Nabokov’s Women

I have an essay in a wonderful new collection put together by Elena Sommers, called Nabokov’s Women. My essay argues that Pale Fire‘s tragic daughter, Hazel Shade, has a hidden story to tell. Check out the whole volume, with great essays by David Rampton, Beth Sweeney, Marie Bouchet and many more.


Maurice Vermont & Marion Rumpelmeyer

Cursed with a succession of tedious faculty meetings, I decided to surreptitiously bide my time exploring one of Lolita’s little riddles. Humbert, in Chapter 13, mentions a playlet (The Emperor’s New Clothes) by Maurice Vermont and Marion Rumpelmeyer. Appel, in his notes, quotes Nabokov as saying, “I vaguely but persistently feel that both Vermont and Rumpelmeyer exist!” before Appel idly speculates that Nabokov culled the names from a phone book. All this sounded fishy to me, so down the rabbit hole I went, only to emerge hours later with the following odds and ends:

1. Rumpelmayer’s (spelling noted) was a well-known chain of European tea-houses that catered particularly to Russians, with locations in Baden-Baden, Nice, Mentone, Monte Carlo, Paris, London, and elsewhere. It would later open a location in NYC (of which more later).

2. In the opening of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway (1925), the titular character is preparing for a party and we are told that “Rumpelmayer’s men were coming” (presumably caterers).
3. Edmund Wilson published a story in 1927 called “The Men from Rumpelmayer’s”—presumably a reference to the Woolf passage. This was later collected in Wilson’s American Earthquake (1958) where Nabokov read it after Lolita was already published (see VN-Wilson Letters, p. 324).
4. The Rumpelmayer’s in New York (which closed in 1998) was located in the lobby of the Hotel St. Moritz. 
5. In her biography, Shelley Winters says she once dined with Nabokov (post-Lolita) at this Rumpelmayer’s: “I forget how much money I got for this film, but at Rumpelmayer’s with Nabokov, during the final discussions, I had a tuna-fish sandwich and a chocolate milkshake, my standard tranquilizer . . .”
6. St. Moritz is a famous resort in the Swiss Alps.
7. It is named after St. Maurice, the patron saint of weavers and dyers. 
8. Maurice = Moritz in German
9. Vermont = Green Mountain

Sorting through all of this, my best guess is that Nabokov associated Rumpelmayer’s (Rumpelmeyer) with the Hotel St. Moritz (Maurice), a mountain resort (thus VerMONT). Furthermore, if he knew that St. Maurice was the patron saint of weavers and dyers, this could relate to The Emperor’s New Clothes. None of this seems significant in the least, yet I found this excavation more enriching and interesting than the intricacies of our faculty pay scale and the office window covering policy.

Lolita’s Leaping Tailor

In part 1, Chapter 29 of Lolita, Humbert, standing above the sleeping girl, says “For at least two minutes I waited and strained on the brink, like that tailor with his homemade parachute forty years ago when about to jump from the Eiffel Tower” (AnLo 128). Oddly, Appel provides no annotation.

The tailor in question is Franz Reichelt, and his leap was fatal. VN must have seen this newsreel, as most of it is taken up with ill-fated Franz standing on the brink. Humbert’s image is lively enough on its own, but I have to say that it takes on a new flavor after one watches the film.

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Chorb’s Plato, Plato’s Chorb

A few thoughts on Nabokov’s “The Return of Chorb,” first published in Rul‘ in 1925. The plot is fairly simple. Newly married Chorb loses his wife when she is electrocuted by a downed wire in Nice. Rather than tell her parents, Chorb hordes his grief and, in an attempt to immortalize the memory of his beloved, retraces the steps of their honeymoon, finally arriving back in the German city where they married. Chorb informs his in-laws’ maid that his wife is sick, then hires a prostitute to chastely sleep with him in the room where the couple spent their wedding night. Chorb wakes during the night and screams because he has seen an apparition of his wife sleeping beside him. The prostitute flees the hotel room just as Chorb’s in-laws arrive at the room to see what has become of their daughter.

