Vladimir Nabokov

Idea about Grainball City

By ivan_ives, 19 November, 2020

Hello all,

This is my first time posting, so please forgive any mistakes regarding conventions of the forum.

Earlier this year I was watching a baseball game between the New York Yankees and the Toronto Blue Jays, which happened to take place in Buffalo, NY because COVID travel restrictions. During an inning with not much action, the YES commentators started discussing how the air in Buffalo is notorious for smelling like breakfast cereal because of a waterfront General Mills plant. The company has used this plant to produce Cheerios and other products since 1928.

You can probably see where I am going with this, but I believe Grainball City in Lolita, which HH also describes as "grain-handling," might therefore be an alias for Buffalo. To support this theory, here are some locational indicators in the text:

-  HH first meets Rita "somewhere between Montreal and New York, or more narrowly, between Toylestown and Blake...(Ch. 26, P. 1)" Buffalo, NYC, and Montreal actually form somewhat of an equilateral triangle, but Buffalo is between the other two in terms of latitude (picture included). I have no correlates for Toylestown and Blake, other than possibly Doylestown, PA, which is near Philadelphia and is slightly south of NYC. Geographically I believe this positioning checks out as a location Rita would go to while staying outside Buffalo.  

- In describing Rita's "fatal attraction" to Grainball City, where she is paid to stay out of by her brother the Mayor, HH writes, "...she would find herself sucked into the lunar orbit of the town, and would be following the flood-lit drive that encircled it — "going round and round,” as she phrased it, 'like a God-damn mulberry moth.' (Ch. 26, P. 2)" I do not know Buffalo well enough to be certain that is is a noticeable feature of the city layout, but you can see in the map I have attached that there seems to be two circular highways around the Buffalo area. 

-On their way back East from California, and on the way to NYC, HH and Rita wake up after a night of drunken revelry in a hotel, which ends up being in Grainball.

A few other miscellaneous clues: HH also describes Grainball as "ball-playing, Bible-reading..." and a place "where they hold conventions and where labeled, fat, pink men stagger around, all first names and business and booze...(Ch. 26, P. 2, 4)" I could not find much on the religious history of Buffalo, and while there certainly were sports teams before and during publication, the major franchise Buffalo Bills were established in 1960. Lastly, this may be from distant and possibly invented parts of my memory, but Buffalo does seem like a city for business conventions.

I know this is a trivial decoding, but it is the first one I have found in a VN novel (To the best of my knowledge; I did searches and could not find anyone else having made this connection). I am new to this community, and so I just wanted to say hello and provide a little nugget for the good people who love VN's work.

Please let me know if you have any comments, or if you have a different theory!




3 years 7 months ago

Hi Daniel,

There are no conventions or anything like that in Forum: informal or formal tone both are perfect ;) And certainly no trivial query. It is an interesting question and I've been browsing through Zimmer (here) in hope of something. Perhaps a Rowohlt edition of Lolita has something?

The Rita episode is wonderful, especially the quote you chose about Rita being: "sucked into the lunar orbit of the town, and would be following the flood-lit drive that encircled it."

I've been looking into it and asking around; hopefully something will turn up. Actually it seems like grain as sustenance and baseball as pastime is still too broad to zero in, but your suggestion could be quite sound.


3 years 7 months ago

In reply to by Shakeeb_Arzoo

Hi Shakeeb,

Thank you for your suggestions and response. I think I came across a similar Zimmer map for Ada, but I've never perused the Lolita one.

It definitely is a great episode, and so mysterious in its role in the work. 

I actually was thinking of "Grainball" as a singular reference to cereal being little balls of grains (though Cheerios are more like a torus shape I guess), but perhaps it is more of a reference to a sport!

Thanks again, and I'll reply if I find anything!


3 years 7 months ago

Hi Daniel,

Asked about this city among our more experienced Nabokovians, it seems like a little bit of mystery. Perhaps this reply can serve as a bit of encouragement:

"Unfortunately I have really no idea about the relevance of ball and grain for HH's story. But I am equally convinced that there is an explanation waiting to be undiscovered."

