Vladimir Nabokov, conjuror with words, had a magical gift for turning sights and sounds directly into language, with no filtering
By Hume Vance
Humbert Humbert, the antihero of Lolita, has always left me cold. But that never stopped me from being smitten with Vladimir Nabokov (1899-1977). The seeds of the attraction come straight from my parents. I love the author’s affectionate rendering of his native Russian landscape (Nabokov was a White Russian, an aristocrat, exiled in opposition to the Bolsheviks)—the birches, and snow so cold that it squeaks underfoot—very similar to my mother’s native Sweden. My father, who shuttled at mid-century between university language departments in America and points across Europe, could most accurately be said to have lived in no particular geographic location, but rather inside his books. He was a lover of words and, counter to dusty type, a lover of wordplay.
My father told a story from grade school, when the subject was a settler war against Native Americans in Florida. “On what grounds was the war fought?” the teacher asked. Dad said, “On swampy grounds.”
He couldn’t restrain himself from whimsical self-parody at the dinner-table: “Would you pass the butter?” [pause] “Thank you more than I can utter!”
This delight in language he handed down to me and, with it, my susceptibility to Nabokov. For what ultimately draws me to the author is his unsurpassed flair as a prose stylist and conjurer with words.
Nabokov’s language can be boundlessly physical. Like a great gymnast, or ballet dancer, or football receiver, he knows how to harness a metaphorical burst of acceleration to execute somersaults, spins, or a leaping catch. This makes for some wonderful physical comedy. Here’s an example from the short story “Spring in Fialta” (1936).
A pantless infant … jerkily stepped down from a doorstep and waddled off, bowlegged, trying to carry three oranges at once, but continuously dropping the variable third, until he fell himself, and then a girl of twelve or so … promptly took away the whole lot with her more nimble and more numerous hands.
More numerous hands! How could one better describe the girl’s darting motions to gather up the fallen fruit? And what more concise way to express the toddler’s predicament than “continuously dropping the variable third”?
This hilarious sentence feels to me like something that might arise from mischievous language-generating neurons deep within the author’s brain. I like to imagine that Nabokov’s writing grows directly from the physical roots of language itself. Whether precisely true or not, it makes intuitive sense to me that language generation, as an active process, might draw on neural circuits similar to the ones that control movement.
Do you suppose composing a sentence could have a kinship with snaking your hand over and behind cans and bottles to grasp and retrieve a little-used container at the back of the shelf? There’s a goal involved, and crafty manipulations to achieve it.
In any event, it seems to me that Nabokov somehow has intuitive, unfiltered access to various processes in the brain that he passes on to us, unadulterated, through his language. This is the most stunning thing about his work, his unerring fidelity to the raw material that flows through his mind.
In one passage from his novel The Gift (1938), that material is made of sights and sounds from 1920s Berlin, which Nabokov accumulates to evoke the unfolding of a season. He renders each element with the precision of a naturalist — he was, after all, an authority on butterflies.
The thump of rugs being beaten was sometimes joined by a hurdy-gurdy, which was painted brown and mounted on squalid cart wheels, with a circular design on its front depicting an idyllic brook; … In [a] garden a young chestnut tree, still unable to walk alone and therefore supported by a stake, suddenly came out with a flower bigger than itself. … In a quiet lane behind the church the locust trees shed their petals on a gray June day, and the dark asphalt next to the sidewalk looked as if cream of wheat had been spilled on it. … Male gypsy moths dashed about in wild zigzags. The lindens went through all their involved, aromatic, messy metamorphoses.
These lively little scenes parade before us like a set of engravings or a photo travelogue. Nabokov reproduces each vignette with such telling detail — the determined housewives implied by the sound of carpet beating, the tenderly anthropomorphized chestnut sapling, the hurdy-gurdy (or barrel organ) and the strewn petals — that the whole scene gels for us. Do you feel the momentum of spring proceeding into early summer? I do. The final sentence, in its “metamorphoses,” recapitulates the whole exuberant phenomenon.
Perhaps my favorite Nabokov passage occurs at the end of “Spring in Fialta.” In the final, devastating, paragraph-length sentence, Nabokov finds his raw material in the complicated and refractive precincts of memory.
As the sentence begins, Victor, the narrator, is fixed in a kind of reverie, recalling his final encounter with his sometime and ephemeral lover Nina, and noticing in retrospect what he hadn’t noticed at the time, that the sun had come out (and raising the question in us as readers whether it will also occur to him that he had understood nothing of Nina or of himself). And then Victor is catapulted out of his reverie — it is several days later — and he reads a newspaper report.
But the stone was as warm as flesh, and suddenly I understood something I had been seeing without understanding—why a piece of tinfoil had sparkled so on the pavement, why the gleam of a glass had trembled on a tablecloth, why the sea was ashimmer: somehow, by imperceptible degrees, the white sky above Fialta had got saturated with sunshine, and now it was sun-pervaded throughout, and the brimming white radiance grew broader and broader, all dissolved in it, all vanished, all passed, and I stood on the station platform of Mlech with a freshly bought newspaper, which told me that the yellow car I had seen under the plane trees had suffered a crash beyond Fialta, having run at full speed into the truck of a traveling circus entering the town, a crash from which Ferdinand and his friend, those invulnerable rogues, those salamanders of fate, those basilisks of good fortune, had escaped with local and temporary injury to their scales, while Nina, in spite of her long-standing faithful imitation of them, had turned out after all to be mortal.
It is Nabokov at his craftiest. He seems to have reached into the innermost layers of the brain, using language to slip into his net the fluttering, sometimes fleeting relationships that make up our memories and their shifts over time. ☾
MORE NABOKOV / AUTHOR’S BOOK PICKS
- The Annotated Lolita, by Alfred Appel (Knopf). A little obsessive, but well worth reading to explore the novel’s many allusions and preoccupations.
- Speak, Memory, by Vladimir Nabokov. Essays recounting the author’s life until his emigration to the U.S. in 1940.
- The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov (Knopf).
HUME VANCE grew up in a college town in New Hampshire, where in winter the snow squeaked underfoot, and in summer monarchs and viceroys vied among the fields and flowerbeds. He studied plant biology and then engineering at Cornell, missing by a couple of decades Nabokov’s famed lectures on European literature at the university. Hume has spent his career as a bit player in the industry that conjures the world on your smartphone and computer where you are reading this. He is currently director of firmware engineering at Zoom Telephonics, in Boston. In his spare time, he rides a recumbent bicycle around the countryside, and photographs birds. (Butterflies tend to flutter away before he can click the shutter).