Monday, February 8, 2016

Book Review: Vladimir Nabokov, LETTERS TO VERA

Vladimir Nabokov, Letters to Véra
NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 2015

[Note: for ease in typing I have throughout omitted the diacritical mark over the “e” in the name Véra]

These are probably the last of Nabokov’s letters to be published.  For those who have not read the earlier collections it is worth pointing out here that they are more interesting, more full of insights into the literary works of the great master. See (1) The Nabokov-Wilson Letters: Correspondence Between Vladimir Nabokov and Edmund Wilson, 1940-1971, edited by Simon Karlinsky (NY: Harper and Row, 1979) and (2) Vladimir Nabokov, Selected Letters, 1940-1977, edited by Dmitri Nabokov and Matthew J. Bruccoli (NY: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1989).

This latest volume of letters, edited and translated from the Russian, with extensive end notes, by Olga Voronina and Brian Boyd, is personal in nature, consisting of missives to Nabokov’s wife Vera over a lifetime of their marriage. Even if Vera’s letters were available (she destroyed them) the correspondence would be excessively one-sided. Nabokov wrote roughly five letters to his wife for every one she wrote to him, and a persistent refrain is his plaintive cry, “How come you’re not writing me?”

The one surviving letter by Vera printed here (written about June 1, 1944—see p. xxxvii) is strictly business. Its matter of fact tone is in stark contrast to much of her husband’s correspondence, which is full of playfulness, affection, passion. This, along with Nabokov’s infrequent appeals for her to ease up on him, stop berating and complaining, suggests that, perhaps, Vera’s end of the conversation would not show her in a positive light, but several times there are hints to the contrary. For example, in a letter of 1924 Nabokov  writes, “You know, we are terribly alike . . . For example, in letters: we both like 1) to slip in foreign words unnoticed, 2) to quote from favourite books 3) to translate impressions from one sense (for example, vision) to another (for example, taste), 4) to apologize at the end for imaginary nonsense; and much more” (16). At one point Nabokov in Paris mentions reading parts of Vera’s postcard to colleagues who “said they understood now who writes my books for me” (xxxix).

What stands out over fifty-four years of correspondence is Nabokov’s steady love and affection for his wife. In fact, these letters must rank among the greatest literary love letters ever written. It is notable that Nabokov uses the familiar you (ты) in the very first letter, although at that time they had met only once. The young writer was hardly over his recent breakup with the seventeen-year-old beauty Svetlana Siewert, but already in that first letter to Vera he writes, “Yes, I need you, my fairy-tale. Because you are the only person I can talk with about the shade of a cloud, about the song of a thought—and about how, when I went out to work today and looked a tall sunflower in the face, it smiled at me with all of its seeds” (4).

You sometimes get the feeling that Nabokov assumed the gods had delivered to him his own personal muse embodied in this young woman who knew his poetry by heart, and that he must marry her and stay with her at any cost. Later on in his life he would have cause to apply all his skills as a fiction writer to keep Vera written into his life, and to write out of his life her main rival for his affections.

