Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0021116, Fri, 31 Dec 2010 01:55:19 -0200

Jane Austen, Mark Twain and Vladimir Nabokov ...
Re: [NABOKV-L] Jane Austen, Mark Twain and Vladimir Nabokov ...Stan Kelly-Bootle writes: "Arnie Perlstein's interesting comments reveal some of the paradoxes inherent in language, and especially those that bedevil our honest assessment of particular quotations from Nabokov's diverse writings. First: what does it mean to claim that there's a unique mot juste capable of conveying a 'thought' with 'utmost precision?'...The surrounding, persistent myth is that of the Divine King Webster II, who 'knows' and 'defines' the fixed semantic spread of each word over spacetime, whereas ever-changing usages, contextual nuances, and idioms is the Great Dictator... 'word-precision' is very much subjective and, indeed, overrated."

JM: Nabokov could painstakingly dwell over the slippery meaning of words, but he was also able to listen to the unravished forms of silence. Although, as a translator, he toiled to reach a unique "mot juste," he often confessed his inability to find it and he offered, in exchange, an ambitious description of the external reality (say, the one of Pushkin's EO, rhyme, patterns and St. Petersburg's geography, people,arts, etc), related to its emergence and subsequent uses. As I see it, Nabokov was not after a fixed meaning, nor a blind subject to King Webster II, but a master in the use of signifiers that spark off non-verbal effects along our spine.

It is very hard to ignore the endless centrifugal associations Nabokov evokes in us. The writer Sebastian Knight (quoted by V.) once observed how difficult it was to follow a single line of ideas while he was writing a novel. Nabokov (who probably suffered from the same symptoms as SK's) solved his problem rather neatly. By suppressing part of the content related to his allusions, he let bits of "plums" stick out from his texts, so that allusions, with their various over-determined nodes, will now fall to the lot of Nabokovian commentators, those who try to collect these various "plums."

For example. In the paragraph in which he deals with the "details of the L disaster (and I do not mean Elevated)" we learn that they "had the singular effect of both causing and cursing the notion of 'Terra' ...too well-known historically, and too obscene spiritually, to be treated at length in a book addressed to young laymen and lemans - and not to grave men or gravemen." In this context, 'laymen and lemans" and "grave men or gravemen," may stimulate us to reconsider his choice of the letter "L" ("Lettrocalamity"*). Is it possible to relate it to a similarly-sounding word, associated to death, found in RLSK, namely "Lehman"? Would "leman-lover" and its romantic and sexual innuendoes present themselves in relation to Sebastian's unhappy love-affairs and "heart-failure"? "She died of heart-failure (Lehmann's disease)" [... ] "I suppose Sebastian already knew from what exact heart-disease he was suffering. His mother had died of the same complaint, a rather rare variety of angina pectoris, called by some doctors 'Lehmann's disease'."
Apparently not.

Priscilla Meyer ("Nabokov and the Spirits: Dolorous Haze--Hazel Shade" Nabokov's World. Ed. Jane Grayson, Priscilla Meyer and Arnold McMillin. London: Macmillan, 2001. 88-103. ) writes:
" Nabokov's interest in spiritual phenomena is already clear in The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (1938).11 The heart problem that carries off Sebastian,'Lehmann's disease,' is named for Alfred Georg Lehmann (1858-1921), a Dane who wrote about colored hearing, and who compiled a detailed history of the occult, witchcraft and spiritualism, the German translation of which, Aberglaube und Zauberei (Superstition and Witchcraft), published in 1908, contains material about the materialisation and photographing of spirits, and cites, among many others, A. R. Wallace, F. W. H. Myers and the SPR.12. Sebastian is the first in a series of Nabokov's artists who die of some unspecified affliction of the heart, and each death, physical or metaphorical, is associated with a set of three motifs: 1) the transition from 999 to 1000, 2) a lake or sea, and 3) indications of the uncanny. When Sebastian's diagnosis is made, he and Clare sense a gnome, a brownie and eerieness in the German beechwood on the coast by a 'steely grey sea' (88). The novel begins with Sebastian's birth in 1899 together with the record of the day's weather kept by Olga Olegovna Orlova (OOO), and is written by V. in nearly invisible collaboration with the spirit world."

However, "Lehm," in German, means clay, loam, i.e., humus and mortality. Perhaps the hint is here unidirectional. Ada's "leman" won't serve to reveal anything about RLSK's "Lehman," but the play with "leman/gravemen" in it might have arisen, even unconsciously, because of a lingering overall meaning of RLSK, a novel in which the theme of a tragic love affair, renunciation, exile and death prevail.

Stan Kelly-Bootle remarks that " 'word precision' is very much subjective," referring to a different issue from the one I'm raising now, when annotators try to establish what particular, or exclusive, meanings are to be found in a Nabokovian sentence, that is, which pertain to the annotator's subjectivity and idiosynchratic distortions, which are Nabokov's own.

* Cf. 147.1: "Lettrocalamity (Vanvitelli's old joke!)": There is no Giorgio Vanvitelli...but there is a Luigi Vanvitelli (1700-1770), the son of the Dutch painter Gaspard Van Wittel (1653-1736), but seems to be unrelated to the Lettrocalamity imagined here.
Soundwise, we can see that the "L" in "Lettrocalamity" suggests "Lucette" and "Vanvitelli" suggests "Van Veen". Lettrocalamity, as Nabokov notes, means "electromagnet," which refers to the casette tape recorder that Van and Ada would have used had it not been forbidden. In Italian the word divides into "elettro" and "calamita" suggesting "electric calamity," the "L disaster" mentioned in Chapter 3 (17:1). Annotations to Ada (7), Kyoto circle: vnjapan.org/main/ada/notes.22.24.pdf

Search archive with Google:

Contact the Editors: mailto:nabokv-l@utk.edu,nabokv-l@holycross.edu
Visit Zembla: http://www.libraries.psu.edu/nabokov/zembla.htm
View Nabokv-L policies: http://web.utk.edu/~sblackwe/EDNote.htm
Visit "Nabokov Online Journal:" http://www.nabokovonline.com

Manage subscription options: http://listserv.ucsb.edu/