A Look Inside Nabokov’s Head

I was a few pages deep into my Amazon recommended queue (an activity that I save specifically for reading days) and found something that really baffled me. There is a book by Nabokov–published posthumously–that I had never heard of. It’s called Insomniac Dreams: Experiments with Time, and it is basically what the title suggests it is: Nabokov’s dream diary. He recorded his dreams on index cards right after waking up, in order to test “the theory that time may go in reverse, so that, paradoxically, a later event may generate an earlier dream.” I really wonder if Nabokov’s dreams are as deep and layered as his novels are.

Link: https://www.amazon.com/dp/069116794X/

Pale Fire Stanza

The cobalt butterfly flew
Its tinted shadow a divine clue
For fathers to face death and doom
Shade’s shade now suffocates my room

Line 1: The cobalt butterfly

Nymphalis Conopia Zemblari, colloquially called Zemblan Frostwing, is a well-known species native to the mountain ranges in the east of my great land. Although information is listed in many tourist brochures, Historia Zemblica offers the most comprehensive account of our cobalt friend’s habitats.

Line 3: For fathers to face death and doom

An unmistakable reference to our dear exiled king, Zembla’s father.

Line 4: Shade’s shade

Alliteration: the occurrence of the same letter or sound at the beginning of adjacent or closely connected words. John’s writing was always packed with linguistic tricks like these.

Neon Lights in Lolita

As a European, neon signs are something typically American to me. I’d rarely seen them in real life until I visited California, and here they seem ubiquitous. In an American road novel such as Lolita they also do not fail to make an appearance. Humbert frequently describes the neon “Vacancy” signs posted outside the cheap motels they frequent. “All along our route,” he writes, “countless motor courts proclaimed their vacancy in neon lights, ready to accommodate salesmen, escaped convicts, impotents, family groups, as well as the most corrupt and vigorous couples” (146). Neon lights, on a basic level, relay a certain atmosphere of grime and dirt. The stereotypical unclean roadside motel, an unsavory gentlemen’s club- it’s these sorts of establishments that advertise in bright neon. However, these lights, to me, also created a strong contrast between the world of motels and the world in which Dolly belongs. Dolly is frequently portrayed in pastel hues: russet, rose, brown… This spectrum of colors clashes with the oversaturated, almost offensive glare of neon lights. This contrast is summarised well in this passage: “I started to pull and push Lo toward the exit, in my so natural amorous impatience to get her back to our neon-blue cottage in the stunned, starry night: I always say nature is stunned by the sights she sees. Dolly- Lo, however, lagged behind, in a rosy daze” (282). “Rosy” Dolly does not belong in this “neon-blue cottage”.

“The Word” in The Passenger

I was rereading The Passenger today, and noticed that on the last page the critic says that he “intercede[s] for the Word.” Thanks to today’s discussion, this makes a lot more sense to me. I had never really searched for biblical references in Nabokov’s work, and am now a little afraid (hermeneutic performance anxiety?) that I missed a whole layer of his stories. Have you noticed any biblical references in the stories we’ve read so far?

Theatricality: The Staged Storm

“All morning long Cincinnatus listened and calculated how he could make known his attitude to the sounds in case they should recur. A summer thunderstorm, simply yet tastefully staged, was performed outside: it was as dark as evening in the cell, thunder was heard, now substantial and round, now sharp and crackly, and lightning printed the shadows of the bars in unexpected places. At noon Rodrig Ivanovich arrived.”


