Starting Out

Photo by Wynn Bullock: Child on Forest Road (1958)

On the bright wall above the narrow crib, with its lateral meshes of white cord and the small icon at its head (lacquered saint’s brown face framed in foil, crimson underside plush somewhat eaten by moths or by Martin himself), hung a watercolor depicting a dense forest with a winding path disappearing into its depths. Now in one of the English books that his mother used to read to him (how slowly and mysteriously she would pronounce the words and how wide she would open her eyes when she reached the end of a page, covering it with her small, lightly freckled hand as she asked, “And what do you think happened next?”) there was a story about just such a picture with a path in the woods, right above the bed of a little boy, who, one fine night, just as he was, nightshirt and all, went from his bed into the picture, onto the path that disappeared into the woods. His mother, thought Martin anxiously, might notice the resemblance between the watercolor on the wall and the illustration in the book; she would then become alarmed and, according to his calculations, avert the nocturnal journey by removing the picture. Therefore every time he prayed in bed before going to sleep (first came a short prayer in English: “Gentle Jesus meek and mild, listen to a little child,” and then “Our Father” in the sibilant, and sibylline, Slavonic version), pattering rapidly and trying to get his knees up on the pillow – which his mother considered inadmissible on ascetic grounds – Martin prayed God that she would not notice that tempting path right over his head. When, as a youth, he recalled the past, he would wonder if one night he had not actually hopped from bed to picture, and if this had not been the beginning of the journey, full of joy and anguish, into which his whole life had turned. He seemed to remember the chilly touch of the ground, the green twilight of the forest, the bends of the trail (which the hump of a great root crossed here and there), the tree trunks flashing by as he ran past them barefoot, and the strange dark air, teeming with fabulous possibilities.

Vladimir Nabokov
Glory (1932)

Photo by Wynn Bullock: Child on Forest Road (1958)

The Poets

From room to hallway a candle passes
and is extinguished. Its imprint swims in one’s eyes,
until, among the blue-black branches,
a starless night its contours finds.

It is time, we are going away: still youthful,
with a list of dreams not yet dreamt,
with the last, hardly visible radiance of Russia
on the phosphorent rhymes of our last verse.

And yet we did know – didn’t we? – inspiration,
we would live, it seemed, and our books would grow,
but the kithless muses at last have destroyed us,
and it is time now for us to go.

And this not because we’re afraid of offending
with our freedom good people; simply, it’s time
for us to depart – and besides we prefer not
to see what lies hidden from other eyes;

not to see all this world’s enchantment and torment,
the casement that catches a sunbeam afar,
humble somnambulists in soldier’s uniform,
the lofty sky, the attentive clouds;

the beauty, the look of reproach; the young children
who play hide-and-seek inside and around
the latrine that revolves in the summer twilight;
the sunset’s beauty, its look of reproach;

all that weighs upon one, entwines one, wounds one;
an electric sign’s tears on the opposite bank;
through the mist the stream of its emeralds running;
all the things that already I cannot express.

In a moment we’ll pass across the world’s threshold
into a region – name it as you please:
wilderness, death, disavowal of language,
or maybe simpler: the silence of love;

the silence of a distant cartway, its furrow,
beneath the foam of flowers concealed;
my silent country (the love that is hopeless);
the silent sheet lightning, the silent seed.

Vasily Shishkov (1939)

For Vladimir Nabokov’s Birthday

Photo: Vladimir Nabokov with butterfly doodles by the author (1920s)

That Sunday morning, at half past ten,
Two cars crossed the creek and entered the glen.

In the first was Art Longwood, a local florist,
With his children and wife (now Mrs. Deforest).

In the one that followed, a ranger saw
Art’s father, stepfather and father-in-law.

The three old men walked off to the cove.
Through tinkling weeds Art slowly drove.

Fair was the morning, with bright clouds afar.
Children and comics emerged from the car.

Silent Art, who could stare at a thing all day,
Watched a bug climb a stalk and fly away.

Pauline had asthma, Paul used a crutch.
They were cute little rascals but could not run much.

“I wish,” said his mother to crippled Paul,
“Some man would teach you to pitch that ball.”

Silent Art took the ball and tossed it high.
It stuck in a tree that was passing by.

And the grave green pilgrim turned and stopped.
The children waited, but no ball dropped.

“I never climbed trees in my timid prime,”
Thought Art; and forthwith started to climb.

Now and then his elbow or knee could be seen
In a jigsaw puzzle of blue and green.

Up and up Art Longwood swarmed and shinned,
And the leaves said yes to the questioning wind.

