The Enchanter: Nabokov & Happiness by Lila Azam Zanganeh

9th Jun 2011


Instead, it reads like a love letter; by turns playful, intimate, eager and obsessive, as the author takes us down the rabbit hole and into the wonderland of Nabokov’s writing.

Neither literary criticism, memoir or biography, The Enchanter is instead a combination of all three, recounting the author’s first experiences and responses to Nabokov’s writing, and the literary adventures that followed, including interviewing his son, Dmitiri Nabokov, and all sorts of Nabokivian insights and anecdotes unearthed during her reading and research.

Beginning with an illustrated map of an island with the chapters (featuring titles such as Through the Looking Glass, Six Mad Hatters, Counter Clockwise and A Bright Dot of Memory) the idea is that they can either be read in sequence, or the reader can choose their own itinerary through the text.

There is a continued Alice in Wonderland analogy throughout the book, and although on occasion it comes across as tenuous and tired, it mostly works well to evoke the magical, fairytale-like lands and labyrinths created so beautifully by Nabokov.

The Enchanter is the author’s tribute to Nabokov, in style as well as subject. At times the language was luminous, lyrical and rich (I loved the description of Lolita being “mailed in a madman’s coat of words”), but at others it erred toward cliché or pretension.

Nabokov has many imitators, but when that writing is alongside quotes of his own work, there’s no competition, no matter how loving and earnest the attempt.

For the most part, though, The Enchanter is an enchanting read, with its revealing and humanising portrait of the author himself and an illuminating insight into the impact, influence and continued legacy of his work.

Published last week by Allen Lane, you can buy it in hardback for £11.10, or get the Kindle edition for £9.99.

Rating: Although I have a couple of quibbles with the execution, for originality, enthusiasm and sincerity, The Enchanter is top of the class. 5/5

Recommended for: Both Nabokov evangelists and intrigued innocents (like me) who up until now have only read Lolita.

Other recommended reading: For insights into Nabokov’s controversial classic, investigate The Annotated Lolita, which comes with asides, anecdotes and analysis from Alfred Appel.

Or, for more from the man himself, invest in The Original of Laura, made up of fragments of the legendary unfinished novel left behind after Nabokov’s death, published for the first time in 2009.

Still intrigued? For more insight into literature’s most renowned lepidopterist (that’s butterfly specialist to you and me), see if you can get your mitts on Nabokov’s Butterflies, a collection of previously unpublished stories, scientific papers, letters and notes. Be warned, though, copies are hard to come by…

Jane Bradley