Tag Archives: Vladimir Nabokov

Quiddity of the False Azure

All colors made me happy: even gray. — Vladimir Nabokov, Pale Fire (line 29)

The weaker the organ the longer the impression of the image lasts. — Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Theory of Colours (pg 51, section 121. )

Scan 13My recent inquiries into perception made me curious to know the oft-cited primary text of Goethe’s Theory of Colours. It is an interesting read, particularly as the content has been thoroughly disapproved making the reading of it a philosophical or poetical exercise more than a scientific one.

Time means succession, and succession, change:
Hence timelessness is bound to disarrange
Schedules of sentiment…
 —Pale Fire (lines 567-569)

Thus inspiration already presupposes expiration; thus every systole its diastole. —Theory of Colour (15, section 38.)

The beautiful fiction in the non-fiction that is twisted inadvertently by Goethe is  conversely, in Pale Fire, “written” by John Shade in four cantos, and yet, similarly, bent. Nabokov elegantly distorts fiction and non-fiction and intentionally plays a stark psychology off the poetical and philosophical posit. The ruse of John Shade is elaborate…what is the purpose? It seems to me that by creating, for example through the officialness of the “About the Author” page followed by “Other Books by the Author,” a Nabokovian mocking of the surety of our perception of truth gains a profoundly moving and tender, if tremulous, capital T Truth.

Life Everlasting-based on a misprint!
I mused as I drove homeward: take the hint,
And stop investigating my abyss?
But all at once it dawned on me that
Was the real point, the counterpuntal theme;
Just this: not text, but texture; not dream
But topsy-turvical coincidence,
Not flimsy nonsense, but a web of sense.
Yes! It sufficed that I in life could find
Some kind of link-and-bobolink, some kind
Of correlated pattern in the game,
Plexed artistry, and something of the same
Pleasure in it as they who played it found.
 —Pale Fire (lines 803-815)

If Goethe is correct that the longer an impression lasts, the weaker the organ, than I must have a very weak heart. In Pale Fire (particularly the Ginko Press edition I experienced— because it was more than something to be merely read) a persistent ache of a melancholy color bleeds and stains, and yet, and yet… there is a rising blush of “Faint hope.”

*Theory of Colours  translated from the German with notes by Charles Lock Eastlake

**Title from opening stanza of Pale Fire –
I was the shadow of the waxwing slain
By the false azure in the windowpane

*** “Faint Hope.” final sentence of Pale Fire

Feeling Glaucous

He is surging up from under my pen.
Vladimir Nabokov, Spring in Fialta (298)

IMG_0031The sea, its salt drowned in a solution of rain, is less glaucous than grey with waves too sluggish to break into foam. (289)

Glaucous. It was Vladimir Nabokov’s short story Spring in Fialta that made me look it up. Some people prickle when the more obscure words of our language are put to the use they were meant for. But not me. I love my dictionaries and especially, with a mother’s love of the neglected, the recondite words within. Specific words can have complex personal histories of epic proportions to the user or writer: a life that looms like a long shadow behind the letters which readers can never fully make out. Still,  the secret life of the writer’s words breathe and color the sentences. I experience words in a very visceral and visual way. I don’t have synesthesia, as Nabovov did, but I do understand the personal connection.

…but with every new book the tints grew still more dense (299)

However,  glaucous is a problem child. The definition says it is blue-grey. Ah, but it also says it is yellow-green. That is a obfuscation that I can not quite forgive. In the story Nabokov surely intends it to mean blue-grey- his sea is more grey, but the mood is clearly blue. A woman, Nina, comes in and out of Victor’s life, casting a glaucous glaze of love and longing over his life, his story.

And moreover was she not chained to her husband by something stronger than love – the staunch friendship between two convicts? (306)

Nabokov uses color to illustrate what is a story of a story. The way that our remembrances take on a remote quality of literature within our own minds is fascinating: the fugue of color and book beautifully describing memory’s form.

Inspired, I perused (another problem child having -in many dictionaries- duel opposing meanings, in this case I mean skittered through- which is of course the meaning sometimes rejected, but I always root for the underdog) Color: A Natural History by Victoria Finlay. It was fun poking around the history of how the colors we use were and are procured. They all have their own tales of intrigue, blood or murder. I can’t look at my freshly painted red nails now without conjuring up the image of  bloody cochineal beetles farmed from the cactus prickly pear to make true carmine red. The mythical cow piss and mango makings of orange, and the horrors of slow death by (lead) white paint all linger in the technicolor images of my mind.

