Quotations

Memorable phrases, sentences, images, and thoughts from Nabokov. Send in your own!

Ada

Unconsciousness, far from awaiting us, with flyback and noose, somewhere ahead, envelops both the Past and the Present from all conceivable sides, being a character not of Time itself but of organic decline natural to all things whether conscious of Time or not. (Pt 4 Ch 1)

The Art of Literature and Commonsense

The writer's pulpit is dangerously close to the pulp romance, and what reviewers call a strong novel is generally a precarious heap of platitudes or a sand castle on a populated beach, and there are few things sadder than to see its muddy moat dissolve when the holiday makers are gone and the cold mousy waves are nibbling at the solitary sands.

The pages are still blank, but there is a miraculous feeling of the words all being there, written in invisible ink and clamoring to become visible.

If the mind were constructed on optional lines and if a book could be read in the same way as a painting is taken in by the eye, that is without the bother of working from left to right and without the absurdity of beginnings and ends, this would be the ideal way of appreciating a novel, for thus the author saw it at the moment of its conception.

That human life is but a first installment of the serial soul and that one's individual secret is not lost in the process of earthly dissolution, becomes something more than an optimistic conjecture, and even more than a matter of religious faith, when we remember that only commonsense rules immortality out.

Professor Pavlov's bell-hopping mice and Dr. Griffith's rotating rats may please the practical minds, and Rhumbler's artificial amoeba can make a very cute pet.

I take my hat off to the hero who dashes into a burning house and saves his neighbor's child; but I shake his hand if he has risked squandering a precious five seconds to find and save, together with the child, its favorite toy.

The fine specimen I intend to bag for the benefit of those who might like to see how it is done happens to be a rather
incredible cross between an elephant and a horse. His name is­ commonsense.

Commonsense is square whereas all the most essential visions and values of life are beautifully round, as round as the universe or the eyes of a child at its first circus show.

The inspiration of genius adds a third ingredient: it is the past and the present and the future (your book) that come together in a sudden flash; thus the entire circle of time is perceived, which is another way of saying that time ceases to exist.

The Russian language which otherwise is comparatively poor in abstract terms, supplies definitions for two types of inspiration, vostorg and vdokhnovenie, which can be paraphrased as "rapture" and "recapture."

Lunatics are lunatics just because they have thoroughly and recklessly dismembered a familiar world but have not the power- or have lost the power - to create a new one as harmonious as the old.

Likewise it may be a good cure for certain puzzled authors, groping for what they hope are morbid themes, to charm themselves back into the sweet normality of their little hometowns or to converse in apostrophic dialect with husky men of the soil, if such exist.

And the more brilliant, the more unusual the man, the nearer he is to the stake. Stranger always rhymes with danger.

And this being so, let us bless them, let us bless the freak; for in the natural evolution of things, the ape would perhaps never have become man had not a freak - appeared in the family.

Lolita

a shining example of moral leprosy (Foreword)

Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta. (Pt 1 Ch 1)

She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita. (Pt 1 Ch 1)

You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style. (Pt 1 Ch 1)

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, exhibit number one is what the seraphs, the misinformed, simple, noble-winged seraphs, envied. Look at this tangle of thorns. (Pt 1 Ch 1)

a salad of racial genes (Pt 1 Ch 2)

Lik (short story)

Loneliness as a situation can be corrected, but as a state of mind it is an incurable illness.

It was hard to say, though, if Lik (the word means “countenance” in Russian and Middle English) possessed genuine theatrical talent or was a man of many indistinct callings who had chosen one of them at random but could just as well have been a painter, jeweler, or ratcatcher.

Such a person resembles a room with a number of different doors, among which there is perhaps one that does lead straight into some great garden, into the moonlit depths of a marvelous human night, where the soul discovers the treasure intended for it alone.

