Reading

What Nabokov read is often obvious but sometimes not. Even for the obvious authors or categories it might be worth listing material that indicates where discussions of what he read and when can be found, and Nabokov's evaluations, analyses or uses of that reading can be explained. 

The material here is mostly by author but some of the reading would best be covered in topics like biographychildhood reading, classical literature, comics, eighteenth-century literature, English literature, French literature, German literature, Italian literatureJapanese literature, medieval reading, non-Western literature, philosophy, pornography, psychologyRussian literature, etc.

Please contribute! You do not have to write the last word on a subject to get it started.

 

Baring-Gould, the Rev. Sabine, (1834-1924), Anglican priest, antiquarian, and a prolific author. His Family Names and their story seems a clear source for names in Pale Fire, as suggested in this article by Matthew Roth. In Pale Fire, John Shade introduces Kinbote as "Professor K. is the author of a remarkable book on surnames."

 

Bates, Henry Walter (1825-1892), English naturalist and the author of the classic The Naturalist on the River Amazon (1863, Cambridge Library Collection) which Nabokov knew all too well. Thomas Barbour, an American zoologist who had offered Nabokov the possibility to do research at Harvard MCZ mentions this incident: "When I was discussing these beauties [Cuban Urania moths] with my colleague (VN) in charge of the collection of Lepidoptera in the Museum of Comparative Zoology the other day, he at once recalled to my mind that lovely passage in Bates' classic The Naturalist on the Amazonas [on the appearance of Urania leilus at dawn, Chap V]. Let me say first that Vladimir Nabokov has an ear more sensitively attuned to the finest nuances of English prose, both in regard to use as in appreciation thereof, than any foreign-born person I have ever known.” (from Dieter E. Zimmer's e-version of Butterflies and Moths in Nabokov; here).

 

Bennett, Arnold (1867-1931), English novelist. Staying in London in April 1939, Nabokov reported to his wife that in the home of his hosts he was reading "the very amusing 'Diary' of Arn. Bennett" (Letters to Véra, ed. and trans. Olga Voronina and Brian Boyd, New York: Vintage, 2017, 422).

 

Freeling, Nicolas (1927-2003), English crime novelist. Nabokov clearly had his attention drawn to Freeling's playing with Humbert Humbert in his novel Double-Barrel (1964), and incorporated many of its "veeny" Dutch elements deep into the texture of Ada, as first noted by Paul H. Fry in 1985, and commented on by Wilma Saccama and Jack van der Weide in 1995 and discussed at most length by Brian Boyd in "Ada, The Bog and the Garden," in Stalking Nabokov: Selected Essays (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011), 361-66. 

 

Heard, Henry FitzGerald (1889-1971), English lecturer and prolific author. He was the BBC's first science commentator and author of some "popular" philosophy pieces. Nabokov had read and enjoyed his detective novel, starring Sherlock Holmes' elder brother Mycroft Holmes, A Taste for Honey in 1943. Nabokov mentions, "The entomological part is of course all wrong (he confuses the Purple emperor, a butterfly, with Emperor moth), but it is very nicely written. Did Mary [Mary McCarthy] see the point of the detective's name in the end?" (The Nabokov-Wilson Letters, ed. Simon Karlinsky, University of California Press, 2001). A Taste for Honey was generally acclaimed by contemporary mystery fiction writers as a worthy "Holmes" mystery.

 

Hearn, Lafcadio (1852-1904), Anglo-American-Japanese writer, the most important conduit to Japanese culture for Anglophone readers in the late 19C and early 20C. See Shun'ichiro Akikusa, "Nabokov and Hearn: Where the Transatlantic Imagination Meets the Transpacific Imagination," in Brian Boyd and Marijeta Bozovic, eds., Nabokov Upside Down (Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern UP, 2017), 158-68. Akikusa discusses the appeal of Hearn's symbolist and otherworldly imagination to Nabokov.

 

Irving, Washington (1783-1859), American writer best known for his short stories. For his 1941 Stanford creative writing class Nabokov analyzed one of his stories, "The Stout Gentleman" (a chapter in the 1822 volume of sketches, Bracebridge Hall), which had just been published in a stand-alone edition in California (April 1941, by the Greenwood Press, San Mateo, CA) that Nabokov presumably stumbled on by chance. In the enthusiasm of his discovery he called it "one of the best short stories in any language." (BB: from material not yet published or catalogued) 

 

Nicolson, Harold (1886-1892), a famous British diplomat and author. His Some People is well known to Nabokov. Edmund Wilson mentions Nicolson's review of Conclusive Evidence. Nabokov was annoyed by a comment in his Diaries and Letters, and had this to say: "VN says... that all his life he had been fighting against the influence of Some People is terribly exaggerated. I did say to Nigel Nicolson (in 1959 in London) that I greatly admired Some People and I may have added that in my thirties (when writing Sebastian Knight) I was careful to steer clear of its hypnotic style. But the idea of "fighting all my life" against its influence on me is, of course, nonsense." (Vladimir Nabokov: Selected Letters 1940-1977)

 