Shapes in The Luzhin Defense

We spent some time in class talking about the role of dimensions in The Luzhin Defense, and how that might be an allegory for the struggle between character and author. I had never really given that much thought to the role of 2D versus 3D, but I had noticed the constant appearance of two-dimensional geometrical shapes in the novel. More specifically, I noticed that circles (as we discussed in class), squares and triangles kept appearing throughout the story.
The role of the squares seems obvious enough when considered separately from these other shapes: Luzhin is obsessed with chess, a chess-board has squares, squares pop up in the novel. Done. However, that explanation seems a little simple, especially considering how clever a writer Nabokov is (and how clever he thinks he is). An “a equals b” might not be entirely applicable here. The role of these squares might be deduced from the way Nabokov uses other shapes in this novel.
My digital copy tells me that there are fifteen instances of the word “circle”, “encircling”, et cetera. As said in class, Luzhin is often encircled. He is encircled on the very first page, where his parents “moved around him in apprehensively narrowing circles.” Luzhina (who at that point is still just an unnamed woman) circles around him before she talks about possibly marrying him. What I noticed about these circles is that they rarely pertain directly to Luzhin. He is encircled by someone else, other people step into circles of light (the violinist, right before he calls), flies circle around objects. Triangles also show up every now and then, although not as frequently as circles do. They show up in the math class, and during Luzhin’s match with Turati.
It’s not entirely clear to me why these shapes occur, but I have noticed a distinct difference between the appearance of squares and the appearance of other shapes. Luzhin usually notices the squares (he chooses a square piece of fabric, he sees the squares spread out before him right before he dies, when he slits his eyes as a child he can make out light and dark squares from sunflecks), whereas the circles and triangles are described by what appears to be an omniscient narrator.
So what does this all mean? Again, I could offer an obvious explanation: Luzhin is obsessed with chess, therefore he sees squares everywhere. Nabokov inserts other shapes to show that Luzhin does not specifically see these. I still feel as if something might be missing here. What do you all think?
PS: If anyone is interested in falling in love with chess this Valentine, here’s a good link to learn about chess notation! http://www.chesscorner.com/tutorial/basic/notation/notate.htm

The Luzhin Defence: A Reading Scene

I found the following passage on page 33 and 34 of my copy.

On the other hand there were two books, both given him by his aunt, with which he had fallen in love for his whole life, holding them in his memory as if under a magnifying glass, and experiencing them so intensely that twenty years later, when he read them over again he saw only a dryish paraphrase, an abridged edditionm as if they had been outdistanced by the unrepeatable, immortal image that he had retained. But it was not a thirst for distant peregrinations¹ that forced him to follow on the heels of Phileas Fogg, nor was it boyish inclination for mysterious adventures that drew him to that house on Baker Street, here the lanky detective with the hawk profile, having given himself an injection of cocaine, would dreamily play the violin. Only much later did he clarify in his own mind what it was that had thrilled him so about these two books; it was that exact and relentlessly unfolding pattern: Phileas, the dummy in the top hat, wending his complex elegant way with its justifiable sacrifices, now on an elephant bought for a million, now on a ship of which half has to be burned for fuel; and Sherlock endowing logic with the glamour of a daydream, Sherlock composing a monograph on the ash of all known sorts of cigars and with this ash as with a talismna progressing through a crystal labyrinth of possible deductions to the one radiant conclusion.


  1. a journey, especially a long or meandering one.

The significance of the narrator in A Nursery Tale

I have noticed that I subconsciously equate the male narrator in many of Nabokov’s short stories (at least the ones set in Berlin) to Nabokov himself. Knowing what I know of the author, I often assume the narrator is a Russian emigré, someone who doesn’t like Berlin, et cetera. In short, I do exactly what Nabokov says a bad reader does. Reading A Nursery Tale was no different, but upon re-reading it I started thinking more about the role of the narrator, and why he is characterised as a bit of a socially incapable washout. Upon doing so I realised that he is about as far from Nabokov as one can get. Victor’s blog post already offered some insightful commentary on the role of Frau Monde, and I believe the narrator further serves to convey Nabokov’s distaste for Germany.

On page 168, Nabokov reveals that the narrator is not a Russian emigré, and thus likely a German native. He has the narrator describe a conversation as being “in an impenetrable language- Polish or Russian.” Throughout the story, the narrator is then described as a loner, someone whose desires keep him from completing simple tasks, someone with few social skills, a weak man. As a reader, I felt more sympathetic to the devil than to our narrator, because she at least seemed like a capable person. I believe that this overtly negative characterisation might be analogous to Nabokov’s view of Germany and its people. I found a last piece of evidence for my theory in the address the narrator is sent to by Frau Monde. The only Hoffmann Street in Berlin is the Martin-Hoffman-Strabe, which is a tiny street close to Treptower Park. This street is fairly insignificant, and the only interesting thing about it is that it runs parallel to the much larger and more important Pushkinallee, which translates to Pushkin Avenue. The message seems obvious. But then again, that might be a reach, and I am sure I broke about every rule Nabokov set forth in his Good Readers and Good Writers essay in trying to prove this point. I would love to hear your thoughts.