Chip Kidd on VN Covers

December 4th, 2009

Brian Boyd and Martin Amis weren’t the only ones working the podium at “A Celebration of Vladimir Nabokov” at the 92nd St. Y in New York City on 16 November. The third one was Chip Kidd. Kidd (see his website at is a prolific designer—of, among other things, books and book covers—and a writer. The look of objects, two and three dimensional, obviously mean a lot to him. At the 92nd St. Y he wore striking glasses (from Walter Gropius?) and a jacket of black, white, and (I think; I’m terrible with colors) maroon vertical stripes that appeared to proceed him on the stage and, before he had even spoken a word, electrified his presence.

Kidd began his turn by reading excerpts from published letters in which VN excoriated publishers, editors, and their scuttling assistants with his reactions to their jacket and paperback cover submissions. Sometimes VN fired after his quarry had taken flight and was already sitting on store shelves. He hated, with good reason, the cover of the already published paperback Pnin (three bobby-soxed coeds in the foreground, a rumpled, diminished Pnin in the background) that Avon issued in 1959. Kidd went on to read VN’s remarks on other book covers. VN’s main points were, in so many words, “be biologically accurate”, “be textually accurate”, and, when inspiration or knowledge fails, use simple black type. I have to say that one publisher, Putnam, seemed to catch on.

VN would have enjoyed the edgy covers Kidd designed for the Portuguese publisher Companhia Das Letras. Kidd showed images of them as they were meant to be seen by the prospective book buyer: With their belly bands on and then with them off. The covers were witty, strongly graphic, in-your-face, often juxtaposed images causing us in the audience first to feel the neck snap of recognition and then to laugh. (I’ll show you some of those covers in another posting.) Kidd also participated in John Gall’s project to redesign almost all of the covers in the Vintage paperback issues of VN’s works (see The Nabokov Collection at The Design Observer Group). Kidd himself designed the Ada cover.

Kidd obviously relished getting the chance to design his first Nabokov first edition. And not just the jacket for Laura, but the whole book, with the need to solve the problem of how to present 138 pencil-written index cards. We have all seen it, an absolutely original, and memorable cover. (Isn’t that what Prof. Sorbeck of The Cheese Monkeys was after in his students?). Kidd spoke of how Sonny Mehta, the publisher and editor-in-chief of Knopf, called him into his office and presented him with the job. An early draft had a background-foreground gradient, a left-to-right fade of the text into the background, but with the text in black and the background in white. Some of the staff felt no one would be able to decipher a cover that said “Vladi | Nabo | The Ori | of Lau”. But Kidd pointed out that since a giant campaign was planned for the book, everyone would know what it was. Sonny liked it. But he suggested that Kidd try inverting the foreground and background. Kidd liked that.

As for the other elements of the book design, Kidd felt he had to avoid mating a separate container of cards somehow attached to the book. He didn’t want to create a kind of boxed gift set. The punch-out cards were inspired in part, he said, by an old set of superhero punch-outs he owned. In fact, Kidd pointed out that if you take Laura and “actually punch out all of the cards, you get a surprise”. He didn’t reveal what that surprise is. And, insane bibliomaniac that I am, I haven’t had the guts to desecrate my copy of the book and actually do the punching out. I’ve examined the book carefully and still can’t figure out what he meant. Kidd went on to point out other aspects of his book design, including his use of extra-heavy paper, of images of the first and last cards on the book’s binding, and of fading backgrounds and type on the flaps and endpapers.

When you look at your copy of the book, you quickly notice Kidd’s use of red for highlighting, dotted lines for outlining, an implied playing card-like design with Nabokov’s initials on the book’s last page, and the very quirky placement of the dust jacket’s “Printed in …” and copyright statement. You may also notice a mistake: The date on the title page is wrong.

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For Sale: The Original of The Original of Laura (2)

November 14th, 2009

To continue from my previous posting about Christie’s 4 December auction of VN’s index cards/manuscript of The Original of Laura.