The marriage took place on April 15, 1925, and the first batch of letters dates to the twenties, when the two were living in Berlin. These early letters are the lightest in tone, the most full of fun, and of all the letters in this collection, here is where we find best samples of the artist at work, collecting imagery for his fiction. A few examples follow.
(1)    “I am becoming more and more firmly convinced that art is the only thing that matters in life. I am ready to endure Chinese torture to find a single epithet—and in science, in religion, what excites and engages me is only the colour, only the man in side-whiskers and a top-hat, lowering—on a rope—the smoke-pipe of the first funny locomotive passing under the bridge and dragging behind it the little cars full of ladies’ exclamations, the movements of tiny coloured parasols, the rustle and squeaking of crinolines…” (30).
(2)    “The down of flowers was fluttering above the glades like soft sparse snow, grasshoppers stridulated and golden cobwebs—wheels of sunlight—stretched across the trail, clinging to my face . . . And a lush soughing ran through the trees, and the shadows of clouds glided along distant slopes . . . It felt very free, and light, and like my love for you” (35).
(3)    “Shura and I went to the swimming establishment on Krumme Strasse. There was a man without an arm (cut off right at the shoulder, so he was like the statue of Venus. I kept thinking his arm was hidden somewhere. Looking at him, I felt a kind of physical unease: just a smooth place with a fringe of armpit hair), while another man had the most detailed tattoos all over his body (by his left nipple he had two little green leaves that transformed the nipple into a disgusting pink floweret)” (54-55).
(4)    “Last night around nine I went out for a stroll, feeling through my whole body that thunderstormy tension that’s the harbinger of a poem. Back home by ten, I clambered inside myself, as it were, rummaged about, tormented myself for a little, and wriggled out with nothing. I turned the light off—and suddenly an image flashed by—a little room in a poorish Toulon hotel, the velvet-black depth of the window opened into the night, …” (60: this description of the birth of a poem goes on for a whole page).
(5)    “The weather this morning was so-so: dullish, but warm, a boiled-milk sky, with skin—but if you pushed it aside with a teaspoon, the sun was really nice, so I wore my white trousers” (68; note: Vera has instructed her husband to write every day, telling her what he wore and what he ate, so uxorious Vladimir dutifully fills his letters with eggs, sausage and trousers).
(6)    “Where did I put the matches? Things seem to have some sort of survival instinct. If you throw a ball in a huge room without any furniture, except for one armchair—nothing at all except that—the ball will roll under it without fail” (69).

What we have here is an artist out recruiting—“Recruiting” is the title of one of his early stories— scrounging up detail and character for his works. Everything is of interest to him. Twice in these letters he mentions smells that recall “the stink between the toes,” and we can imagine the young artist paring his toenails and absorbing olfactory information as he pares. Yes, that smell too is part of life.

You can also imagine the young Vera enjoying a goodly part of these early letters, eating up the significant detail, including the affection, but, especially in the summer of 1926, when she was convalescing in a German health resort, Vera probably was not in the mood to appreciate all the joking around, the puzzles he provided for her, the silly pet names that he invented in profusion. Even the professions of love, the lyricism can be, at times, too much. Take this, for example.

“I cannot write a word without hearing how you will pronounce it—and can’t recall a single trifle I’ve lived through without regret—so sharp!—that we haven’t lived through it together—whether it’s the most personal, intransmissible—or only some sunset or other at the bend of a road—you see what I mean, my happiness?

“And I know: I can’t tell you anything in words—and when I do on the phone it comes out completely wrong. Because with you one needs to talk wonderfully, the way we talk with people long gone, do you know what I mean, in terms of purity and lightness and spiritual precision—but I—je patauge terribly. Yet you can be bruised by an ugly diminutive—because you are so absolutely resonant—like seawater, my lovely” (7, letter of Nov. 8, 1923). Too much. The French: “I’m floundering about.”

What we have in this collection of letters is a kind of narrative, the story of a marriage, with its ups and downs. Interspersed are a variety of other sub-themes, all of them of at least ancillary interest in Nabokov’s biography. For example, there is the sub-theme of homosexual brother Sergey, with whom Vladimir always had a troubled history. Notwithstanding the homosexuality in his own family, Nabokov was generally intolerant of what he saw as sexual deviance. Among the many examples of the intolerance is this passage from a letter of 1936: “I went to Nina’s [Berberova]. . . She says that all the pederasts were up in arms when they found out she was writing a life of Tchaikovsky, their bum-buddy” (249). As for Sergey, the torment that his gay life caused him is manifest in several parts of the book, but is particularly grievous as reported in a letter of 1926: “You know my whole life for the last ten years has been terrible, not only a sinful life, but a crime against itself.” Sergey goes on to report that in a desperate effort to transcend his own nature he is joining the Catholic church. “I will take communion every day to kill the sin in me, so God can give me strength, energy, and will. I will live alone (77). Sad, especially in light of what was to come during the war, when he was murdered by the Nazis.

