Vladimir Nabokov and Washington Irving

Submitted by Jim Buckingham on Sun, 06/09/2019 - 00:45

Nabokov's tip of the hat towards Irving is found as being one of the first names in Lolita's class list: Flashman, Irving (Part I, Ch. 11). More telling though is what Vladimir would take as a last name should he ever return to Mother Russia under a false passport. That pseudonym would be "Nikerboker" as spelled out at the end of Chapter 12 in Drugie berega / Other Shores. [Interestingly, neither Conclusive Evidence nor Speak, Memory state what that false name would be.] Nabokov's Nikerboker is even spelled out so that the Ni-ker-bo-ker syllable would be long, just like in Na-bo-kov. Of course Nikerboker is Knickerbocker (with its short 'o' sound), Dietrich, Irving's unreliable narrator and his pseudonym. A more apt passport name could not be used than that of Knickerbocker, the narrator of "Rip Van Winkle."

Rip awakens from a twenty-year sleep to return home and finds everything changed and the country now under a different government. Being now under American versus British rule, as a result of the American Revolution. Of course that short story is suspect right from the beginning once one looks into the epigraph taken from William Cartwright's play, The Ordinary, which in turn is based off of one of Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales, "The Canon's Yeoman's Tale." In short, Rip Van Winkle's story was a good story, but never came true. Just like the IDEA of VN using a false passport for one more return home would make a good story, but never came true, never happened. Vladimir reflected on this: "I have been dreaming of it too idly and too long." (CESM) in the present perfect tense. Drugie berega / Other Shores adds to that thought something more personal: "I squandered the dream." in the simple past, preterite tense. There's no going back - it's done. But Nabokov's sleep of exile lasted almost three score, three times Rip's. A very long sleep, indeed. So keep dreaming, Vladimir. You Knickerbocker, you New Yorker you.

[Knickerbocker is not just a term for a New York, New Yorker (the city of New York or Manhattan), but also a New Yorker from New York state. The moniker term, Knickerbocker, originated from Irving's satirical, two-volume history first published back in 1809, A History of New York, written by none other than Diedrich Knickerbocker.]


The fun & intrigue never ends! Finding out so much more by translating Drugie berega / Other Shores. New material is found in this edition that is not present in either Conclusive Evidence or Speak, Memory. My main complaint is the slowness of translating such due to my being monolingual. Obstacles are made in order to be overcome!

VN's writing seems freer in Russian, as opposed to his English. Naturally, anything encountered must be fully understood, researched and annotated as needed. Is there any other way to read? There is, but I'm not interested. Will post a sample page from my bilingual edition soon.



Fresh Contributions are always welcome but in the Reading page of Nabokov, as you would note, we're trying to go for a certain tone and tenor of entries which I don't think this comment contributes to in any way. It's much better suited to this discussion page. I reverted back to the original entry.

As for Irving Flashman in Lolita have you seen the Nabokov's comment to Alfred Appel regarding this name? It's in the Annotated Lolita.


I take it that this post on Nabokov and Washington Irving is not written formally enough for the Reading Section, even though the scholarship behind it is rock solid. In any event, yes I am fully aware of Alfred Appel’s comments on Irving in his The Annotated Lolita (Note 53/3 on page 363 and Note 261/4 on pp. 435-6). Yet Appel does not put all the pieces together.

Starting with Irving we have the definite association between Washington Irving and Nabokov as noted earlier. Irving is also noted on page 53 with this quote from the second half of a sentence: “Irving for whom I am sorry.” Taking into consideration Appel’s notes from Nabokov that Irving was the only Jew in the class and was persecuted (363). Then given all this, the first half of the same sentence that is the only textual quote on Irving was overlooked. That first half of the Irving sentence is: “Ralph, who bullies and steals.” [my emphasis]. Ralph is a different character: Ralph Williams.

But keep in mind the order of names in Lolita’s class list. Now go backwards. Irving then  Flashman. As a very distinct name, Flashman, is the bully and nemesis of Tom Brown in Thomas Hughes’ British novel Tom Brown’s School Days, published in 1852. Flashman is the bully, the persecutor, and Irving is the bullied, the persecuted.

And one further step backwards is the name, Stella. As the Latin word for Star, Stella has everything to do with being Jewish, especially during the time in Lolita, right after World War II. The Star, the Yellow Star, was the emblem – the mark for the Jews, as part of Hitler’s massive and horrid Final Solution to exterminate the Jews and other undesirables during the Holocaust in a mad attempt to purify the ‘so-called’ pure Aryan race.

And there your have it: Irving --> Flashman --> and Stella.

There’s always more there than meets the eye.


Hi Jim,

Ok, but let's look at things this way. I haven't read Washington Irving. That doesn't prevent me from knowing the basic data of the Rip van Winkle story. It's just too well-known. And again, I don't have to read Diedrich Knickerbocker's story to know of the famous baggy trousers or even the moniker. Isn't this a part of the common cultural currency?

As far as the association of "Stella" and the star of Jerusalem, if one carries on with this, one would end up with the Gray Star (of Foreword and Nabokov's afterword) where Lolita ends up dying. This I fear, is a strained association. I hearken back to Nabokov's timely advice from one of his interviews, "Ask yourself if the symbol you have detected is not your own footprint."

Dieter Zimmer has a pertinent essay especially on this point (in the first Para-break), regarding what correspondences count as valid and what can be overruled. For the ease of reference, I embed the link here http://www.d-e-zimmer.de/HTML/2016LichbergMyth.htm.

Hi Shakeeb,

Rip Van Winkle IS part of the common cultural currency - that is precisely the point of Nabokov using the name Nikerboker as his false passport name in Drugie berega / Other Shores. Rather than being leery of symbols and VN's vaulted warning about such, this is more about associations. And associations ARE definitely and continuously in play throughout Nabokov's works.

I never maintain or propose that (in this case) there is only one way to look at things, but offering other ways to look at things. That is why to talk of Stella as "star' does apply to Jews and World War II and the Holocaust. That is factual and in the common cultural knowledge. It is VN himself who posited Irving's role as being the  only Jew in Lolita's class, per Appel's notes. That next step of you, not me, taking a yellow star to a gray star is a stretch. I agree with you, only because I never proposed such in the first place. Just because x = y, does not make x =z. Because y and z are not the same: a yellow star vs. a gray star.

So this is just a notice of the purposeful or unpurposeful association of those three names in a row commented on in Humbert's narrative on page 53 being: Stella, Ralph and Irving. Ralph being the bully, just like Flashman in the Thomas Hughes' novel.

All I can say is, "Sometimes the well-known is the best place to hide," -- in plain sight.