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Posts Tagged ‘Vladimir Nabokov’

08 MAY, 2015

The Encounter: How Young Vladimir Nabokov Met the Love of His Life and Won Her Over with a Poem

By:

“Longing, and mystery, and delight…”

On May 8, 1923, a young woman appeared before a young man — an emerging poet — at an émigré charity ball in Berlin. Wearing a black Harlequin demi-mask she refused to lower, she proceeded to produce a verse from one of his poems, which she had clipped from the Russian liberal daily Rul’ some months earlier and committed to memory.

He was instantly besotted.

The woman was 21-year-old Véra Slonim and the man 24-year-old Vladimir Nabokov, and with this Shakespearean encounter began one of history’s greatest romances.

Nabokov had just emerged from the heartbreak of his first great love and was still raw with grief over his father’s death. The encounter with Véra sliced through the thick of this darkness with a luminous beam of possibility — for love, for happiness, for vibrant aliveness. So taken was the young writer with the glimpse of this possibility that he immortalized that fateful moment in a beautiful poem titled “The Encounter,” included in the altogether enchanting Letters to Véra (public library) — one of the best biographies of 2014, which gave us Nabokov’s affectionate bestiary of nicknames for Véra, his clever puzzles and word games for her, and literature’s most entertaining account of food poisoning.

Nabokov mailed the poem to Rul,’ where it was published on June 24. Catalyzing their lifetime of passionate love letters was this most exquisite private serenade performed behind the demi-mask of a public text, translated here by Olga Voronina.

THE ENCOUNTER
enchanted by this strange proximity

Longing, and mystery, and delight…
as if from the swaying blackness
of some slow-motion masquerade
onto the dim bridge you came.

And night flowed, and silent there floated
into its satin streams
that black mask’s wolf-like profile
and those tender lips of yours.

And under the chestnuts, along the canal
you passed, luring me askance.
What did my heart discern in you,
how did you move me so?

In your momentary tenderness,
or in the changing contour of your shoulders,
did I experience a dim sketch
of other — irrevocable — encounters?

Perhaps romantic pity
led you to understand
what had set trembling that arrow
now piercing through my verse?

I know nothing. Strangely
the verse vibrates, and in it, an arrow…
Perhaps you, still nameless, were
the genuine, the awaited one?

But sorrow not yet quite cried out
perturbed our starry hour.
Into the night returned the double fissure
of your eyes, eyes not yet illumed.

For long? For ever? Far off
I wander, and strain to hear
the movement of the stars above our encounter
and what if you are to be my fate…

Longing, and mystery, and delight,
and like a distant supplication….
My heart must travel on.
But if you are to be my fate…

His fate she did become — they were married twenty months later and remained together for half a century, until death did them part. So complete was their union that Véra became Vladimir’s de facto editor, assistant, administrator, agent, archivist, chauffeur, researcher, stenographer in four languages, and even his bodyguard, famously carrying a small pistol in her purse to protect her husband from assassination after he became America’s most famous and most scandalous living author.

Véra and Vladimir Nabokov, Montreaux, 1968 (Photograph: Philippe Halsman)

Letters to Véra is a breathtakingly beautiful in its totality. Complement it with other exhilarating first encounters that sparked some of creative culture’s greatest loves: Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, and Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

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16 APRIL, 2015

A Questionnaire for the Immodest and Curious: Clever Puzzles, Riddles, and Word Games from Nabokov’s Love Letters to His Wife

By:

“Kisses, my love, from your eyebrows down to your knees and back.”

Despite his enormous intellectual and creative achievements, Vladimir Nabokov (April 22, 1899–July 2, 1977) considered one private event the most significant of his life: meeting 21-year-old Véra Slonim in 1923. For the remaining half-century of his life, she became not only his beloved wife but also one of creative history’s greatest unsung heroes, acting as Nabokov’s editor, assistant, administrator, agent, archivist, chauffeur, researcher, stenographer in four languages, and even his bodyguard, famously carrying a small pistol in her purse to protect her husband from assassination after he became America’s most famous and most scandalous living author.