The letters of the twenties present, most prominently, the narrative of Vera’s illness; she was suffering from anxiety and depression, recuperating in a German spa. The missives build in a kind of crescendo, to the point when the long-awaited meeting of the young lovers is at hand after their lengthy separation (153). Then there is a gap in the text, and we, the readers, are left feeling let down. All the talk of her convalescence in Schwarzwald, all the drama, and then we aren’t told—in any letters, since they are together again, not writing letters—exactly how it came out. This is comparable to watching CBS news as rebroadcast on the BBC without the interruptions for commercials. You’re left with the feeling that you’ve missed something. In the case of Vera and Vladimir, we know each time (from biographical facts) how the story comes out, but it would still be nice if there were a little narrative summation at the end of every epistolary drama.

The letters of 1932 present a stark contrast in tone and content to the light and airy missives of the twenties. Nabokov’s biographer Brian Boyd, editor of this volume, had in the eighties repeatedly requested access to the personal letters, but Vera was reluctant to release them. Finally, in December of 1984 and January of 1985 she read out the letters into his cassette recorder, omitting parts she considered too private. Later he gained access to the originals, all but those for the year 1932, which somehow vanished without a trace. So what we have here transcribed, for the year 1932, are only the versions read for the tape recorder.

For reasons known only to her, the very private Vera omits certain things as she reads aloud, including all the endearments that are such a part of Nabokov’s style, so that for 1932 we get the impression of someone altogether different writing letters. The cutesiness, the lovey-doving, all the passion and the play is gone. At one point, when Nabokov begins describing what appears to be a Lolita-type situation (200/613), party-pooper Vera cuts the scene off short, informing Boyd, “All of that is if no interest to you.” When she comes to mention of Ivan Lukash, whom Nabokov once called “a good friend and a remarkable writer,” she says, “I will omit everything about Lukash” (613).

Throughout the thirties, and even on into the forties, the main theme of these personal letters is “I need a job; we need a place to be.” Notwithstanding the fact that, by the mid-thirties, he was generally acknowledged the best Russian writer of the emigration—probably the best Russian fiction writer in the whole world— Nabokov could not find a way to make a living. For years he networked around, looking for a position as an editor in a newspaper, as a lecturer in a university, even, at one point, in British intelligence, and all to no avail. His letters back to Vera in Berlin tell the tale of constant visits to people looking for help, of constant appeals to any number of individuals, primarily in Paris and London. This chasing around incessantly left him little time to write, and even the literary merit of his letters suffers in comparison to the letters of the twenties. He was simply too worn out much of the time to notice the dove-blue shadow on the wall of twilight, or at least to report its glimmer to his wife. Much of what he reports is detail about the people he is forced to appeal to for help. Incidentally, it is nothing short of astonishing how much so many people tried to do for him. And even more astonishing that after years of effort everything came to naught.

Here is a typical passage: “I was at Osorgin’s: a youthful-looking slender man with the hint of a mane, in some kind of belted velvet jacket and an unbuttoned tennis collar. Our conversation was not very interesting, he hates Khodasevich. . . Remizov is mortally offended by me. They have tons of Jewish friends, but, at the same time, Zaytsev likes to savour, now and then, a Jewish accent. . . I had tea with them and went to Lolly, who happens to have a very likeable young wife with a hairdo in the mode of a Pushkin miss. I saw Mme Rachmaninov there and the Pohl couple. It was hellishly boring. But then Rachmaninov took me home in her car. And I was simply collapsing from fatigue, since I also had supper at the Kyandzhuntsevs’ and the Portnovs’”(letter of Nov. 11, 1932, p. 217).

Nabokov’s social doings with the Russian émigré community abroad (Paris, mostly, then London) in the thirties is of some interest now, but probably only to specialists in Russian literature. Big names constantly appear (Bunin, Remizov, Aldanov, Zamyatin, Khodasevich), and particularly of note is in what high regard the young and haughty Nabokov was held among the most famous writers of the emigration. See, e.g., p. 254: “Aldanov cried out that 1) ‘you despise us all, I can see through you’ 2) ‘you’re our leading writer’ 3) ‘Ivan Alekseevich [Nobel prize winner Bunin], give him your ring.’ Ivan, however, stood his ground, ‘No, there’s still some life left in us,…’” (254, letter of Feb. 10, 1936).

