Vladimir Nabokov and My Bookshelves

Jeff VanderMeer • April 27th, 2008 @ 11:41 am • Book Reviews, Culture

With The Original of Laura, Vladimir Nabokov’s final novel, now set to be published, and NPR re-running a feature today on Lolita, I thought it might be a good time to share photos of my Nabokov collection (after the cut below).

Nabokov is and probably always will be my favorite fiction writer. Why? He was a master prose stylist but also created incredibly subtle characterizations. He often deployed satire and humor, but it was always anchored by tragedy and by depth. He was unafraid of using experimental structures, but he did so because his characters demanded it. He did not shy away from showing cruelty and violence–and understood the necessity of doing so. It’s for this reason that his style works, because it supports something much rougher and less polished underneath. Most of his novels demand a second, a third, a fourth, read–and the books change every time you read them. Some day I hope to have the time re-read Nabokov from beginning to end. Along with doing a biography of Angela Carter, one of my dream projects would be to do a book on Nabokov, focusing on my favorites among his works. (I think I’ve read every major piece of criticism on Nabokov by now.)

The photo above, by the way, is by Jacob McMurray for my SF Site piece on lost books. At the time I suggested Martin Amis might finish The Original of Laura:

Nabokov intended to complete this novel after finishing Look at the Harlequins!, but ill health prevented him from doing so. For many years, all Nabokovites had to sustain them were such Laura notes as “Inspiration. Radiant insomnia. The flavour and snows of beloved alpine slopes. A novel without an I, without a he, but with the narrator, a gliding eye, being implied throughout.” None of which revealed much about the plot. In 1999, a friend of the Nabokovs — a roving entomologist on a Fulbright — found a series of notecards hidden in the casing of a Nabokov butterfly case donated to Cornell University upon his death. The notecards sketched out a preliminary draft of The Original of Laura. Dmitri Nabokov then enlisted the help of Martin Amis to complete the novel. In that a first person narrator replaces Nabokov’s “gliding eye” and that Amis inserted several seedy characters and changed the setting of the novel to London’s underbelly, one might wonder if it would have been better had the notecards remained with the butterflies.

Of all the photos below, the one that is most frustrating to me–if a photograph can frustrate–is the one showing Nabokov’s Russian translation of Alice in Wonderland. It would be wonderful to know Russian and be able to read his version, since I imagine it is significantly changed from the original to fit his native language.

And then some interiors from McSweeney’s chapbook on Nabokov’s covers…

And I don’t know how I forgot about these:

25 Responses to “Vladimir Nabokov and My Bookshelves”

  1. John Coulthart says:

    I don’t have many Nabokov volumes but among them there’s a couple of choice items, including a UK edition of Lolita from 1959 (second impression unfortunately) with a rather tattered dustjacket. Also a very nice Penguin paperback of Ada from 1970 with one of David Pelham’s great cover designs (painting of a flower with some elegant typography). I still haven’t read Ada properly, although I’ve dipped into it, but Nabokov’s blurb which fills the back cover is the most gorgeously excessive I’ve ever seen for a novel:

    Ardis Hall–the Ardors and Arbors of Ardis–this is the leitmotiv rippling through ADA, an ample and delightful chronicle, whose principal part is staged in a dream-bright America for are not American childhood memories comparable to Vineland-born caravellas, indolently encircled by the white birds of dreams? The protagonist, a scion of one of America’s most illustrious and opulent families, is Dr Van Veen, son of Baron ‘Demon’ Veen, that memorable Manhattan and Reno figure. The end of an extraordinary epoch coincides with Van’s no less extraordinary boyhood. Nothing in world literature, save maybe Count Tolstoy’s reminiscences, can vie in pure joyousness and Arcadian innocence with the ‘Ardis’ part of the book. On the fabulous country estate of his art-collecting uncle, Daniel Veen, married to the descendant of a Russian princely race, an ardent childhood romance develops in a series of fascinating scenes between Van and pretty Ada, a truly unusual gamine, daughter of Marina, Daniel’s stage-struck wife. That the relationship is not simply dangerous cousinage but possesses an aspect prohibited by law is hinted in the very first pages…

    Not the least adornment of the chronicle is the delicacy of pictorial detail: a latticed gallery; a painted ceiling; a pretty plaything stranded among the forget-me-nots of a brook; butterflies and butterfly orchids in the margin of the romance; a misty view descried from marbled steps; a doe at gaze in the ancestral park; and much, much more.

  2. Jen A says:

    I love the cover at the bottom for Despair.

  3. J M McDermott says:

    I think I read Pale Fire far too early in my discovery of Nabokov. I loved Pale Fire.

    I read Despair right after Pale Fire, and found it not even remotely as exhilarating. Despair wasn’t as immediately rapturous or imaginative, and didn’t have the structural tricks. I felt like I was reading a long piece by Kafka. Which is fine, but wasn’t what I had loved about Pale Fire. I wandered off to other books afterwards, and never did make it around to Lolita.

    What order do you recommend reading the works of Nabokov?

  4. Jeff VanderMeer says:

    There’s a definite difference in tone between his earlier, Russian, novels and his later novels in which he wrote in English. If you go into his Russian-era (read: written in France/Germany) novels expecting the same kinds of things that Pale Fire and Lolita do, then it may indeed seem like a disappointment.

    That said, Despair isn’t one of my favorites of his. My top 10 Nabokov novels would be:

    1 – Pale Fire
    2 – Lolita
    3 – Pnin
    4 – The Gift
    5 – Bend Sinister
    6 – Ada
    7 – Laughter in the Dark
    8 – Invitation to a Beheading
    9 – The Defense
    10 – The Real Life of Sebastian the Knight

    I actually suggest starting with The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov. It’s set out in chronological order, which makes it doubly useful as an introduction and to writers reading Nabokov to learn from him. Seeing his progression, the changes in his short fiction, is not only instructional but fascinating from a pure reader’s point of view. It also, I think, then better prepares readers for the variation in the novels.

