Friday, August 22, 2014
JAMES LAUGHLIN PULLING HARD ON LEGS
Nabokov originally wanted a large nose for the cover of his book (see below). Later on he, or somebody, settled for the above artwork, in which Gogol's right eye has been stretched over onto the spine of the paperback, suggesting, perhaps, the torture to which the biographer of this book subjected his far-from-favorite author. Or, then again, when Nabokov pulled that eye over onto the spine, he may well have put Gogol's evil eye on himself. See below, my article, "Nabokov's Influence on Gogol."
In 1985, while working on my article, "Nabokov's Influence on Gogol," I wrote several times to the publisher of New Directions, James Laughlin, asking him questions about Nabokov's Nikolai Gogol.
I wanted to know why Nabokov had not incorporated the changes he made for the British edition of the book (Nikolay Gogol, 1973) into the New Directions edition. In particular, why had the "nightmare index" in the American edition not been sanitized, as it had been for the British edition.
I was especially interested in Laughlin's take on his own role in the book. Was the dialogue between Nabokov and his publisher genuinely fictitious, or could Laughlin recall having had such a conversation? Did Nabokov really suggest a huge nose for the cover art of the book?
Below are two letters from Laughlin, answering my questions but only sporadically, and, in the process, perpetuating a strange tale that he himself invented (about he and Nabokov, butterfly hunting on a mountaintop in Alta, Utah, and nearly perishing in the process).
First letter: Norfolk, Conn., 3/27/85
Dear Professor Bowie,
My archivist finally emerged from the briar patch but found nothing that answers your question.
The two xeroxes enclosed may shed some light for you, but they don't for me. I don't think he ever told me to do anything about dropping the index.
I recall his telling me there were some leg-pulls of me hidden in the book--he said I must find them--but I've never been able to. Volya loved his chess puzzles.
Never did figure out why Laughlin called Nabokov "Volya." The scribblings at the bottom here are my attempt to translate the letter into Russian for a Russian friend.
Second letter: 4/30/85
Dear Mr. Bowie,
Sorry for the delay. We were down in Chile visiting Nicanor Parra.
In those days I owned a lodge in the Wasatch Mountains in Alta, Utah. Lepidoptera all over, so I invited Volya, Vera and Dmitri to visit. We had many adventures one of which is told in the enclosed page from Paris Review #90.
Yes, he wanted a big nose for the cover but the book was in our "Makers of Modern Literature" series, which had uniform typographical covers.
Here is the page from the Paris Review #90 (winter, 1983), an interview with James Laughlin, "The Art of Publishing," in which Laughlin, possibly in an effort to get back at Nabokov for his "leg pulling" and his rather patronizing attitude to Laughlin, concocted the story of the adventure in the mountains. The picture, dated erroneously as 1965, was taken some time in the forties.