The hassles with looking for work, looking for a place to be, went on and on. If it weren’t enough of a problem to make all the connections, to ask friends, famous scholars and writers, well-wishers to write him testimonials,” Nabokov had to run here and there in search of bureaucratic documentation. “Now imagine me twice visiting government departments, twice waiting there for three hours each time, then putting together a request with Raisa’s help, then twice visiting (an hour each time) the prefecture and finally receiving the return visa to Paris. I was twice at the Belgian consulate too, where at long last they gave me only a transit visa…”, etc., etc., etc. (letter of Feb. 17, 1936, p. 259).

The only consolation was that Nabokov was highly regarded in all walks of literary life, and his readings were always well received: “the audience was good, simply wonderful. Such a big, sweet, receptive, pulsing animal, grunting and chuckling in the places I needed, and then obediently dying down again. It finished at half past eleven, and again—rapture. A handshake, Fondik’s wonderful smile. In a word, all a vainglorious man could ask for” (letter of Nov. 16, 1932, p. 223). But meanwhile, back in Berlin, his Jewish wife and child remained as the Nazi menace grew more and more virulent. Vera, minus her letters, sometimes comes across as querulous, unsympathetic: “I’m running around all day long, my tongue, red as a slice of ham (writes her bedraggled husband), hanging out, and you say to me: ‘Blunderer’” (letter of Nov. 3-4, 1932, p. 209).

Then came the absolutely horrendous year of 1937. Only in the Soviet Union could it have been worse for the Nabokovs. Brian Boyd’s treatment of 1937 in his biography, The Russian Years does not begin to suggest how utterly enervating and horrible that year was. Read these letters to get a feel for the horror. Troubles followed one after the other, the next trouble barking and nipping at the heels of the one before. There was a constant shortage of money, Vera’s health was not good, nor was that of Nabokov’s widowed mother, who was living in Prague, almost in poverty. In the Russian emigration Nabokov the writer, who “had shot to not-quite-starving stardom” (Boyd, p. xx),  continued his desperate search for a way to make a living.  Read Pnin, the story of an exile searching for discreteness—a defense against Fate’s buffeting forces—searching for a place to be. How well Nabokov understood his Pnin.

Then, as its pièce de résistance, Fate served up for Nabokov another woman to fall in love with. In late January of 1937 he began an affair with a young Russian woman in Paris, Irina Guadanini.  His letters to Vera maintained the same tone of affection, the endearments were the same, but, increasingly more often, a tone of desperation slips in. Apparently exacerbated by the emotional pressure, Nabokov’s chronic psoriasis drove him to distraction, and in February he even contemplated suicide (so he later admitted).

In his letters to Vera in Berlin he began insisting that she and their son join him in Paris, but she, having learned of the affair from a poison-pen letter, dug in her heels and refused to come. An epistolary chess game began, and went on for months—he insisting that she join him in the south of France, she constantly suggesting alternatives. An interesting sidelight is this: as early as 1932 Vera appeared to be resisting the move to Paris (see p. 210), and you wonder if she was already leery then of his many female fans in France.

Throughout the early months of 1937 the writer Nabokov is writing hard, trying desperately to convince himself that he must not write Vera out of his life. “There’s no power in the world that could take away or spoil even an inch of this endless love,” he tells Vera (and himself hopefully) on March 19 (326). “My dear love, all the Irinas in the world are powerless…,” he tells Vera and himself a day later (329). In a letter in which Nabokov mentions “giving English lessons to Irina G.,” he admits that “never in my whole life have I been so utterly miserable (319). In another (May 12, 1937), he writes, “I cannot tell you how utterly miserable I am and how I long to see you, my life. . . . all of this is so senseless and so painful, as if fate prend plaisir in torturing us. . . . This hell must end soon, I suppose” (374).

