things, but had not assembled them to a pattern in my reception. N was sensitive to these things, and Vera was quite fierce.
Pitzer tells us to read Humbert Humbert as an escapee from the holocaust, a new version of the Wandering Jew. Similarly, we are shown Kinbote, the madman in Pale Fire, as a refugee from the GULAG, with the real name Botkin.
Pitzer has a command of language which is up to the task of writing about this master of style. The book uses Brian Boyd's two volume biography extensively. That makes me wonder if the new book was necessary at all. Is it more than a shorter version of Boyd, does it add? Yes, Pitzer introduces more Russian, German, French, American, world history into the biography, all with reference to N's work and life.
Is the book's title about the secret history justified? Unfortunately: no. The alleged discovery of secrets fails. I should deduct a star in punishment, but I felt generous.
Any attentive reader of N's work must have been fully aware of the many political facts and opinions and statements in most of N's work. There is no secret, and certainly not in his life as shown here. Interpretations of the novels are just that, interpretations. No secrets here.
N's most frequent fictional subjects were exile and tyranny. Even the seemingly unpolitical stories are rooted in time and place. It is hard to overlook his politics, despite his protestations that politics have no role in art. Even where the surface themes seem unpolitical, things are happening in the background.
I read this, then, with great interest and am very pleased to have it in the world. Pitzer does some remarkable research and goes to great pains to uncover people, places and events that turn up, often in obscure and twisted fashion, in Nabokov's work.
Combining literary scholarship, historical narrative and what could pass, in some senses, as investigative journalism, Pitzer reveals just how entwined VN's work is with the life he lived and world he lived it in. A caveat here: this does not treat all of VN's work in depth. the focus is on those of his writings that most fall under the author's focus and as a result, some works get short shrift. This is, of course, as it should be, even though a couple of my personal favorites are barely mentioned. Too bad for me.
A thumbnail review on Amazon is not the place to start larding on detail, and no one needs a synopsis here. I will say only that I learned a great deal here and, perhaps most significantly for a work that is both popular and scholarship, it is prompting me to return to Nabokov's work itself and reread a whole handful of novels in a new light. And, frankly, anything that pokes you to go back into Nabokov is worth a few stars, and anything that sends you back with some new things to think about deserves all five. And it is very well written, to boot.