On 5 May 2004, the well-known French auction house Tajan offered 104 lots from Dmitri Nabokov’s personal library of inscribed and lepidopterized presentation copies of his father’s works along with minor manuscript material and books about VN. Some of the books included annotations and corrections. The estimated prices were high, very high. Three had a top estimate of 100,000 €. The catalog was an expensive affair, issued in hardcover.

Though I have never found direct information on exactly what happened, I heard through the grapevine that the auction was a disaster and that nothing was sold. In fact, Tajan didn’t issue on paper or online a list of the auction results. What happened? I think that those 104 lots were just too many for the Nabokov market to absorb at one time and the estimated prices (and therefore the reserves) were simply too dear to potential buyers. Tajan must have spent a lot of money on preparing for the auction and got nothing for its efforts (depending on whatever deal it struck with Dmitri). And Dmitri had to take all of his books back home.

So here at Christie’s we have, quantitatively, a much more modest offering: one manuscript (very much in the public’s literary eye today) and five inscribed editions. The five books have estimates from a low of $7,000-10,000 to a high of $10,000-15,000. These are justifiable estimates for copies inscribed to close members of the family outside of the very inner circle of Véra and Dmitri.

And the 138 index cards? I ask myself, How often does a novel by a major literary figure come on the market? Extremely rarely. I mentally turn the cards over in my hands. This is terra incognita. This is at the very high end of the literary market. I see a shot into the stratosphere that will, like a cloud-seeding experiment, affect everything VN under it. So for now, unsatisfyingly, I decline to come to a conclusion. I’ll attend and see what happens and then reach for an understanding.

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For Sale: The Original of the Original of Laura

November 12th, 2009
Christie’s auction of The Original of Laura manuscript

Christie’s auction of The Original of Laura manuscript

For sale: The original of The Original of Laura.

No, not the copy, the published version, that goes on sale on 17 November, but the actual index cards.

Dmitri Nabokov         has consigned the 138 index cards to the New York branch of Christie’s for the “Fine Printed Books and Manuscripts” auction on Friday afternoon, 4 December. The pre-auction estimate (lot 95) is $400,000-600,000. The catalog for the auction (number 2227) features a cover photo of the first card of the novel (“The Original of Laura | Ch. One | Her husband, she answered, was a | writer too—at least, after a fashion. | …”) and an often seen photo of VN by Jerry Bauer. Pages 50-53 contain a description of the origins of the manuscript, a depiction of the fragmentary novel, and comments about its publication. The catalog text reads in large part as if it were written by Dmitri Nabokov        . There are further photos of the index cards, many of which are deliberately blurred totally beyond legibility. I don’t know why.

Also in the auction (lots 96-100) are five of VN’s books inscribed and lepidopterized to Véra’s sister, Sonia Slonim, and Véra’s cousin, Anna Feigen. Their auction estimates range from $7,000-10,000 to $10,000-15,000.

It’s exciting stuff. I’m not aware of any VN novel manuscripts ever being offered at auction. Maybe a story or a poem, but not a novel. One reason is that the great bulk of VN manuscripts and other material was sold to the Berg Collection at the New York Public Library in 1991 or given to the Library of Congress. But I honestly don’t expect the 138 TOoL cards to get knocked down near the estimated prices. Unless one of those bonus baby bankers is a VN collector.

I’ll have more to say.

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Looking Closely at Sebastian Knight

September 2nd, 2009

The first edition of VN’s first novel in English, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, is a bibliographic hybrid in ways I wasn’t fully aware of in the 1980s when I was pulling my bibliography together. Published by New Directions in 1941, TRLoSK, I have determined, was issued in anywhere from five to eight possible combinations of bindings, labels, and dust jackets. (I say “five to eight” because there may be as many as three black swans in the forms of different binding/label/dust jacket combinations but which I haven’t yet found to exist.)

Publication Date

Before getting to those combinations, let’s look for a moment at the publication date.  A number of copies (I see three for sale right now on the internet; I have examined many others), all in the red, rough burlap cloth, have


stamped on the front free endpaper and always the one date of “DEC 12 1941” separately stamped on the underlining. (I can get very picky here. I’ve seen the date in two different stampings, one with the “12” in the same font as the “1941” and one with the “12” in a different font. All of the “DEC”’s and “1941”’s are the same. This implies that at least in some cases a single date consists of at least two separate physical stamping actions. But since it is not unusual for a review or pre-publication copy of a book to have been distributed in slightly or even subtly different forms, I’m going to ignore these differences here.)