What tiaras of gardens! What torrents of light!
How accessible ether! How easy flight!

His family circled the tree all day.
Pauline concluded: “Dad climbed away.”

None saw the delirious celestial crowds
Greet the hero from earth in the snow of the clouds.

Mrs. Longwood was getting a little concerned.
He never came down. He never returned.

She found some change at the foot of the tree.
The children grew bored. Paul was stung by a bee.

The old men walked over and stood looking up,
Each holding five cards and a paper cup.

Cars on the highway stopped, backed, and then
Up a rutted road waddled into the glen.

And the tree was suddenly full of noise,
Conventioners, fishermen, freckled boys.

Anacondas and pumas were mentioned by some,
And all kinds of humans continued to come:

Tree surgeons, detectives, the fire brigade.
An ambulance parked in the dancing shade.

A drunken rogue with a rope and a gun
Arrived on the scene to see justice done.

Explorers, dendrologists – all were there;
And a strange pale girl with gypsy hair.

And from Cape Fear to Cape Flattery
Every paper had: Man Lost in Tree.

And the sky-bound oak (where owls had perched
And the moon dripped gold) was felled and searched.

They discovered some inchworms, a red-cheeked gall,
And an ancient nest with a new-laid ball.

They varnished the stump, put up railings and signs.
Restrooms nestled in roses and vines.

Mrs. Longwood, retouched, when the children died,
Became a photographer’s dreamy bride.

And now the Deforests, with four old men,
Like regular tourists visit the glen;

Munch their lunches, look up and down,
Wash their hands, and drive back to town.

Vladimir Nabokov
The Ballad of Longwood Glen (1957)
Selected Poems

Click here to hear Nabokov read the work (4:43)

Photo: Vladimir Nabokov with butterfly doodles by the author (1920s)

On Inspiration

Painting by Norman Rockwell: The Connoisseur (1962)

Inspiration

The awakening, quickening, or creative impulse, esp. as manifested in high artistic achievement.

Webster, Second Ed., unabridged, 1957

The enthusiasm that sweeps away (entraine) poets. Also a term of physiology (insufflation): “…wolves and dogs howl only by inspiration; one can easily ascertain this by causing a little dog to howl close to one’s face (Buffon).”

Littré, éd. intégrale, 1963

The enthusiasm, concentration, and unusual manifestation of the mental faculties (umstvennyh sil).

Dal, Revised Ed., St. Petersburg, 1904

A creative upsurge. [Examples:] Inspired poet. Inspired socialistic work.

Ozhegov, Russian dictionary, Moscow, 1960

A special study, which I do not plan to conduct, would reveal, probably, that inspiration is seldom dwelt upon nowadays even by the worst reviewers of our best prose. I say “our” and I say “prose” because I am thinking of American works of fiction, including my own stuff. It would seem that this reticence is somehow linked up with a sense of decorum. Conformists suspect that to speak of “inspiration” is as tasteless and old-fashioned as to stand up for the Ivory Tower. Yet inspiration exists as do towers and tusks.

One can distinguish several types of inspiration, which intergrade, as all things do in this fluid and interesting world of ours, while yielding gracefully to a semblance of classification. A prefatory glow, not unlike some benign variety of the aura before an epileptic attack, is something the artist learns to perceive very early in life. This feeling of tickly well-being branches through him like the red and the blue in the picture of a skinned man under Circulation. As it spreads, it banishes all awareness of physical discomfort – youth’s toothache as well as the neuralgia of old age. The beauty of it is that, while completely intelligible (as if it were connected with a known gland or led to an expected climax), it has neither source nor object. It expands, glows, and subsides without revealing its secret. In the meantime, however, a window has opened, an auroral wind has blown, every exposed nerve has tingled. Presently all dissolves: the familiar worries are back and the eyebrow redescribes its arc of pain; but the artist knows he is ready.

A few days elapse. The next stage of inspiration is something ardently anticipated – and no longer anonymous. The shape of the new impact is indeed so definite that I am forced to relinquish metaphors and resort to specific terms. The narrator forefeels what he is going to tell. The forefeeling can be defined as an instant vision turning into rapid speech. If some instrument were to render this rare and delightful phenomenon, the image would come as a shimmer of exact details, and the verbal part as a tumble of merging words. The experienced writer immediately takes it down and, in the process of doing so, transforms what is little more than a running blur into gradually dawning sense, with epithets and sentence construction growing as clear and trim as they would be on the printed page:

Sea crashing, retreating with shuffle of pebbles, Juan and beloved young whore – is her name, as they say, Adora? is she Italian, Roumanian, Irish? – asleep in his lap, his opera cloak pulled over her, candle messily burning in its tin cup, next to it a paper-wrapped bunch of long roses, his silk hat on the stone floor near a patch of moonlight, all this in a corner of a decrepit, once palatial whorehouse, Villa Venus, on a rocky Mediterranean coast, a door standing ajar gives on what seems to be a moonlit gallery but is really a half-demolished reception room with a broken outer wall, through a great rip in it the naked sea is heard as a panting space separated from time, it dully booms, dully withdraws dragging its platter of wet pebbles.