Most interpretations that I have encountered (surely there are more) rightly note how the story draws on the Orpheus myth (a statue of Orpheus is glimpsed outside the hotel window). The wife’s electrocution by the snake-like wire mirrors Eurydice’s death by viper-bite, and Chorb’s retracing of his steps seems akin to Orpheus’ descent and return from the underworld. This association is partly responsible for the sympathetic treatment Chorb receives from most critics. He, like Orpheus, is an artist who has suffered great loss, only to be teased with the notion of a reunion that is doomed to fail.

I want to propose another reading which likewise uses the Orpheus myth, but draws specifically on Plato’s version of it from The Symposium. Here, Plato says:

But Orpheus . . . they sent empty away, and presented to him an apparition only of her whom he sought, but herself they would not give up, because he showed no spirit; he was only a harp-player, and did not dare like Alcestis to die for love, but was contriving how he might enter Hades alive.

Plato’s description of what happened to Orpheus seems applicable to Chorb. Like Orpheus, Chorb is presented with an apparition of his dead wife, whom he was trying to immortalize through a kind of spatial recollection. But Chorb, like Orpheus, is unwilling to die for love. We know this notion, present in Plato, is also important to Nabokov when we remember the scene of Chorb’s wedding night. The Kellers have prepared a room in which the newlyweds are to spend their first night together. The room’s adornments include a rug with the inscription “We are together unto the tomb.” Chorb and his wife flee from the room and spend their wedding night in the hotel instead. This anecdote is presented to us in the favorable light of Chorb’s own recollections, so we may not realize at first the importance of the rug’s inscription. In fact, the couple’s violation of ceremony prefigures the more serious offense: Chorb’s unwillingness to follow his wife “unto the tomb.”

The irony is that Chorb himself is nothing if not a Platonist. He is, in fact, paralyzed by his idealism. On his wedding night, instead of consummating the marriage, he merely gives his wife a chaste kiss and sleeps on the couch. Indeed, it is unclear whether the marriage is ever consummated. Chorb seems to be afraid that the pleasures of the body might taint the idealized form he keeps in his mind. Likewise, after his wife dies, he is unable to tell her parents because he wants to preserve, as if it were a tangible form, his grief without “tainting it by any foreign substance.” Yet Chorb, the aesthete who seems to spurn the body in favor of the mind, tries, like Orpheus, to restore/preserve his wife without the courage to give up his own body, his own life, for love. Chorb’s version of Plato thus succumbs to Plato’s (and Nabokov’s) criticism of Chorb.

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The Strange Case of Nabokov and W.F. Kirby

One of the perils and pleasures of Nabokov research comes from dipping a toe into what appears to be no more than a puddle, only to find a much deeper cavern lurking beneath the small ripples of the surface. This is one such case:

In Pale Fire, Kinbote’s note to line 79 gives us a line from Shade (“The evening is the time to praise the day”) which Kinbote asserts was inspired by his recitation of

…a charming quatrain from our Zemblan counterpart to the Elder Edda, in an anonymous English translation (Kirby’s?):

The wise at nightfall praise the day,

The wife when she has passed away,

The ice when it is crossed, the bride

When tumbled, and the horse when tried.

Though the Zemblan Elder Edda is fictional, the Kirby to whom Kinbote refers is a real man and a real translator, W.F. Kirby, though Kirby’s major work of translation was the Finnish epic The Kalevala, not the Elder Edda. Complicating things further, the Zemblan quatrain actually seems be a reworking not of Kirby’s work but of Olive Bray’s 1908 translation of Strophe 81 of the Havamal, a portion of the Elder Edda. It reads:

Praise the day at even, a wife when dead,

a weapon when tried, a maid when married,

ice when ’tis crossed, and ale when ’tis drunk.

So Nabokov, via Kinbote, has here constructed a rhyming English version of Bray’s English translation, in the guise of Kirby’s English translation of a Zemblan work akin to the Old Norse Elder Edda. Got it?

