Recently, in writing about Adrienne Celt's new novel, Invitation to a Bonfire, I explained that this is a book for the person who idolized one of the 20th century's literary giants, but who would grow up to realize that "this great man of fiction could not have been great without a woman supporting him." The great man was Vladimir Nabokov, and the woman was his wife Vera, and in Celt's book, she explores the dark, incendiary world of an analogous creative partnership through the prism of a love triangle as twisted as the gnarled roots of a centuries-old bonsai tree. It's a fascinating look at how the most intimate relationships traffic in a currency of shared pain and a peculiar kind of ecstasy, and I was lucky to sit down with Celt not long ago to talk about how Nabokov inspired her, what we find so compelling about creative partnerships, and why goodness and happiness are not easy to combine, unless one is a sort of capitalist monster.
What was your initial experience with Nabokov, and how did that lead you to write this book?
I took a seminar on his novels in college; I think I had already read Lolita by that point, but we read Lolita and Pale Fire and Ada and his memoir, Speak, Memory. So, I fell in love with his writing then. If you relate to his prose, you feel like he understands the world in the way that you do, or at least that's how I feel. When I write, I feel like I am explaining the way that I see the world and in a way that I could never just straightforwardly say. So, I get very attached to writers who can move me in that way.
Also, there was this journalist who came to visit our class who had known [Vladimir and Vera] when they were still alive. He told us how wonderful they were, how polite they were, and gracious, and how much Nabokov loved his wife... and he said, "He loved Vera, he worshiped Vera, he knew exactly what she did for him." It really gave me permission to love his novels in an uncomplicated way. He was always in my mind, in the atmosphere; and then I was reading this New Yorker review of the collective letters of Vladimir and Vera Nabokov and it [revealed] that he had an affair, and I got so angry. Completely unjustified, because he was not married to me and never made any promises to me, but it felt like he had broken a promise to me.
It also mentioned in the same review that not only did Vera do all of these things—teaching his classes, doing all of his paperwork, and, god knows, probably editing his book—she also would black out early communications on their letters and postcards and things like that. So, the historical record would just be on him. As soon as I moved through the first red, hot wave of anger, I got really interested in that idea of what kind of person, who was also a brilliant, educated, aristocratic, worldly human being, what would make her—besides just the historical place and time—want to give herself over so much to this person. What did she get from it? Or what could she get from it, potentially? Then, who would this person be that would make a man like that think about leaving his wife, his amazing wife. And then [the novel] just sprang very fluidly from me.
It's interesting to hear you say it all came out very fluidly because that's an analogous feeling to what it's like to read the book, in that everything just seems to bloom and unfurl, with greater and greater speed. And yet it also weaves in so many different voices and styles, making it seem like it was written in various parts. Did you write it straight through?
The very first thing I wrote was Lev's letter to Vera because that voice was the most intuitive to me, having read so much Nabokov. But, mostly other than that, I wrote it straight through. For the first draft, which I wrote really quickly, like shockingly quickly, I did not know yet that it was going to be a collection of letters. I knew that Zoya was writing a diary and I knew that Lev was writing letters. Where we get Vera's voice is now through police documents, [but] originally, I just wrote her voice. I also went back and edited a bunch in the beginning to give myself the opportunity to really explore Zoya's experience of coming to the U.S. from the Soviet Union, [what it was like] being embedded in both of those cultures and searching for an ethical framework for herself, and a promotional and safety net framework on a literal level, and never really finding it.
Zoya is such a fascinating example of what it's like to assimilate—or not—in America. She doesn't really assimilate in the way we think immigrants should.
She does get into capitalism, though!
Right, well, the way so many young women learn how to be themselves is really through imitating those around them, whether or not they're coming from somewhere totally different. Sometimes this type of emulation is more successful than others, but it's always such an interesting kind of intimacy, it's own kind of love story. How did you conceive of Zoya's platonic relationships as related to the romantic relationship that would come for her later?
I think they're very deeply connected for Zoya. I think she, especially when we see her first coming to the Donne School, she's in a true coming-of-age place in her life. So, she's really looking for someone to show her what kind of person to be, because she's experienced so much at such a young age. She really threw herself into the Russian Revolution because her father was a revolutionary and that gave her family status that they had never had. They were peasants. They had nothing. They worked in the fields. Then, suddenly they had fish for dinner sometimes. So, when she came to the U.S., I feel like her seat of safety was really shaken, not just in the world, but internally she didn't know who she wanted to be or what she wanted to be. Every time she looked around herself for some sort of love, it was very hard to come by. I think she tends to romanticize, not just people, but ideas, and not just ideas, but people. Like with her roommate Margaret, who she was really sort of in love with.
I think her early attempts to be loved at the Donne School are really still there as her relationships with Lev and Vera play out. She still is trying to recapture the sense of, "Oh, can somebody see me? Can somebody love me?" and coming up short. But, also, it tends to denote a sense of love for herself, by what she's going give out into the world, which makes her sound like such a more tender and naive person than she actually is. [All the relationships are] connected in the sense of Zoya's wanting.
