The Enchanter: Nabokov and Happiness
Lila Azam Zanganeh
Allen Lane, Hardback; 228 pages
The Enchanter is a peculiar new form of love story, if one might use that label at all. This curious book straddles the lines between fiction and fact as it explores ‘happiness’ in the works of Vladimir Nabokov, while exposing the very mechanisms of writing itself. Through the lens of Nabokov’s life and work, Lila Azam Zanganeh reveals a few sparse details of her own life and relates the treasures to be found in Nabokov’s novels (in particular Lolita, Ada or Ardour and Nabokov’s own autobiography Speak, Memory). The book opens with a ‘map’ of the book itself, prompting the reader to ‘follow the itinerary or choose you own’. The chapters can be read alone, resisting chronology, containing such inventive features as an imagined interview with Nabokov, a chapter describing the relevancy of entomology to literature, and illustrations of the author’s impressions of Nabokov’s works by Thenjiwe Niki Nkosi.
As the narrator and subject of the part-autobiography, Azam Zanganeh performs a white rabbit act. The reader can only see her through reflections and lenses and these play an important part in creating Azam Zanganeh’s world. Early in the novel she describes ‘my own distorted reflection in a child’s red-rimmed glasses’. For the Nabokovian, this image brings to mind Kubrick’s Lolita in heart-shaped glasses. At a later point in the novel Azam Zanganeh chooses to include a picture of Nabokov’s wife, Véra, in heart-shaped glasses, goading the reader to imagine the narrator reflected concordantly in the lenses of a fictional character and a factual one. She varies her pronominal choices to provide a plurality of perspectives: occasionally the reader is included in the pronominal ‘we’ as though ‘we’ are all journeying through Nabokov’s works collectively. ‘You’ can refer in the second person to the reader themselves, to Véra Nabokov (as it does in Speak, Memory) or to Vladimir Nabokov. She also moves between tenses throughout the chapters and these shifting perspectives enable a surreal Alice in Wonderland experience.
The boundaries between autobiography, biography and fiction blur in the author’s attempts to emulate Nabokov’s style. Azam Zanganeh proffers a description of Nabokov – ‘He was Sirin in his byline. Volodya in his trunks’ – and in doing so mimics the words of Humbert Humbert in Lolita: ‘She was Lola in slacks… She was Dolores on the dotted line’. In such instances Azam Zanganeh could be accused of ‘the Anxiety of Influence’ whereby she attempts to emulate the style of her literary precursor and seeks his approval: ‘What he might have thought of a perilously Nabokovian would-be writer of the feminine gender, I shudder to imagine’. These insights can prove overbearing at times, alongside her romantic fantasies regardingNabokov: ‘Some days earlier, I had, in fact, had a dream. He was there. So close I could almost touch him.’ Although comments like this appear frequently in the work, Azam Zanganeh is not shy of confessing that this degree of adoration is unusual with regard to one’s favourite author. The word ‘maniacal’ is duly noted throughout the book and when she relates her dream to Nabokov’s son Dmitri she is aware that he may ‘brush the dream off as a reader’s monomaniacal fantasy’.
Much like Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller, Azam Zanganeh plays with her reader, addressing him in the second person to bring attention to the act of reading itself. This incorporates a didactic element to the novel: ‘For optimal results, read out loud. Words will clip and kiss in your mouth’. It is easy to appreciate Azam Zanageh’s didacticism when her encouragements serve to enhance not only the reading of any Nabokov novel but also her own. She quotes Nabokov in saying “one cannot read a book: one can only reread it” and this is particularly true of her novel as some of the details of the book do not appear if read chronologically. In chapter thirteen, the glossary of ‘words that dazzle and delight, scintillate and sparkle like star on a see-through night’ demonstrates the pleasure of re-reading, as many of her definitions encourage the reader to go back through the book to hunt for clues and discover their own etymological delights such as Azam Zanganeh did herself when reading Lolita.
Not only a ludic novel that details the joy of reading, The Enchanter is also the work of a scholar who has carefully selected and meticulously sourced each quotation with consideration. Azam Zanganeh avoids an abundance of esoteric Nabokovian references, although she does somewhat spoil the plot for the unfamiliar reader of Nabokov by re-telling the stories of Lolita, Ada or Ardour and Speak, Memory. The desired audience of the book is perhaps those who have read Nabokov’s works once but are yet to learn the value of the second reading that she encourages.
Azam Zanganeh’s habit of weaving her own image and echo into the stories of the Nabokov’s lives and fictions can, at times, appear self-indulgent. First-name overfamiliarity with the Nabokovs may irritate, for example: ‘I’ve come to Switzerland to see Dmitri and visit the cemetery at Clarens, where Vladimir’s and Vera’s ashes have been mixed.’ Her imaginings seem a little intrusive at times; after confessing of Nabokov and his wife that ‘We know nothing of their private lives. Except that they slept in adjoining rooms,’ she proceeds to fantasize that ‘Perhaps he tiptoed to hers. And late into the night, he would look at her, lying naked, supine, grey-blue eyes lifted skyward.’ These intimate indulgences would shock were it not for Azam Zanganeh’s admission in her sources that (in a double-bind of quotation) ‘ “The deductions,” as Nabokov once wrote, “are my own.” ’ She confesses to invention and in doing so, delicately suggests that biography and autobiography do not require absolute truth – the very nature of memory is fictional, and this acknowledgement will result in happiness. As she writes, we ‘read to reenchant the world’, and her novel is a both a charming and peculiar incentive to be reenchanted by the works of Vladimir Nabokov.