Talking with Lila Azam Zanganeh about Nabokov and happiness

I had dinner with Lila Azam Zanganeh not long ago and, among other things, we talked about her new book on Vladimir Nabokov called The Enchanter, which was published this week by W.W. Norton.  Lila is a Nabokovian of the highest order and her book reads as a kind of intellectual love letter, by turns scholarly and impassioned, that begins as an imaginative examination of the theme of happiness in VN’s life and writings and becomes, by the end, a testimony to the ever-replenishing happiness that a great writer can bring to a reader.

Lila herself appears only intermittently in the book but the person she describes — hesitant, clutching a book marked up with English words she doesn’t recognize — will be entirely unfamiliar to anyone who knows her.  There can’t be many people today who write for the New York Times (in English), Le Monde (in French), and La Repubblica (in Italian), plus read VN’s early works in the original Russian.  But this sort of polyglot cosmopolitanism is an essential part of Nabokov, too, along with the pervasive sense of a rich cultural heritage lost to exile — in VN’s case Tsarist Russia and in Lila’s pre-revolutionary Iran.  I once went to a Persian New Year’s party at Lila’s home in Paris and as she took me around the room introducing me to her parents’ friends she would say “This is the most famous poet in Iran” or “He is one of Iran’s best-known journalists” as if we were still in Iran and not nearly three decades distant from it and the revolution that led them all to be in Paris.  In Nabokov, she found, at last, the writer who understood this about her.

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