We readers are marked forever by great authors—they are never really dead. We carry them around with us.
I write them letters.
Born into an aristocratic family, Vladimir Nabokov (April 23, 1899-July 2, 1977), spent his childhood in Russia prior to the Revolution. Although best known for his 1955 novel, Lolita, Nabokov was a man of many talents—poetry, translation, literary criticism, tennis, and scientific illustration. The best known writer to be an acknowledged expert in butterfly genitalia, Nabokov fulfilled his dream of identifying a new species.
Dear Mr. Nabokov,
Warning: I am about to use some words that not even an inventive wordsmith like you will recognize, but perhaps you will be intrigued. I can’t quite believe it, but through the miracle of a modern phenomenon which (Luddite that I am) I don’t understand or really appreciate, I’ve been able to spend some time with you this morning. I’m talking about Facebook, where, thanks to clicking on something I saw under my son’s listing, I stumbled on your drawing of a map of James Joyce’s Ulysses. As often happens on Facebook, one thing led to another and I found myself face-to-face with a convincing YouTube version of you in lecture at Cornell, as channeled through actor Christopher Plummer.
I can’t help but feel the serendipity of it all. Although I didn’t actually study at Cornell, I did visit classes with my boyfriend during his four years there. I had known about your Cornell lectures on literature which I enjoyed reading. But to have a chance to “be there” and hear you speak about one of my favorite authors, Franz Kafka, was an unexpected gift.
In truth, I haven’t read much criticism about “The Metamorphosis.” But as I listened, I sensed how much of Gregor Samsa’s transformation (from sole family wage-earner in a soul-crushing job) into a beetle mirrors what I know about Franz. First, his body—the mixture of vulnerability and semi-protection of Gregor’s armored shell. Then there’s Gregor’s naïveté and surprising toughness of spirit in thinking he can continue, even as a three-foot beetle, to work to support his ungrateful family who, even including his beloved sister, does not hesitate to renounce him. Having always been made to feel as if he were from another species, Gregor seems accepting of his new carapace. Once locked in his room that will become his death chamber, he experiences a certain relief akin to that of the writer for whom a room of one’s own is essential. In Kafka’s too brief life, one imagines, or hopes, that the act of writing in solitude offered at least some respite.
At the beginning of this letter, I mentioned serendipity, and I’m not sure whom to credit for what I am about to say—you? Professor Nabokov? Franz? Gregor? Some other power?—but as I was thinking about the beetle, I heard a loud buzzing at the bedroom window. The source sounded pretty big, so I grabbed my trusty transparent “Michelin Man” cup and postcard from a former student that constitute my bug relocation system, and zoomed in for a closer look. After “cupping” the flailing creature, I found myself face-to-face with the biggest beetle I had ever seen. Thrashing about on his back, he was easy to imprison. Even though I had promised my mother not to take any more insect photos, how could I resist? If he were a butterfly, he might have ended up in one of your collection boxes, but now that I’ve taken a few shots, I’m going to release him. This is just one way you and I are different.
The next button I press takes me to video footage of you reading your own Lolita and naming what you consider the greatest books of the twentieth century. My first reaction is to note how well Christopher Plummer had “nailed” you in his performance. My second is what an actor you, yourself, are! As the first lines of Lolita trip off your tongue, first in English, and then in Russian, I am spellbound.
No stranger to strong opinions, you don’t mince words when denouncing Thomas Mann’s “Death in Venice” as “asinine,” Pasternak’s “Dr. Zhivago” as “vilely written,” or Faulkner’s masterpieces as “corncobby chronicles.” In fact, you come up with quite a metaphor to burst the bubble of what many consider “great books:” “The same sort of absurd delusion as when a hypnotized person makes love to a chair.” Although you refer to the first half of Proust’s “In Search of Lost Time” as “a fairy tale,” you list it as Number Four on your own Hit Parade of literary greatness. Numbers One, Two, and Three are Joyce’s Ulysses, Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis,” and Andrew Bely’s St. Petersburg. That last work does not ring a bell, but now I’m curious….
My next click on “Nabokov Tweaks Kafka’s ‘The Metamorphosis’” “speaks” to me, I think, because of my work as a translator, editor, and teacher of writing. To see your spot-on cross-outs and steady improvement of the pictured English translation is impressive. And to think that English is not even your native language! Although Franz would have been outraged by the mere fact of them, I found your sketches of Gregor Samsa as a beetle (used to excellent effect in your Kafka lecture as dramatized by Plummer) very winning.