This I jotted down one morning at the very end of 1965, a couple of months before the novel began to flow. What I give above is its first throb, the strange nucleus of the book that was to grow around it in the course of the next three years. Much of that growth obviously differs in coloration and lighting from the foreglimpsed scene, whose structural centrality, however, is emphasized, with a kind of pleasing neatness, by the fact that it now exists as an inset scene right in the middle of the novel (which was entitled at first Villa Venus, then The Veens, then Ardor, and finally Ada).

Reverting to a more generalized account, one sees inspiration accompanying the author in his actual work on the new book. She accompanies him (for by now we are in the presence of a nubile muse) by means of successive flashes to which the writer may grow so accustomed that a sudden fizzle in the domestic illumination may strike him as an act of betrayal.

One and the same person can compose parts of one and the same story or poem, either in his head or on paper, pencil or pen in hand (I am told there exist fantastic performers who actually type out their immediate product or, still more incredibly, dictate it, warm and bubbly, to a typist or to a machine!). Some prefer the bathtub to the study and the bed to the windy moor – the place does not matter much, it is the relationship between the brain and the hand that poses some odd problems. As John Shade says somewhere: “I am puzzled byte difference between two methods of composing: A, the kind which goes on solely in the poet’s mind, a testing of performing words, while he is soaping a third time one leg, and B, the other kind, much more decorous, when he’s in his study writing with a pen. In method B the hand supports the thought, the abstract battle is concretely fought. The pen stops in mid-air, then swoops to bar a canceled sunset or restore a star, and thus it physically guides the phrase toward faint daylight through the inky maze. But method A is agony! The brain is soon enclosed in a steel cap of pain. A muse in overalls directs the drill which grinds, and which no effort of the will can interrupt, while the automaton is taking off what he has just put on or walking briskly to the corner store to buy the paper he has read before. Why is it so? Is it, perhaps, because in penless work there is no pen-poised pause…Or is the process deeper, with no desk to prop the false and hoist the picturesque? For there are those mysterious moments when, too weary to delete, I drop my pen; I ambulate – and by some mute command the right word flutes and perches on my hand.”

This is, of course, where inspiration comes in. The words which on various occasions, during some fifty years of composing prose, I have put together and then canceled may have formed by now in the Realm of Rejection (a foggy but not quite unlikely land north of nowhere) a huge library of scrapped phrases, characterized and concorded only by their wanting the benison of inspiration.

No wonder, then, that a writer who is not afraid to confess that he has known inspiration and can readily distinguish it from the froth of a fit, as well as from the humdrum comfort of the “right word,” should seek the bright trace of that thrill in the work of fellow authors. The bolt of inspiration strikes invariably: you observe the flash in this or that piece of great writing, be it a stretch of fine verse, or a passage in Joyce or Tolstoy, or a phrase in a short story, or a spurt of genius in the paper of a naturalist, of a scholar, or even in a book reviewer’s article. I have in view, naturally, not the hopeless hacks we all know – but people who are creative artists in their own right, such as, say, Trilling (with his critical opinions I am not concerned), or Thurber (e.g. in Voices of Revolution: “Art does not rush to the barricades”).

In recent years numerous publishers have had the pleasure of sending me their anthologies – homing pigeons really, for all of them contain samples of the recipient’s writings. Amongst the thirty or so of those collections, some flaunt pretentious labels (“Fables of Our Time” or “Themes and Targets”); others are presented more soberly (“Great Tales”) and their blurbs promise the reader that he will meet cranberry pickers and hunkies; but almost in each of them there are at least two or three first-rate stories.

Age is chary, but it is also forgetful, and in order to choose instantly what to reread on a night of Orphic thirst and what to reject for ever, I am careful to put an A, or a C, or a D-minus, against this or that item in the anthology. The profusion of high marks reconfirms me every time in the exhilarating belief that at the present time (say, for the last fifty years) the greatest short stories have been produced not in England, not in Russia, and certainly not in France, but in this country.