Found in Letters to Véra (public library) — that spectacular collection of Nabokov’s passionate love letters to his wife, which also gave us literature’s most entertaining account of food poisoning and was among the best biographies of 2014 — are a number of riddles, quizzes, and word puzzles the young author devised and included in his missives to Véra in the summer of 1926 as she was recovering from illness at a sanatorium in Germany. Their existence is a testament to the many dimensions of great love — intense passion coupled with creative communion, intellectual stimulation, and a shared capacity for delight.

Véra and Vladimir Nabokov, Montreaux, 1968 (Photograph: Philippe Halsman)

Since the couple corresponded in Russian, most of the word riddles and crossword puzzles are hard to appreciate in English and require transliteration to grasp Nabokov’s almost mathematical genius of language. But in a letter from mid-July of that year — which he ends with his characteristic epistolary fervor: “Kisses, my love, from your eyebrows down to your knees and back.” — 27-year-old Nabokov includes this universally delightful hand-drawn visual riddle:

You must find in this person:

  1. another face
  2. a mouse
  3. a bunny
  4. a chick
  5. a pony
  6. Mrs. Tufty in a new hat
  7. a little monkey

In another letter from early July, he offers the following list of words for a riddle:

Riddle in transliteration:

Lomota, igumen, tetka, Kolya, Maron, versifikator, Leta, chugun, tropinka, landysh, Ipokrena

Riddle in English:

Aching, abbot, aunt, Kolya, Maro, versifier, Lethe, cast iron, little path, lily of the valley, Hippokrene

He then gives the following instruction:

Make ten new words out of the syllables of the words above, with these meanings:

  1. A place where science meets ignorance
  2. an engine
  3. a city in Russia
  4. a historic personage
  5. a good woman
  6. a part of a cart
  7. beatitude of the diaphragm
  8. the first architect (see the Bible)
  9. a lazybones
  10. a woman’s name

In a testament to what a perfect intellectual match Véra Nabokov was for her brilliant husband, Penguin editor Gennady Barbtarlo writes:

With few exceptions, Véra Nabokov seems to have solved them all by return post.

But what posed little trouble for [her] in 1926, who likely had no reference books to consult, proved quite a challenge to his beGoogled editors next century. it took putting together three heads to crack these puzzles, with some solutions remaining questionable.

Barbtarlo and his team offer the following solution to the riddle:

Answers in transliteration:

  1. universitet
  2. motor
  3. Kremenchug
  4. Napoleon
  5. matrona
  6. dyshlo
  7. ikota
  8. Kain
  9. gulyaka
  10. Filomena

Answers in English

  1. university
  2. motor
  3. Kremenchug
  4. Napoleon
  5. Matron
  6. pole [of a carriage]
  7. hiccups
  8. Cain
  9. idler
  10. Philomena

Young Vladimir and Véra Nabokov by Thomas Doyle from 'The Who, the What, and the When: 65 Artists Illustrate the Secret Sidekicks of History.' Click image for more.

But the most delightful of all is a “questionnaire for the immodest and curious” Nabokov sent in a letter from mid-July — a kind of personality test partway between the famous Proust Questionnaire of the late 19th century and the chain-email quizzes of the early 21st century:

A questionnaire for the immodest and curious
(not obligatory for anyone)

