In Memoriam: Don Barton Johnson (1933-2020)

Submitted by dana_dragunoiu on Sat, 08/29/2020 - 16:46

by Gerard de Vries

Although we knew that preceding Don’s demise his powerful brain did not function as of old, the very sad news of his death came unexpected. The loss is felt deeply, as the pleasure to have known Don has been a blessing for many Nabokovians.

My first contact with Don resulted from a kind suggestion from an editor who, having rejected a submission of mine as too lengthy, advised me to try my luck with the Russian Literature Triquarterly that was preparing a volume devoted to Nabokov. I sent my article to Ardis, the journal’s publisher, accordingly, and received a most cordial reply from Don, the volume’s guest-editor.  A most agreeable correspondence ensued for the sake of adjusting the text to the journal’s style. Then Don asked whether I could reduce the number of references to his book Worlds in Regression: Some Novels of Vladimir Nabokov. Although I had complied with his previous suggestions most gratefully, I found this one hard to fulfill because I considered the references as important mainstays for my reading. Moreover, deleting them would possibly leave the impression that I had presented them merely to please the guest-editor (which was not possible as I never anticipated that my paper would land at Ardis). Now I think that it was Don’s modesty which induced this proposal: he was much inclined to look with detachment at his own work and its great merits, as much as he tended to praise the work of others, and to disregard the defects therein. 

Don’s Worlds in Regression I have reread several times. His research is meticulous and extensive, his solutions unerring and his erudition wide and diversified. His style is most impressive: whether his discoveries are utterly convincing or his suggestions merely tentative, his phrasing is always felicitously expressive of his thoughts. Formulating claims according to the evidence he offers, and not more, seems to make his writings immune from criticism. In his autobiographical The Summing Up, W. Somerset Maugham writes how he tried to improve his prose by imitating the style of Addison, Dryden and Swift. Could such an approach have been within my range, I would certainly have adopted Don’s style as my target.

During the excellent Cornell Nabokov Centenary Festival held in September 1998, I happened to walk with Don to a morning session. For some time I had entertained the idea of a book about Nabokov and the art of painting, and I ventured to ask Don’s opinion about this plan. He told me that he had completed an inventory of the references to paintings in Ada. In this way the project was started that some eight years later resulted in a book.

The initial contract with the publisher contained the proviso that funds should be found to (partly) cover the (sometimes excessively high) costs of acquiring the permission from museums to reproduce images of their paintings. Despite the uncertainty this condition involved, Don never abated his efforts. Thanks to his perseverance the book’s longest and best chapter on Nabokov’s most allusive and painterly novel could be incorporated. Without his dedication and optimism, and without the authority of his scholarship, the project would certainly not have materialized. 

But the satisfaction of having finalized a project does not count much compared to the privilege of having met and worked with such a fine and kind person as Don.