Examples are the stained-glass windows of knowledge. From a small number of A-plus stories I have chosen half-a-dozen particular favorites of mine. I list their titles below and parenthesize briefly the passage – or one of the passages – in which genuine afflation appears to be present, no matter how trivial the inspired detail may look to a dull criticule.

John Cheever’s “The Country Husband” (“Jupiter [a black retriever] crashed through the tomato vines with the remains of a felt hat in his mouth.” The story is really a miniature novel beautifully traced, so that the impression of there being a little too many things happening in it is completely redeemed by the satisfying coherence of its thematic interlacings.)

John Updike’s “The Happiest I’ve Been” (“The important thing, rather than the subject, was the conversation itself, the quick agreements, the slow nods, the weave of different memories; it was like one of these Panama baskets shaped underwater around a worthless stone.” I like so many of Updike’s stories that it was difficult to choose one for demonstration and even more difficult to settle upon its most inspired bit.)

J. D. Salinger’s “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” (“Stopping only to sink a foot in a soggy, collapsed castle…” This is a great story, too famous and fragile to be measured here by a casual conchometrist.)

Herbert Gold’s “Death in Miami Beach” (“Finally we die, opposable thumbs and all.” Or to do even better justice to this admirable piece; “Barbados turtles as large as children…crucified like thieves…the tough leather of their skin does not disguise their present helplessness and pain.”)

John Barth’s “Lost in the Funhouse” (“What is the story’s point? Ambrose is ill. He perspires in the dark passages; candied apples-on-a-stick, delicious-looking, disappointing to eat. Funhouses need men’s and ladies’ rooms at interval.” I had some trouble in pinning down what I needed amidst the lovely swift speckled imagery.)

Delmore Schwartz’s “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities” (“…and the fatal merciless passionate ocean.” Although there are several other divine vibrations in this story that so miraculously blends an old cinema film with a personal past, the quoted phrase wins its citation for power and impeccable rhythm.)

I must add that I would be very pleased if a Professor of Literature to test his students at the start or the close of the term would request them to write a paper discussing the following points:

1. What is so good about those six stories? (Refrain from referring to “commitment,” “ecology,” “realism,” “symbols,” and so forth).

2. What other passages in them bear the mark of inspiration?

3. How exactly was that poor lap dog made to howl in those lace-cuffed hands, close to that periwig?

Vladimir Nabokov
Strong Opinions

Painting by Norman RockwellThe Connoisseur (1962)

On Guilt and Absolution

Photo by Sally Mann: Holding Virginia (1989)

I reviewed my case. With the utmost simplicity and clarity I now saw myself and my love. Previous attempts seemed out of focus in comparison. A couple of years before, under the guidance of an intelligent French-speaking confessor, to whom, in a moment of metaphysical curiosity, I had turned over a Protestant’s drab atheism for an old-fashioned popish cure, I had hoped to deduce from my sense of sin the existence of a Supreme Being. On those frosty mornings in rime-laced Quebec, the good priest worked on me with the finest tenderness and understanding. I am infinitely obliged to him and the great Institution he represented. Alas, I was unable to transcend the simple human fact that whatever spiritual solace I might find, whatever lithophanic eternities might be provided for me, nothing could make my Lolita forget the foul lust I had inflicted upon her. Unless it can be proven to me – to me as I am now, today, with my heart and my beard, and my putrefaction – that in the infinite run it does not matter a jot that a North American girl-child named Dolores Haze had been deprived of her childhood by a maniac, unless this can be proven (and if it can, then life is a joke), I see nothing for the treatment of my misery but the melancholy and very local palliative of articulate art. To quote an old poet:

The moral sense in mortals is the duty
We have to pay on mortal sense of beauty

“Humbert Humbert” in Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita (1955)

Photo by Sally Mann: Holding Virginia (1989)

Ласточка (The Swift)

Swift in flight

Однажды мы под вечер оба
стояли на старом мосту.
Скажи мне, спросил я, до гроба
запомнишь – вон ласточку ту?
И ты отвечала: еще-бы!

И как мы заплакали оба,
как вскрикнула жизнь налету…
До завтра, навеки, до гроба, – 
однажды, на старом мосту…

One night between sunset and river
On the old bridge we stood, you and I,
Will you ever forget it, I queried,
– That particular swift that went by?
And you answered, so earnestly: Never!

And what sobs made us suddenly shiver,
What a cry life emitted in flight!
Till we die, till tomorrow, for ever,
You and I on the old bridge one night.

Владимир Набоков (Vladimir Nabokov)
Гифт (The Gift) (1937)

On YouTube: Nabokov reads The Swift in English and Russian