Next stop on my Nabokovian cyber-journey: I watch you marveling over the different book covers of your Lolita. I’ve had fun comparing the covers of the various translations of my son’s books, but it must be different when those books are your own “babies.”
Although it would be hard to say which is the favorite of my recent visits with you, the two-part, “Vladimir Nabokov on Lolita: Just Another Love Story” is right up there. What fun to see you rub shoulders with the elegant, cigarette-wielding critic, Lionel Trilling, under whom my husband was lucky to study at Columbia.
The morning after…
Since the time we spent together yesterday, life intervened. But I was happy to get up early today because we have another rendez-vous. However, unlike the thrill of a new relationship, ours feels more like what sometimes happens at fortieth high school reunions when former couples who haven’t seen each other in decades suddenly find themselves feeling young again. It’s hard not to be seduced by someone who knew you way back when, and with whom a get-together feels like a way of recapturing lost time. Actually, I have to admit that this has been happening a lot to me lately, as I reconnect with my literary passions.
It’s too easy, however, to be tricked into remembering just the good parts. That’s why I decided to go back to my old notebooks and well-marked texts, using them to re-experience some of the magic evoked by the nymphet while she was still an ideal.
Speaking of nymphets, I watched with interest the sly, Cheshire grin on your face during the discussion with Lionel Trilling. And when the interviewer asked about what it felt like to have coined a word like “nymphet,” you looked like the cat that swallowed the canary. I, too, make up words all the time—a hobby that’s hard for we who love word play to resist. When something is all bollixed up, it’s “gabboshnik” or “jibbollerated,” just to name two favorites. Some of my word inventions are hard even for me to spell. They often have a Yiddish lilt to them, or, now that I live in Italy, I may tell my husband he should think about “descespuglior-ating (using the weed whacker on) the stinging nettle. But whereas my fun with language tends to remain in the family, your “nymphet” made it into Merriam-Webster and the OED. Yes, that’s enough to merit a Cheshire grin-and-a-half!
Anticipation--was that what kept Humbert Humbert going? After seeing Christopher Plummer’s version of you lecturing (and after a lifetime of following around great lecturers) I find it easy to imagine how exciting it must have felt to look forward to your next class. I haven’t yet rechecked your Cornell dates, but as an Oldster well past the Dolores Haze (and even the Mamma Charlotte Haze) phase of life, I could readily identify with those saddle-shoe-shod coeds. What’s more, I’m trying to picture you and Vera eating in downtown Ithaca, New York at the College Spa restaurant. Could it still be there? In any case, the idea seems ludicrous. On the other hand, I have no trouble visualizing you feeing at home on a flower-bedecked balcony overlooking a lake in Switzerland.
Just to watch the video of you holding forth on Gregor Samsa’s metamorphosis seems to have been enough to conjure up a literal struggling giant beetle on my bedroom window sill. What next? A rare blue butterfly? Voyons! Vedremo! Let’s see!
But back to that interview between you and Trilling. At what must have been a previously choreographed moment, I notice that you two move from your individual chairs to sharing a sofa. Perhaps “sharing” is not the right word, since your body language shows something else entirely. Although Trilling, who never stops smoking, has his arm draped with studied casualness across the back of the couch, I notice that although you had already situated yourself at the other end, you lean even more in the opposite direction, as if unable to get far enough away.
Let’s get back to some highlights from Part One of this interview. Trilling refuses to take the bait about Lolita’s scandalous reputation. For him, the book is less about an aberrant sexual obsession than the story of an actual love that is tender and “full of compassion as well as passion.” He reminds us that all great love stories tend to be about forbidden, tragic, adulterous relationships between people who ought not to be in love, and in which cruelty and destructiveness play a part. He confesses to finding Lolita “deeply moving” and “touching,” as well as erotic, while defensively saying, “I’m a very respectable man.”
You laugh nervously when asked if your intention was to create a scandalous work. Of course we know that the note cards you are shuffling contained answers to the questions that you knew were coming. You wouldn’t have otherwise consented to the interview. But you disguise that well when you seem to say spontaneously, “I want to produce a sob in the spine of the artist-reader.” As for your heroine, you call her “helpless” and “lovely” and say how much fun it was to “breed her” in your “own laboratory.”
I like better than I imagine you did the riposte of Trilling, who isn’t buying all of that: “We can’t trust a creative writer to say what he has done. He can say what he meant to do, but we don’t have to believe him.” That got another smile from you and a move even further away.