  1. Name, patronymic, last name
  2. Pen-name, or a preferred pen-name
  3. Age and preferred age
  4. Attitude to marriage
  5. Attitude to children
  6. Profession and preferred profession
  7. What century would you like to live in?
  8. What city would you like to live in?
  9. From what age do you remember yourself and your first memory?
  10. Which of the existing religions is closest to your world-view?
  11. What kind of literature do you like the most? What literary genre?
  12. Your favorite books
  13. Your favorite art
  14. Your favorite artwork
  15. Your attitude to technology
  16. Do you appreciate philosophy? As a form of scholarship, as a pastime
  17. Do you believe in progress?
  18. Your favorite aphorism
  19. Your favorite language
  20. On what foundations does the world stand?
  21. What miracle would you perform if you had a chance?
  22. What would you do if you suddenly got a lot of money?
  23. Your attitude to modern woman
  24. Your attitude to modern man
  25. What virtue and vice do you prefer and disapprove of in a woman?
  26. What virtue and vice do you prefer and disapprove of in a man?
  27. What gives you the keenest pleasure?
  28. What gives you the keenest suffering?
  29. Are you a jealous person?
  30. Your attitude to lies
  31. Do you believe in love?
  32. Your attitude to drugs
  33. Your most memorable dream
  34. Do you believe in fate and predestination?
  35. Your next reincarnation?
  36. Are you afraid of death?
  37. Would you like man to become immortal?
  38. Your attitude to suicide:
  39. Are you an anti-Semite? Yes. No. Why?
  40. “Do you like cheese”?
  41. Your favorite mode of transportation
  42. Your attitude to solitude
  43. Your attitude to our circle
  44. Think of a name for it
  45. Favorite menu

That Véra’s response is not included in the otherwise delicious Letters to Véra is a pity but understandable — some of the non-binary questions, like those about attitude to suicide, solitude, marriage, and immortality, would take any sensitive and intelligent person thousands of words and many hours to answer with the appropriate nuance. Still, one can’t help fantasizing about both Véra’s answers and the prospect of deploying this questionnaire on some of the most fascinating minds of our time.

Complement with Nabokov’s affectionate bestiary of nicknames for Véra, then revisit the celebrated author on inspiration, censorship and solidarity, what makes a great storyteller, the attributes of a good reader, and the story of what his butterfly studies reveal about the nature of creativity.

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19 JANUARY, 2015

The Paradox of Intellectual Promiscuity: Stephen Jay Gould on What Nabokov’s Butterfly Studies Reveal About the Unity of Creativity

By:

“There is no science without fancy, and no art without facts.”

The history of human culture is rife with creators hailed as geniuses in one domain who also had a notable but lesser-known talent in another — take, for instance, Richard Feynman’s sketches, J.R.R. Tolkien’s illustrations, Sylvia Plath’s drawings, William Faulkner’s Jazz Age illustrations, Flannery O’Connor’s cartoons, David Lynch’s conceptual art, and Zelda Fitzgerald’s watercolors. Only rarely, however, do we encounter a person who has contributed to culture in a significant way in both art and science.

No one, argues Stephen Jay Gould — perhaps the greatest science-storyteller humanity has ever had, a man of uncommon genius in the art of dot-connecting — better merits recognition for such duality of genius than Vladimir Nabokov, a titan of literary storytelling and a formidable lepidopterist who studied, classified, and drew a major group of butterflies, and even served as unofficial curator of lepidoptery at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology.

In a spectacular essay titled “The Paradox of Intellectual Promiscuity,” found in his altogether indispensable final essay collection I Have Landed: The End of a Beginning in Natural History (public library), Gould uses Nabokov’s case to make a beautiful and urgently necessary broader case against our culture’s chronic tendency to pit art and science against one another — “We have been befogged by a set of stereotypes about conflict and difference between these two great domains of human understanding,” he laments — and to assume that if a person has talent and passion for both areas, he or she can achieve greatness in only one and is necessarily a mere hobbyist in the other.

Gould writes:

We tend toward benign toleration when great thinkers and artists pursue disparate activities as a harmless hobby, robbing little time from their fundamental achievements… We grieve when we sense that a subsidiary interest stole precious items from a primary enterprise of great value… When we recognize that a secondary passion took substantial time from a primary source of fame, we try to assuage our grief over lost novels, symphonies, or discoveries by convincing ourselves that a hero’s subsidiary love must have informed or enriched his primary activity — in other words, that the loss in quantity might be recompensed by a gain in quality.