The U.S. Copyright Office lists a publication date of 6 December 1941. Brian Boyd (Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years, p. 40) gives an 18 December date. (Boyd tells me that this is “less than robust”; it is the date of the novel’s first review, “by Nabokov’s friend Amy Kelly in the Wellesley College News”.) And one copy with the stamped publication date has, in addition, a handwritten “12/5/41”.

Of course, what really counts as a publication date is when the book is offered for sale before the public (as Carter points out in his clear-headed ABC for Book Collectors). I don’t yet know exactly when TRLoSK was placed on sale, probably sometime in the first half of December. Until I turn up clear evidence (ads, publisher’s records), I am going to stand consistent and stick with the date I used in my bibliography: 6 December 1941.

Bindings, Labels, and Dust Jackets

Back to bindings, labels, and dust jackets. They come in a triplet of pairs.

The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, short-line label

The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, rough cloth with short-line label

The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, long-line label

The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, smooth cloth with long-line label

BINDINGS: Rough cloth or smooth cloth. Well-known and very clear differences, here shown with labels and their measurements.

The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, short-line label

The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, detail of short-line (2.7 cm) label

The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, long-line label

The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, detail of long-line (3.0 cm) label

LABELS: Short line or long line. The two different front-cover labels are physically the same size, 6.1 X 5.8 cm. The leafy borders are also the same size, 5.0 X 4.5 cm. But the text lines are different lengths. One is about 2.7 cm. long, the other about 3.0 cm. In fact, a close examination shows that the fonts used on the two labels are slightly different. In particular, look at each “a”, “e”, “i”, “g”, “R”, and “s”.

The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, dust jacket, front, “Nabokov” variant

The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, dust jacket, front, “Nabokov” variant

The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, dust jacket, front, “Nabokoff” variant

The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, dust jacket, front, “Nabokoff” variant

DUST JACKETS: “Nabokov” spelling or “Nabokoff” spelling. One variant dust jacket has the author’s name spelled “Nabokov” throughout, his first name spelled “Vladimir” at the top of the front flap, and the small heading “Other New Directions Books” on the back flap. The other variant has “Nabokoff” throughout, his first name misspelled “Valdimir” on the front flap, and the small heading on the back flap is “NEW DIRECTIONS FICTION”.

We know from the publisher’s records that New Directions printed 1500 copies of TRLoSK in 1941, but bound only 749 for distribution at that time. The balance of the printing was put into a warehouse and only bound and issued for sale in 1945. That is why all binding variations of TRLoSK are exactly the same internally with VN’s name spelled “Nabokov” on the title page. All evidence points to the first issue being bound in the rough red cloth and the second being in the smooth red cloth.

I have found so far that all paper labels spell the author as “Nabokov”. But the short-line labels appear only on the first issue. A mixture of labels with the two different line lengths appears indiscriminately on the second issue. In addition, I have found that the initial binding in the rough cloth is always wrapped with a “Nabokov” dust jacket. But only in the second binding in smooth cloth does the spelling “Nabokoff” appear on some dust jackets.

What does this mean? The fact that Nabokov’s name is often spelled in English with an “ff” before the 1940s (on the 1936 John Long Camera Obscura and the 1937 John Long  Despair as “Nabokoff-Sirin”, on the 1938 Bobbs-Merrill Laughter in the Dark) and consistently with a “v” beginning sometime in the 1940s implies that the first designed and printed dust jacket was probably the one with the “ff” and the misspelled first name on the front flap. But the first issued dust jacket was the one with the “v”. Did the publisher first have the “ff” jacket printed, pick up on the mistake, put it aside, redesign and print the “v” jacket, and use it for the first issue? And then during the second issue four years later, did the publisher instruct the binder to use the “ff” and the “v” jackets indiscriminately? That’s one possibility.

