Saturday, 6 January 12:00 PM-1:15 PM THURSDAY, 4 JANUARY 7:00 PM-8:15 PM
1. Little Stray Dogs: Nabokov’s Letters Lost in the Post, Thomas Karshan (U of East Anglia) [#4472]
2. Letters to Véra: Nabokov’s Invisible Revisions, Lyndsay Miller (U of Glasgow) [#4473]
3. Creativity and Crisis in Nabokov’s Letters to Véra, Duncan White (Harvard U) [#4756]
Presiding: Zoran Kuzmanovich (Davidson C, Davidson)
Abstracts for Nabokov and Correspondence
Karshan: Nabokov’s recently published Letters to Véra may give a false impression of Nabokov as an ardent letter-writer. In fact he wrote to Véra in a letter of 1924, ‘I’m scared of the post office!!!’, and in a draft of “Favourite Hates” dated October 1964, he listed ‘everything connected with the post: stamps, envelopes, finding the right address.’ Briefly, Véra was Vladimir Nabokov’s ‘right address’: he wrote to her in 1923 that ‘in your soul there’s a place prepared in advance for my every thought’. But soon thereafter, as his ardour cooled, Nabokov saved his thoughts for his art, in which there are rarely right addresses and letters usually go astray.
The paper will place Nabokov’s early interest in the theme of address alongside that of other Russian thinkers of the 1910s and 1920s, among them Mandelstam, and Bakhtin. It will begin by exploring letters in Nabokov’s early poems, plays and stories in the period from 19123 to 1925, such as the 1923 play The Tragedy of Mister Morn, the 1923 poem ‘Letters’, the 1924 ‘Benefice’, and especially the 1925 ‘The Postbox’, which conceives art as the interruption of the letter and the post. It will then focus on Nabokov’s 1934 novel Despair, a parody of Dostoevsky’s The Double in which the protagonist Hermann’s epistolary exchange with Felix, the tramp he means to murder, and his putative double, is presented as a metaphor for consciousness. Nabokov’s metaphor dramatises the mind as a set of letters sent back and forth, between the addressing I, and its various possible Yous. The paper will argue that in Despair Nabokov developing ideas comparable to those of Bakhtin’s 1929 Problems of Dostoevsky’s Art, in which Bakhtin argues that Dostoevsky invented the psychological novel by turning the epistolary novel inwards, and in doing so conceptualised consciousness as an unfinalisable dialogue between I and its infinites second-person doubles, You and You and You.
Miller: Vladimir Nabokov, throughout a literary career spanning six decades, five countries, three languages, two continents and two calendars, was an inveterate reviser, constantly changing, translating and otherwise altering his own works. Indeed, Nabokov himself acknowledged that ‘even the dream I describe to my wife across the breakfast table is only a first draft’ (Strong Opinions, xv). The very process of writing was, for Nabokov, inextricably linked with the act of revision. This paper makes a distinction between invisible revisions, which are necessary conditions of literary production, and visible revisions, which are presented by Nabokov in his texts as deliberate artistic devices. It argues that both invisible and visible revisions pervade and shape the entirety of Nabokov’s fictional, textual worlds and that these multi-faceted revisions undermine the autonomy of individual texts, which creates an interconnected and self-reflexive body of work.
This paper proposes to read Letters to Véra as a paratext offering insight into Nabokov’s invisible revisions, which occur prior to publication as part of the creative process of text production. By examining Nabokov’s letters to his wife and best reader, Véra, it aims to uncover both his practices and processes of invisible revision, as well as his attitudes towards revising his works more generally. This will be used to define Nabokov’s approach to revision at manuscript level, which will then be used to measure his use of revision as a deliberately visible device of fiction. Finally, the effects of Nabokov’s revisions, which lead to a complex, intertwined narrative matrix through which the different parts of his corpus become intrinsically connected, will be considered. The resultant dynamic model of oeuvre construction destabilises the individual component texts, which lose their autonomy as a consequence of the multiple tracks of revisions affecting them contemporaneously. The subsequent textual form is a fully cohesive oeuvre, which could be termed a ‘supertext’, constituted of every part of Nabokov’s corpus at all times: akin to a Möbius strip referring endlessly to itself.
White: The publication of Vladimir Nabokov's letters to his wife, Véra, allow us to date the origins of one of the foundational concepts of his poetics: the idea that a work of art's true meaning lies in comprehending its spatial form. In the summer of 1939 Vladimir Nabokov visited London, making a last-ditch effort to secure himself either a teaching job or a publishing deal. These trips - to Brussels, Paris, and London - had become a feature of the previous two years as Nabokov sought to escape the Nazis first in Germany and then in France. After a June 8 meeting with an editor for MacMillan he wrote to Véra that “[a] new theory of literary creation flashed into my mind.” He went on: "we don’t look at a painting from left to right, but we take in everything at once; that’s the principle a novel should be built upon, but because of the peculiarities of a book (pages, lines, and so on), it is necessary to read it through twice, and the second time is the real one)."
This theory was developed in two lectures he gave at Wellesley in 1941 and then in an essay, "The Creative Writer", published in 1942, which Nabokov then adapted into the lecture "The Art of Literature and Common Sense". It is a theory that underpins Nabokov's writing about his own work, in the afterword to Lolita, and in his forewords to his translations. He revisited the theory a final time in a short essay "On Inspiration" published in 1973. It made a profound impression on his work.
In this paper, I am interested in the idea that letter-writing itself forced Nabokov to become reflective about his work at a point of personal, professional, and historical crisis. Amidst letters documenting his frustrations and failures, and coming at a time when his legacy as a writer was under threat, Nabokov is forced into conceptualizing his ideas about literary art. The very form of the letter, and of the author's abdication of control over it, speaks to the vulnerability of this moment for Nabokov.