Nabokov's drawing of 'Eugenia onegini,' named for Aleksandr Pushkin's novel in verse, Eugene Onegin, which Nabokov translated. The illustration appeared on the endpaper of 'Conclusive Evidence,' Nabokov's autobiography.

But Gould argues that neither lamentation of such “intellectual promiscuity” detracting from the primary endeavor nor the manufactured comfort of believing that one domain enriched the other is an appropriate response to Nabokov’s two great loves, literature and butterflies. Gould unambiguously annihilates a common misconception about the great author:

Nabokov was no amateur (in the pejorative sense of the term), but a fully qualified, clearly talented, duly employed professional taxonomist, with recognized “world class” expertise in the biology and classification of a major group, the Latin American Polyommatini, popularly known to butterfly aficionados as “blues.”

No passion burned longer, or more deeply, in Nabokov’s life than his love for the natural history and taxonomy of butterflies. He began in early childhood, encouraged by a traditional interest in natural history among the upper-class intelligentsia of Russia (not to mention the attendant economic advantages of time, resources, and opportunity).

[…]

The reasons often given for attributing to Nabokov either an amateur, or even only a dilettante’s, status arise from simple ignorance of accepted definitions for professionalism in this field.

[…]

Nabokov loved his butterflies as much as his literature. He worked for years as a fully professional taxonomist, publishing more than a dozen papers that have stood the test of substantial time.

That he received an annual salary of merely a thousand dollars during his six years at Harvard’s zoology museum and worked under the vague title Research Fellow shouldn’t be used as evidence of Nabokov’s amateurishness — in making a larger point about the rich history of people working on what they love for little or no pay, Gould points out that several esteemed curators at the museum during his own tenure worked as volunteers for the symbolic annual salary of one dollar. In one of his many spectacular, almost outraged asides — Gould’s signature intelligent zingers — he drives home the point that there is little correlation between merit and prestige:

Every field includes some clunkers and nitwits, even in high positions!

Returning to the two camps of explaining Nabokov’s dual giftedness — and parallel talents in general — Gould writes:

In seeking some explanation for legitimate grief, we may find solace in claiming that Nabokov’s transcendent genius permitted him to make as uniquely innovative and distinctive a contribution to lepidoptery as to literature. However much we may wish that he had chosen a different distribution for his time, we can at least, with appropriate generosity, grant his equal impact and benefit upon natural history… However, no natural historian has ever viewed Nabokov as an innovator, or as an inhabitant of what humanists call the “vanguard” (not to mention the avant-garde) and scientists the “cutting edge.” Nabokov may have been a major general of literature, but he can only be ranked as a trustworthy, highly trained career infantryman in natural history.

Even Nabokov’s butterfly drawings, Gould points out, were great but far from masterworks of natural history illustration, especially in comparison to the work of such visionaries as butterfly-drawing grand dame Maria Merian.

One of Maria Merian's pioneering butterfly drawings. Click image for more.

Here, we are reminded of another perilous pathology of our culture — in the cult of genius, as in any cult, we leave no room for nuance; mere greatness is not good enough — one must lay a claim on grandeur. This is perhaps the most extreme testament to how perfectionism thwarts creativity.

But despite his mere greatness at lepidoptery, Nabokov regarded his time at the zoology museum as the most “delightful and thrilling” in his adult life — so creatively electrified was the author there that his years at Harvard even produced history’s most epic and entertaining account of food poisoning. But his love of butterflies began much earlier. In fact, one of the very first things Nabokov wrote in English, at the age of twelve, was a paper on Lepidoptera. The only reason it wasn’t published was that it turned out the butterfly in question had already been described by someone else.

