December 15, 1986 12:00 PM

by Vladimir Nabokov

This book is a curious ancestor of the author’s shocking (when it was published in 1958) Lolita. Nabokov’s son and translator, Dmitri, who found the book among his father’s belongings, offers it up with an essay of his own that adds a lot of information about the Russian-born author, who died in 1977. The setting for this story, the last Nabokov wrote in Russian, is Europe. The hero, a well-off businessman, sees a young girl in a park and contrives to meet her mother. The mother is dying, but the man persuades her to marry him—all because he lusts to have his way with the preteenager. It is a tale of obsession, and so the suspense is built in. Clearly the main character is insane. Will he succeed in getting this nubile child into his bed? Humbert Humbert, the seducer of Lolita, is a far more complex character than this man, but this shorter work succeeds nicely because of the pervasive atmosphere of danger and oppression. Dmitri Nabokov compares his father’s work to “the counterpoint of Bach or the thematic texture of Wagner.” That seems a little grand for a man who was, in fact, a literary games player. Nabokov’s vision is unique, but he was always calculated and so careful that a major reason for reading him is to watch a master craftsman do everything meticulously. If there was passion in Nabokov the man, little remains in the final, brilliantly polished products of his talent, and this book is no exception. (Putnam, $16.95)

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