In summary, these are the observed combinations:

These are the priorities of issuance:
And these are the conclusions:
Copies of TRLoSK in both bindings are relatively easy to come by. But copies with either dust jacket are much harder to find and dearer to buy.

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John Shade’s Word Golf

September 1st, 2009

After much vacation and many travels, I’ve returned to the blog. And my first posting has nothing to do with bibliography, something to do with VN, and more to do with a favorite VN pastime, word games.

From yesterday’s (31 August 2009) New York Times, Science Section, “After the Transistor, a Leap Into the Microcosm” by John Markoff, third paragraph, third sentence: “The leaking electrons make it more difficult to know when a transistor is in an on or off state, the information that makes electronic computing possible.”

Have you ever seen five two letter words (here, “is in an on or”) used consecutively (and unconsciously, I presume) in one sentence in a piece of journalism? And even more startlingly, the five form, in their written order, a perfect “word golf” sequence, from “is” to “or”.

As you certainly know, word golf was a hobby of John Shade, the American poet who was (or perhaps wasn’t) killed by Jakob Gradus in Pale Fire. A word golf solver takes a starting word and creates a chain of successive words by changing only one letter at each step, until he/she has reached the target word. As Charles Kinbote points out, you can do a word golf sequence with hate-love in three steps, lass-male in four (lass-mass-mars-mare-male) and live-dead in five (with “lend” in the middle).

The five-word is-or sequence is obviously not the shortest possible, as word golf calls for. You could do it in two steps if you use the slightly uncommon word “os” as the intermediary. There are other possibilities. But the point here is that it was done by chance.

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Playboy Woos, Laura Succumbs

July 8th, 2009

Playboy wins. VN’s old stomping ground, the first serial-rights publisher of many of his works, has this time acquired the first serial rights to The Original of Laura. The news was detailed yesterday in The New York Observer.

Knopf will publish the full work in November, on either the 3rd or the 17th, depending on your source. The New Yorker, another magazine VN had a long relationship with, was expected to grab the rights. But, according to the Observer story, the magazine’s fiction department turned it down. I suspect that Andrew Wylie, Nabokov’s agent, was asking for too much money. Or they didn’t want to publish such a fragmentary work as TOoL certainly is. Remember that the novel is subtitled “A novel in fragments”.

The most interesting part of the Observer story is the fact that Playboy plans to run the excerpt in its December issue—which would hit the stands on 10 November, a week before Knopf issues its book—to the length of 5000 words. That’s a big chunk—half of the 10,000-word manuscript.

Mixed in with those 10,000 words are emendations in brackets by the transcribers of the cards, annotations by VN, and notes by his son Dmitri. Of the 138 cards on which VN composed the fragments of his novel, 63 are marked as the first five chapters (Ch. 1, cards 1-20; Ch. 2, 21-38; Ch. 3, 39-49; Ch.4, 50-53; Ch. 5, 54-63). Cards 64-78 and 79-87 are provisionally noted as chapters 6 and 7. Cards 88-92 are headed (by VN? by an editor?) “Medical Intermezzo”. And there is a “[Last Chapter]” comprising cards 93-138. However, after the first two cards of the “Medical Intermezzo” (88 and 89), a provisional ending, based on VN’s annotations, has been constructed from cards 93-94 and 112-114. Apparently because VN annotated cards 112-114 with the letter Z,  it is called chapter 26.

It is clear that TOoL is truly “a novel in fragments”. And the fragments contain only eight chapters (plus an intermezzo) of the supposed 26 chapters of the fully-imagined novel. This assumes, of course, that I haven’t missed the train that this project is travelling on and that the elements I describe haven’t been changed by the editors.

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Another Fake Inscription (3)

June 29th, 2009

More information has emerged about the fraudulent VN-inscribed books on eBay. The rare book dealer who bought one from the online auction site recently points out that the perpetrator of the fraud has used other online identities and is fighting return of the payment.

Brainerd Phillipson, the rare book dealer in Holliston, MA, has sent me a follow-up email with information from Ivo de Galan, another person who has had dealings with the forger. Phillipson wrote me:

This morning [25 June] I received the following email from Ivo de Galan informing me that he knew about the fake Nabokov “ADA” early on. Apparently, the work was done by a group of forgers who have been preying on eager collectors.