When the interviewer asked what gave you the idea for the book, you mentioned the afterward of Lolita where you cite a newspaper article about an ape who used charcoal to sketch the bars of its own cage. I’m thinking it’s no coincidence that Kafka’s story, “A Report to an Academy” about which I have written features a crafty ape who moves from a position of feeling voiceless to mastering the public language, and then to inventing a private one capable of arousing shocks of recognition in a diverse audience. You call Humbert Humbert your very own genius “baboon” and a “European man of letters” who continually shades and redraws the bars of his cage, “the bars between him and the human herd.”
It’s pretty clear that prior to this two-part interview, you all had agreed to end Part One on your response to the question of how it feels to have birthed the word “nymphet.” In response to this, you repeat the word “pleasant” several times, the best of which is the metaphor, “It is pleasant to have a very small monument in the garden somewhere in the shade.”
The more I observe you, the more odd coincidences pop up. The beetle on the window sill was one thing, but in the middle of the video, “Lolita My Most Difficult Book,” as I watch you in pursuit with your butterfly net in hand, two things strike me. First, I see a bearded gentleman who looks very familiar to me refer admiringly to your excitement in entomological exploration, and then to his shock at realizing that after your daily shared expeditions, you spent your evenings writing Lolita. When I saw the genial, smiling professor identified as Charles Remington of Yale University, I was reminded that when I first moved to New Haven, I had worked under Professor Remington as a volunteer in the entomology department. This was before the days of computers, and I helped by using an especially fine pen to label, in nearly microscopic lettering, the mounted insect specimens.
The second light bulb that went off for me was realizing that the author on whom I wrote my dissertation, André Pieyre de Mandiargues, was also quite obsessed with insects, as was I when I first moved into the abandoned stone farmhouse we renovated here in Italy. “Abandoned” is not quite the right term, since many generations of insects convinced that this was THEIR house had never left. I’m thinking about the connection between writing and the eye that likes to focus on small elements of the natural world.
Another thing I am recognizing in the course of these letters—one that probably shouldn’t have surprised me—is the number of overlapping links among the recipients of my correspondence. When writing to you, I find constant flashes of Flaubert, Balzac (I hadn’t thought about how you and he both love to write about obsessive individuals until critic Edmund White mentioned it), Proust, and Kafka. In the same video where White spoke about you, A.S. Byatt, in her brilliant critical remarks about Lolita, confesses to having become drunk on the precision of your “sensuously colored” language—how in your word games you managed to master “from the outside” American culture and language. She especially admires your naming everything, like Adam, and the lists that reveal your understanding that “language creates the world.”
Byatt compares Humbert’s way of celebrating in words Lolita’s inner organs and body parts to the portraits of the beloved in sonnets. These, as well as a brilliant series of fragmented close-ups of Lolita that focus on markers of her childlike identity (taken from the Hollywood film), recall for me the Renaissance “blazon” tradition of highlighting various parts, as opposed to the whole, of the love object.
Back for a moment to those note cards of yours—dinosaur that I am, I have always written papers on note cards. (Perhaps this is a vestige of what we were taught in junior high via a “bible” called “How to Write Your Term Paper,” a perennial best-seller in the state of New York. With the advent of computers, most of my fellow Baby Boomers and their kids moved on and ditched the notecard method. But during our recent divestment process, even when making many painful decisions about what to discard from our house, I couldn’t bring myself to forsake the notecards from my dissertation. They will be coming with me to my next home.) In any case, when starting this project, the first thing I did was go in search of note cards. You can’t imagine how hard I had to look to find the ones I am using as I write to you now.
I think you will forgive me if I take advantage of our mutual affection for these notecards to allow me to backtrack a bit. I know that you liked to shuffle yours around for maximum flexibility. More about that when we get to your last work, The Origin of Laura, which had only existed on note cards until cobbled together after you were gone. You probably got tired of talking about your method, but the rest of us remain interested. You used to say that you could start a work anywhere because “the pattern of the thing precedes the thing,” allowing you to “fill in the gaps…at any spot” you happen to choose.
I love your comparison of the way you write to creating a painting that does not require one “to work gradually from left to right for its proper perception.” Your method allows you to direct your “flashlight at any part or particle of the picture when setting it down in writing.” You don’t begin a novel at the beginning or necessarily reach chapter three before chapter four. Chronology is overvalued, and what can look like chaos to someone else, isn’t, because your text already exists “in invisible lead.” The true artist can make time cease to exist.