This remark, which Gould makes rather in passing, made me wonder whether the incident instilled in young Vladimir an early reverence for attribution of discovery. As Gould later notes in another passing mention, Nabokov frequently voiced annoyance with scientists and science-writers not attributing discovery — not acknowledging the person who discovered and named a butterfly species. Therein lies a broader, and rather timely, lament about our culture’s failure to honor discovery as a creative act and a subset of scholarship — such a scientist, after all, doesn’t invent a species, for it already exists in nature, but discovers it, names it, and contextualizes it in the canon of natural history. It is no coincidence that Nabokov’s own role at the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology was that of curator, for this is the task of the curator — to describe, arrange, and contextualize what already exists in such a way as to shed new light on its meaning, to discover and un-cover its significance and place in the canon of ideas.

Embedded in this act is also a lineage of discovery, similar to the “links in a chain” metaphor Pete Seeger used for creativity: I learned of Nabokov’s pet peeve about discovery thanks to Stephen Jay Gould — perhaps the greatest curator of scientific ideas the world has ever known, the greatest contextualizer of such ideas in the popular imagination — and you learned of it via me, and the person you tell about this will learn of it via you. All of us are links in the evolutionary chain of ideas, much like each butterfly species discovered is a link in the evolutionary chain of natural history. This is why Richard Dawkins, in coining the word meme, used a metaphor from evolutionary biology to describe how ideas spread: “Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain.”

But back to Nabokov: His dedication to the integrity of discovery prompted him to write a short poem titled “A Discovery” in 1943:

Dark pictures, thrones, the stones that pilgrims kiss
Poems that take a thousand years to die
But ape the immortality of this
Red label on a little butterfly.

It might also be why he was so passionate about the integrity of detail. In a motto that calls to mind Susan Sontag’s memorable assertion that “a writer is a professional observer,” Nabokov instructed his literature students:

Caress the details, the divine details. In high art and pure science, detail is everything.

Butterfly drawing by Nabokov, August 1958 (Courtesy of Nabokov Museum)

In this, Gould finds the reconciliatory unity between Nabokov’s two great loves and how they communed with one another:

Although time spent on lepidoptery almost surely decreased his literary output, the specific knowledge and the philosophical view of life that Nabokov gained from his scientific career directly forged (or at least strongly contributed to) his unique literary style and excellence… Perhaps the major linkage of science and literature lies in some distinctive, underlying approach that Nabokov applied equally to both domains — a procedure that conferred the same special features upon all his efforts.

[…]

Among great twentieth-century thinkers, I know no better case than Nabokov’s for testing the hypothesis that an underlying unity of mental style (at a level clearly meriting the accolade of genius) can explain one man’s success in extensive and fully professional work in two disciplines conventionally viewed as maximally different, if not truly opposed. If we can validate this model for attributing interdisciplinary success to a coordinating and underlying mental uniqueness, rather than invoking the conventional argument about overt influence of one field upon another, then Nabokov’s story may teach us something important about the unity of creativity, and the falsity (or at least the contingency) of our traditional separation, usually in mutual recrimination, of art from science.

Therein, Gould argues, lies the only true solace in the accusation of “intellectual promiscuity.” Debunking the two false explanations of the Nabokov paradox — that “lepidoptery represented a harmless private passion, robbing no substantial time from his literary output” and that “his general genius at least made his lepidoptery as distinctive and as worthy as his literature” — Gould writes:

Nabokov’s two apparently disparate careers therefore find their common ground on the most distinctive feature of his unusual intellect and uncanny skill — the almost obsessive attention to meticulous and accurate detail that served both his literary productions and his taxonomic descriptions so well, and that defined his uncompromising commitment to factuality as both a principle of morality and a guarantor and primary guide to aesthetic quality.

Science and literature therefore gain their union on the most palpable territory of concrete things, and on the value we attribute to accuracy, even in smallest details, as a guide and an anchor for our lives, our loves, and our senses of worth… Of all scientific subfields, none raises the importance of intricate detail to such a plateau of importance as Nabokov’s chosen profession of taxonomic description for small and complex organisms. To function as a competent professional in the systematics of Lepidoptera, Nabokov really had no choice but to embrace such attention to detail, and to develop such respect for nature’s endless variety.