Although Brian Boyd has had access to Nabokov’s correspondence with Irina Guadanini during this same time period, he is not very forthcoming about their content, other than to say that even with Irina the writer stressed his happy life with his wife. It would be interesting to compare, say, a letter send to Vera and another sent to Irina on the same day. Not for prurient, but for literary purposes.  But, as far as I known, the letters to Guadanini have never been published.  Nabokov makes no secret of her existence to his wife, but writes as if she were merely an acquaintance.  Sometimes a passage is rather suggestive. For example, this one: “Once, sitting in La Coupole, in Paris, with Irina G., I suddenly noticed that the little cap of my pen, a present from Granny, was missing; after agonizing searches under the tables I found it in my coat pocket” (letter of Feb. 27, 1937, p. 313). Freudians might perk up at this mention of the pen, but there is also a hint here that, in carrying on with Irina, the writer jeopardizes the thing most important to him—his relationship with his muse. If he is to go on writing he desperately needs the cap on that pen.

Of course, there is no mention of the Nazi threat in these letters mailed to Germany, but you wonder just how aware the Nabokovs were of the danger of remaining in Berlin. One of the men responsible for the murder of Nabokov’s father had received an important government post, and Vera feared that her husband would not be safe in Germany. But what did she feel about her own situation, as a Jew? Would Vera have dug in her heels for quite such a long time had she had known what an imminent threat the Nazis presented to herself and her son?

The Nabokovs seem to have hated Germany from the beginning of their residence in the country. Here is a passage from a letter of 1926, in which Nabokov expresses his desire “to leave Berlin, and Germany, to move to Southern Europe with you. The thought of yet another winter here fills me with horror. German speech makes me feel sick—you can’t live only on reflections of street lamps in the asphalt—apart from these reflections, and blooming chestnuts, and angelic little dogs guiding local blind men, there’s also all the squalid vileness, the coarse tiresomeness of Berlin, the aftertaste of rotten sausage, and the smug ugliness” (117). It’s as if the writer were storing up all his animosity in advance, for the time (soon to come) when he and Vera would really have reason to experience that bitter aftertaste of German sausage. After the long chess game finally ends and Vera leaves (with son Dmitri) for Prague, Nabokov heaves a huge sigh of relief and writes, “how glad I am that you’ve got out!. . . I’m so pleased that we have finally done with Germany. Never, never, never will I return there. Damn them, those foul scum. Never” (371-72).

After the couple finally reunite there is another big narrative gap in the text, another letdown for the reader. You almost feel like writing a few scenes to fill in the missing part. The bittersweet meeting, the fights, the decision that has to be made. Whom will the writer choose, which of the two women he loves? How will he get himself out of this dilemma? We of course know what happened. He continued writing letters to Irina in Paris, continued trying to have it both ways. He eventually admitted to Vera that he was in love with another woman, and she told him, “All right. If that’s a fact you better go to her in Paris.” Then he waffled. There was, after all, the issue of his beloved son to consider. Plus (maybe even worse) he would be giving up his muse, the woman he had made the inspiration for his fiction ever since they met in 1923.

Almost from the very beginning Nabokov had written his muse Vera into existence. He had continued writing her as they lived together, making her what he wanted her to be. Now he chose to write Irina out of his life and keep Vera written into it. Irina G., of course, chose to fight rather than to meekly recede into his past, like a discarded draft of a character in a story. She came to Cannes, where the writer and his family were enjoying the beach. He sent her away. In the midst of all the horror of 1937 he wrote one of his best stories, “Cloud, Castle, Lake.” He first mentions how  it is girding itself up in his mind in a letter of May 1, 1937, he mentions it again twice more (see p. 366, 369), but it was not finally composed until he was back with wife and son, in Marienbad, June 25-26.

You look at this wonderful story and you wonder. How would it have been different if not for all the turmoil of 1937, if not for the psoriasis, if not for the affair, if not for the bureaucratic hassles, the endless and enervating networking, the threat of sinister Germany and the long-distance chess game with Vera? Would it have come out as magnificent as it did? I don’t know if any critic has done this yet (probably someone has), but if not, it would be worth considering this tale of a Russian exile’s search for an ideal spot of peace and joy in art, and his failure to be allowed that spot, in light of the personal tribulations of 1937. One thing is certain: the story’s apostrophes to an ideal love are skillfully and craftily done, so as to encompass either (or both) of the women in the writer’s life at that time.