Pale Fire

"Although those notes, in conformity with custom, come after the poem, the reader is advised to consult them first and then study the poem with their help, rereading them of course as he goes through its text, and perhaps, after having done with the poem, consulting them a third time so as to complete the picture. I find it wise in such cases as this to eliminate the bother of back-and-forth leafings by either cutting out and clipping together the pages with the text of the thing, or, even more simply, purchasing two copies of the same work which can then be placed in adjacent positions on a comfortable table" (Foreword)

            I was the shadow of the waxwing slain

            By the false azure in the windowpane;

            I was the smudge of ashen fluff--and I

            Lived on, flew on, in the reflected sky. ("Pale Fire," 1-4)

 

Transparent Things

But the future has no such reality (as the pictured past and the perceived present possess); the future is but a figure of speech, a specter of thought. (Ch 1)

A thin veneer of immediate reality is spread over natural and artificial matter, and whoever wishes to remain in the now, with the now, on the now, should please not break its tension film. Otherwise the inexperienced miracle-worker will find himself no longer walking on water but descending upright among staring fish. (Ch 1)

The tap expostulated, letting forth a strong squirt of rusty water before settling down to produce the meek normal stuff—which you do not appreciate sufficiently, which is a flowing mystery, and, yes, yes, which deserves monuments to be erected to it, cool shrines! (Ch 2)

A knife and a brass sharpener have thoroughly worked upon it and if it were necessary we could trace the complicated fate of the shavings, each mauve on one side and tan on the other when fresh, but now reduced to atoms of dust whose wide, wide dispersal is panic catching its breath but one should be above it, one gets used to it fairly soon (there are worse terrors). (Ch 3)

Now let us not lose our precious bit of lead while we prepare the wood. Here’s the tree! This particular pine! It is cut down. Only the trunk is used, stripped of its bark. We hear the whine of a newly invented power saw, we see logs being dried and planed. Here’s the board that will yield the integument of the pencil in the shallow drawer (still not closed). (Ch 3)

We recognize its presence in the log as we recognized the log in the tree and the tree in the forest and the forest in the world that Jack built. We recognize that presence by something that is perfectly clear to us but nameless, and as impossible to describe as a smile to somebody who has never seen smiling eyes. (Ch 3)

Thus the entire little drama, from crystallized carbon and felled pine to this humble implement, to this transparent thing, unfolds in a twinkle. Alas, the solid pencil itself as fingered briefly by Hugh Person still somehow eludes us! But he won’t, oh no. (Ch 3)

One should follow her, it would be a good lesson—follow her instead of going to gape at a waterfall: good lesson for the old man. With an oath and a sigh Hugh retraced his steps, which was once a trim metaphor, and went back to the shop. (Ch 5)

This Henry Emery Person, our Person’s father, might be described as a well-meaning, earnest, dear little man, or as a wretched fraud, depending on the angle of light and the position of the observer. (Ch 6)

For optical and animal reasons, sexual love is less transparent than many other much more complicated things. (Ch 6)

Like many a young man of dark genius who feels in a wad of bills all the tangible thickness of immediate delights, he had no practical sense, no ambition to make more money, and no qualms about his future means of subsistence (these proved negligible when it transpired that the cash had been more than a tenth of the actual inheritance).  (Ch 6)

a long rambling piece that began rather auspiciously:
"Blest are suspension dots … The sun was setting a heavenly example to the lake …" (Ch 8)

My job! I replied: ‘Ask me what I can do, not what I do, lovely girl, lovely wake of the sun through semitransparent black fabric. I can commit to memory a whole page of the directory in three minutes flat but am incapable of remembering my own telephone number. I can compose patches of poetry as strange and new as you are, or as anything a person may write three hundred years hence, but I have never published one scrap of verse except some juvenile nonsense at college. I have evolved on the playing courts of my father’s school a devastating return of service—a cut clinging drive—but am out of breath after one game. Using ink and aquarelle I can paint a lakescape of unsurpassed translucence with all the mountains of paradise reflected therein, but am unable to draw a boat or a bridge or the silhouette of human panic in the blazing windows of a villa by Plam. I have taught French in American schools but have never been able to get rid of my mother’s Canadian accent, though I hear it clearly when I whisper French words. Ouvre ta robe, Déjanire that I may mount sur mon bûcher. I can levitate one inch high and keep it up for ten seconds, but cannot climb an apple tree. I possess a doctor’s degree in philosophy, but have no German. I have fallen in love with you but shall do nothing about it. In short I am an all-round genius.’ (Ch 9)