Her desire is palpable, but so is her alienation. But, of course, Zoya's alienation is rooted in her childhood. Before he's disappeared, Zoya's father says to her that it's better to be good than to be happy. How does that idea play out for Zoya?
I think she tries for a long time to follow that advice. I think that when her father tells her that, she doesn't understand it because she thinks that she's doing both. She thinks that, by being continually enchanted with the party in the Soviet Union, she's essentially being a model citizen, because that is what she's been taught, and she doesn't really understand at that point that her father has become disenchanted with what's happening. So, when she gets to America, I think she tries to walk through what the right way to be an American is, or the right way to be a good person in America. She's so continuously unhappy that that almost doesn't factor in for her, at least until she gets the job at the greenhouse and gets herself a little piece of something. So, I think, she then begins to struggle with that when she realizes how difficult it is to be happy and how people don't make space for you to be happy if it's at their own expense.
In America, the idea of goodness and happiness being in opposition is really counterintuitive, because, here, you're supposed to actually think that they go together. The pursuit of happiness is embedded in our Constitution as something that benefits the public and personal good. So to think of goodness—or duty—and happiness being diametrically opposed is hard for us, but it's natural for someone like Zoya, and for so many others.
It's also nowhere in reality. I mean, I think you can definitely be both good and happy, but—not to harp on capitalism too much—it's a nightmare, and it's what convinces people, even very good people, that [goodness and happiness] have to be intertwined. Our generation believes that you have to be in your dream job or else you should be unhappy. Your dream job should also be a financial success. There are so many levels of contradiction. For example, if you're a teacher, you have to be passionate about being a teacher and be okay with not having any money. But, then if you ask for money, you're a terrible person. It just doesn't work great when financial stability is your only indicator of success. It's a rich person's point of view.
That's why Lev and Vera don't have the same conflict that Zoya has. They are also exiled from the Russia that was, but they emerged from their sense of self-intact because they were also wealthy, they always had high regard for themselves; they also believed that they deserved everything they had. Zoya was not raised that way. She was raised thinking that you had to work, and I think that's a conflict that is at play in America, too. I mean, I wrote the first draft of this before the 2016 election, and then I revised it after the 2016 elections. That really clarified my thinking around a lot of these themes. They were already there, but it gave me the opportunity to make them a little more explicit and think through how I thought about them.
What scenes were fun for you to write?
The whole book because I felt that rush throughout the writing process. I wrote this novel completely in secret. The whole first draft, I didn't tell anyone I was working on it. I would refer to it as my "secret affair manuscript."
I felt so free. Like I said, Lev's voice was the first one I found, and I just thought, I can do anything I want. This is my book. I know how it's supposed to go. I know these people. That sense of being able to run as fast as I could was amazing. I guess it's kind of like feeling like an athlete at the top of your game and just being like, "I'm going to see how fast I can go." Then, the sex parts were really fun to write. [Laughs]
Sex is only part of what drives the intense romantic relationships in this book, there's also other kinds of service. Why do you think we find relationships in which one partner really serves the needs of another, in this case in the service of their art, so compelling?
I honestly think it's that ability to marry together the two parts of your life: your intimate emotional life and your intimate artistic life. It's hard to come by that, and it's double hard to come by that with someone who is willing to support you so completely. Because, yeah, it would be great to be deeply in love with someone who thought you were such a genius that they were willing to give up their entire life to make sure that you could do everything that you wanted to do.
It... would be great.
Wouldn't it?! But I think that it doesn't always work in practice, not just because those amazing supporters are few and far between, but also, I don't know if it's what everyone wants as an artistic person. For me, my husband is brilliant and actually a really good reader for me. But, I never show him my books when I'm working on them because it feels like too much vulnerability at one time. I don't think he's going to say anything bad, but somehow knowing that he has all of my secret inner-self on an emotional, personal level... I would feel complicated if he was also then responsible for giving me affirmation about my book. Or maybe, it's that I want him to give me pure affirmation. I think the wish fulfillment aspect is why those relationships are so compelling.
How did it feel to write this and give Lev the ending that he had? Did it feel like its own kind of wish fulfillment, for all the women who were overshadowed by artistic men?
It was fun to do it. It was really satisfying because I feel tenderly toward Lev. I like that he was both as brilliant as he thinks he is, and also sort of dumb, and kind of a mess. He just has no idea how dumb or how much of a mess he is. He never really does until the very end. He is just existing on this separate plane where he has very few cares, and things that he thinks have gone wrong for him are not really things that have gone wrong. They are just problems he has created for himself because he has no problems. He is sort of flowing through the book like a river, while around him there are these women trying to build villages. It was satisfying because it was also sad. I think if I had just... I mean you know that he dies from the very first page, so it's not a spoiler to say that Lev dies. What is so satisfying for me as the writer, and I hope for the readers, is that he is not the villain. You are still sad to see him go and see how he goes. It becomes a satisfying, but tragic, element, where the man is not all-powerful. He is a brilliant man, but he is not all-powerful, and he's still very human. So, take that Nabokov. [Laughs]
Invitation to a Bonfire is available for purchase here.
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