Boys in Nabokov

Everybody knows, or think they know, Vladimir Nabokov's novel Lolita. Some people have even read it. Because of this novel's reputation, for many people the name Nabokov is synonymous with "dirty stuff about little girls". This perception could not be farther removed from the truth.

However, I won't bore you with a defence of Lolita, nor will I set out to explain why I feel Nabokov is perhaps the greatest of American authors. I just want to say one or two things about boys in his novels.

Last night,* at the stroke of two, I finished reading Bend Sinister, the first novel Nabokov wrote in America, which spookily enough also ends at the stroke of two in the night. It's a strange novel. Many people mistake it for a kind of satirical attack on totalitarian regimes, but Nabokov was never into that sort of thing. As I closed the book I felt (and Nabokov's own foreword confirmed the validity of my perception) that it was about the love of a man for his son.

It's a cruel book, indeed. Awful things happen in it. And yet, the memory of the gentle love that the protagonist, Adam Krug, feels for his son David is probably what will linger in the reader's mind longest. Such tenderness in a book which, like all of Nabokov's novels I have read so far, is ultimately a puzzle, a string of riddles and intellectual games -- who would have guessed?

But cannot a similar thing be said about Lolita? Doesn't love, a love that flies off the novel's pages into the world of the reader, dominate all the puns and high-intellectual trickery of which that book is also a showcase? Doesn't reality ultimately encroach even just a little on even the purest of art? Maybe it's the other way round.

Even though Lolita is not about "child abuse" as most people would define it at all, Nabokov once stated that he could only have written it because he had a son. If he'd had a daughter, so he claimed, Lolita would have been a boy.

"Pablito, light of my life, fire of my loins." The mind reels at such fleeting hints at a reality that might have been...

There are men who love boys in Nabokov. In Lolita, tennis champion Bill Tilden makes a guest appearance. The narrator (though not quite protagonist) of Pale Fire (an incredible novel) is a boylover. And Paduk, the picked-on boy become tyrant in Bend Sinister was, as Nabokov puts it in his foreword "regularly tormented by the boys, regularly caressed by the school janitor", although it takes a keen eye to deduce this from the novel's text.

There are boys in Nabokov. They are loved. They have sex. (In 'On a Book Entitled Lolita' the author himself made fun of the fact that "after a night of homosexual romps" schoolboys "had to endure the paradox of reading the Ancients in expurgated versions".) Some of these boys grow up to be tyrants; some of them are martyred. Some of them disappear when school starts. (Poor Charles Kinbote, deserted by his little angler...)

And then there's Pnin, from the novel (or is it a short story collection?) of the same name. It's the love for his son that survives all of his ordeals. (Remember, readers, the bowl does not break!)

There is love for boys in Nabokov. And there are puzzles and riddles and games and tons of good stuff. Even the occasional little girl. And all of this is just a quick visit to your local bookshop or library away...

*The original version of this short piece was written on 24 November 1998. I have modified it slightly. (9 September 2002)