[…]

The universal and defining excellence of a professional taxonomist built a substrate for the uncommon, and (in Nabokov’s case) transcendent, excellence of a writer.

Young Vladimir and Véra Nabokov by Thomas Doyle from 'The Who, the What, and the When: 65 Artists Illustrate the Secret Sidekicks of History.' Click image for more.

But Gould’s most important point of all has little to do with Nabokov and everything to do with the toxic mythologies of creativity to which we, as a culture and as individuals, subscribe:

An ancient, and basically anti-intellectual, current in the creative arts has now begun to flow more strongly than ever before in recent memory-the tempting Siren song of a claim that the spirit of human creativity stands in direct opposition to the rigor in education and observation that breeds both our love for factual detail and our gain of sufficient knowledge and understanding to utilize this record of human achievement and natural wonder.

No more harmful nonsense exists than this common supposition that deepest insight into great questions about the meaning of life or the structure of reality emerges most readily when a free, undisciplined, and uncluttered (read, rather, ignorant and uneducated) mind soars above mere earthly knowledge and concern. The primary reason for emphasizing the supreme aesthetic and moral value of detailed factual accuracy, as Nabokov understood so well, lies in our need to combat this alluring brand of philistinism if we wish to maintain artistic excellence as both a craft and an inspiration.

[…]

If we assign too much of our total allotment to the mastery of detail, we will have nothing left for general theory and integrative wonder. But such a silly model of mental functioning can only arise from a false metaphorical comparison of human creativity with irrelevant systems based on fixed and filled containers — pennies in a piggy bank or cookies in a jar.

Gould ends by exhorting us:

Let us celebrate Nabokov’s excellence in natural history, and let us also rejoice that he could use the same mental skills and inclinations to follow another form of bliss.

[…]

Human creativity seems to work much as a coordinated and complex piece, whatever the different emphases demanded by disparate subjects-and we will miss the underlying commonality if we only stress the distinctions of external subjects and ignore the unities of internal procedure. If we do not recognize the common concerns and characteristics of all creative human activity, we will fail to grasp several important aspects of intellectual excellence-including the necessary interplay of imagination and observation (theory and empirics) as an intellectual theme, and the confluence of beauty and factuality as a psychological theme-because one field or the other traditionally downplays one side of a requisite duality.

[…]

I cannot imagine a better test case for extracting the universals of human creativity than the study of deep similarities in intellectual procedure between the arts and sciences.

No one grasped the extent of this underlying unity better than Vladimir Nabokov, who worked with different excellences as a complete professional in both domains.

[…]

Nabokov broke the boundaries of art and science by stating that the most precious desideratum of each domain must also characterize any excellence in the other — for, after all, truth is beauty, and beauty truth.

Gould seals this beautiful truth with a line — an exquisite, ennobling, oft-cited line — from one of Nabokov’s interviews:

There is no science without fancy, and no art without facts.

I Have Landed remains one of the finest tapestries of thought ever woven in the history of science storytelling. Complement this particular thread with Nabokov on inspiration, censorship and solidarity, what makes a great writer, what makes a great reader, and his sublime love letters to his wife.

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08 JANUARY, 2015

Nabokov Gets Food Poisoning and Flees from the Hospital via Fire Escape: History’s Most Entertaining Account of “Homeric Retching”

By:

“I returned to my microscope around two. Exactly at 2:30, I suddenly felt an urge to vomit, had barely time to run outside — and there it began.”

