Transparent Things by Vladimir Nabokov – review

Nabokov's ingenious 1972 novella deserves to be read and read again in spite of some uncomfortable Lolita-esque passages

Bumbling, somnambulant editor Hugh Person is – if not exactly the hero of this novella published in 1972 – the protagonist; a protagonist accompanied by a dogged shadow, a postmodern omniscient narrator who impishly, maestro-ishly digresses throughout Hugh's ill-fated trip to Switzerland.

The journey is not only geographical but also one of memories. Hugh has been to Switzerland before: once, in childhood, when his father fell down dead on a shopping trip; on another occasion to visit an author, R, through whom he connects with the woman who will be his wife. Later still, his final trip sheds light – and reckoning – on the murder and madness at the heart of this dazzlingly elegant, clever novella that is designed to be reread.

Throughout the story, as Hugh goes about his privileged life in the clumsy haze of a "sullen slave", the imp metaphysically breaks the "thin veneer of immediate reality… [the] tension film" of the present to wander through the personal history of a pencil, or examine a former inhabitant of a hotel room (a 19th-century Russian poet), much as a ghost might. Have patience, because all is part of the tight slipknot of the plot; and Nabokov's small sparks of brilliant prose unite to form a complex whole.

If only – if only? – it weren't for Nabokov's obsession with "nymphets", who play an unnaturally large part in this story. A paragraph in which Hugh gazes at photographs of 10-year-old Armande in her bath makes for very uncomfortable reading, and the first time round appears appallingly gratuitous (Lolita, exploring those themes more head-on, can be excused) – it's the slip of an old paedo, turning the author into a figure of tragicomic lechery. But then so too is the Nabokov-like central figure of R…

It is not surprising that on publication, Transparent Things received Marmite-esque reviews. Nabokov wrote in his diary that they "oscillate between hopeless adoration and helpless hatred. Very amusing". But on reaching the end, a reader should look more closely at the dodgy passage and note "the flame of his interest": and see its importance, its indication that the judgment of the divine, the wrath of the creator, the possibility of design in the universe cannot be avoided.

Read this book, and reread it. And never forget that in these pages there is a master at work.


Sophia Martelli

The GuardianTramp

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