I will keep this in mind as well, when I revisit Lolita.


Alexey Sklyarenko

3 years 7 months ago

In reply to by Shakeeb_Arzoo

I suggest that Grainball needs a transposition of consonants: Grain + ball = brain + Gall. Franz Joseph Gall (1758-1828) was a German neuroanatomist, physiologist, and pioneer in the study of the localization of mental functions in the brain. Describing his life with Rita, Humbert mentions his cerebellum (a major feature of the hindbrain) and an amnesiac whom he and Rita found in their bed in Grainball:


The oddly prepubescent curve of her back, her ricey skin, her slow languorous columbine kisses kept me from mischief. It is not the artistic aptitudes that are secondary sexual characters as some shams and shamans have said; it is the other way around: sex is but the ancilla of art. One rather mysterious spree that had interesting repercussions I must notice. I had abandoned the search: the fiend was either in Tartary or burning away in my cerebellum (the flames fanned by my fancy and grief) but certainly not having Dolores Haze play champion tennis on the Pacific Coast. One afternoon, on our way back East, in a hideous hotel, the kind where they hold conventions and where labeled, fat, pink men stagger around, all first names and business and booze - dear Rita and I awoke to find a third in our room, a blond, almost albino, young fellow with white eyelashes and large transparent ears, whom neither Rita nor I recalled having ever seen in our sad lives. Sweating in thick dirty underwear, and with old army boots on, he lay snoring on the double bed beyond my chaste Rita. One of his front teeth was gone, amber pustules grew on his forehead. Ritochka enveloped her sinuous nudity in my raincoat - the first thing at hand; I slipped on a pair of candy-striped drawers; and we took stock of the situation. Five glasses had been used, which in the way of clues, was an embarrassment of riches. The door was not properly closed. A sweater and a pair of shapeless tan pants lay on the floor. We shook their owner into miserable consciousness. He was completely amnesic. In an accent that Rita recognized as pure Brooklynese, he peevishly insinuated that somehow we had purloined his (worthless) identity. We rushed him into his clothes and left him at the nearest hospital, realizing on the way that somehow or other after forgotten gyrations, we were in Grainball. Half a year later Rita wrote the doctor for news. Jack Humbertson as he had been tastelessly dubbed was still isolated from his personal past. Oh Mnemosyne, sweetest and most mischievous of muses! (2.26)

Rita's brother, the mayor of Grainball ("a prominent, pasty-faced, suspenders-and-painted-tie-wearing politician, mayor and boaster of his ball-playing, Bible-reading, grain-handling home town"), seems to be a cross between Khlestakov (a boaster) and the Town Mayor, the characters in Gogol's Revizor ("The Inspector," 1836). At the end of Gogol's play the Town Mayor says that all he sees are svinye ryla (pigs' snouts) instead of faces, and nothing more. Rita is a short form of Margarita, a feminine given name that means “pearl.” It brings to mind the saying [nolite mittere] margaritas ante porcos ([don't throw] pearls before swine). This saying is based on the verse found in the Bible (Matthew 7:6) in which it is written: "Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and rend you.” Btw., the Russian version of this saying is quoted by Gogol in his Foreword to Vechera na khutore bliz Dikan'ki ("Evenings on a Farm near Dikanka," 1832):