In matters of art, “avant garde” means little more than conforming to some daring philistine fashion, so, when the curtain opened, Hugh was not surprised to be regaled with the sight of a naked hermit sitting on a cracked toilet in the middle of an empty stage. Julia giggled, preparing for a delectable evening. (Ch 11)

No matrimonial agency could have offered its clients such variations on the theme of one virgin. (Ch 12)

"Tell her,” he continued, now walking down a slippery path among cranes and power shovels immobilized in the gold of the late afternoon, “tell her that my system is poisoned by her, by her twenty sisters, her twenty dwindlings in backcast, and that I shall perish if I cannot have her.” (Ch 12)

One might have said to fat, vulgar Madame Chamar: how dare you exhibit your child to sensitive strangers? (Ch 12)

The lady’s mother had been a country veterinary’s daughter, same as Hugh’s mother (by the only coincidence worth noting in the whole rather sad affair). Take those pictures away, you stupid nudist! (Ch 12)

The charm of the Past Tense lay in its secrecy. Knowing Julia, he was quite sure she would not have told a chance friend about their affair—one sip among dozens of swallows. (Ch 13)

Once already he had made Jack show her his implement but she had stamped her foot and made them behave themselves. She was ready to be ultramodern, socially and sexually, but this was offensive, and vulgar, and as old as Greece. (Ch 15)

A shiver of tenderness rippled her features, as a breeze does a reflection. Her eyelashes were wet, her shoulders shook in his clasp. That kiss, and not anything preceding it, was the real beginning of their courtship. (Ch 15)

Major surgery offered one of the most useful means of draining off the destructive urge: a respected though not always lucky practitioner had admitted privately how difficult he found it to stop himself from hacking out every organ in sight during an operation. (Ch 16)

Per contra, something he said by chance, not planning the pang and the poetry, some trivial phrase, would prompt suddenly a hysterically happy response on the part of that dry-souled, essentially unhappy woman. Conscious attempts failed. (Ch 17)

The most ardent addresses he could think up—my princess, my sweetheart, my angel, my animal, my exquisite beast—merely exasperated her. (Ch 17)

He tried to kiss the hem of her skirt or bite the crease of her trouserleg, her instep, the toe of her furious foot—and as he groveled, his unmusical voice muttering maudlin, exotic, rare, common nothings and everythings, into his own ear.. (Ch 17)

..the simple expression of love became a kind of degenerate avian performance executed by the male alone, with no female in sight—long neck straight, then curved, beak dipped, neck straightened again. (Ch 17)

It all made him ashamed of himself but he could not stop and she could not understand, for at such times he never came up with the right word, the right waterweed. (Ch 17)

Armande had many trying, though not necessarily rare, traits, all of which he accepted as absurd clues in a clever puzzle. (Ch 17)

Our Person’s capacity to condone all this, to find reasonable explanations and so forth, endears him to us, but also provokes limpid mirth, alas, at times. (Ch 17)

For example, he told himself that she refused to strip because she was shy of her tiny pouting breasts and the scar of a ski accident along her thigh. Silly Person! (Ch 17)

One of his characters is consulting a Michelin, and says: there’s many a mile between Condom in Gascogne and Pussy in Savoie. (Ch 19)

In the first method, the eight fingers stiffly encircle the victim’s neck while the two thumbs compress his or her throat; one runs, however, the risk of her or his hands seizing one’s wrists or otherwise fighting off the assault. The second, much safer way, from behind, consists in pressing both thumbs hard against the back of the boy’s or, preferably, girl’s neck and working upon the throat with one’s fingers. The first hold is dubbed among us “Pouce,” the second “Fingerman.” (Ch 20)

..but then we all are pilgrims, and all dreams are anagrams of diurnal reality. (Ch 20)

