Nabokovilia: Martin Amis's "Oktober"

I was carrying a book: the forthcoming “Letters to Véra,” by Véra’s husband, Vladimir Nabokov. But the voices around me were unrelaxingly shrill—I could concentrate on what I was reading, just about, but I could extract no pleasure from it. So I took my drink back into the foyer, where the pianist, after a break, had resumed. The businessman was still on the phone; as before, we were sitting two tables apart, and back to back. Occasionally I heard snatches (“Have you got any office method where you are? Have you?”). But now I was slowly and appreciatively turning the pages, listening to that other voice, V.N.’s: humorous, resilient, full of energy. The letters begin in 1923; two years earlier, he sent his mother a short poem, as proof “that my mood is as radiant as ever. If I live to be a hundred, my spirit will still go around in short trousers.”
When January dawned in 1924, Vladimir (a year older than the century) was in Prague, helping his mother and his two younger sisters settle into their cheap and freezing new apartment. (“Jesus, it’s called basic gumption. Do you know how you spell that?”) These former boyars were now displaced and deracinated—and had “no money at all.” (“5C? No. Obviously. 4C. 4C, for Christ’s sake.”) Vladimir himself, like his future wife, the Judin Véra Slonim, had settled in Berlin, along with almost half a million other Russian fugitives from 1917. And in Berlin the two of them would blithely and stubbornly remain. Their lone child, Dmitri, was born there in 1934. The Nuremberg Laws were passed in September, 1935, and they began to be enforced and expanded after the Berlin Olympics of 1936; but not until 1937 did the Nabokovs hurriedly decamp to France, after a (seemingly never-ending) struggle with visas and exit permits and Nansen passports.
All ambient sounds suddenly ceased, and the businessman was saying, “D’you know who this is? Do you? It’s Geoffrey. Geoffrey Vane. Geoffrey. Geoff. Yeah. You know me. And you know what I’m like. . . . Right, my patience is at an end. Congratulations. Or, as you’d say, super. . . . Now. Get your fucking Mac and turn to your fucking e-mails. Do you understand me? Do you understand me? Go to the communication from the fucking agent. The on-site agent. You know, that fucking Argy—Feron. Fucking Roddy Feron. Got it? Now bring up the fucking attachment. Got it? Right—fucking 4C.”

Nabokovilia: Jenny Offill's "Dept. of Speculation"

Nabokovilia in Jenny Offill's Dept. of Speculation:
I was going to be an art monster instead. Women almost never become art monsters because art monsters only concern themselves with art, never mundane things. Nabokov didn’t even fold his own umbrella. Vera licked his stamps for him.
Quote spotted in these two James Woods New Yorker pieces:

Sighting: Nabokov in "Finding the Words"

By that time, Gabriel had developed a series of tics. “He had a cough that was a tic,” Hirsch said. “And a way he used to run his hands over his face.” His parents took him to a psychiatrist, who sent them to a colleague, “a specialist who had the Nabokovian name Dr. Doctor,” Hirsch said.

From Finding the Words, a profile of Edward Hirsch and the book-length poem about his son Gabriel, in the 4 August 2014 New Yorker.

SIGHTING: Sharma on Nabokov on Chekhov

My great breakthrough came about three years ago. I was reading Chekhov to see how he controls present tense and to see if I could copy some of his solutions. Chekhov relies especially heavily on certain aspects of our senses. For example, he uses sound, smell, and feel much more than he uses visual details. Nabokov said that there is an even, gray tone to Chekhov, and this arises from his restricted reliance on the eye. Events appear to be occurring in darkness.
From Akhil Sharma's A Novel Like a Rocket in The New Yorker.

Lorrie Moore does "Signs & Symbols"!

Lorrie Moore's "Referential," her short story appearing in the 28 May 2012 issue of the New Yorker, is a total and awesome tribute to Nabokov's "Signs & Symbols." Moore's The first paragraph follows below. The rest is in the magazine.

