Literature and Life
It is always of great interest to me when, typing the name of a foreign author or expert in a field, spellcheck knows the person of whom I am writing. This is especially true with today’s featured author. There are other Russian notables with very similar names and, quite frankly, I expected to be suggested that I was trying to type one of those. However, Nabokov is well-known in the data spelling files of my computer!
“Literature and butterflies are the two sweetest passions known to man.” This incongruence is just one of many in regards to Nabokov. Born in St Petersburg, Russia, Vladimir learned to read and write in English before he did in Russian. As a teenager he published a collection of 68 poems entitled “Stikhi”. Zinaida Gippius, renowned poet and first cousin of Vladimir Gippius, critiqued the collection to Nabokov’s father: “Please tell your son that he will never be a writer.”
Nabokov’s father became a government official after the Russian revolt in February 1917 but in October another revolt found the family fleeing to Ukraine. They soon sought refuge in Western Europe with Vladimir enrolling in Trinity College/University of Cambridge. Studying zoology and then Slavic and Romance languages, he earned hi BA in 1922. The family had moved to Berlin in 1920 and Vladimir followed. That same year as he graduated from Cambridge, his father was accidentally shot while shielding the real target. This them of accidental death occurs frequently in Nabokov’s writing. Though his mother and sister moved to Prague, Vladimir stayed in Berlin, using the pen name V. Sirin.
Nabokov married a German woman and had one son but then, as anti-Semitism grew, they moved to France. In May 1940 the entire family except his brother fled to the USA to escape the advancing German troops. His brother Sergei died five years later at the Neuengamme concentration camp. The Nabokovs settled in Manhattan and Vladimir began volunteer work as an entomologist at the American Museum of Natural History. A year later he became part of the faculty at Wellesley College as a guest lecturer in comparative literature. At the same time he was the de facto curator of lepidoptery at Harvard University’s Museum of Comparative Zoology.
Vladimir Nobokov spent the waning years of his life in Switzerland, enjoying writing. His sone became an acclaimed operatic basso in Italy and the family enjoyed relative q1uite and success with Vladimir’s success as a writer. Nabokov’s creative processes involved writing sections of text on hundreds of index cards, which he expanded into paragraphs and chapters and rearranged to form the structure of his novels, a process that has been adopted by many screenplay writers in subsequent years.
Quoting Darren Wershler) in his “The Locative, the Ambient, and the Hallucinatory in the Internet of Things” (Design and Culture): “Nabokov is noted for his complex plots, clever word play, daring metaphors, and prose style capable of both parody and intense lyricism. He gained both fame and notoriety with his novel Lolita (1955), which tells of a grown man’s devouring passion for a twelve-year-old girl. This and his other novels, particularly Pale Fire (1962), won him a place among the greatest novelists of the 20th century. His longest novel, which met with a mixed response, is Ada (1969). He devoted more time to the composition of this novel than any of his others. Nabokov’s fiction is characterized by linguistic playfulness. For example, his short story “The Vane Sisters” is famous in part for its acrostic final paragraph, in which the first letters of each word spell out a message from beyond the grave. In another of his short stories, “Signs and Symbols” (1958), Nabokov creates a character suffering from an imaginary illness called “Referential Mania,” in which the afflicted is faced with a world of environmental objects exchanging coded messages.”
Nabokov is also known for his scientific endeavors and watercolors of butterflies. Additionally, he was a self-described synesthete, who at a young age equated the number five with the color red. Synesthetes experience a sensation produced in one modality when a stimulus is applied to another modality, as when the hearing of a certain sound induces the visualization of a certain color.
Nabokov’s favorite book is said to have been “Ulysses” by James Joyce. He felt Joyce wrote beautifully proclaiming: “Joyce can turn all sorts of verbal tricks, to puns, transposition of words, verbal echoes, monstrous twinning of verbs, or the imitation of sounds. In these, as in the overweight of local allusions and foreign expressions, a needless obscurity can be produced by details not brought out with sufficient clarity but only suggested for the knowledgeable.”
Of the reader, Nabokov write: “Literature was born not the day when a boy crying wolf, wolf came running out of the Neanderthal valley with a big gray wolf at his heels: literature was born on the day when a boy came crying wolf, wolf and there was no wolf behind him. That the poor little fellow because he lied too often was finally eaten up by a real beast is quite incidental. But here is what is important. Between the wolf in the tall grass and the wolf in the tall story there is a shimmering go-between. That go-between, that prism, is the art of literature.”
In his “Lectures on Literature” he explained the trifecta of writing. “There are three points of view from which a writer can be considered: he may be considered as a storyteller, as a teacher, and as an enchanter. A major writer combines these three – storytellers, teacher, enchanter — but it is the enchanter in him that predominates and makes him a major writer.
“To the storyteller we turn for entertainment, for mental excitement of the simplest kind, for emotional participation, for the pleasure of traveling in some remote region in space or time. A slightly different though not necessarily higher mind looks for the teacher in the writer. Propagandist, moralist, prophet — this is the rising sequence. We may go to the teacher not only for moral education but also for direct knowledge, for simple facts… Finally, and above all, a great writer is always a great enchanter, and it is here that we come to the really exciting part when we try to grasp the individual magic of his genius and to study the style, the imagery, the pattern of his novels or poems.
“The three facets of the great writer — magic, story, lesson — are prone to blend in one impression of unified and unique radiance, since the magic of art may be present in the very bones of the story, in the very marrow of thought. There are masterpieces of dry, limpid, organized thought which provoke in us an artistic quiver quite as strongly as a novel like Mansfield Park does or as any rich flow of Dickensian sensual imagery. It seems to me that a good formula to test the quality of a novel is, in the long run, a merging of the precision of poetry and the intuition of science. In order to bask in that magic a wise reader reads the book of genius not with his heart, not so much with his brain, but with his spine. It is there that occurs the telltale tingle even though we must keep a little aloof, a little detached when reading. Then with a pleasure which is both sensual and intellectual we shall watch the artist build his castle of cards and watch the castle of cards become a castle of beautiful steel and glass.
Of writing, Nabokov once said “The pages are still blank, but there is a miraculous feeling of the words being there, written in invisible ink and clamoring to become visible.” Indeed, I think this is why all writers put pen to paper, fingers to keyboard.