Admittedly, biographers do not have an easy job – writing an entire book about one person’s career requires such serious dedication that is unimaginable to most. Often, though, the results are an impressive collection of material and very informative, many lack the appeal of readability, instead being densely packed with information. As such, one might approach Robert Roper’s biography Nabokov in America – On the Road to Lolita with some, not particularly positive, preconceived ideas of what to expect.
However, it is immediately apparent that Roper is aiming to achieve something more than mere documentation of every detail of Nabokov’s life. That is not to say that the biography does not contain this information – it is rich with anecdotal references. Some of these details, though charming, seem unnecessary. However, this is at the heart of the success of the text. It is these details that allow for a realistic, human presentation of Nabokov that is a genuine pleasure to read.
It would be easy to alienate the reader – given that the author knows so much about their subject – but Roper side-steps this possibility with his thoughtful inclusion of information. Nabokov is presented as a character, and his eccentric lifestyle is somewhat accountable for this. However, perhaps Roper’s own literary career is partly responsible for this presentation – as well as publishing biographies of various authors, he is himself an author of various works of fiction.
This is what separates this biography from the majority of others. Whilst he manages to present vast amounts of information about Nabokov, Roper carefully balances this with his own efficacious literary criticism. He successfully moves from the minute details – discussing particular passages from Nabokov’s books in great detail – to the holistic, discussing the literary process in its entirety.
As an author, Roper is able to offer a detailed account of the relationship between author and character and answer other complex questions about the process of writing. One implication of this standpoint is that the reader might feel concerned that Roper has too objective a perspective of Nabokov’s subject matter: of the nineteen novels that Nabokov wrote, six share the subject matter of paedophilia. It seems that Roper attempts to avoid conversation about this by comparing the novels to others that did not feature paedophilia as their main plot – though interesting, this technique does feel a little deliberately evasive at points.
However, it would be unfair to blame Roper for Nabokov’s questionable subject matter. Ultimately, the biography achieved a simple but significant goal: Roper manages to put forward an objective and, at times, pejorative account of Nabokov’s literature whilst at the same time inspiring in the reader a desire to read everything he has ever written.
Image: Bloomsbury (2015)