As a newly coined Nabokov Nerd (and lone student in my Nabokov Studies class, often conducted during sleepless midnights), I couldn’t pass up the free, advance, uncorrected copy of Leslie Daniels’ debut novel Cleaning Nabokov’s House when its blue and white cover gleamed at me from the Simon & Schuster display table, during a booksellers convention in Oakland last October.
The story seemed irresistible. A divorcee moves into the house that the great writer and his wife, Vera, occupied while Lolita emerged from its cocoon. She then unearths (or undrawers) what may be a lost, unfinished novel by the Master Conjurer.
Oh, There Will Be Trouble, Won’t There?
That it turned out to be not quite what I expected may say more about this reader—a male genre writer, mostly ignorant of “women’s fiction.” I find this genre hard to relate to, as Nabokov seemed to have found Jane Austen hard to relate to, though he taught Austen’s Mansfield Park when he was a
professor and, I’ve read, was a greatly beloved teacher.
And so, Cleaning Nabokov’s House is not a book I melded with. Still, I still found things to like throughout this wry, gentle comic novel of contemporary life. (In fact, it has just occurred to me, we might read this narrative as Nabokov Meets Austen.)
Leslie Daniels is very good company, a sparkling writer with a spirited heroine and she seems to play her first novel in three sprightly keys.
The first key: Our narrator and heroine is Barb Barrett, thirty-nine, recently divorced and cruelly deprived of her two children, Sam and Darcy, by her intolerant, über-competent husband. Like some of Nabokov’s protagonists—the smitten young man in Glory and the lost professor in Pnin—Barb is an
exile. In her case, though, she is an internal exile, a Manhattanite who’s been cast away in semi-rural upstate New York. She sees herself as an incompetent, her only justification her love for her children.
Barb’s determination to remain in her childrens' lives confine her to the fictional upstate town of Onkwedo (which seems to stand in for Ithaca, where Nabokov taught at nearby Cornell University, here called Waindell). Her psyche must somehow survive in this apparent Dullardsville on meagerly parsed parental visits while she ekes out a living answering customer mail for the Old Daitch Dairy company.
Meanwhile--through an inheritance that shows up and disappears rapidly, at least in my review copy--Barb winds up buying and moving into the house where Vladimir and Vera Nabokov once lived.
Not long after, the second key is played: On a lonely morning, Barb yanks open a sticky, built-in, bedroom bottom drawer. Inside, sits stacks of index note cards. They contain the text of an epic novel about baseball. This may well be an incomplete draft of a lost novel, a Forgotten Treasure by the Master Exile himself. From there, Barb launches a quest to have the manuscript authenticated and, then, to find herself an agent and then a buyer and a publisher.
If you’re thinking, ah, here is where the action really begins, an adventure through the crazy, mad world of contemporary publishing, disguised as a Maltese Falcon story, you’re only partially there.
There is one more chord to play.
While out walking one day, her thoughts twining around her children and the suppressed sexuality she senses in the lives of women of Onkwedo, Barb weaves a unique and perilous scheme: Make enough money to regain custody by opening a brothel, located on the town’s bucolic outskirts. This brothel would unbank the frustrated sexuality of Onkwedo’s women, and be staffed by the best, most-willing young hunks that Waindell University can provide. Barb adds another layer of rationalization by collecting information about her clients’ sexual preferences, for “scientific purposes” (a plot thread that doesn’t amount to much).
Barb’s whorehouse adventures make for some of the most amusing episodes, but if your ear is telling you that these three chords do not play well together in chorus, you might be right. The novel is funny in places—Barb Barrett is as bright, spirited and witty a heroine as we’re likely to meet anywhere—but her story never seemed to roar together into a single flame that ignited that wick at the top of my spine. The result is a read that feels spotty and disconnected.
Cleaning Nabokov’s House seems a little afraid of its plot elements. In a comic novel (as in genre novels in general), calamity lurks around every corner as our dreams and vanities crash hilariously into inscrutable reality and the agenda of the larger world.
Perhaps out of kindness, the author seems to dodge or pull away from the potential disasters in Barb’s plan to run a gigolo pen in a conservative rural university town. The mind (or mine at least, more cunning, sadistic, and delighting in exaggeration) boggles in anticipation of the Things That Could Go Wrong . . . but except for a few narrow squeaks and a clever but unremarkable twist during a custody hearing, events never really plummet south as we might like them to--
--for instance, a cross-country chase, with Barb fleeing like guilty Humbert, her young studs in tow, as the law, representing Society’s Indignation, snaps at her heels--
Also, I found it hard to grasp the place of the Lost Treasure. The title leads us to expect it to be the central theme, but—and I might be wrong—its echo registers only faintly in the other
chambers. I half-expected a loving but perhaps tormented meditation on the surprising impact of a great writer’s work; not just his lost artifact, but his Art—buoyant and dangerous—on the life of someone discovering him for the first time. A blooming of the soul both delightful and fearful—
--which climaxes in a cross-country chase with the heroine clutching the manuscript, as desperately as Humbert clutches his Lo, while Nabokov’s son, Dimitri, plus a pack of greedy lawyers and crazed jealous scholars, dog her every step.
While the novel provides revealing nuggets about Nabokov’s work, the artist’s shade seems to reach only so far before fading. His reflection seldom shows. Did the mysterious manuscript—a magical object, I'd say--somehow inspire Barb to open the brothel? It’s not clear. How does it relate
to her struggle to regain her children or to her romance with a handsome local? I’m not able to tell.
It would be of course, grossly inappropriate and unjust to compare Leslie Daniels’s writing (or anyone’s, especially including mine) with Nabokov’s, a danger the author neatly disarms herself when Barb tries to fill in a missing chapter in the Lost Novel with her own prose.
Still, whenever any famous artist winds up in fiction, we always look and listen closely for that voice, for that face, even if it’s just a glimpse, through a shade of another mind. If my comment above is correct—that this novel is a case of Nabokov Meets Austen—then maybe it’s Austen’s artistry
that shines through here. Cleaning Nabokov’s House seems a little too cleansed of Nabokov for me.
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Copyright 2011 by Thomas Burchfield
Thomas Burchfield's contemporary Dracula novel Dragon's Ark will be published this Spring by Ambler House Publishing. Other essays and postings can also be read at The Red Room website for writers. He can also be friended on Facebook, tweeted at on Twitter and e-mailed at tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net.
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