Each of the side-pillars [of the door] is fluffily fringed with white, which rather spoils the lines of what might have been a perfect ex-libris for the book of our two lives. (292)

The Spring of Fialta is a chromatic tale that comes together into a epiphany of white light at the end: the full spectrum moment of clarity in which the admission of unrequited love is made. The “scarlet woman” of his affection has the same problem many pigments throughout history have had- they never “fix.” They fade, or worse turn into completely different colors- white or green turns black, reds become drab browns. The color of love may be unknown or different in each heart, but surely it is color fast?

She kissed me thrice with more mouth than meaning (291)

Of course, as Finley tells us, the word scarlet didn’t originally mean the color red. It was rather the cloth itself. A scarlet woman is a woman of the cloth. Oh that’s funny. I love words.

*The Spring of Fialta from The Penguin Book of Russian Short Stories edited by David Richards

Not So Muted Mirth

“It’s nothing but a kind of microcosmos of communism – all that psychiatry,” rumbled Pnin, in his answer to Chateau. “Why not leave their private sorrows to people? Is sorrow not, one asks, the only thing in the world people really possess?” – Vladimir Nabokov, Pnin (52)

IMG_0288One of the most delightful aspects of this blog is when someone comments that they are excited to read a book or author that I have written about. A rare, but delightful joy. The other morning I was collecting some of the essays that I have written, about the books of one of my favorite authors- Vladimir Nabokov. By the time I was done re-reading and repairing them, as much as I could, for a critical viewing, I was overtaken with desire for more Nabokov. I controlled myself long enough to take a shower but then practically ran out of the house with a towel turban still on my head in my febrile haste to the library.

Once the book was in hand, I had a moment’s calm to reflect, and I was struck with the realization that I was that person! I had influenced someone to run in a dead heat to the library to read something! I was quite pleased with myself. Right up until the moment that dawned – I was that person. Oh. That’s pretty pathetic, Jessica. Might even have to remove the qualifier from that sentence- nothing pretty about it, the narrator in my head added.

Then political questions. He asks: ‘Are you an anarchist?’ I answer ” -time out on the part of the narrator for a spell of cozy mute mirth – (11)

Call me over sensitive, but the narrator of Pnin hovered around charity, sometimes dipping a finger into condescension. I found myself talking to him, “Narrator, be nice. Poor Pnin is trying, and his heart! He’s heartbroken. Do be kind.” Pnin is a Russian émigreé working in the world of academia. With a caustic charm, Nabokov gently skewers the ridiculous people that populate Pnin’s world: from his silly colleagues, truly awful ex-wife, to a hilariously serious conversation about the flawed chronology of Anna Karenina. It’s all wonderfully told.

I found myself laughing out loud while reading the bulk of this book in an examination room of a cardiologist with my client. Every now and then she’d look over at me, “It’s very funny,” I would offer. But her narrator was keeping her busy working her up into a fit of fury that exploded on the doctor’s head when he came in. She was too cold, had waited too long, and had come too far. Finally, the heart doctor made an intellectual decision to say, “I’m sorry.” She was not fooled. “That doesn’t help me AT ALL. You have wasted the time of this valuable person!” All eyes turned to me. Of all three people in the room to have the word “valuable” attached to…I smiled with wholesome disquiet at the floor, looked up to the doctor and gave him an I have no idea what she’s talking about look, but he was done with me before I got to I have n-. Meanwhile my narrator was in a paroxysm of giggles flopping about uncontrollably, mockingly holding up my paycheck- Oh shut up. I went back to my reading.

“Our friend,” answered Clements, “employs a nomenclature all his own. His verbal vagaries add a new thrill to life. His mispronunciations are mythopeic. His slips of the tongue are ocacular. He calls my wife John.”  (165)

The narrator of Pnin does not fully insert himself into the story until very near the end, just to underline and dot the head-scratchingly odd awkwardness of Pnin. But it’s not, perhaps, Pnin that is entirely at fault, it’s what’s distorted and lost in translation. That’s a feeling we all understand: translating what we feel, into what we say and how we act, into how we are then perceived- it’s a wonder there are any forms of successful communication at all. Maybe there aren’t. We all just think we understand each other. Pnin’s narrator is at the ready, standing by to laugh under his breath, shake his head just a little, Oh you poor dear. You’ll be alright.

“So I take the opportunity to extend a cordial invitation to you to visit me this evening. Half past eight, postmeridian. A little house-heating soiree, nothing more. Bring also your spouse – or perhaps you are a Bachelor of Hearts?”
( Oh, punster Pnin!)   (151)

Pnin is very endearing, but of course it’s the narrator that we fall in love with. He’s the voice in the head of the book, in a good mood, teasing without malice. I wish my narrator was in a good mood more often.