For those unfamiliar with "Signs & Symbols": Moore's title is a reference to the protagonist's condition, "referential mania," a where "the patient imagines that everything happening around him is a veiled reference to his personality and existence. He excludes real people from the conspiracy, because he considers himself to be so much more intelligent than other men. Phenomenal nature shadows him wherever he goes. Clouds in the staring sky transmit to each other, by means of slow signs, incredibly detailed information regarding him. His in- most thoughts are discussed at nightfall, in manual alphabet, by darkly gesticulating trees."

Moore's opening shadows Nabokov's as well: "For the fourth time in as many years, they were confronted with the problem of what birthday present to take to a young man who was incurably deranged in his mind. Desires he had none. 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 his abstract world. After eliminating a number of articles that might offend him or frighten him (anything in the gadget line, for instance, was taboo), his parents chose a dainty and innocent trifle—a basket with ten different fruit jellies in ten little jars."

The full text of Nabokov's version is a available here. See/hear Mary Gaitskill talking about her love of the novel and reading the whole thing, also in the New Yorker.

(Via the Nabokv-L Listserv.)

Sighting: Nicholson Baker on Steve Jobs

Nicholson Baker nods at Nabokov in his Steve Jobs eulogy for the New Yorker:

We’ve lost our techno-impresario and digital dream granter. Vladimir Nabokov once wrote, in a letter, that when he’d finished a novel he felt like a house after the movers had carried out the grand piano. That’s what it feels like to lose this world-historical personage. The grand piano is gone.
Read the rest of the piece at


From Ian Frazier's Marginal:

Of special interest to readers of this magazine might be Vladimir Nabokov’s copy of Fifty-five Short Stories from The New Yorker, 1940-1950. Nabokov’s handwriting (in English) was small and fluid and precise; in books that he took exception to, such as a translation of “Madame Bovary” by Eleanor Marx Aveling, his correcting marginalia climbed all over the paragraphs like the tendrils of a strangler fig. Nabokov was also a professor of literature, and in his copy of the New Yorker anthology he gave every story a letter grade. The way he wrote each grade in the table of contents next to the story’s title carried the authority of one who expects that hearts will soar or plummet at the sight of his boldly printed capital. Many of the stories did not fare too well, and would not have got their authors into a selective university. Top marks went to Jessamyn West’s “The Mysteries of Life in an Orderly Manner” (A-) and Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” (A). Prof. Nabokov awarded only two stories in the anthology an A+: “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” by J. D. Salinger, and “Colette,” by Vladimir Nabokov.

SIGHTING: Humbert Humbert in Sweet Valley High

The return of Sweet Valley High, with some of the characters grown older, prompts thoughts of Humbert Humbert revisiting Mrs. Schiller for this New Yorker blogger:
Somehow the thought of all these glorified young characters getting old puts me in mind of the final chapters of "Lolita," when Humbert visits Lolita (now Dolly) to find her “frankly and hugely pregnant” with a dog like a fat dolphin:
Her pale freckled cheeks were hollowed, and her bare shins and arms had lost all their tan, so that the little hairs showed. She wore a brown, sleeveless cotton dress and sloppy felt slippers.
It's a scene of horrible and excruciating diminution, made more agonizing by the fact that Humbert sees how sordid her life is—her body is—but loves her anyway. Of course, this isn’t Nabokov we’re talking about.
(Incidentally: my favorite Sweet Valley High title is Kidnapped by the Cult!)

SIGHTING: Hertzberg's "Sparrin' Words" (The New Yorker)

On Obama and style:
He appeared to be in an unusually relaxed, even bouncy mood. He exuded confidence. The speech he delivered was no literary masterpiece (though by State of the Union standards it was downright Nabokovian), but it was a small triumph of tone and subtle theatrics. Despite the grandiosity of the setting—the curlicued proscenium, the massed dignitaries, the absurd aerobics of the endless standing ovations—the President managed to create a surprisingly intimate, almost conversational effect, as if the well of the House were a fireside and he was having a chat.

Freud as a Fictional Character

I am quoting La Force about to quote Woods paraphrasing Nabokov:
As James Wood writes in his book How Fiction Works:
Nabokov used to say that he pushed his characters around like serfs or chess pieces—he had no time for metaphorical ignorance and impotence whereby authors like to say, “I don’t know what happened, by my character just got away from same and did his own thing.”
I have to suspect that even Nabokov would have had a hard time pushing Freud around.