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226. Corners of the mouth (VI)

Vladimir Nabokov is forever associated with Lolita, but the story of his exile from Russia has political parallels for us today. As a teenager, I used to think that Tsarist Russia was characterised by extreme cruelty, backwardness, and illiberality. The general picture presented in schoolbooks was that the Russians were under the Tsarist heel; the Tsar being a naïve and slightly foolish leader who allowed his wife to be influenced by the mad monk Rasputin and his tales of divine powers. It was never suggested that the February 1917 revolution was deserved, merely that the Tsarist system was pretty suspect. The narrative was often elided so that the October Revolution seemed to be against the Tsar and not against the Provisional Government that had displaced him; the Bolsheviks rose up against liberalism—albeit liberalism that had barely had time to swing into the saddle of government.

Nabokov was one of the greatest writers of the 20th century; and his achievement, as with Conrad, is all the more impressive because English was his third language after Russian and German—or perhaps it was his fourth, after French. What annoys me about Nabokov is his arrogance, even if it was deserved arrogance. Nabokov was a classical liberal—just as his father had been—and remained one throughout his life: he was, in a sense, a 19th-century relic—one of those men for whom every question about physics, free markets, and government had been settled in about 1867. The naïve optimism of the Victorian classical liberal: all the questions are settled now, we just need to progress everyone upwards to our level—progress was taken to be linear and assured; everything was a line chart that went up and up without interruption, just like returns from a new traction engine plant in Bogotá.

Nabokov’s father was an influential liberal politician in Tsarist Russia; and he played a key role in the Provisional Government after the Tsar recused himself: the Bolsheviks gunned for him. Before the war, he represented the powerful voice of liberalism in Russia, for—contrary to my schoolbook impression—Russia in the 1900s was a very liberal place, with women in universities and Nabokov’s father in the vanguard of calls for toleration of the Jews. Soon Russia would be just like England, the best-governed country in the world—as all then agreed. For the young Nabokov, the Bolsheviks under his windows in St. Petersburg were uncouth barbarians, utterly irrational people unable to appreciate German palindromes or his butterfly collection.

When I hear Nabokov talk about this time in interviews I feel sympathy for the Bolsheviks. Nabokov’s arrogance and condescension was immense and remained so for the rest of his life; it was not the arrogance of some ignorant aristocrat ready to whip his serfs to a bloody pulp and chase the Jews beyond the pale: it was an arrogance we are familiar with today, the arrogance of the classical liberal—the Steven Pinker type—with his peer-reviewed papers and complete confidence that he is scientifically rational.

The problem for Nabokov—our modern Nabokovian classical liberals—is that man does not live by peer-reviewed studies alone, nor does he live by “increased availability of consumer goods”. The Bolsheviks understood that the myth was greater than rationality; and that is why Nabokov’s father and Nabokov himself were swept away—just as today’s classical liberals and their peer-review studies will be swept away by Critical Race Theory and the myth of George Floyd.

The classical liberals, generous to women and the Jews—Nabokov’s sister was a childhood playmate to the arch-classical liberal and Jewess, Ayn Rand—find themselves swept away by myth. “But, but it’s totally irrational! We can make more trains in a free-market economy! But…progress!” It is too late, the classical liberal lived as an atom; he said we were all just reasonable people—Jew and Slav and Tartar and Englishman—without superstitious religion and, in the end, as with Nabokov’s father, the lucky ones die in exile.

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