A biography of literary dissembler Vladimir Nabokov might be a strange book to reach for during these past weeks, with Israel at war with Hamas, and the moral questions at stake murderously clear. But as often happens, the book that must appear does appear, at just the right time, even if it seems to come from left field.
In this case, it’s Andrea Pitzer’s recent biography, “The Secret History of Vladimir Nabokov.” The volume’s starting point is counter-intuitive: that the author of the morally murky “Lolita,” and the game-playing post-modernism of “Pale Fire,” was secretly writing a morally engaged history of 20th-century war and politics.
Pitzer spends a lot of time on “Lolita,” about a pedophile named Humbert Humbert, whose autobiography makes up the vast majority of the novel. She makes a compelling case that Humbert is a Jewish refugee from Central Europe, and that his moral failings and delusions are in part the result of political evils. Pitzer argues that Nabokov’s gamesmanship, in “Lolita” and many other books, can be seen not as an attempt to dodge moral or political engagement, but as a strategy to force the reader’s complicity in untangling our own assumptions about how we use stories and language both to offer easy judgment and to evade our responsibilities in society.
Pitzer contrasts the literary approaches of Nabokov and another Russian-born literary giant, Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Nabokov, who married a Jewish woman and who increasingly put both Russian language and characters behind him, was derided by other émigrés for a lack of engagement with history. But Pitzer argues convincingly that Nabakov was only able to adequately discharge his moral fury when the historical and political issues were presented as half-hidden background to the personal and intellectual dramas that served as his characters’ foreground. Nabokov attempted to preserve his humanity, and find his voice, by not writing explicitly about concentration camps and torture.
Solzhenitsyn took the opposite approach. He had suffered through the Soviet labor camps, and he wrote “The Gulag Archipelago” as if hitting the reader with a hammer were his only moral choice.
This philosophical and literary debate can be seen playing itself out through the last century. Writers such as James Joyce put aside explicit political writing for the values of “silence, exile and cunning” that Joyce’s alter ego Stephen Dedalus espouses in “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.” Meanwhile, the novelist and essayist George Orwell tried to effect political change directly through his fiction.
Israeli writers, in wartime and peacetime, have dealt at length with this issue. Amoz Oz has long maintained a strict demarcation between his political and literary selves, arguing that literature born too close to the flame of current events is less likely to offer enduring insights. And David Grossman has constructed intricate, even Joycean fictions designed to have a slow developing impact on readers, from the side, before they have a chance to put up any barriers, or allow their petrified political or spiritual ideas to dismiss the narrative before it has reached its full power.
In other words, “silence, exile and cunning” allows the writer to create new language that may not shape the conflict at hand, but it may shape the understanding of the conflict.
In a world of increasing noise and communication, often digitally powered, it seems harder and harder to say something that arrests people’s automatic, well-honed responses. At times saying nothing is the most eloquent and productive response. Yehuda Kurtzer, president of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, called for a “social media cease-fire” on the 17th of Tammuz (July 15), the fast day that begins the mourning period that ends on Tisha B’Av.
Many people disagreed with this idea, noting that those who wanted to spread lies about Israel would certainly not rest, and the public relations war would be hindered. But I thought it was brilliant, allowing a short window for Jews and others to take stock of the language we use, and to consider whether our first thought is our best thought, or our worst. Literature is slow; it is patient; and its insights, compared with the hurly-burly of buses and bombs, are usually quiet. In moments of war, in search of clarity, I often consider the story of the Prophet Elijah, who, desperate for insight during a period of intense conflict, waited for God to answer. “And, behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice.”
Dan Schifrin is a writer living in Berkeley.