Here is the email Phillipson received from de Galan:

The book from Nabokov, is indeed a fake. For well over a month I’ve been telling ebay they are the former pepperberry08 famous for forging autographs. Last year they were caught redhanded, and this is their new id. Sadly eBay does not care about my telling them. They stole 342 from me, and need to be stopped. (for the amount of fraud they commit is tens of thousands, these are big time crooks.
Sorry about your loss, which could have been avoided if eBay would have listened…

Phillipson wrote back to de Galan:

Thank you very much for your timely information about the fake Nabokov inscription in “ADA.” Once I ascertained that the book was a fake, I returned it in exactly the same condition, only to have the seller Carlos Melgar (Vivafandango) claim that it was not the same book. He is currently appealing.
However, PayPal has been very supportive in covering my initial loss, and I have forwarded your email to them.

Again, I strongly urge anyone who sees an inscribed VN book on eBay, or any other such site, to look at the item very, very carefully before making a commitment to buy it. Ask for the provenance and quality photos of the book first. Look at the seller’s response skeptically. Send email inquiries to dealers and collectors who are familiar with VN material. Send me an inquiry. Post a comment to this blog. The odds are very high that someone selling a VN-inscribed book in an unvetted public (that is, non-dealer, non-personal) marketplace is perpetrating fraud.

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Library of Congress Unseals VN Papers Today

June 23rd, 2009

The Library of Congress today is making available to the public a set of VN papers that had been, with Dmitri Nabokov’s permission, restricted to researchers until now. Is it really true, according to an LoC statement some years ago, that the Nabokov writings in it will be in the public domain?

In 2004, the LoC said that the papers were in containers 1-20 and OV-1. A detailed list of containers 1-15, called a “complete listing”, was published in 1980 by The Vladimir Nabokov Research Newsletter (now The Nabokovian), IV, pp. 20-34. The current LoC online catalog describes the collection as containing in full 7000 items in 22 containers and one oversized container and 13 reels of microfilm dating from 1918-1974. I cannot account for the discrepancies (15 or 21 or 23) in the container counts.

Here is the beginning of a link to the LoC records.

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Tooling Along Towards Laura (3)

June 20th, 2009
The Original of Laura cover design

The Original of Laura cover design

Knopf has unveiled an outstanding cover for the forthcoming posthumous publication of VN’s The Original of Laura in November. The website doesn’t mention the designer.

Besides the hardcover version, there will a library edition with “nonremovable cards”. That means that the trade edition will include index cards of the printed text in the way VN wrote his later works, or the cards will be facsimiles of the originals. Knopf is also issuing an “eBook” version. says that the book is so far not available for its Kindle reader. I assume this means it will be available for the Sony Reader.

The Knopf website, possibly mistakenly, states that the the trade hardcover and the eBook will be issued on 17 November this year but that the library binding will be issued on 3 November, the date the publisher originally gave and the date that still has.

The latest details:

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Bogus Paris Review Inscription

June 12th, 2009

They just keep rolling along…bogus VN inscriptions, that is. Vincent McDonough points out that “books4charities-2008” listed on eBay yesterday a “VN-signed” copy of the Fall 1967 issue of Paris Review with the VN interview inside. books4charities-2008 listed and successfully sold a “VN-signed” 1968 copy of King, Queen, Knave on 15 April on eBay. Take a look quickly. The bidding on the 24-hour-only, bidder-ID-kept-private, no-provenance-given auction ends this afternoon.

I sent a query to the seller. He answered quickly:

This was acquired at the Santa Monica book fair from a reputable dealer. From looking at other known exemplars in our own collection and that of others we believe this to be an authentic signature. We put our trust in the book dealer as well as our own experience.

This is essentially the same answer I got when I asked about the inscribed King, Queen, Knave in April. That also came from the Santa Monica book fair.
Actually I can’t tell for certain if the offer is the real thing because the photo of the signature is small and smeared. But all other evidence points to bogusness here.
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