If Vladimir Nabokov's fiction merits any criticism, it is for its iciness. The master himself declared in a 1977 BBC interview, "My characters cringe as I come near them with my whip. I have seen a whole avenue of imagined trees losing their leaves at the threat of my passage." Nabokov's correspondence, however, reveals a far warmer individual, though one ever-ready with a verbal shiv. This volume begins with a 1923 letter to his mother, written while he was a farmhand in the French Alps, and ends with a 1977 letter sent to his wife, Vera, for Mother's Day: "My dearest, your roses, your fragrant rubies, glow red against a background of spring rain..."
Nabokov's son, Dmitri, and Matthew Bruccoli have created the fullest, and by far the most amusing, portrait of the serious artist as trickster. There's the famous letter to Burma-Vita, in which Nabokov offers the company an advertising jingle (alas, they turned him down). There's the best, and most amusing, account of "l'affaire Lolita." Here is his response to his New Yorker editor, Katharine White: "Let me thank you very warmly for your frank and charming letter about LOLITA. But after all how many are the memorable literary characters whom we would like our teen-age daughters to meet? Would you like our Patricia to go on a date with Othello? Would we like our Mary to read the New Testament temple against temple with Raskolnikov? Would we like our sons to marry Emma Rouault, Becky Sharp or La belle dame sans merci?"
In another letter, however, he takes care to thank White for a "chubby check." (One wishes this phrase had gained greater circulation.) Nabokov again and again comes off as a difficult author, challenging his publishers left, right, and center over issues large (and there were many) and as well as those that were niggling. Calling the British paperback cover of Laughter in the Dark "atrocious, disgusting, and badly drawn besides having nothing to do whatever with the contents of the book," he tells his U.K. publisher, "I would appreciate if you would use your influence and have them substitute a pretty dark-haired girl, or a palmtree, or a winding road, or anything else for this tasteless abomination." Still, one is most often convinced that he's right, even when he makes the large claim that the French film Les Nymphettes infringes on his rights, "since this term was invented by me for the main character in my novel Lolita."
Not only is this volume endlessly quotable, it also reads like a great epistolary novel--fraught with high thought, high drama, and the delightfully unexpected. Who would have guessed that Nabokov would ask Hugh Hefner, "Have you ever noticed how the head and ears of your Bunny resemble a butterfly in shape, with an eyespot on one hindwing?"