Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0017196, Thu, 16 Oct 2008 23:42:48 -0400

Dear list,

In an attempt to explore the idea that Nabokov's
referential playfulness occasionally might have a larger point, I've been
gathering a lot of material about some of the minutiae of VNs books. While
I'm nowhere near finished, I do have some research detritus that seems
extraneous to my chosen topics, and perhaps some of it may be useful or
helpful to others, if only as curiosities.

Looking through the list's archives, I see that a couple years ago, Michael
S Strickland contributed some Elphinstone references related to British
families and Jules Verne's literary works. Here are a few more Elphinstone
connections for the curious. I glanced through prior messages--my apologies
if any of these repeat anything mentioned previously.

Elphinstone was the name of a titled English family, and not only in the
eras that Strickland mentioned. At the end of World War II, John Alexander
Elphinstone, master of Elphinstone and nephew to Queen Elizabeth, was a
German prisoner of war. He was held for almost five years, which got a great
deal of publicity in papers on both sides of the Atlantic. He was variously
listed as a captain or a lieutenant of the Black Watch and was held with
other politically valuable prisoners and moved as Allied forces advanced. He
was eventually released unharmed in late April or early May 1945. To add to
the fun, it was a Basque tennis ace who escaped from Itter Castle and told
the Allies of the location of the secret prison.

On another British front, author Manning Coles (really an amalgam of
longtime real-life British spy Cyril Coles and author Adelaide Manning)
wrote a series of novels about spying during World Wars I and II, called A
Drink to Yesterday and A Toast to Tomorrow (Pray Silence was the British
title, I think). Both books were first published in the UK in 1940. The hero
of the books is none other than spymaster Tommy Elphinstone Hambledon. The
books were wildly popular in England and well-known in the US, with an
enthusiastic New York Times reviewer Anthony Boucher writing in 1949 that

"THOMAS ELPHINSTONE HAMBLEDON was the brightest creation of modern espionage
fiction -- the most audacious and inventive adventurer since Arsene Lupin
[!]. No reader will forget his long career as chief of the Berlin police,
actively prosecuting a search for himself, nor his more recent masquerade as
a top Nazi scientist."
They were fun books, but I don't know that I'd quite agree with Boucher's
assessment. At any rate, in A Toast to Tomorrow/Pray Silence, an amnesiac
Hambledon rises to become Chief of Police in Berlin before recovering his
memory and wreaking havoc on the Nazis. Given the additional nods to
detective novels in Lolita (and elsewhere) on top of Humbert's own memory
issues and the timing of the book, this version of Elphinstone becomes more
fun to consider.

There are also actual places called Elphinstone--an inlet and an island. The
island is off the coast of Burma, and the inlet is in modern Oman (which
also hosts a Muscat, for those conspiracy theorists among you). The inlet
was referred to as the hottest place on earth in periodcals from the turn of
the 20th century and was a key strategic location that served as the
connection point for the first Persian Gulf submarine telegraph cables. Thus
the pairing of Elphinstone with Snow in the pages of Lolita makes a nice
counterpoint of hot and cold (or even heaven and hell), with hell being the
place Humbert loses Lolita (literally for most folks, and double-dare
literally for Lolita revisionists who think she dies there). The Burmese
Elphinstone Island was the location of some covert Allied operations during
World War II, but it seems less likely that Nabokov could have known
anything about that.

Brian Boyd has noted that Elphinstone ties into the Arthurian leitmotif that
is sounded lightly but insistently in Lolita. And I agree that Elf-in-stone
is evocative in that regard. However, I also love pondering the literal
aspects of Elphinstone in the news of Nabokov's life and day, especially as
they relate to memory, imprisonment, and isolation.


Andrea Pitzer

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