Some weeks ago, I found myself wholly incapacitated by my very first experience of food poisoning — a fact heartening in the abstract awareness that I had gone this many decades without enduring such an incapacitating episode, but utterly exasperating in its immediate bodily concreteness. Apart from the obvious gastrointestinal peril one imagines — but always imagines insufficiently in the face of the reality — I also found myself blindsided by the complete mental incapacitation resulting from the extreme physical weakness, as if the gut had somehow colluded with the brain in staunchly defying command and seceding from the rest of the being. Since writing was out of the question — an act that requires, above all, full access to one’s own brain and the seamless firing of the associative chains therein — I decided to distract myself with some light reading from a heavy book resting atop my bedside pile, which happened to be Letters to Véra (public library) — the same volume that gave us Nabokov’s exquisite love letters to his wife and was among the best memoirs, biographies, and history books of 2014. Imagine my utter shock — so much so that I at first considered it a poisoning-induced hallucination — when I split the hefty tome in about half, opening to a random page, on which began Nabokov’s wildly entertaining account of his first food poisoning.

In the late spring of 1944, while serving as a curator of lepidoptery at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology, the beloved author endured his own gastrointestinal nightmare thanks to a lunch of questionable ham at the German eatery Wursthaus — an iconic fixture of Harvard Square between 1917 and 1996. Two years earlier, the restaurant had been bought by Frank N. Cardullo, “the unofficial Mayor of Cambridge,” who turned it into a $3-million-a-year enterprise by the 1980s, only to see the health-conscious 1990s spell its demise. But in Nabokov’s day, that decadent German ham turned out to be unhealthy for far more immediately distressing reasons, which the author came to recount in wildly amusing detail in a letter to his wife — culminating with his flamboyant vamoose from the hospital via the fire-escape, in pajamas.

On June 6, 1944, Nabokov writes to Véra from Cambridge, addressing her by one of his many terms of endearment:

My dear darling,

Yesterday was a day of extraordinary adventures. It started when, in the morning, the minute I was getting ready to go to the museum (with a tennis racket, since I’d arranged to play with Clark at 4:30), T.N. [Nabokov’s friend Tatyana Nikolaevna Karpovich] called, very agitated — she’d driven the sick M. Mikh. [Mikhail Mikhaylovich Karpovich, Tatyana’s husband] down from Vermont, and meanwhile the Dobuzhinskys [the painter Mstislav Dobuzhnisky and his wife] had arrived and couldn’t get into their house, since no one was at home… I agreed with her that after tennis I would drop in to check on M. Mikh., and left for the museum. Around one in the afternoon, still just as healthy and energetic, I had lunch at the Wursthaus, where I had the Virginia ham with spinach and drank a coffee. I returned to my microscope around two. Exactly at 2:30, I suddenly felt an urge to vomit, had barely time to run outside — and there it began: an absolutely Homeric retching, bloody diarrhoea, spasms, weakness. I don’t know how I got back home, where I crawled along the floor and poured myself out in the waste basket.

The iconic Wursthaus restaurant (Cambridge Historical Society)

But it only goes downhill from there — Nabokov’s private pain becomes a public farce as he turns to the healthcare system for help:

Somehow or other I found the strength to call T.N., who summoned an ambulance, which took me to the truly horrendous hospital where you’d been with Mityushen’ka [the Nabokovs’ son Dmitry]. An absolutely helpless brunette tried to pump my stomach through my nose — I’d rather not recall that — in a word, I asked, writing from the spasms and retching, for them to take me quickly somewhere else. T.N., realizing that the doctor was there, drove me to their place. By then I was in a state of complete collapse. This doctor, very sweet (I don’t remember his name), immediately made all the arrangements himself and himself drove, and carried, me to the hospital where you’d been. There they placed me in a ward with a terribly and raucously dying old man — and because of the groans I couldn’t get to sleep. They poured a bottle of salt solution into my veins — and today, although the diarrhoea’s still carrying on this morning, I feel great, am awfully hungry — and want to smoke — but they’re giving me only water. I’m being looked after by a Dr. Cooney.

