Look at the Harlequins! is Vladimir Nabokov’s last book. Vadim Vadimovich N. is the narrator and he is dying, so he pens his autobiography. He is a Russian-American poet and author writing his last book. He writes about his four wives, all the books he has written, the places he has lived (Berlin, Paris and America), and his illness. And, in between the narratives are a few poems. The narrator is sixty and his thoughts are semi-structured and semi-rambling. He doesn’t always remember details. Instead, he remembers parts of conversations, and feelings and loss.
The links between Vadim, the character, and Vladmir, the author, are intertwined, so it reads as though Nabokov is writing of his own life. Both character and author were born in 1899 in St. Petersburg, studied at Trinity College, Cambridge, lived in the same countries, wrote books, and became literary stars. The mirror-image of a character-author is often serious, mostly mocking, sometimes similar, often deliberately opposite, yet revealing little. The novel, the autobiography, is a play, a pun, on imagination and reality. I enjoyed it.
I've gathered from incidental references, both the New York Times book review and Adam Robert's blog, that Look at the Harlequins! is regarded as one of Nabokov's lesser works, off-focus from even his midrange stuff and a larger magnitude below works like Lolita or Pale Fire; that Nabokov fictionalizes his autobiography to no great end, and that the narrative collapses away to defeatism. For my part, I liked it well enough, but can't deny the criticism. The edition I checked out from the library for this end was a collection of Nabokov's last few novels, and compared with Transparent Things or (my personal favorite) Ada it is a lesser work. But I'd still say it's a major accomplishment, engaging and interesting, better than most novels. The prose is as beautiful as always, the dialog and description both first rate. One of the things that most struck me in this work--and something I'll have to look for in others--is the effectiveness of description of the body, its significance, power and fragility. A brief scene of the protagonist putting on a rob and going by the window carries such pathos, from age, from position, from the not completely defeated aspirations--it's precisely in the banality of such small moments that Nabokov shines.
On the larger questions of plot and characterization one runs into the central issue of judging a fictionalized autobiography. It's difficult to assess how much is gained by this approach, that is to say the broader relevance of this approach beyond Nabokov's own life. I wasn't as bothered going through by the question of how much Vadimovich's life resembled Nabokov--though I do have a strong urge to read Speak, Memory now. I was most curious on how the explicit political views compared, the sensory details and subjective actions I'm prepared to accept as fundamentally novelistic. And in that light it's a worthwhile story, tracking Vadimovich's travels and life of quiet escape. Like Ada (although less effectively) the story's structure grounds memory, with both explicit judgement and
So, in conclusion a very strong work which I heartily recommend. I'm pretty sure that everyone wouldn't enjoy it, though, and I'm not even sure that I'm in the ideal position to read it--perhaps I would like it more or less if I'd read all of his earlier work and had a closer awareness of his life (although the Vintage Three Volume edition had a nice detailed timeline at the back that provided a fair bit of context). Maybe my approach to not ending with the last is flawed after all. Although perhaps this (call it a) novel is most valuable not for the direct story but for the way it destabilizes categories of thought and memory, including an explicit destabilizing of fact/fiction and story/self. Of course all fiction has an element of the auto-biographical in it, but making this trend much stronger can cause some interesting breakdown.
This work reminded me of but was better than: Coetzee's Diary of a Bad Year. This work reminded me of but was worse than: Nabokov's Ada.
LATH will not go down as Nabokov's most memorable or widely-read work. In fact, if it weren't for the novels that preceded it, it would probably be forgotten. And it's not a work I would recommend to anyone who hasn't already read most of N's other fiction. But to a diehard Nabokovian, LATH offers enough pleasures to make the read (and the wait) worthwhile.
Yes, it appears to be a "fictionalized" autobiography of Nabokov, with some key changes (Nabokov professed to be most content with life, while the same could not be said for LATH's protagonist-cum-"author", Vadim Vadimovich). Thus, one will not get much out of the book unless one has read N's other work and knows a bit about his life.
What make this novel truly enjoyable are (a) N's trademark wordplay (not as great as in "Lolita" and "Ada", but still magnificent); (b) small moments of genuine joy (as in the coy but cute resolution of Vadim's psychological conundrum); and (c) some excellent Nabokovian narrative tricks: Vadim feels he is living someone else's life and at one point appears to be on the verge of realizing that he is, in fact, Vladimir Nabokov (try wrapping your mind around that!)--only to have the epiphany slip away.
LATH should (as another reviewer recommended) be saved for last. Those who do get around to reading it, though, will almost surely enjoy it. I get a kick just thinking of the old guy--pushing 75, but still as vibrant and full of tricks as ever. That he never won a Nobel Prize is an terrible shame.