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Short Takes

‘The Secret History of Vladimir Nabokov,’ ‘Elders,’ and ‘Mumbai New York Scranton’

The Secret History of Vladimir Nabokov

By Andrea Pitzer

Pegasus, 432 pp., illustrated, $29.95

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Unlike fellow Russian writers, from Solzhenitsyn to Pasternak, who openly grappled with history in their work, Vladimir Nabokov has long been understood as above all a master of form, an almost impossibly gorgeous stylist, a linguistic virtuoso whose works glided past the wars, revolutions, and genocides that scarred 20th-century Europe. This perception, argues Andrea Pitzer, is simply wrong. Born into aristocratic wealth in Imperial Russia, Nabokov watched his family’s way of life implode, was exiled as a teenager, lost his father to political assassination, fled from Berlin with his Jewish wife and son in the 1930s, and just managed to get out of Vichy France before that country began sending Jewish refugees to the Nazis’ camps. Rather than averting his writerly gaze from these horrors, she says, Nabokov grappled with them in his own way: Indeed, as Pitzer points out when describing his youth, “the violence of the world and the search to escape it would soon become a theme in Nabokov’s life and a dominant feature of his work.” In “Lolita,” “Pnin,” “Pale Fire,” and other books, Nabokov was able to “tuck history into the seams of his story in such a way that it becomes visible only on a return trip.”

Here, Pitzer takes readers on that trip, integrating Nabokov’s biography with a close reading of his works, asserting that amid some of the century’s most playful, glittering prose lurked the author’s “own private map, revealing the most profound losses of his life and the forgotten traumas of his age.” Pitzer sees “Lolita,” for instance, as not merely “a cruel book about cruelty,” as Martin Amis called it, but as an inventory of American anti-Semitism, “a shadow map with the coordinates of exclusion and bigotry.” Pitzer, like Nabokov, is a beautiful writer and gimlet-eyed observer, especially about her subject; even as an impoverished refugee living in America, she writes, “Nabokov was never shy about his sense of self.” Her attention to history’s moral components is refreshingly blunt: “The dead are not nameless,” she writes of the writers and others killed in Stalin’s Great Purge of the late 1930s. Inviting us to reconsider Nabokov, Pitzer also introduces herself as a writer worthy of attention.

Elders

By Ryan McIlvain

Hogarth, 293 pp., $26

Elder McLeod is a 20-year-old Bostonian, a Mormon, a bishop’s son hoping to find his true faith while serving his two-year mission in Brazil. Working alongside a fellow missionary, Elder Passos, McLeod knocks on doors that rarely open, works to keep his body and soul clean, prays. Passos has converted, along with his two brothers, because the Mormon missionaries he met promised that the boys would reunite in heaven with their dead mother; he brings a passion to the mission that McLeod both envies and disdains. When the pair find a couple who might actually want to convert, they find themselves fighting petty church rules and, inevitably, each other.

Ryan McIlvain grew up Mormon, and his first novel glows with the love and anger of a former believer. His clear-eyed assessment of “[t]he final irreducible strangeness of the mission” shows the elders scrambling for souls amid competition from newfangled evangelical sects, the dominant Catholic Church, and the country’s most uplifting and universal religion: soccer. That their success depends on storytelling links the missionaries’ work to that of the novelist, a parallel neatly summed up by McIlvain: “The task of a missionary was to distill the infinite into the finite, the inexpressible into the expressible.” Finely paced, keenly observed, and ruefully honest, “Elders” (save for a slightly melodramatic ending) fulfills this task admirably.

Mumbai New York Scranton

By Tamara Shopsin

Scribner, 276 pp., illustrated, $25

On a trip to India with her husband, Tamara Shopsin felt nauseous, dizzy, plagued by headaches. Both chalked it up to the food, unpaved roads, her history of migraines. It wasn’t until she returned home that she got the frightening diagnosis (and no, it wasn’t pregnancy, as every health care worker initially suggested). In her compelling memoir, Shopsin chronicles travels abroad and within in a dazzlingly original voice.

Dispensing with most exposition, Shopsin tells her story in action and pictures — short chapters, often illustrated, bring a vivid sense of immediacy and intimacy. Perhaps because she’s a visual artist and lifelong cook, she’s invites readers to see what she sees, taste what she tastes. The result is a memoir that feels almost completely lacking in artifice, suffused instead with the weird brilliance we call art.

Kate Tuttle, a writer and editor, can be reached at kate.tuttle@gmail.com.
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