What luck that Mr. Romeo still gripped and twisted and cracked that crooked cricoid as X-rayed by the firemen and mountain guides in the street. Superman carrying a young soul in his embrace! (Ch 20)

For a moment he wondered what his wife was doing there, prone on the floor, her fair hair spread as if she were flying. Then he stared at his bashful claws. (Ch 20)

In that House I shall be proofread by cherubim—or misprinted by devils, depending on the department my poor soul is assigned to. (Ch 21)

According to my almond-eyed little spy, the great surgeon, may his own liver rot, lied to me when he declared yesterday with a deathhead’s grin that the operazione had been perfetta. (Ch 21)

Actually, they ripped me open, cast one horrified look at my decayed fegato, and without touching it sewed me up again. (Ch 21)

As you know—as everybody, even Marion, knows—he gnawed his way into all my affairs, crawling into every cranny, collecting every German-accented word of mine, so that now he can boswell the dead man just as he had bossed very well the living one. (Ch 21)

Every cent and centime I possess as well as all literary remains that can be twisted out of Tamworth’s clutches must go to her.. (Ch 21)

My wretched liver is as heavy as a rejected manuscript; they manage to keep the hideous hyena pain at bay by means of frequent injections but somehow or other it remains always present behind the wall of my flesh like the muffled thunder of a permanent avalanche which obliterates there, beyond me, all the structures of my imagination, all the landmarks of my conscious self. (Ch 21)

Total rejection of all religions ever dreamt up by man and total composure in the face of total death! If I could explain this triple totality in one big book, that book would become no doubt a new bible and its author the founder of a new creed. (Ch 21)

It was either raining or pretending to rain or not raining at all, yet still appearing to rain in a sense that only certain old Northern dialects can either express verbally or not express, but versionize, as it were, through the ghost of a sound produced by a drizzle in a haze of grateful rose shrubs. (Ch 23)

“Raining in Wittenberg, but not in Wittgenstein.” An obscure joke in Tralatitions. (Ch 23)

Direct interference in a person’s life does not enter our scope of activity, nor, on the other, tralatitiously speaking, hand, is his destiny a chain of predeterminate links: (Ch 24)

...some “future” events may be likelier than others, O.K., but all are chimeric, and every cause-and-effect sequence is always a hit-and-miss affair, even if the lunette has actually closed around your neck, and the cretinous crowd holds its breath. (Ch 24)

How much more dreadful it would be if the very awareness of your being aware of reality’s dreamlike nature were also a dream, a built-in hallucination! (Ch 24)

One should bear in mind, however, that there is no mirage without a vanishing point, just as there is no lake without a closed circle of reliable land. (Ch 24)

It is generally assumed that if man were to establish the fact of survival after death, he would also solve, or be on the way to solving, the riddle of Being. Alas, the two problems do not necessarily overlap or blend. (Ch 24)

If I were a poet (but I’m only a proofreader) I would describe to you the celestial nature of solitary confinement, the bliss of an immaculate toilet, the liberty of thought in the ideal jail. (Ch 25)

The purpose of prisons is certainly not to cure a killer, nor is it only to punish him (how can one punish a man who has everything with him, within him, around him?). (Ch 25)

To put it concisely a killer who sees himself as a victim is not only a murderer but a moron. (Ch 25)

This was, in fact, his main “umbral companion” (a clownish critic had taken R. to task for that epithet) and had he been without that transparent shadow, we would not have bothered to speak about our dear Person. (Ch 25)

Now flames were mounting the stairs, in pairs, in trios, in redskin file, hand in hand, tongue after tongue, conversing and humming happily. (Ch 26)

Rings of blurred colors circled around him, reminding him briefly of a childhood picture in a frightening book about triumphant vegetables whirling faster and faster around a nightshirted boy trying desperately to awake from the iridescent dizziness of dream life. (Ch 26)

This is, I believe, it: not the crude anguish of physical death but the incomparable pangs of the mysterious mental maneuver needed to pass from one state of being to another. (Ch 26)