As I write this letter to you and to other men of letters, I wish I could say as confidently as you that an order will emerge. In the meantime, I’m taking the risk of heading back to my notes about you from various periods.
I do feel that I have been lucky to have had two Vladimirs in my life. My auditing of Vladimir Alexandrov’s Yale seminar on you made me fall for you, whom, despite having gone crazy for Lolita, I had never really studied. This was at the very start of the email era, and I found this medium of letter writing to be liberating. I would not normally have had the chutzpah to write to a professor like Alexandrov, but email made him more approachable. He and I corresponded about some of my ideas about you, and we became friends. I joined the Nabokov Society and loved exchanging ideas with fellow Nabokovians on the Zembla web site where we “met.”
Here come a bunch of favorite bits from my course notes that I’d like to share with you, and my riffs on them. Please imagine them as being on note cards that will miraculously arrange themselves into a coherent order. The first concerns your ideas from Speak Memory” about the need for a legacy, for tangible proof that “our existence is not but a brief crack of light between two extremes of darkness.”
Since I have always thought of common sense as a good thing, your antipathy to it is giving me pause. You say that it is “common” and that it “cheapens all.” Maybe you didn’t need it because that was the province of Vera, who thought of everything?
My notes tell me that for you, there are two types of truths—a human one, and a transcendent. Only the artist can have access to the latter. A privileged being, he has his own sense of time. This means that one can’t focus on one’s gift if distracted by the mundane. The artist needs to have the magic preserved. This is where to have the right selfless partner can help.
What would our friend Kafka say about that? Neither he nor Flaubert could pull the trigger on marriage, but Kafka managed to write despite the demands of a day job he detested. Although I love my work of helping others write, and I get some of my best ideas in the course of my job, I do find it very hard to master time well enough to write about life while living it.
For example, right now I am surrounded by my two pre-nymphet granddaughters, age 1 and 3, which leaves barely enough time to fill a notecard. I heard you say, while explaining for the umpteenth time, that you and Humbert are definitely not one and the same, that you had hardly any experience of being around little girls. Like you, I’m the parent of an only son, so this is a new phase for me. I’ll let you know how that works out.
I want to get back to your sense of the advantages and disadvantages of the artist who has a hyper-consciousness that is at odds with so-called common sense. An artist has the vision to see what’s not apparent, and can convey it to others. The poet-mage Victor Hugo knew a thing or two about that, but your version is different. For you, space and time as separate categories disappear, and time stops during the timeless moment that the germ of the future work of art appears. An example you give is how, in choosing to rescue a child from a burning building, you would have also brought out her favorite toy. Why waste precious seconds to save a doll? That’s too common-sensical a question for the artist who has the ability to enter imaginatively into another being’s world.
More about noblesse oblige: the true writer must convey in words the shock of his rapturous inspiration—to “unpack” what was compressed into a rapturous moment. The artist, like the madman or the monster is therefore “Other”—always the odd man out. All three can take things apart, but only the artist can supply the missing piece of the puzzle to reconstruct the idea. Your widow used the term “otherworld” to convey how much this key term applied to you who had a foretaste of the immortality to come. What we think of as death is not inevitable, and art and nature are not opposites. You are always in search of the “aha” experience, and the fatidic patterning you see in nature and elsewhere is more thrilling than threatening. I wish I could do that, too.
Hence the capital importance for you of the prefix “re,” something I have written about in the context of Proust. The struggle is to recapture, reconstruct, resurrect, and remember a previous experience. This is why as you write, you see yourself as the scribe of a divinely-inspired “script” that has already been previously thought out and organized.
This brings to mind something I saw from favorite writer Roger Rosenblatt in a “Time” magazine article from December 28, 1998 titled “The Story of the Year:”
People know a good story when they hear one. We are a narrative species. We’re stories as individuals; our DNA writes the plot, sometimes the theme. It is thought that children acquire language to tell the story that is already within them. Only a few weeks ago, the pure-science linguist, Noam Chomsky, in another change of mind, said he now thinks a divine power gave us language in a single, inspired stroke. (well, maybe that “us” does not include everyone—I know you will bristle at any attempt to compare you to the herd.)
While I am poking fun at you a little bit, let’s talk about Freud, that “quack from Vienna” who tries to inflict his dreams on you—those dreams you “don’t have…that he discusses in his books”—and about whom you never have a good word to say. “Crude” and “medieval,” might be the least inflammatory of the adjectives you have applied to him. The previous batch of invective is from a “NY Times” interview of January 30,1966, where you also refer to a number of writers of great books as “formidable mediocrities.” And how about this: “Freudianism and all it has tainted with its grotesque implications and methods appears to me to be one of the vilest deceits practiced by people on themselves and on others.”