Бывало, поставит перед собою палец и, глядя на конец его, пойдет рассказывать – вычурно да хитро, как в печатных книжках! Иной раз слушаешь, слушаешь, да и раздумье нападет. Ничего, хоть убей, не понимаешь. Откуда он слов понабрался таких! Фома Григорьевич раз ему насчет этого славную сплел присказку: он рассказал ему, как один школьник, учившийся у какого-то дьяка грамоте, приехал к отцу и стал таким латыньщиком, что позабыл даже наш язык православный. Все слова сворачивает на ус. Лопата у него – лопатус, баба – бабус. Вот, случилось раз, пошли они вместе с отцом в поле. "Как это, батьку, по-вашему называется?" Да и наступил, разинувши рот, ногою на зубцы. Тот не успел собраться с ответом, как ручка, размахнувшись, поднялась и – хвать его по лбу. "Проклятые грабли! – закричал школьник, ухватясь рукою за лоб и подскочивши на аршин, – как же они, черт бы спихнул с мосту отца их, больно бьются!" Так вот как! Припомнил и имя, голубчик! Такая присказка не по душе пришлась затейливому рассказчику. Не говоря ни слова, встал он с места, расставил ноги свои посереди комнаты, нагнул голову немного вперед, засунул руку в задний карман горохового кафтана своего, вытащил круглую под лаком табакерку, щелкнул пальцем по намалеванной роже какого-то бусурманского генерала и, захвативши немалую порцию табаку, растертого с золою и листьями любистка, поднес ее коромыслом к носу и вытянул носом на лету всю кучку, не дотронувшись даже до большого пальца, – и всё ни слова; да как полез в другой карман и вынул синий в клетках бумажный платок, тогда только проворчал про себя чуть ли еще не поговорку: "Не мечите бисер перед свиньями"...


And there's another one. Well, he is such a fine young gentleman that you might easily take him for an assessor or landreeve. When he tells a story he holds up his finger and studies the tip of it, and he uses as many tricks and flourishes as you would find in a book. You listen and listen and begin to get puzzled; you find that for the life of you you can't make head or tail of it. Where did he pick up all those words Foma Grigoryevich once got back at him for this. He told him how a lad who had been having lessons from a deacon came back to his father such a Latin scholar that he had forgotten our own tongue: he put us on the end of all the words; a spade was "spadus," a grampa was "grampus." One day when he was with his father in the fields, he saw a rake and asked: "What do you call that, Father" And without looking what he was doing he stepped on the teeth of the rake. Before his father could answer, the handle swung up and hit the lad on the head. "Damn that rake!" he cried, clapping his hand to his forehead and jumping half a yard into the air. "May the devil shove its father off a bridge!" So he remembered the name after all!

The tale was not to the taste of our ingenious story-teller. He rose from his seat without a word, stood in the middle of the room with his legs apart, craned his head forward a little, thrust his hand into the back pocket of his pea-green coat, took out his round lacquer snuff-box, tapped the face of some Mussulman general, and, taking a good pinch of snuff powdered with wood ash and leaves of lovage, crooked his elbow, lifted his hand to his nose and sniffed the whole pinch up with no help from his thumb-all without a word. And it was only when he brought out a checked blue cotton handkerchief from another pocket that he muttered something - even think it was a saying - about not casting your pearls before swine.


One of the stories in "Evenings on a Farm near Dikanka" is Noch' pered Rozhdestvom ("Christmas Eve"). According to John Ray, Jr. (the author of the Foreword to Humbert's manuscript), Mrs. Richard F. Schiller (Lolita's married name) died in childbed, giving birth to a stillborn girl, on Christmas Day 1952, in Gray Star, a settlement in the remotest Northwest. Gogol died in 1852, exactly one hundred years before (in the times when Alaska was a part of the Russian empire). Tartary mentioned by Humbert ("the fiend was either in Tartary or burning away in my cerebellum") brings to mind Tartary, a country that occupies on Demonia (aka Antiterra, Earth's twin planet on which VN's novel Ada, 1969, is set) the territory of the Soviet Russia:


Of course, today, after great anti-L years of reactionary delusion have gone by (more or less!) and our sleek little machines, Faragod bless them, hum again after a fashion, as they did in the first half of the nineteenth century, the mere geographic aspect of the affair possesses its redeeming comic side, like those patterns of brass marquetry, and bric-à-Braques, and the ormolu horrors that meant ‘art’ to our humorless forefathers. For, indeed, none can deny the presence of something highly ludicrous in the very configurations that were solemnly purported to represent a varicolored map of Terra. Ved’ (‘it is, isn’t it’) sidesplitting to imagine that ‘Russia,’ instead of being a quaint synonym of Estoty, the American province extending from the Arctic no longer vicious Circle to the United States proper, was on Terra the name of a country, transferred as if by some sleight of land across the ha-ha of a doubled ocean to the opposite hemisphere where it sprawled over all of today’s Tartary, from Kurland to the Kuriles! But (even more absurdly), if, in Terrestrial spatial terms, the Amerussia of Abraham Milton was split into its components, with tangible water and ice separating the political, rather than poetical, notions of ‘America’ and ‘Russia,’ a more complicated and even more preposterous discrepancy arose in regard to time — not only because the history of each part of the amalgam did not quite match the history of each counterpart in its discrete condition, but because a gap of up to a hundred years one way or another existed between the two earths; a gap marked by a bizarre confusion of directional signs at the crossroads of passing time with not all the no-longers of one world corresponding to the not-yets of the other. It was owing, among other things, to this ‘scientifically ungraspable’ concourse of divergences that minds bien rangés (not apt to unhobble hobgoblins) rejected Terra as a fad or a fantom, and deranged minds (ready to plunge into any abyss) accepted it in support and token of their own irrationality. (1.3)


On Antiterra VN's Lolita is known as The Gitanilla, a novel by the Spanish writer Osberg (Lolita is the gitanilla's name). Osberg is an anagram of Borges (an Argentinian writer). Describing his performance as Mascodagama, Van Veen (the narrator and main character in Ada) mentions Rita, his partner in the tango (that Van dances on his hands) Pod znoynym nebom Argentiny (Neath the sultry sky of Argentina):


Neither was the sheer physical pleasure of maniambulation a negligible factor, and the peacock blotches with which the carpet stained the palms of his hands during his gloveless dance routine seemed to be the reflections of a richly colored nether world that he had been the first to discover. For the tango, which completed his number on his last tour, he was given a partner, a Crimean cabaret dancer in a very short scintillating frock cut very low on the back. She sang the tango tune in Russian:

Pod znóynïm nébom Argentínï,

Pod strástnïy góvor mandolinï

‘Neath sultry sky of Argentina,

To the hot hum of mandolina

Fragile, red-haired ‘Rita’ (he never learned her real name), a pretty Karaite from Chufut Kale, where, she nostalgically said, the Crimean cornel, kizil’, bloomed yellow among the arid rocks, bore an odd resemblance to Lucette as she was to look ten years later. During their dance, all Van saw of her were her silver slippers turning and marching nimbly in rhythm with the soles of his hands. He recouped himself at rehearsals, and one night asked her for an assignation. She indignantly refused, saying she adored her husband (the make-up fellow) and loathed England. (1.30)


In his farewell letter to Marina (Van's, Ada's and Lucette's mother) Demon Veen (Van's and Ada's father) mentions his aunt's ranch, near Lolita, Texas:


‘Adieu. Perhaps it is better thus,’ wrote Demon to Marina in mid-April, 1869 (the letter may be either a copy in his calligraphic hand or the unposted original), ‘for whatever bliss might have attended our married life, and however long that blissful life might have lasted, one image I shall not forget and will not forgive. Let it sink in, my dear. Let me repeat it in such terms as a stage performer can appreciate. You had gone to Boston to see an old aunt — a cliché, but the truth for the nonce — and I had gone to my aunt’s ranch near Lolita, Texas. Early one February morning (around noon chez vous) I rang you up at your hotel from a roadside booth of pure crystal still tear-stained after a tremendous thunderstorm to ask you to fly over at once, because I, Demon, rattling my crumpled wings and cursing the automatic dorophone, could not live without you and because I wished you to see, with me holding you, the daze of desert flowers that the rain had brought out. Your voice was remote but sweet; you said you were in Eve’s state, hold the line, let me put on a penyuar. Instead, blocking my ear, you spoke, I suppose, to the man with whom you had spent the night (and whom I would have dispatched, had I not been overeager to castrate him). Now that is the sketch made by a young artist in Parma, in the sixteenth century, for the fresco of our destiny, in a prophetic trance, and coinciding, except for the apple of terrible knowledge, with an image repeated in two men’s minds. Your runaway maid, by the way, has been found by the police in a brothel here and will be shipped to you as soon as she is sufficiently stuffed with mercury.’ (1.2)


Darkbloom ('Notes to Ada'): Lolita, Texas: this town exists, or, rather, existed, for it has been renamed, I believe, after the appearance of the notorious novel.