“a spot so enchanting—a lawn, a terrace—such perfect expression of tender well-meaning beauty—that it seemed that if one could stop the train and go thither, forever, to you, my love [Irina/Vera]… But a thousand beech trunks were already madly leaping by, whirling in a sizzling sun pool, and again the chance for happiness was gone.”

“But suddenly at some station all climbed out, and it was already dark, although in the west there still hung a very long, very pink cloud, and farther along the track, with a soul-piercing light, the star of a lamp trembled through the slow smoke of the engine, and crickets chirped in the dark, and from somewhere there came the odour of jasmine and hay, my love [Vera/Irina].”

“It was a pure blue lake, with an unusual expression of its water. In the middle, a large cloud was reflected in its entirety. On the other side, on a hill thickly covered with verdure (and the darker the verdure, the more poetic it is), towered, arising from dactyl to dactyl, an ancient black castle. Of course, there are plenty of such views in Central Europe, but just this one—in the expressible and unique harmoniousness of its three principal parts, in its smile, in some mysterious innocence it had, my love, my obedient one! [Vera, Irina, my muse!]—was something so unique, and so familiar, and so long promised, and it so understood the beholder that Vasili Ivanovich even pressed his hand to his heart, as if to see whether his heart was there in order to give it away.”

The Nabokovs finally got over the year 1937, but they never found a place to be in Europe. At least not until after the major success of the novels written in America. Floundering around for two more years, they finally found a safe haven in the United States, arriving from Europe on May 28, 1940, just a month before the Nazis invaded Paris. But even in the U.S. the perennial problem of how to make a living was not immediately solved. As for the letters to Vera, during their American years the couple was seldom apart, so the portion of the book devoted to the years 1940-1977 suffers from a dearth of letters.

In 1942, in another attempt to generate some cash, Nabokov  took several lecture tours around the U.S. Of particular interest to me are his descriptions of the American South (my homeland). In October, 1942, e.g., he describes his Pninian misadventures in South Carolina, as he attempts to make it to a lecture. “I set out (after the lavatory, where I had awful diarrhoea) to a barber’s. They shaved me horribly, leaving my Adam’s apple all bristly, and since in the next chair a wildly screaming five-year-old child was fighting with the barber who was trying to touch the back of his head with the clippers, the old man shaving me was nervous, hushed the child, and finally cut me slightly under the nose” (463).

Shortly after this Nabokov had his first encounter with American beautyberry: “one bush here is in bright berries, as if dyed in a cheap Easter purple—an utterly shocking chemical hue” (465). So entranced is he by the bush that he later sends a sample of the berries to his son Mitya (476/712). Arriving in Valdosta, Georgia, he meets the flora and fauna of my home state, Florida, exactly a year before I myself arrived there. My family moved from New Jersey to Florida, along with three-year-old me in the fall of 1943.

Compared to the letters of the twenties and those of 1937, the letters written in the U.S. are of much less interest. For those interested in information about Nabokov’s American works of fiction this is not the place to look. Refer instead to the two other published collections (see beginning of this review). Even one spectacular incident, a bout with food poisoning on D-Day, June 6, 1944 (see p. 488-89) is much better described—is in fact hilariously described—in a letter to Edmund Wilson. See Boyd, The American Years, p. 73-76.

Summing up, there is much of interest for Nabokov lovers in this long collection. I love, for example, his description of a Siamese cat: “what a cat they have! Something perfectly stupendous, Siamese, in colour dark beige, or taupe, with chocolate paws . . . and wonderful, clear-blue eyes, turning transparently green towards evening, and the pensive tenderness of its walk, a sort of heavenly circumspection of movement. An amazing sacred animal, and so quiet—it’s unclear what he is looking at with those eyes filled to the brim with sapphire water (192).

Or take this outburst of authorly pride, when, angry with Vera for, as usual, failing to write him, he rails at the gods and then, in a wonderful transition, speaks of eating goose: “No—not on your life! I’ll show myself so that the gods will flinch, covering themselves with their elbows . . . Either my head will burst open or the world will—one or the other. Yesterday I ate goose” (xiv).

Or this description of a hippy woman: “his wife with beautiful loving eyes and in general, to her waist (from the top down), quite pretty, but then all of a sudden her hips begin to burgeon; she guiltily hides them in the shifting planes of her gait, like a package of dirty laundry” (245).

