Saturday, February 12, 2011

Vladimir Nabokov - Apr. 22, 1899 - July 2, 1977

I love this Nabokov guy! And I loved all 1400-or-so pages of Brian Boyd’s excellent two-volume biography, pictured below, of him. I’ve culled all anecdotes and quotes in this post from Boyd’s work. 

I wish fate had arranged that Nabokov would have been my friend. He was brilliant. He loved languages, was fluent in at least four, and his vocabularies and precisely correct grammar in all four languages was probably superior to that of 99% of those for whom English, German, French, or Russian was his/her native tongue.

There were major upheavals in his life. He was born in St. Petersburg, where his father, an amazingly progressive member of the Russian judiciary, was a political figure. They were driven from their homeland by the Bolsheviks; like thousands of other Russian refugees from Communism the Nabokovs settled in Berlin.  Here Nabokov’s father was killed at a political event … not for his own views … but while trying to prevent the assassination of someone whose views he was not particularly in sympathy with.

It was in Berlin that Vladimir Nabokov met Vera, a Jewish woman whom he would adore for the rest of his life. Vladimir and Vera produced a son, Dimitri. And too, in Berlin, Nabokov wrote several novels in Russian; inasmuch as there was a large community of Russian exiles in Berlin, he made a precarious but usually decent living from his writings, which included poetry and journalism.  Then, as the Nazis rose to power, Nabokov fled to Paris with his family. Eventually, when the German forces were advancing on Paris in WWII, the Nabokovs were forced to flee again -- initially to the south of France, and, from there, to the United States.  

Here he began lecturing, teaching (at Wellesley and then at Cornell), and writing novels in English. After a couple of decades, thanks to Lolita, he became rich and famous, and he and Vera moved to Switzerland, where they resided in a hotel. “He knew clearly why he had never chosen to own a house, even in America: ‘The main reason, the background reason, is, I suppose, that nothing short of a replica of my childhood surroundings would have satisfied me. I would never manage to match my memories correctly – so why trouble with hopeless approximations?’ And, he added, he did not much care ‘for furniture, for tables and chairs and lamps and rugs and things – perhaps because in my opulent childhood I was taught to regard with amused contempt any too-earnest attachment to material wealth.’ Living in a hotel, he pointed out, ‘eliminates the nuisance of private ownership.’ Apart from memories, he hoarded nothing, not even good books. A hotel life, he said, ‘confirms me in my favorite habit – the habit of freedom.’”

(My friend Abby and I have dreamed of residing in hotels/motels for much the same reasons.)

“He never had the least interest in the window-shopping the grand-Rue [outside their Swiss hotel] offered: he might notice pedestrians or sound out the shopkeepers he had to deal with, but he had no curiosity about the goods on display. He preferred to stroll along the quay observing the birds, the trees, the water, the light, and perhaps a lady with her little dog. After the one occasion when he makes the mistake of entering a shop on impulse and buying some pearls, he turned his blunder into another standing joke: ‘I am going out. Can I bring you back something? Some bread? Milk? Pearls?’”


Nabokov was a marvelous punster. At the time of the Vietnam War protests, he asked a professor friend if the latter’s classes at Northwestern University had been disrupted by the student unrest.  The professor told him that his classroom problems were not political. “I told him about a nun who sat in the back row of one of my lecture classes, and who one day complained after class that a couple near her were always spooning. ‘Sister,’ I had said, ‘in these troubled times we should be grateful if that’s all they were doing.’  “‘Ohhh,’ moaned Nabokov, mourning [the professor’s] lost opportunity, clapping his hand to his head in mock anguish. ‘You should have said, “Sister, be grateful that they were not forking.”

One of his closest friends in the United States was the eminent critic Edmund Wilson. When, early in their friendship, they were “out on a stroll together, Wilson asked Nabokov whether he believed in God. ‘Do you?’ countered Nabokov. ‘What a strange question!’ muttered Wilson, and fell silent.”

“[Nabokov’s] skepticism is ruthless,” writes Boyd, “his indifference to any religion complete. He refuses to rely on tradition, he shucks off the intellectually untenable and the emotionally indulgent, and he offers answers not as firm conclusions but as philosophical possibilities that force us to reopen doors we thought we had reason to shut.”

Wilson, famously curmudgeonly, “seemed to expect [his friends] to be charmed by his behavior, by the special Wilsonian tartness of judgment and independence of imagination. Even at an early state of their relationship, Nabokov detected this irrationality in his friend. Nevertheless he was deeply fond of Wilson, and almost from the start wrote to him with a warmth that Wilson seldom matched. To their common friend Roman Grynberg, Nabokov confided that with Wilson the ‘lyrical plaint’ that adorns Russian friendship seemed to be lacking – as it generally was, he felt, among Anglo-Saxons: ‘I love a violin in personal relationships, but in [Wilson’s case] there is no way one can let out a heartfelt sigh or casually unburden a soft fresh bit of oneself. Still, there’s a good deal else to make up for it.’”

