Tag Archives: Vladimir Nabokov

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?

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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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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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