The editors of this volume have gone to painstaking extremes to identify passages, allusions, and persons mentioned in the letters. They are to be commended for performing what, at times, must have been a thankless and tedious task. They have even labored, with the help of Prof. Gennady Barabtarlo, to solve all the puzzles and riddles that Nabokov sent for Vera’s delectation in the twenties (525-537).

I am intrigued by the many faceless persons who poke their noses into the life of Vladimir Nabokov and then disappear for all time from human history. Some of them the editors have (impressively) identified. For example, the strange lover of flagpoles whom Nabokov encounters in Illinois ( 480) turns out (713) to be Elmer Kneale (1885-1944). Others you wish you had a chance to meet: (1) Col. Likhoshertsov, “one of the most charming people on earth” (324) (2) The importunate Nef, unidentified (395) (3) a man known only as Shpunt (405), unidentified.  Another thing that is intriguing: how often Nabokov likes people, is charmed by them and they by him—despite his reputation for touchiness and arrogance.

In terms of Nabokov’s literary works one thing that stands out, as early as the letters of the twenties, is his love of playing games with words, sounds of words, puns, puzzles. After his arrival in the U.S. he began inventing new Russian words based on English. Some of them are so good that you wish the Russian language would embrace them. Little hints: хинтики. I caught a glimpse of: глимснул. He was warned by such luminaries as Edmund Wilson that in the family of belles-lettres the pun is the crossed-eyed stepchild, but he never stopped punning. Here, in the letters to Vera, he describes himself as tormented by “tiny word nightmares”: “Popes pounced on poplars, the port where Rappaport rapped out a report” (Letter of June 22, 1926, p. 91).

Just as in, e.g., his critical biography of Gogol and his novel Bend Sinister, we see sibilants sometimes running amuck. Here is the beginning of a letter dated June 4, 1926, in which he plays with pet names and sounds in the salutation: “Mousch, mouse-sh-s-ch-sch-sh” (54). The Russian letters here, all hissers and hushers, are ш,с,ч,щ,ш. Later on in the same letter he describes a man with a strange stammer, who throws in—something like the English filler “like,” or the modern-day Russian filler “blin”—the sound “obli”: “In German literary circles they are interested in Oblimary [Nabokov’s first novel, Mary] and the short stories as well, and so they want to translateobli both Mary and the oblistories, and that ifobli I agree, etc., etc.” (55). Блин!

Much influenced by Joyce’s Ulysses, Nabokov in one letter (Feb. 24, 1936) parodies Joyce in inventing reams of sparkling word play.  One example is a proverb prominently featured (in French) in Anna Karenina: “Strike while the iron is hot.” Nabokov’s macaronic version is “Куй железо пока aurait chaud,” in which the French words approximate горячо, but even better (as the editors point out) approximate the Russian word for “good,” хорошо (267/641).

Nabokov was aware that “tiny word nightmares” could be deleterious to the quality of his fiction. In his introduction to Bend Sinister he writes that “Paronomasia is a kind of verbal plague, a contagious sickness in the world of words.” In a book written at roughly the same time as BS, Nikolai Gogol, the cavorting hushers and hissers get out of control, running amuck in the “nightmare index,” which Nabokov later toned down in the British edition of the book. In reference to the Gogol work, Edmund Wilson wrote Nabokov, “in some connections you’ve gone out of your way to be rather silly and perverse about the subject” (Nab.-Wilson Letters, p. 139).

Nabokov learned to play, somewhat to his detriment, the game of silly from Joyce, who probably learned it from Sterne (Tristram Shandy). Read some of the letters of the twenties to Vera, and you can imagine her gritting her teeth at the excesses of play, at the pet names, the plethora of endearments, at the hushers and hissers and the many puzzles. It is my contention—and I’ve never met a Nabokov scholar who agrees with me—that the spirit of the frolicking sibilants finally caught up with the writer in the final years of his life. Try as I might, I cannot get past the first few pages of the game-playing in Ada. Just too silly by half. But I still love the great Nabacocoa, and I’ve mightily enjoyed reading his letters to Vera.


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