(See also the updated version my latest post "Rita, Hegel and Schlegel in Lolita." As to this post, I may write a more detailed version for my page of the forum - visited so seldom by fellow Nabokovians.)

Hi Alexey,

Thank you for your response and wonderfully insightful scholarship.

Brain + Gall makes a lot of sense, especially considering the focused discussion of the brain and memory in this episode. I also found the mention of the cerebellum notable because I couldn't recall any other specific brain-anatomy references by VN. It's such an interesting and mysterious little add-on in the structure of the brain, and as a psychology minor I learned that even though the general interpretation is that the cerebellum is mostly responsible for the coordination of movement, its full role is not very well understood.

The allusion to Gogol is fascinating. I've only read The Nose and Diary of a Madman, but I know Nabokov wrote a biography and loved his work, so of course that reference follows. 

I was surprised that VN assigned the Antiterra version of Lolita to Borges because I was under the impression that that VN was not a fan of Borges as a peer author.

I will be sure to read your post! I was a little confused about the structure of the site as a new user, and hopefully in the future I can maybe use my website building experience to give The Nabokovian a more modern layout that better highlights the areas of discussion! 

Ah, of course, Jack Humbertson (the amnesiac whom Humbert and Rita find snoring in their bed) must be the nose (or some different run-away organ) of one of those labeled, fat, pink men who stagger around the hotel where they hold conventions, all first names and business and booze. (See my post "Grainball & Jack Humbertson in Lolita")


3 years 7 months ago

Welcome, Daniel,

The description, "ball-playing, Bible-reading, grain-handling home town" sounds to me more like Chicago: It's much more prominent as a ball-playing city (Cubs, Bears, Bulls, White Sox); It is a major center of grain-handling (Chicago Board of Trade futures etc.); Pious Mid-westerners meet with Bible-belt Southern influx born-agains; Chicago is a major convention center (who wants to go to Buffalo?)  

Also, the "flood-lit drive that encircled it — "going round and round,” is probably Chicago's "Loop" area and Lakeshore Dr.


Alexey Sklyarenko

3 years 7 months ago

In reply to by MARYROSS

In Odnoetazhnaya America ("One-storied America," 1937) Ilf and Petrov describe their road trip across the USA and mention Tony Chermak, the corrupted mayor of Chicago (and a friend of President Franklyn D. Roosevelt):


Чикагский ракет – самый знаменитый ракет в Америке. В Чикаго был мэр, по фамилии Чермак. Он вышел из рабочих, побывал в профсоюзных вождях и пользовался большой популярностью. Он даже дружил с нынешним президентом Рузвельтом, Они даже называли друг друга первым именем, так сказать на «ты»: он Рузвельта – Фрэнк, а Рузвельт его – Тонни. Рабочие говорили о нем: «Тонни – наш рабочий человек. Уж этот не подведет». Газеты писали о трогательной дружбе президента с простым рабочим (видите, дети, чего может достичь в Америке человек своими мозолистыми руками!). Года два или три тому назад Чермака убили. После него осталось три миллиона долларов и пятьдесят тайных публичных домов, которые, оказывается, содержал расторопный Тонни. Итак – мэром Чикаго некоторое время был ракетир. (Chapter 17 "The Terrible City of Chicago")


In Ilf & Petrov's novel Zolotoy telyonok ("The Golden Calf," 1931) Ostap Bender dances solo a tango to the tune Pod znoynym nebom Argentiny. In the same novel the Roman Catholic priests Moroshek and Kushakovski охмуряют (try to seduce) their compatriot Adam Kozlevich (the driver of the Antelope Gnu car) pod sladkiy lepet mandoliny ("to the sweet murmer of mandolina"). In Ada Van dances a tango on his hands to the tune (sung by Rita, Van's tango partner) Pod znoynym nebom Argentiny, / pod strastnyi govor mandoliny.


