I cannot possibly remember when I first heard the term "harlequin romance" (childhood and adolescence occasionally baffle me with their echoes), but for a young person this is precisely the association that love might entail. After all, what adults do physically and emotionally must strike the earnest child as nothing more than silly and banal. Grass and pets and balls and schoolless afternoons and books and gum and games – these are what little boys and girls are made of; time is too long and its arms too outstretching to commit to something forever. True enough, coming of age turns into a sort of comeuppance for those lazy, hazy days lost to speculation and wonder, and almost all of us are better off for the learning. But let us not forget our amazement and imagination as they took root all around us. Let us celebrate the whims and lies of a life separated from the hard liberty of being grown up and responsible, when – as some fear on cold, lonely days – consequences are as drab as our reasons. So if the etymology of harlequin is indeed some kind of Germanic diminutive for little hell or devil, we would be even more anxious to enjoy this book.
Our narrator and titan, it will be revealed in time, is a "certain Russian prince" by the name of Vadim Vadimovich. Vadim Vadimovich belongs to that now-doddering generation of émigrés who got out of Russia through a spinning back-door turnstile before Lenin and his crimson thugs busted through the main entrance (in time, as it were, to see only a pile of swirling dust). So was it then and now, somewhere in the early mist of the 1970s, little seems to have changed except the name plates at the Politburo. Princely refuge – after allegedly shooting a Soviet soldier who threatened rendition – is sought in England, then Germany, then France, then eventually, once some foul continental forces forego busting through doors altogether and start setting unwanted tenements to flame, to that awkward jumble of Puritanical pressures and Social Darwinism known as the United States. Whatever you wish to say about our dear Vadim Vadimovich, America is clearly too tame and bland for his tastes. And thinking back now, he recalls the seeds of his own ambition:
I actually believed even then, in my early twenties, that by mid-century I would be a famous and free author, living in a free, universally respected Russia, on the English quay of the Neva or on one of my splendid estates in the country and writing there prose and poetry in the infinitely plastic tongue of my ancestors: among them I counted one of Tolstoy's grand-aunts and two of Pushkin's boon companions. The forefeel of fame was as heady as the old wines of nostalgia. It was remembrance in reverse, a great lakeside oak reflected so picturesquely in such clear waters that its mirrored branches looked like glorified roots. I felt this future fame in my toes, in the tips of my fingers, in the hair of my head, as one feels the shiver caused by an electric storm, by the dying beauty of a singer's dark voice just before the thunder, or by one line of King Lear.
A better summary of Look at the Harlequins could not be furnished by any reviewer, which is necessarily part of Vadim Vadimovich's plan. There are women in his life as they are in every life, and he makes of them little use apart from their patterns for characters in his wondrous novels and poems. There is Iris Black, who would die young, Annette Blagovo, whom he would also kill off under rather different circumstances, Louise Anderson, the prurient Philistine widow of a fat poet and critic of infinitely greater trendiness than our poor Vadim Vadimovich (which means, naturally, that he will be forgotten as quickly as those trends), and a fourth, unnamed wife, who is a few decades younger than her master. With these forming with our prince a sort of love pentagon, we begin a march towards the present, a march that rapidly devolves into a hop, a skip, and a few more skips.
What is skipped? Plenty; a whole lot; in a way everything except his books, of which we get occasional quotes but more commonly nice, direct allusions (Vadim Vadimovich is a nice, direct prince), and his comments on the savagery of the world. He is so cruel to the women he loved that we scarcely believe he loved them at all. This includes his long-lost daughter Isabel (from Annette) who is said to be a remarkable genius. This daughter-genius then does something quite out of keeping with geniuses and good offspring: she elopes with a hippie type who then, in turn, defects to the Soviets, changing his identity along the way. It is truly a sad moment when Vadim Vadimovich and wife three lunch with only daughter and future son-in-law:
He was twenty-five years old. He had spent five years studying Russian, and spoke it as fluently, he said, as a trained seal (a small sample justified the comparison). He was a declared 'revolutionary,' and a hopeless nincompoop, knowing nothing, crazy about jazz, existentialism, Leninism, pacifism, and African Art. He thought snappy pamphlets and catalogues so much more 'meaningful' than fat old books. A sweet, stale, and unhealthy smell emanated from the poor fellow.
We have all smelled this odor, which I believe is closely akin to that of an orange left out for a week or two. Since classical music, philosophy, the Renaissance, and classical art tend to counterleague against the ignorance of the modernist trends smashed in the quote above (I will omit pacifism; there is absolutely nothing wrong with pacifism; although most pacifists do indeed emit the rotten orange smell for whatever reason), we have little more to do here but nod and sigh and hope that Isabel has enough genius to identify fraud as readily as her progenitor.
Those who know little about Nabokov's biography (one can imagine the casual reader deeming all of this a graceful farce) may be bored in the same way that people who crave action and adventure are easily dulled by time's thud. Those who do know something about Nabokov's life may think themselves in on the joke as some kind of exclusive club members, although such a conclusion would be just as misguided. The truth is that Vadim Vadimovich alone knows the truth and he knows it from the inside out, not the other way around, which is our circuitous route. Not a few gemstones limn (to use a popular critic's favorite and much-abused verb) this path: after almost being hit by a motorcycle, our narrator "ignored his roar of hate"; some friends "sat enjoying Martinis in the orchestra seats of a marvelous sunset"; a plain woman is forgotten as "the very insignificance of her appearance canceled the pursuit of a vague recollection"; Vadim sips on "the indifferent white wine [he] had the polite weakness to praise"; and "Annette would occasionally curb with an opaque, almost ophidian look, her mother's volubility." There are also a few details that really have no business being in a Nabokov book, including one so shocking that it must be a joke and a half, if not two jokes. Those harlequins sure are a burlesque bunch.