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Editor’s Choice: ‘Nabokov in America: On the Road to Lolita’

Nabokov in America: On the Road to Lolita by Robert Roper, Bloomsbury, 368 pages ($28). “I am as American as April in Arizona” was how Vladimir Nabokov described himself to Herbert Gold and George Plimpton in their 1967 Paris Review interview with him. “The flora, the fauna, the air of the Western states are my links with Asiatic and Arctic Russia. Of course, I owe too much to the Russian language and landscape to be emotionally involved in, say, American regional literature, or Indian dances or pumpkin pie on a spiritual plane; but I do feel a suffusion of warm lighthearted pride when I show my green USA passport at European frontiers.”

One could argue, in fact, that without America, Nabokov would have been a merely interesting Russian writer rather than one of the cornerstone writers of the late 20th century. But Robert Roper, rather stunningly, puts Nabokov, the Russian emigre, fully in America, in the opening pages of this book, one of the best of all biographical studies of the author of “Lolita,” “Pale Fire,” “Ada” and “Speak. Memory.” At the same time that Nabokov, in 1944, was in shorts and tennis shoes capturing a “pretty little shimmery blue butterfly” in Utah with his son Dimitri, “the Allies have landed in Sicily” and “Himmler has ordered the liquidation of the Polish ghettos.” The Nabokov family had been, says Roper, “dispossessed of their native Russia by the Bolsheviks … Had they been in Russia … they might have been among the thousands starving to death during the Siege of Leningrad, the most murderous blockade in world history; had they been in France, which they’d escaped at THE last moment, on the last French ship for New York (his wife) Vera, who was Jewish, and their young son would likely have been destined for Drancy, the French internment camp that fed Auschwitz-Birkenau.”

But there was the great writer and lepidopterist on vacation with wife and son in the American West, discovering “motor courts” and American highways in a way that would become immortal in “Lolita.” American Nabokov is a perennial astonishment. Says Roper: “in a small way, this book is an attempt to borrow Nabokov back from the scholars … Though often condescending, he was not the kind of literary artist to shy away from contact with the common herd,” as long as they came to him on his own terms.

– Jeff Simon