Another very strong novel by Nabokov. It is not his best work – though I can’t exactly say why: possibly the reader may not be as affected or overcome by his genius as in other novels. There’s still a fair few to read – in my case. Of course his prose, and the sense of voice or character that he engenders is absolutely impressive. Take this fantastic long sentence for example:“She wore elaborate make-up and spoke in simpering accents, reducing nouns and adjectives to over-affectionate forms which even the Russian language, a recognized giant of diminutives, would only condone on the wet lips of an infant or tender nurse (“Here,” said Mrs. Blagovo “is your chaishko s molochishkom [teeny tea with weeny milk]“).
Autobiographical elements are obviously going to be present here – though you would need to be a Nabokovian scholar to really analyse this. In the same way that Nabokov himself was an authority on Pushkin. That is one of the things I am attracted to in Nabokov’s work: he is modern and aware but he is also linked to the past – he is a successor to Gogol and you can sense his character behind the words in the same way as Pushkin. Nabokov cannot be considered in isolation, it has to be in his Russian context. There was one joke that I got where Vadim (the main character and first-person narrator) chastises his wife for mixing up and creating a spoonerism out of third-rate journalists (Dobrolyubov and Chernyshevsky from the 1860s). I’m not sure why Nabokov would create such an obscure reference, in Western eyes, perhaps it was a little dig at the Russian Communist establishment who would remember those Russian Populist predecessors of the nineteenth century.
There is so much detail and humour in ‘Look at the Harlequins!’ and it is a novel to go back to, but it probably shouldn’t be the first Nabokov novel you should read. Immeasurably enjoyable.