Continue reading

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On a Sentence in Nabokov’s ‘Signs & Symbols’

I don’t know when I’ll have time to read it all, but I have been picking through Yuri Leving’s Anatomy of a Short Story: Nabokov’s Puzzles, Codes, “Signs and Symbols,” a collection of 33 essays, primary sources, and other items related to Nabokov’s most celebrated short story. I’m loving it so far.  Leving includes Alexander Dolinin’s well-known essay in which he argues that the numbers six and zero are the keys to understanding the secret message of the story: that the son has died, but that eternity is not a zero (not nothing) but a six (a tangible, though unseen, continuation of a series, in which life as we know it is 1-5–the named jelly jars–and eternity is the numbers beyond that, starting with six). This is why zero and six are the numbers mixed up by the unknown caller at the end of the story. Got it?  Add to this essays by Mary Tookey and Meghan Vicks, both of whom argue, to different ends, that zero is at the heart of the story.

I mention these articles in particular (there may be more on similar topics that I have not yet read) because they relate to an oddity that I noticed on one of my first readings of the story–namely, the repetition of certain letters in the story’s third sentence. Here it is:

Man-made objects were to him either hives of evil, vibrant with a malignant activity that he alone could perceive, or gross comforts for which no use could be found in the abstract world.

The sentence contains two branching, parallel predicate phrases, the first affirming meaning (albeit malignant) and the second negating it. What I noticed about these phrases is that the first contains a series of “iv” and “vi” letter combinations (in fact, fittingly, five of them). For its part, the second phrase contains nine uses of the letter “o.” If we read the “v” and “i” as Roman numerals, they add up to six, Dolinin’s sign for meaning, while the preponderance of the letter “o” points to the zero (nothingness). Is it possible that Nabokov planted these numbers in the story’s first paragraph as a foreshadowing of the larger story’s numerical code? Or have I succumbed to the “referential mania” that so afflicts the unfortunate son?

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Infernal Sacraments

Much of my Nabokovian work has been devoted to annotating sources and allusions related to Pale Fire. I have posted many of these to the Nabokov listserv over the years, but I am going to reconstitute some of them on this blog from time to time. Today’s entry falls more in the source category, as opposed to an allusion. Explain. When VN uses an allusion to some other literary work or historical incident, he wants us to recognize it and make something of the connection. Sources are different in that they lie more or less hidden behind the process of composition, and the author does not expect us, or require us, to recognize them or make sense of their connection to the text at hand. Nevertheless, source work can be revealing insomuch as it provides context for the sourced material and may help us understand some of the unstated elements that undergird an author’s use of the material.

That said, I am not today going to undertake a full-scale source study but will instead simply lay out a couple of source passages for the reader’s delight and edification. Here we go:

Passage from Pale Fire (n. 171)

When the fallen tyrant is tied, naked and howling, to a plank in the public square and killed piecemeal by the people who cut slices out, and eat them, and distribute his living body among themselves (as I read when young in a story about an Italian despot, which made of me a vegetarian for life).

Passage from John Addington Symonds’ Renaissance in Italy: The Age of Despots (1885)

Dattiri was bound naked to a plank and killed piecemeal by the people, who bit his flesh, cut slices out, and sold and ate it–distributing his living body as a sort of infernal sacrament among themselves.

In this case, then, Nabokov cannibalized from Symonds a passage on cannibalism. I’m tempted to think VN was cognizant of the irony, but given that he plundered all kinds of passages from various writers, it’s hard to assign any particular intent to this one, despite the felicitous intersection of process and subject.

While not as definitive as the previous example, I can’t help thinking that the following passages are likewise linked.

PF (n. 62):

Everybody knows how given to regicide Zemblans are: two Queens, three Kings, and fourteen Pretenders died violent deaths, strangled, stabbed, poisoned, and drowned, in the course of only one century (1700-1800).


No one believed in the natural death of a prince: princes must be poisoned or poignarded. Out of thirteen of the Carrara family, in little more than a century (1318-1435) three were deposed or murdered by near relatives, one was expelled by a rival from his state, four were executed by the Venetians. Out of five of the La Scala family, three were killed by their brothers, and a fourth was poisoned in exile.

This passage from Symonds appears just a page prior to the cannibalism reference. I have not read all of the Symonds, but what I have read is highly entertaining. I can see why VN was drawn to it. Symonds himself, by the way, seems to have been a mix of equal (or, who knows, unequal) parts John Shade and Charles Kinbote.