Wilson and Nabokov, after years and years of friendship, fell out when Wilson, who had learned Russian so that he could read the great poet Pushkin in the original, had the audacity to criticize Nabokov’s translation of Pushkin.


When on a lecture tour early in his United States residency Nabokov found himself spending a few days at Spelman College, a liberal black women’s college in Atlanta. The President of the college was Florence Reed, “a vibrant, astute older woman who surrounded [Nabokov] with every attention and would become a long-term friend of the Nabokov family. He breakfasted with her every day, discussing everything from the Negro problem to telepathy. She told him he would have to go to chapel at 9:00 a.m., but he protested he was a heretic and hated music and singing. ‘You’ll love ours,’ she insisted, and led him off.”


Nabokov was intolerant of prejudice in any of its various versions. When he took his family for a vacation in New Hampshire, “Everything about the holiday was disappointing: a highway right beside the lodge; bungalows all cramped in one part of the grounds, and full of townies ‘out on the country’; shopkeepers; signs stipulating only ‘gentile clientele.’ In a restaurant where Nabokov noticed that phrase on the menu he called the waitress over and asked her if she would serve a couple who tethered their donkey outside and came in with their baby boy. ‘What are you talking about?’ she asked.  ‘I’m talking about Christ!’ he replied, and led his family out.”

On another trip, when headed for the Bighorn Mountains in northern Wyoming, “one afternoon, quite exhausted, Nabokov asked Vera if they could stop in the next settlement. There they found a dirty little hut with two lockless doors at opposite ends, but no door inside for the toilet. ‘Where are you folks from?’ asked the landlord. ‘Upstate New York.’ ‘Good enough so long as you are not from the Big City. All sorts of folks come from there trying to Jew you.’ ‘What is wrong with Jews?’ asked Vera. ‘Oh, they always try to knife you, get the better of you.’‘Well, I am Jewish,’ she replied, ‘and I have no intention of swindling you.’ His smiles and apologies were too late, the local cafes too grimy, and the Nabokovs drove on to Sheridan, forfeiting the night’s rent to their righteous host.”


In his early years in America, Nabokov was eager for the novels he’d written in Russian to be translated into English and published. In a letter to the publisher James Laughlin he wrote, revealing a touch of chauvinism, that he wanted “a man who knows English better than Russian – and a man, not a woman. I am frankly homosexual on the subject of translators.”

When a certain man was suggested by Laughlin, Nabokov wrote: “I know it is difficult to find a man who has enough Russian to understand my writings and at the same time can turn his English inside out and slice, chop, twist, volley, smash, kill, drive, half-volley, lob and place perfectly every word.” But, Nabokov went on, the translator named by Laughlin, “will gently pat the ball into the net – or send it sailing into the neighbor’s garden.”


When he was teaching at Wellesley College, the school’s newspaper ran a profile on him: “Pushkin, Shakespeare and himself constitute his favorite writers.  Mann, Faulkner, and Andre Gide receive the doubtful honor of being the three writers he most detests.”

Nabokov, reports Boyd, called the best-seller "'perhaps the worst form of propaganda, the propaganda of current ideas, easily digested brain food, fashionable worries.' He objected to any form of leveling or simplification. 'Brains must work the hard way or lose their calling and rank.'"  

A friend asked Nabokov if he liked Proust. “Not just like; I simply adore him,” Nabokov replied. “I’ve read all twelve volumes [obviously the French edition] through twice.”

“He thought poorly of Robert Lowell as a translator,” writes Boyd.  “In an exchange with Lowell in Encounter … on the subject of [Lowell’s translation of Pushkin’s] Onegin, Nabokov asked Lowell to ‘stop mutilating defenceless dead poets – Mandelstam, Rimbaud and others’ and later in the year he wrote to [a friend] expressing the hope that somebody would attack Lowell ‘for his illiterate and cretinic reworkings of poor, marvelous Mandelstam.’”

While he was living in Paris, a couple, Noel and Lucie Leon, invited the Nabokovs to dinner with ... James Joyce and Eugene and Maria Jolas.  Lucie Leon in a later memoir wondered whether Nabokov might have been intimidated in the presence of Joyce.  “Reading her memoir thirty years later Nabokov was amused to be accused for once of bashfulness rather than arrogance:

          '...but is her impression correct? She
          pictures me as a timid young artist; actually
          I was forty, with a sufficiently lucid aware-
          ness of what I had already done for Russian
          letters preventing me from feeling awed in the
          presence of any living writer. Had Mrs. Leon
          and I met more often at parties, she might have
          realized that I am always a disappointing guest,
          neither inclined nor able to shine socially.'