He has just been here, the diarrhoea has stopped, he said I can be discharged the day after tomorrow, on Friday. They have just given me food for the first time (5:30) — and rather strange, at that (but you know this): risotto, bacon, canned pears. I didn’t eat the bacon… A silly story, but all in all I am absolutely healthy now. I won’t mention the living conditions here. Clean, but terribly noisy. I have been transferred to a public ward. Enfin. I dined in a very pleasant open gallery where they rolled me out and where I smoked my first cigarette.

The doctor says it was bloody colitis caused by food poisoning… In short, the bacilli had taken me for the invasion beach.

Before ending the letter with his usual expressions of adoration, Nabokov instructs Véra with affectionate firmness, even underlining his directive:

Don’t come here under any circumstances: I’ve recovered.

Three days later, while still in the hospital, he writes to Véra again:

I feel unbearably bored without you and my little one. These few days have completely exhausted me physically, but in terms of i n s p i r a t i o n everything is going very well. Today’s the first time my stomach has really worked properly, and if it weren’t for the weakness in my loins, I’d feel excellent.

Ever the wry humorist in these private letters, he offers a florid — if somewhat uncompassionate — taxonomy of auditory discomforts:

The public ward was utter bedlam. There was an endless unruly din consisting of the following elements:

  1. the zoological sounds of an incessant radio set
  2. the wheezes, groans, and roaring of the seriously ill
  3. conversations across the whole enormous ward by the healthier, with guffawing and strolling around
  4. the incredible noise produced by a sixteen-year-old idiot helping the nurses, the institutional fool. He grimaced, stomped, howled, deliberately banged every dish, cracked jokes — and imitated the moans of some of the old men who were in particular anguish, thereby arousing general goodhearted laughter

The nurses constantly tried to pull open the curtains of my coop and got angry saying that since all the other curtains were pulled, my poor tabernacle was spoiling the general look of the ward.

Eventually, Nabokov can’t take any more of this institutional charade. He relays his picturesque escape via dramatic acrobatics:

By the end of my stay I was in such a state of exasperation that when on Saturday morning I saw from the gallery (where I had gone out for a smoke) T.N., who’d come for me, I jumped out through the fire-escape and I was, in pyjamas and a dressing-gown, rushed to the car — and we were already moving off, when the absolutely enraged nurses ran out — but they couldn’t stop me.

As if the deliberate comedy of his account weren’t enough, he adds a mischievous marital jab at the end:

I love you very much. I must confess there was a minute when I was lying there with no pulse thinking some rather funny thoughts. I wish you had seen the burly policemen summoned to Cragie by T.N. and wanting to know “who is this woman?” and “what poison did you take?” When do you get back? I adore you.

Exactly a week after ingesting the unfortunate ham, Nabokov drops a matter-of-factly lamentation in an aside in another letter:

I did stop by at the Wursthaus yesterday, and although I didn’t intend to say to them anything offensive or damaging, a row erupted from the first words, thanks to the owner’s rudeness, since, apparently, this was not the first complaint about his wretched ham.

The Wursthaus in the 1950s (Cambridge Historical Society)

But this was far from the end of Nabokov’s hospital misadventures and only the beginning of his understandable mistrust of the healthcare system. In a 2003 email archived by the University of California Santa Barbara, Dmitry Nabokov recounts his father’s escalating medical misfortunes, strung together by a common thread of the tragicomic:

In the forties, while my mother and I were visiting a relative in New York and my father was busy with students in Wellesley and butterflies in Cambridge, he collapsed with acute food poisoning after a meal at a Cambridge restaurant called the Wursthaus. He was hospitalized, and then shown a routine chest Xray that revealed a dark mass in one lung. He was told it was cancer. He stopped smoking cold turkey, started eating molasses candy as a surrogate, and gained some 30 pounds. It turned out later that the Xray had not been his at all.

Letters to Véra is a treasure trove in its entirety. Complement it with Nabokov on inspiration, censorship and solidarity, what makes a great storyteller, and the attributes of a good reader.

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