I understand that you don’t want to see the “strings” behind a magician’s tricks. But here’s my gripe. I think you fail to recognize how what you consider the bugaboo of psychoanalysis actually privileges and values the patient’s view, no matter how skewed or at odds it may be with the “objective,” common sense “facts.” I would have thought that that might have put you a bit more in Freud’s corner. (Full disclosure: I am married to a child psychiatrist, but unlike most of his colleagues, he’s no fan of psychoanalysis, either).
And what about your delight in the repetition of patterns and in creating puzzles designed to be solved by the reader who is especially attuned? Is that so different from Freud, the close reader who liked to identify patterns of behavior? Do you resent him for reducing men to predictable patterns that destroy the magic of nature with which you identify?
In Speak, Memory you go so far as to say that to follow thematic designs through one’s life should be the true purpose of autobiography. How does your own unique destiny jibe with these patterns? I know you’re no fan of Darwin, either, for his putting blind faith in scientific forces. The patterning you seem to favor is transcendent and perhaps from some divine force. Your beloved butterflies demonstrate it, as does your own life. As an artist, you are somehow able to penetrate the gaps, chinks, and fissures in the prison of time to see the confluence of seemingly far-flung events. All of this is a bit mystical and hard to put together, but maybe it’s OK for us to remain in the dark while accepting the wonder of it all.
While I’m free associating, maybe it’s time for a weird association: I just noticed that my notes about you were written in a type of notebook I think you would have loved, called Circa Notes. These elegant notebooks, of all sizes, come readymade with a special type of hole-punch and individual rings that allow you to reposition the pages while they still remain “bound.” Freedom, flexibility, yet still some security. What could be better?
On the theme of free association, who but you could have managed to elide past, present, and future in the image of a baby carriage? I'm talking about the moment in Speak, Memory where you mention a home movie of a time that predates your birth.
You describe yourself as ''a young chronophobiac who experienced something like panic'' when seeing a world that was practically unchanged -- the same house, the same people -- and then realized that he did not exist there at all and that nobody mourned his absence. He caught a glimpse of his mother waving from an upstairs window, and that unfamiliar gesture disturbed him, as if it were some mysterious farewell. But what particularly frightened him was the sight of a brand-new baby carriage standing there on the porch, with the smug, encroaching air of a coffin. A baby carriage as encapsulator of the life cycle? BINGO! Now that you’ve said it, who can ever look at one of those hearse-like perambulators in the same way?
I was about to say that you need a break from me when a “Guardian” article (September 26, 2015) on Alfred Brendel’s “Music, Sense, and Nonsense” perambulated in my direction. The impressed reviewer suggested that in this collection of essays and lectures, Brendel’s delving into the minutae of performance and editions would not be a hit with the herd—a word you like to use to refer to the kind of reader you disdain for moving his lips when he reads, all the while understanding nothing. I think you would have been in sympathy what Brendel had to say about his recordings, which he considers “simply the fixing of a moment.” And this from a man who spent six years to record the piano works of Beethoven!
Brendel thinks that the emphasis on making the perfect recording means less risk-taking, and can hinder an artist’s development. “People expect an artist to develop, and yet they are only too ready to impale him, like an insect, on one of his renderings.” (I’m sure that this metaphor was not intended to disparage devoted lepidoterists.) “The artist should have the right to identify his work with a certain phase of his development. It is only the continuous renewal of his vision—either in the form of evolution or of rediscovery—that can keep his music-making young.”
You have already compared your method of writing to the medium of painting, but these musical comments also remind me of your way of writing and rewriting—of never wanting to stop tinkering with even your most hard-won words. To write, like making a musical recording, fixes a moment in time. However, it is the search for le mot juste that matters (and perhaps it’s even wrong to use the le mot juste expression in the singular).
Brendel’s book represents “40 years of thinking and talking about music,” with occasional glances “back at his former views.” In my current Letters to Men of Letters project, in a small way, I find myself identifying with that description. And I, a lifelong serious pianist, have had, like Brendel, some hearing loss. His, however, cruelly “makes it difficult for him to listen to the piano.” Yet he manages to say something I find very profound: “Hearing has its own memory.”
Like Brendl, you who lost so much never complained. Instead, you figured out how to make memory speak.