More reads by Nabokov, towel turban or not:

Avoid Vocatives: King, Queen and Knave
More Bleeding Stumps of Verse: The Gift
Sun and Stone: Speak, Memory

Sun and Stone

To love with all one’s soul and leave the rest to fate, was the simple rule she heeded. – Vladimir Nabokov, Speak, Memory (40)


I regret my occasional tendency toward a penurious sympathy. While I am deeply empathetic to the underdog, I have been known to scoff or display ungenerous feelings of exasperated chagrin when reading page after page of the wonders of other people’s good fortune.   As I began Speak, Memory I was afraid I might come down with a severe case of exasperated chagrin. Nabokov is one of my favorite writers, and I didn’t want to disturb my love.  I was not at all sure I was in the mood to go along side the memories of a man who had an idyllically over-privileged aristocratic Russian youth and turned out to be a literary genius to boot – a gluttony of riches I pity myself never to have known.

And yet, this tremendous autobiography won me over in every way: content, form, and fancy all come together to tell a biography of an amazing life in an extraordinary time.

In choosing our tutors, my father seems to have hit upon the ingenious idea of engaging each time a representative of another class or race, so as to expose us to all the winds that swept over the Russian Empire. (153)

Nabokov begins the story with a natural focus on his mother, and she sounds wonderful, (the opening quote at top describes her creed) but it was in his loving and amused description of his various tutors and studies that I really became transfixed by the unique world of early 1900 Russia- to say nothing of his fascinating lepidopterology or esteemed father. By the time we come to his family’s exile, the simplicity and true profundity by which, through him, we have come to experience a slice of the vast beautiful curiosity and complexity that is Russia is fully realized in his regardant prose.

Nabokov is at once self-deprecating while at the same time scathingly opinionated. But what comes through most beautifully is his tenderness. Well into the book, if I am not mistaken in the chapter concerning his brother, whom he has painfully little to say (by his own admission) he suddenly addresses the reader- and it is you. You (Vera).

When that slow-motion, silent explosion of love takes place in me, unfolding its melting fringes and overwhelming me with the sense of something much vaster, much more enduring and powerful than the accumulation of matter or energy in any imaginable cosmos, then my mind cannot but pinch itself to see if it is really awake. (297)

He is telling the story to his wife. At each “you,” a stab of affection ran through my heart. With a delicious casualness reminiscent of Ada, or Ardor’s Van we know she is the meaning and purpose of this book, and his life. He never describes her, their meeting, or how they came to love each other, she is simply the one – you. By the end of the story the intimacy of his referring to her is completely out in the open. It is lovely.

Here is a man to whom everything good was given, a lot of which was taken away, and yet all that is good, worthwhile and true- all the love, remains.

This is ecstasy, and behind the ecstasy is something else, which is hard to explain. It is like a momentary vacuum into which rushes all that I love. A sense of oneness with sun and stone. A thrill of gratitude to whom it may concern- to the contrapuntal genius of human fate or to tender ghosts humoring a lucky mortal. (139)*
*Here he is explaining his passion for lepidopterology – the study of butterflies.


More Bleeding Stumps of Verse

“But the truthfulness of juxtapositions and deductions is sometimes better preserved on the near side of the verbal fence.” – Vladimir Nabokov, The Gift

Maybe it should be called: Inside The Brain of a Writer 101, by Vladimir Nabokov. The sausage making process in all of its fantastic wonder. The only problem is that his sausage tastes so good I can’t think of why I’d ever bother to make my own.  I am left with my sad offerings of “bleeding stumps of verse,” Nabokov’s euphemism for excerpts and quotes. Chagrined but not deterred, I continue –

“But sometimes he envied the simple love life of other men and the way they probably had of whistling while taking off their shoes.” (178)

I think it is the word “probably” in that sentence that makes me love Nabokov so much. He is so astoundingly authentic in his description of life lived in the interior; he admits uncertainty, but come on -let’s have a little fun. He is never so profound and joyful as when he is at his most flippant:

“Because of her I almost forgot butterflies and completely overlooked the revolution.” (161)

Nabokov understands that all experience is sensual, even writing- especially writing. He is not one to leave out bodily or mental functions, and I love him dearly for it. This was Nabokov’s last book written in Russian, and I wish I had a deeper understanding of Russian literature with which to fully experience it, but my limited love affairs with Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and Pushkin will have to do.

“Leave Pushkin alone: he is the gold reserve of our literature. And over there is Chekhov’s hamper, which contains enough food for years to come, and a whimpering puppy, and a bottle of Crimean wine.”

I like to think he is referring specifically to one of my all time favorite short stories, Chekhov’s The Lady With The Dog, I can’t remember if her dog ever whimpered, but there was a shared melon that stays with me…After all, does it matter if I comprehend every reference?  At least I am getting to a point in my life where I know what I don’t know. Progress.