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Nabokov’s Brain

Interesting article from the Sydney Morning Herald on the writer/illustrator Art Spiegelman. Chris Ware, another graphic novelist, discusses how graphic novels approximate human thought in a way that few pure novelists can manage, though he singles out Nabokov as an exception:

Ware says Spiegelman, through Maus, ushered in a visual language of expression that was both mature and exciting. “He actually knows what his wordplay, visual puns and aesthetic rhymes will provoke in the reader’s mind, and he builds on them very carefully. There are only a handful of prose writers who can manage that; Nabokov comes to mind.” In the great debate of highbrow versus lowbrow, with comics often unfairly dumped into the latter category, Ware notes that Nabokov himself criticised Joyce for relying too much on language for his simulacra of streams of consciousness in Ulysses, pointing out that humans think in pictures as well as words.

Readers interested in a fuller discussion of this topic should check out Brian Boyd’s American Scholar article, in which he too mentions Nabokov’s thoughts on Joyce:

He revered Joyce’s verbal accuracy, his precision and nuance, but he also considered that his stream-of-consciousness technique gave “too much verbal body to thoughts.” The medium of thought for Nabokov was not primarily linguistic: “We think not in words but in shadows of words,” he wrote. Thought was for him also multisensory, and at its best, multilevel. As cognitive psychologists would now say, using a computing analogy foreign to Nabokov, consciousness is parallel (indeed, “massively parallel”), rather than serial, and therefore cannot translate readily into the emphatically serial mode that a single channel of purely verbal stream of consciousness can provide.

Further reading: Lisa Zunshine’s Why We Read Fiction: Theory of Mind and the Novel, which includes a fascinating analysis of the ways readers process Humbert’s narration in Lolita.


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Can the “I” Die?

Last week, I promised I would advance a new interpretation of one of VN’s short stories. As I mentioned, this may seem (or may in fact be) an act of interpretive hubris, given that the story, “The Visit to the Museum,” was first published more than 80 years ago and has received its fair share of critical attention over the years. Yet I can’t help thinking that interpreters, perhaps because of the fantastic elements of the story, have missed a subtle, yet essential detail in the story’s literal plotline.

The basic description of the plot, as it has been understood, goes something like this: the narrator, an exile from Russia now living in France, travels to a small village and, as a favor to a friend, attempts to purchase a painting displayed in a museum there (the painting’s subject is one of his friend’s ancestors). The museum director, M. Godard, first denies that the painting is in the museum’s collection, but then is shown its presence, just as narrator claimed. After deferring the sale of the painting, the director takes the narrator on a tour of the bizarre museum, a tour which quickly becomes a surreal, nightmarish journey through a seemingly endless succession of rooms containing a vast array of artifacts and landscapes, until at last the narrator finds himself outside, on a snow-covered street that turns out to be not France, but contemporary Soviet Russia. Realizing his predicament, the man strips off his clothes and all signs of identification, but he is arrested and, he tells us in summary, suffers greatly before he is able to escape once more abroad.

Continue reading

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Call For Papers: NEMLA 2014

UPDATE: I received several excellent abstracts and have selected three. They are:

  • Rebecca Freeh-Maciorowski, “Nabokov’s Crosswords of Composition”
  • Lyndsay Miller, “Vladimir Nabokov’s Extra-Textual Revisions”
  • Simon Rowberry, “‘Efface, expunge, erase, delete, rub out, wipe out, obliterate’: Nabokov’s composition TOoL”

Should be an excellent panel! Thanks to all who submitted. –MR


I am hoping to sponsor a panel at the 2014 NEMLA conference, in Harrisburg, PA (April 3-6). Please see the CFP below and email me your abstract by September 30!!

Vladimir Nabokov and the Art of Composition
This panel invites papers focused on Vladimir Nabokov and the art of composition. This panel will consider all aspects of Nabokov’s writing process, including the question of how his approach came to shape both the form and subject of his novels; his approach to revision; and the relationship of his methods to larger theories of composition. Please email a one-page abstract to Matthew Roth, Messiah College,

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