Oakes, Philip (1928-2005), British journalist, poet and novelist. His novel, The God-Botherers was mentioned among the best that Nabokov had read in the year 1969, ahead of Beckett's Molloy and below Tabuchi's The Alpine Butterflies of Japan. (Vladimir Nabokov: Selected Letters 1940-1977)


pornography: Nabokov had read some but hated it. In an interview with Neil Hickey in 1959, in the Washington Post, he said: "My definition of pornography is 'a copulation of clichés' in which an author puts the reader on familiar ground and then makes a direct attempt at provoking the most basic response. This is not the case with Lolita." In an interview with Anne Guérin in 1961 for L'Express he asked: "Have you read the Marquis de Sade? The orgies? Things start with one person, then five, then fifty, then they invite the gardener! (Enormous laugh.) There’s your pornography: quantity without quality. It’s banal, it’s not literature. The intention of art is always pure, always moral. . . . I hate the Marquis de Sade." Both forthcoming in Brian Boyd and Anastasia Tolstoy, eds., Think, Write, Speak: Uncollected Interviews, Essays and Reviews, Penguin 2019. 

 

Pratt, Antwerp Edgar (1852-1924), Victorian naturalist, explorer, author. Nabokov had surely read his To the Snows of Tibet through China before the summer of 1930, as suggested by Dieter E. Zimmer's remarkable discovery (here). Father Dejean, Tatsienlu, "the rocks and the rhododendrons" in both The Aurelian and The Gift (as well as the T. bieti motif) has its convoluted origin from Pratt's book.

 

Queneau, Raymond (1903-1976), famous French author, poet, critic. Nabokov was at least familiar with three of his works, namely Pierrot mon ami, Zazie dans le métro and Exercices de style. Zazie in the Metro, was a major success and was immediately adapted to screen by Louis Malle. In an interview with Appel, Nabokov mentions his fondness for Zazie and the quintessential thriller, Exercises. Nabokov's love for French literature had its roots in childhood, and he did his best to highlight other authors like Robbe-Grillet, Hellens than those in vogue a la Sartre, Camus, Malraux.

 

Reid, Thomas Mayne (1818-1883), Anglo-Irish novelist. His literary output largely comprises of adventure novels, achieving great popularity at the time. Nabokov attempted to translate Reid's Headless Horseman into French alexandrines at the age of ten. The most memorable evocation of The Headless Horseman comes in Chapter 10 of Speak, Memory where Nabokov and his friend, Yuri reenact their favourite scenes. There is a faint allusion to the aforesaid title in Ada as well as minor point in Glory. See Don John's article Nabokov and Captain Mayne Reid for a fuller discussion (here).

 

Rochefort, Christiane (1918-1998), French feminist novelist, best known in Nabokov's lifetime for her Le Repos du guerrier (1958). Nabokov reported in a 1965 interview in Journal de Genève with Guy de Belleval that "recently I read with sheer pleasure Warrior’s Rest (Le repos du guerrier) by Christiane Rochefort" (forthcoming in Brian Boyd and Anastasia Tolstoy, eds., Think, Write, Speak: Uncollected Interviews, Essays and Reviews, Penguin 2019). 

 

Senancour, Étienne Pivert de (1770-1846), French writer best known for his novel Obermann (1804). In a 1964 interview with "M.V." in Journal de Montreux, Nabokov said that among his favorite writers was "Senancour, an author too little known who wrote, around 1830, in the Journal of his life, splendid descriptions of the Alps" (forthcoming in Brian Boyd and Anastasia Tolstoy, eds., Think, Write, Speak: Uncollected Interviews, Essays and Reviews, Penguin 2019). 

 

Svyatopolk-Mirsky, Dmitri Petrovich (1890-1939), Russian writer best remembered for his History of Russian Literature (1926) which Nabokov liked. In a letter dated from 1949 Nabokov writes, “In fact, I consider it to be by far the best history of Russian literature in any language including Russian. Unfortunately I must deprive myself of the pleasure of writing a blurb for it, since the poor fellow is now in Russia and compliments from such an anti-Soviet writer as I am known to be might cause him considerable unpleasantness.” (Vladimir Nabokov: Selected Letters 1940-1977). His whole “life” including his return to Russia seems like something out of a Nabokov novel. Edmund Wilson seems to had been stimulated to learn Russian by Mirsky’s book on Pushkin, and had sought him out in Russia shortly before his arrest (Wilson wrote a famous article about this meeting called “Comrade Prince”), considered his The Intelligentsia of Great Britain (1935) “an able and intelligent book,” which, even if “ill-inspired,” contained “very good things”.

 

Upton, Florence Kate (1873 - 1922), scenarist-illustrator, portraitist. Creator of the remarkably artistic Golliwog series of books which was highly popular. Florence provided the illustrations and the scenarios while her mother, Bertha Upton wrote the verses. Nabokov, of course owned a Golliwog doll, as described in Speak, Memory. Also a source of inspiration for the Debussy's suite, Children's Corner with its buoyant final movement, entitled "Golliwogg's Cakewalk". The memory of Upton's illustrations served Nabokov well upto his seventies, supplying the final image in the novel, Transparent Things. Don B. Johnson's article Nabokov's Golliwogs (here) provides a sustained comparison.

 

Waterhouse, Keith (1929-2009), British novelist, journalist, and TV scenarist. Nabokov read and enjoyed his novel Jubb (1963). Peter Lubin reported that when he met Nabokov in 1964 and asked what he was currently reading, Nabokov replied he was reading Jubb and liking it: see Brian Boyd, VNAY 483.