“And not only was Zina cleverly and elegantly made to measure for him by a very painstaking fate, but both of them, forming a single shadow, were made to the measure of something not quite comprehensive, but wonderful and benevolent and continuously surrounding them.” (189)

Yes. Perhaps my favorite description of love I have ever read, whether or not it is true I am left to wonder, but I like it all the same. “Made to the measure,” – it’s a lovely notion. A lovely image.

One can get lost inside Fydor’s mind, I think even he gets a little lost in his own mind at times. But the final chapter may just be one of the sweetest I’ve ever read and funny as well with a nude amble through a park’s woods that is forcibly protracted when his clothing is stolen.

There is much about you I don’t like- your Petersburg style, your Gallic taint, your neo-Voltaireanism and weakness for Flaubert- and I find, forgive me, your obscene sporty nudity simply offensive.” (353)

Fydor’s gift is his writing, or rather it is Nabokov showing us his writing from the inside out in a way that is of course a ridiculous impossibility to show, right up until the moment the words find your eyes and it becomes clear that it is an effortlessly obvious thing to show. What was I thinking?

“I have been reciting a fictitious dialogue with myself as supplied by a self-teaching handbook of literary inspiration.” (88)

Oh good, I’m not the only one.

In Nabokov’s view, Fate, apparently, is sweet to some, tenaciously, even insistently, bearing the gift of love. It’s delicious.

Le Goût

Le Goût

I took her hand and brought it to my knee.
held her gaze in my palm.
The sweet taste of her Nabokovian desire increasing
the point of pressure.
She was my breath,
the scent of my soul.
The guilty pleasure of falling in love
give you gout.

*From 2011,  after reading Ada: or Ardor by Vladimir Nabokov. Inspired by Van –

Avoid Vocatives

“She realized how difficult it was in  these circumstances to reason logically, to develop simple, smooth, elegant plans, when everything within her was screaming and raging.” –Vladimir Nabokov, King, Queen, Knave

above the penumbra

For all the outrage that Nabokov yields in his novels with his frank and off kilter expressions of passion and lust, one can almost see the tips of his fingertips delightedly tap tap tapping the keyboard (or, as it turns out- dictating to his wife) as he wickedly sets out his visions of warped sexuality slapping against the banality of life: if nothing else, his books are very funny, his delight- infectious.

“He was a bachelor with a beautiful marble wife, a passionate hobbyist without anything to collect, an explorer not knowing on what mountain to die, a voracious reader of unmemorable books, a happy and healthy failure.” 

Between Dreyer’s abortive half-hearted attempts to bed Martha, his icy wife, and her affair with the nephew Franz, there lays a story, set in Berlin, of three people floating in and out of emotionally dead lives. “You no longer exist, Franz Bubendorf.”  Martha and Dreyer both veer wildly from  the shallow euphoric pride of the bourgeoisie to dissatisfaction and preoccupying schemes of advancement, while Franz is exposed as a man with no core – that the above line is delivered by a naked man holding a fan, is…perfect. Franz of course barely notices. Franz! Bitte!

“You’ve always been thoughtless, Kurt, and in the long run you’ll always be what you’ve been, the perfectly happy egoist. Oh I have studied you carefully.”
“So have I,” he said.

Oh yes, we do love to make studies of ourselves. Socrates may have been a bit off on his declaration that the unexamined life is not worth living. At the very least he needed some sort of qualifier. As the reams of self-help book shelves will attest, we examine the hell out of our lives. It seems to me that the obsessively examined life is a pretty strange existence. Quality – not quantity, maybe that’s the trick.

Franz enters the lives of Martha and Kurt Dreyer blind. Literally. In a hilarious section he loses his eyeglasses on his way to the first meeting, and then he is of course blinded by a passionate attraction to Martha whose, “Love helped Franz to mature.”  A mature lover perhaps, but poor Franz, he cannot gracefully extricate himself from the events that are planned and plotted obsessively by Martha. The (at long last) sexually satisfied Martha can not see that Franz disappears, if he ever was at all, into himself.

“Thus he mused, vaguely and crudely, unaware that his thoughts were spinning along from the push given them by Martha.”

But, are we not our own personal revolving series of King, Queen and Knave? Some of us get stuck, a worn out record – the needle jumps, king, king, king for a bit, or knave, knave knave, but we just play out our song, round and round.  How ridiculous it all is. The genius of Nabokov is his ability to pull the rug out from under our own pretensions-  the “spectables” of our “respectacles” are an illusion. And we might as well laugh as not.

“Oh, keep nodding…keep playing the fool…it does not matter now.”

*title from line in book in which Franz advises himself.