Critics’ appraisals of Nabokov’s work were usually rapturous. Typical was the rave in The New York Times Book Review of Ada: “A supremely original work of the imagination … further evidence that Nabokov is a peer of Kafka, Proust and Joyce … a love story, an erotic masterpiece, a philosophical investigation into the nature of time.”

Boyd, in the biography, presents synopses of all of Nabokov’s major works, including many short stories; he proclaims Invitation to a Beheading; The Defense; The Gift; Speak, Memory; Lolita; Pale Fire, and Ada to be masterpieces of the English language.


Nabokov credited his mother with inspiring him to be inspired. "[Nabokov] had wanted to call his memoirs [Speak, Memory] Speak, Mnemosyne, in honor of the Greek goddess of memory and mother of the muses, and more specifically in honor of his own mother, who would lead her little son through the estate [in Russia] and instruct him, in conspiratorial terms, 'Vot zapomni [now remember],' as she drew his attention to this or that loved thing in Vyra [the estate's name]. She was the mother of his imagination: her instructions to him to hoard the present until it turned into the priceless past shaped his very being. She allowed him to daydream, she let him have all the time he wanted to pursue his butterflies [Nabokov was to become an avid lepidopterist] -- and in proposing the title Speak, Mnemosyne, Nabokov had also wanted to commemorate his love of lepidoptera by way of mnemosyne, a butterfly species he had chased at Vyra."


An early biographer of Proust, George Painter (and his work, like Boyd's of Nabokov, was a two-volumed effort), said his subject was "... intoxicated by his own facility."  The same could be said of Nabokov.

Vastly different though they were in almost every other imaginable way as human beings, there are fascinating parallels between Nabokov's and Proust's writing philosophies; I lack the time and the intellectual vigor and, frankly, the intellect, required to compose a thesis on this subject, and so will leave it to someone seeking a Master's or a Doctorate -- but there are hints of it in some of Boyd's comments on Nabokov's writing:

"For Nabokov, the bounty of life is ultimately the bounty of the past; what we perceive is a 'form of memory, even at the moment of its perception.'"

"Life teems with the stuff of happiness, Nabokov felt confident, if only we can learn not to take our world for granted. That primary disposition ... shapes all his work, its curiosity, its openness, and above all its sense of grateful wonder. In an early story he tells us that an incidental character 'was a pessimist and, like all pessimists, a ridiculously unobservant man.'* In an early poem the apostles feel revulsion at the worms crawling out of a dog's bloated corpse, but Christ alone marvels at the whiteness of the dead dog's teeth .... [F]or Nabokov art was the spirit that can see beauty in a butcher's carcasses, a spirit of detachment from the world's bustle, not to abjure the world but to look at it afresh,, to savor the priceless inutility and generosity of life."

"... [Nabokov] saw consciousness as incredibly complex, mobile, multichanneled, capable of an aside of thought or a stray conviction even at a moment of supreme stress, and always ready to be aware of being aware of himself. His style is psychology at its finest .... [H]e knew that it was impossible to transcribe the mind into a sequence of words when consciousness operates in 'the no-time of human thought,' varies in its levels of verbality, flicks from channel to ill-defined channel, or broadcasts simultaneously from several stations as signals well up and fade."

Early in The Eye [a short story] the narrator kills himself -- already this could only be one of Nabokov's worlds -- but apparently persists in his Berlin life by the momentum of thought, and becomes obsessed by an elusive new face in the old crowd, one Smurov, who turns out to be himself."


Nabokov is, in short, a literary feast; I have been gluttonous.   

Cimetiere de Clarens, Vaud, Switzerland
*I'm reminded of a line in Jim Harrison's novel Sundog:  "If you think about it long enough, you'll find that the most exhausting part about human behavior is lack of curiosity."


  1. Am quite sure Nabokov would have enjoyed your friendship! As for lack of curiousity..couldn't agree more...curiosity keeps us on the boil...on the getgo...all those ah ah moments that enrich our days...

    Even though today isn't my birthday, the discovery of you blog makes the day birthdayish...sand buckets of alphabet soup...

  2. Given that Denton Welch is the reason I came across your a wondrous mix..Alan Bennett and Mr Welch:

    You might have already read...however 'tis the thought that counts raised to the wonder of the written word..

  3. Hi Joan - Thanks! Glad you got a birthday-ish feeling, and wishing you a Happy Valentine's Day tomorrow. I'll go read the Guardian article on Welch/Bennett now ... yes, wondrous mix.