Like Humbert, Ostap Bender (the main character in "The Twelve Chairs," 1928, and "The Golden Calf") often appeals to the imaginary gentlemen of the jury. 


3 years 7 months ago

In reply to by MARYROSS

Thank you, Mary!

This certainly seems like an interpretation with a stronger basis than mine. I have a brother who lives in Chicago, so I'll have to ask him about the Loop! 

For whatever reason, I pictured Grainball as a smaller city, leading me to Buffalo. Also the air of Buffalo smelling like cereal was such a charming factoid that it reminded me of a VN description.

(also, my memories of office workers and Buffalo conventions was that they always dreaded attending too)


3 years 7 months ago

Gerard de Vries suggests a tempting alternative that perhaps the focus in Grainball is on Grai[-]nball, i.e. the gray in Grainball.

He writes:

Rita (“Ritochka”) is drawn to "Grai[-]nball" City “like a God-damn mulberry moth”, that is, to 'Grai' - Star, like Shelley’s "moth". Rita will most likely have ended her life in “Bible-reading” Grainball City that pulled her with “a fatal attraction.” Dolly died in childbirth in Gray Star (“the capital town of the book”) on Christmas day, a date that derives it significance from the Bible. Humbert also calls his destination his “gray goal” (Pt. 2, Ch. 28). Dolly’s preparation for her escape, saving money, is hidden behind “Whistler’s Mother” (Pt. 2,Ch. 7), a painting titled “Arrangement in Gray and Black”. Valeria (Valechka) also died in childbirth after the hair of her husband had turned “gray,” and when Humbert tried to learn more about her life in the US he comes across a “Bible” (Pt. 1, Ch. 8).

Also, these happy hunts leads to the fact that the color gray is formed by mixing black and white, colors impersonated by Dr. Blanche Schwarzmann, Melanie Weiss, and Ivor Black, and also implied in black Coalmont from where Dolly moved to white Alaska. Lolita itself begins with Ray's foreword, while Dolly's last spoken word in the book is 'Ray' (Pt. 2, Ch. 32). Does it then follow that Grainball City not only resembles Gray Star but Pasadena as well, as it is a citizen of this city who is Humbert’s last informant about the fate of his former wife Rita.


3 years 7 months ago

In reply to by Shakeeb_Arzoo

Interesting! My immediate Nabokov-association with gray is in Ada about the Texture of Time:

Yes. Maybe the only thing that hints at a sense of Time is rhythm; not the recurrent beats of the rhythm but the gap between two such beats, the gray gap between black beats: the Tender Interval. (Part 4, Ch.1)

The Rita episode seems, to me at least, like a "grey gap" between the major plot points of the work? I have nowhere near the knowledge to speculate on the significance of a color to VN hahaha, so I'll just leave it at that. 

I always thought Blanche Schwarzmann was funny, but I didn't know there were similar names, so thanks!


3 years 7 months ago

Gray: John Shade is 'gray' also, for what that's worth. I wasn't aware of this name-motif. Is it the color, or the idea of combined opposites? I have maintained that Shade, the 'bad gray poet', is not as ideal as he seems and has a dark side.

Daniel, I think Buffalo is still a contender – more 'grey' than Chicago, but then I think Chicago might have more allure for Rita. It doesn't really matter; the point is that the city is 'poshlostian' and attracts at the lowest levels. I agree with you about the 'grey gap." When reading Lolita and I get to the Rita episode, I have just thought, "what's this?" I start to lose all interest. It doesn't seem necessary to the story, except maybe to show that some time passes. But why not just say a few words to indicate that, without all the detail. Did VN feel he had to demonstrate that HH was capable of being a  'normal' man?