Process vs. Product

In the Intro to English Studies course that I teach each fall, we talk about underreading and overreading, the lamentable, though to some degree inevitable, twin poles of interpretive folly. Either pole tends to leave one isolated, outside the circle of interpretive communities that privilege certain readings over others. I wonder, though, if Nabokov’s puzzling nature—that is, his puzzle-making approach to his fictions—requires more than other authors a singular, expert solver, a Sherlock, who must go it alone and find the clues that others have missed. If we look at the history of Nabokov criticism, most of the major figures—Mary McCarthy, Alfred Appel, Jr., Carl Proffer, Andrew Field, Donald Barton Johnson, Brian Boyd, et. al.—have spent considerable energy, and placed great value, on the task of deciphering VN’s fictions. And despite the legitimate insight that Nabokov’s works are, of course, much more than just puzzles, contemporary criticism—Eric Naiman’s Nabokov, Perversely and Andrea Pitzer’s The Secret History of Vladimir Nabokov, among the better examples—continues to employ a hermeneutic that requires the reader to scan the text for hidden keys that open the door to the implied author’s ultimate intentions. This can be an isolating experience for the critic, since many may not agree that the key is, in fact, a key, or that the door it opens leads anywhere worth going. Surely many Nabokovians have felt, along with the exhilaration of finding a new interpretation, an equal share of disappointment upon discovering that the transformative emotional experience of the quest is largely non-transferable. While others may be more or less grateful for the key, they have missed a great part of the point by not finding it for themselves. This is the double-edged sword, especially, of Appel’s Annotated Lolita. It is a tremendous scholarly accomplishment and a wonderful tool (especially for those who can’t read French), but it also pre-empts the experience that I think Nabokov himself wanted for his readers, the experience of looking for,  and then finding, the secrets embedded in the book.

This is all preamble for my next post, in which I will have the hubris to argue that readers have been underreading one of Nabokov’s stories for the past eight decades (but I have found the key!).

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“Pale Fire” the Poem, Day-By-Day

In this data visualization, I have constructed a table showing the date of composition for each line of the poem, “Pale Fire.” I am speaking here of Nabokov’s composition of the poem, not John Shade’s. I had to make things very small in order to allow the viewer to take the whole thing in at a glance, but that seemed the most helpful way to view it. If you are interested in knowing the exact lines and dates, go to the link below the picture. Drag a box around any of the segments and a menu box should appear that shows the underlying data. I am interested in creating some sort of animation that would show all the pieces falling into place, but I do not yet have the skill to manage that. If anyone has any suggestions, I would be happy to hear them.

PF Poem Day By Day


“Pale Fire” the Poem, Day-By-Day

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The Choice of a Hand

In an interview with Alfred Appel Jr., collected in Strong Opinions, Nabokov talks about his affection for slapstick films. In particular, he recalls a scene from Laurel and Hardy‘s A Chump at Oxford:

There is a film in which they are at Oxford. In one scene the two of them are sitting on a park bench in a labyrinthine garden and the subsequent happenings conform to the labyrinth. A casual villain puts his hand through the back of the bench and Laurel, who is clasping his hands in an idiotic reverie, mistakes the stranger’s hand for one of his own hands, with all kinds of complications because his own hand is also there. He has to choose. The choice of a hand.

Here is a clip of that scene:


What strikes me about this scene, and Nabokov’s description of it, is how perfectly it dramatizes (in a screwball way) the problem of fate across the whole breadth of Nabokov’s work, but particularly in the novels in English. In all of these works, the characters struggle with the tension between fate and human agency. A particular point of anxiety is the troubling notion that what seems like one’s own doing may in fact be the work of some unseen author who is simply playing a game. We see this in John Shade’s revelation about “a game of worlds,” in Humbert Humbert’s interactions with McFate, in the ghostly influences of Transparent Things, and in Vadim’s sense that he is but a character in some greater author’s work (in LATH!). In the Laurel and Hardy clip, then, we see a third hand literally penetrating into the plane of the unsuspecting characters, manipulating them by making them think that the unseen agent’s hand is actually their own. Much like Nabokov’s characters, Laurel and Hardy become most unnerved when they realize the reality of the interaction but cannot locate the source.

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Paratexts Gone Wrong

Today in my Intro to English Studies course we are talking about paratexts, the materials that surround the text (front and back matter, illustrations, book design, advertisements, etc.) but are not part of the text proper. Nabokov, as we know, was fascinated by paratexts. He liked to include sham versions of them within his novels (John Ray Jr.’s foreword in Lolita, Kinbote’s foreword, commentary, and index in PF, the editorial interruptions in Ada) and penned a number of authentic prefaces and afterwords, as well. Sometimes he intruded into the publisher’s paratext, as in the Putnam’s first edition of Pale Fire, where, as James Ramey has shown, he hid the crown jewels of Zembla, represented by a black crown on the title page, just below the author’s name and just above the Putnam’s logo.