    But I also have to say that even in the least of Nabokov’s novels, I always find something useful from a writer’s point of view.

    Also highly recommended is his translation of Eugene Onegin, which I think is more lyrical than some suggest. His Lectures on Literature also should be required reading.

    JV

  5. Jeff VanderMeer says:

    John: That is a great description!
    JV

  6. GlenH says:

    I suppose this is an obvious question but as someone not at all familiar with Nabokov I have to ask: Did “Invitation to a Beheading” inspire the invitation Lake gets in “The Transformation of Martin Lake”? If so is it just the invitation or did the novel influence larger parts of the story?

  7. Jeff VanderMeer says:

    It’s just the invitation, Glen, in this case. Although knowing Nabokov’s novel gives you a kind of “in” to “Transformation”.

  8. Terry Weyna says:

    I always feel so strange when I read Lolita — thrilled with the words, in awe of the writing, yet at the same time feeling as if I need to take a shower to recover from the disgust I feel with Humbert Humbert. It’s such a mixed feeling of revulsion and delight, and I don’t think any author has ever been able to create the same sense in me. What a book!

  9. DMITRI NABOKOV says:

    DEAR MR. VANDERMEER,

    DID YOU GENERATE THIS UTTER NONSENSE (ABOUT THE LAURA DRAFT AND MY FRIEND MARTIN AMIS) IN SOME MALIGNANT NIGHTMARE, OR WERE YOU SIMPLY (AND UNGRAMMATICALLY) TRYING TO BE FUNNY? OTHERWISE, LET’S HAVE SOME SUBSTANTIATION, PLEASE.

    DMITRI NABOKOV

  10. Jeff VanderMeer says:

    DEAR MR. DMITRI NABOKOV:

    THANKS FOR YOUR COMMENT RE UTTER NONSENSE. HAD YOU FOLLOWED THE LINK ABOVE TO THE SF SITE “FAKE” BOOKS PIECE YOU WOULD HAVE SEEN THAT IT WAS, IN FACT, A JOKE. THE MALIGNANCY OF THE JOKE IS, HOWEVER, ONLY IN YOUR MIND. WHETHER THE JOKE WAS FUNNY BEFORE OR NOT, IT IS MUCH FUNNIER NOW. I MUST NOW, HOWEVER, INSIST ON SUBSTANTIATION REGARDING YOUR IDENTITY.

    JEFF VANDERMEER

  11. Ian Sales says:

    Impressive Nabokov collection. For me, it’s Lawrence Durrell, although my collection is by no means complete. I do have his first novel, Pied Piper of Lovers, though…

  12. Jeff VanderMeer says:

    Ian:

    Really wouldn’t mind seeing photos of that! I’ve encountered some nice Durrell editions over the years.

    Jeff

  13. Rick Klaw says:

    Jeff,

    I’m always amazed how clean and organized your shelves are. Everything is in order with no appearance of dust.

  14. Jeff VanderMeer says:

    I’m sure Ann will have something zingy to say about that!

  15. Ian Sales says:

    Jeff,

    I’ll try and get some photos of my Durrell books (by and about) up on my blog.

  16. Ian Sales says:

    As promised: http://justhastobeplausible.blogspot.com/2008/04/lawrence-durrell-and-my-bookshelves.html

  17. Stan Kelly-Bootle says:

    I found your Laura/Martin Amis joke highly risible, especially your invented book cover. I think you found Dmitri on an ‘off’ UPPER-CASE day, not surprising in view of current turmoils & the glut of offensive falsehoods over TOOL publication.

    skb

  18. Jeff VanderMeer says:

    Sure–I can understand that. I don’t in any way hold it against him. I love Nabokov’s work and am eagerly awaiting publication of TOOL.

    JV

  19. yael says:

    You said you don’t read Russian, so I don’t know if you are aware, but your translation of Alice in Wonderland is in pre-revolutionary Russian script…it looks like a great edition. It is a wonderful translation, as you can imagine, and is in its way as enchanting and clever as the original, but properly Russified. The title translates literally as “Anya in the Land of Miracles”. I guess ‘miracles’ can also be read as ‘wonders’, but it has a magical feel to it.

    Your Martin Amis joke made me double-take…

  20. Robert says:

    Jeff,

    Years ago I swear I read two articles like the McSweeney’s piece about the Nabokov covers. I say two because I could swear one of them made reference to how one particularly odd cover was actually a photo or painting of Barbarella. Does this sound familiar to you at all? (I sometimes wonder if maybe I just dreamt that detail and then unconsciously folded it in my mind into my actual memory of reading it; this has happened a few times with movies I’ve re-watched that I could swear had a certain shot or line, etc.)

    Great post.

    Robert

  21. Anthony says:

    I’m beginning to explore Nabokov in more depth. I’ve read the wonderful Speak, Memory and Lolita. I plan to read the Collected Stories next. Do you think there is a good order to read the novels in? I understand that Pale Fire is better grasped after Lolita. Any suggestions?

  22. Lawrence Durrell and My Bookshelves « It Doesn't Have To Be Right… says:

    [...] Posted on April 29, 2008 by iansales In response to a request by Jeff Vandermeer on his blog here, below are the books by, and about, Lawrence Durrell which I currently own. And yes, that is a copy [...]

  23. C Mappa says:

    And have you read Ada yet you masturbatory fool

  24. C Mappa says:

    To John
    read Ada, duh!

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