When it came to cover illustrations, Nabokov strongly preferred plain text on a simple background to any kind of representative image of characters or situations, and the publishers of his first editions largely adhered to his wishes. Later editions, however, were beyond Nabokov’s control. In Lolita: The Story of a Cover Girl (Print Books, 2013), John Bertram and Yuri Leving present a brilliant overview of the ways book designers have molded, and been molded by, the public’s image of Lolita (the character). Also be sure to check out Dieter Zimmer’s web gallery of Lolita editions from around the world.

For all the egregious distortions and vulgarities apparent on the covers of books, we should not forget the damage that can be done by the blurbs and summaries on the back cover. One of the worst is from the 1989 Vintage paperback of Despair. (The whole Vintage 1989 reissue was, by the way, a design nightmare: awful photographs, ugly colors, inaccurate lepidoptera, etc.) The description reads thus:

Extensively revised by Nabokov in 1965–thirty years after its original publication–DESPAIR is the wickedly inventive and richly derisive story of Hermann, a man who undertakes the perfect crime: his own murder.

Immediately below this we find a blurb from Newsweek:

“A beautiful mystery plot, not to be revealed.”

But of course, one of the main elements of that plot–an element that is not fully revealed until quite late in the novel–is Hermann’s plan to murder his alleged double, Felix, and collect the insurance money. So the Vintage description does, in fact, reveal an essential element of the plot that Newsweek says should not be revealed!

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Pale Fire Month-By-Month

One of my ongoing projects involves an analysis of the composition and revision of Pale Fire. The holograph (handwritten) manuscript of PF resides in the Library of Congress and is now accessible to scholars on microfilm via interlibrary loan. I was lucky enough to visit the LOC back before the manuscript was photographed, and I have to say that while the increased access afforded by microfilm is wonderful, the quality of the images (especially to one trying to decipher cancellations and scrawled variants) does not approach the originals. The few photocopies that I was able to make of the original cards are much clearer than the .pdf downloads I obtained from the machines at the LOC. All that aside, I have been interested in developing a series of strictly data-based visualizations that would show Nabokov’s pace and method of composition. I have a ways to go in terms of my knowledge of data visualization, but I did find a handy, free program called Tableau that allowed me to create the bar graph below. The graph is organized by month and shows the volume of dated notecards VN produced during the composition of the novel. I should note that only about half of the cards in the manuscript are dated, so this chart does not present a complete view of novel’s composition.  Below the chart is a link to a more dynamic version of the data, which allows you to click on the bars and see the underlying data from the original Excel sheet.

Pale Fire by Month

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I am a serious person!

Publicists seem to think that having their clients go out in public with Lolita is a good thing. Two recent sightings:

Snoop Dogg on a plane


Bradley Cooper in a park in Paris

(h/t to Sergey Karpukhin for posting the Snoop photo to the Nabokov listserv)

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Bourne, Bourn, Bourneville, Berne, Bernville: Sightings from a Doomed Expedition

In a talk I gave for a panel on the 50th anniversary of Pale Fire, I compared the reader of PF to an explorer who, despite not always finding what he set out to find, nevertheless discovers all sorts of interesting vistas and species that, while not strictly relevant to his goal, may still be enriching. At the panel, I talked about my research into the poet (yes, poet) Edsel Ford, part of whose poem “The Image of Desire” appears in Kinbote’s note to line 603. Here I am going to offer another example of what I call “education-by-Nabokov”–the kind of literary sleuthing that often takes one through the hinterlands of unimagined landscapes.

Continue reading

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Red Meat — Lolita

Perhaps the cleverest of the “Lolita” songs. Not particularly relevant to Nabokov’s novel, except that it, like many other Lolita songs (including the MC Lars song below), contains the “come back home” plea, a lament for Lolita lost.

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MC Lars – Lolita

Next year I will be teaching a seminar course on Lolita. As part of my preparation for talking about the book’s effect on popular culture, I have been using Spotify to listen to songs with “Lolita” in the title. There are an enormous number of them (well over 100 when I stopped looking). I find it fascinating to examine the various narratives, and narrative perspectives, these songs display. Some of the songwriters clearly know Nabokov’s book, while others seem wholly unaware of the source but have nevertheless inherited a set of associations (mostly spurious) that can be traced back to the novel. So to begin, here is a tongue-in-cheek (I hope) song by MC Lars, that mostly tracks with Humbert Humbert’s perspective, both in the sense that it is written after the loss of “Lolita” and in some of the justifications and evasions the speaker employs. Enjoy!

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Slightly Warped

Today I happened upon this quote from one of André Gide‘s journals:

I should like events never to be related directly by the author, but instead exposed (and several times from different vantages) by those actors who will be influenced by those events. In their account of the action I should like the events to appear slightly warped; the reader will take a sort of interest from the mere fact of having to reconstruct. The story requires his collaboration in order to take shape properly. — Journal of “The Counterfeiters

This seems very much akin to Nabokov’s compositional method and nicely expresses the collaborative pleasure many Nabokophiles get from his novels.

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