on a bench in the garden of
the Montreux Palace Hotel
using a box of index cards
as an improvised desk”
—Jane Grayson, Vladimir
Nabokov, New York: Overlook
Press, 2004, 107
If Nabokov wrote the beginning and ending on cards, saving the middle of the novel for later—then which cards are the alpha and omega cards? Which ones frame the narrative—the inner Laura storyline?
Pondering the mysteries of such a compositional process, I pause a moment and stare lovingly at Vladimir’s calm repose—sitting there in the Montreux garden on a bench. Enjoying what probably every writer enjoys doing—being totally lost in the process of living in another world. Another world—and yet the same world he’s writing in. A kind of Bibliothèque Rose...
Except through the writing—the Montreux garden roses become more than just garden roses. The garden becomes perhaps a Garden of Eden with the fair Oredezh—winding its way following the St. Petersburg-Luga highway. Meandering through floating islands of water lilies and algal brocade. Or perhaps a Rozhestveno rose garden with lovely piano music in the background. Uncle Ruka pink-coated or wearing his opera cloak—singing sad barcaroles and modish lyrics.
Or perhaps young Vladimir heard nothing—saw nothing. Instead of the country estate and long row of Lombardy poplars—instead of the white-pillared mansion on the escarped hill. Instead of the two thousand acres of wildwood and peatbog. Instead of all that around him—another mansion, the tall old elegant Montreux Palace hotel. Would his yearning for his boyhood home—ever recede away? How could it--it was his index card fiction.
The novelist sitting on the bench in the cool Swiss sunshine—isn't he the same novelist sitting in his beat-up stationwagon writing away during one of their long sojourns across America. Always the writer—no matter where he was. Whether Pnin or Humbert—Van or Sebastian Knight. Professor Shade—or the Queen of Zembla. Writing as his way of — "selfsame reportage."
Nabokov’s advice about Pale Fire—cutting it down the middle along the spine. Shade’s poem on one side of the desk—Kinbote’s commentary on the other side. That way it saves time—instead of thumbing back and forth. One can get easily lost in the Commentary—with the Queen of Zembla’s rambling, shambling, shamelessly outré imagination.
Where did Nabokov learn how to be so flagrantly disjointingly camp—so POMO cosmopolitan and gay? How could be invent so many flagrant queens—like Gaston Godin in the French department there at Beardsley College? Or Professor Kinbote or Pnin?
Surely not all Beardsley French professors or émigré Europeans were that way? Although maybe his younger brother Sergey Vladimirovich in Paris after the Revolution perhaps was "that way"—with that Parisian crowd he ran around with. Certainly Uncle Ruka was a flaming queen—Madame Vasiliy Rukavishnikov.
Speaking of fag-baiting—a nasty habit I don’t “normally” indulge myself in like so many Baptists, Mormons and Freudians—one can’t help but admire those lovely portraits on Gaston Godin’s sloping walls. A veritable pantheon of homosexual artists: Andre Gide, Peter Ilich Tchakovsky, Norman Douglas, Waslaw Nijinsky, Diagilev (“Dangleleaf”) and Marcel Proust.
All these gay portraits of the same Harold D. Doublename—an obvious fag-baiting trope like Humbert Humbert’s homosexual doublename. Surely it’s a red herring clue—a sure-giveaway dish of the gay milieu. Just like Humbert Humbert’s doubled initials.
Harold’s D. Doublename—just one small skip and a jump ahead of Humbert’s Doublename. Something to give the psychiatrists in Chapter 9 Part One—a thing or two to kvetch and gossip about. Although they don’t seem to have a clue—and never guess what Humbert’s real secret is. Although some interpret nymphets—as substitute boyz.
In a way, Lolita is like Pale Fire. One could sit at one’s desk—with Lolita at one’s left and the Annotated Lolita at one’s right. And then peruse both books—at one’s leisure. Alfred Appel’s salacious footnotes and fascinating detours and divagations make the same impression on the reader—as Professor Kinbote’s mad meanderings manage to do with Shade’s poem, “Pale Fire.”
Such intertextual games and scholarly cut and paste routines involving the texts of Lolita and Pale Fire are perhaps like the academic parody, postmodern romance and prose poem strategies that might be helpful with interpreting and composing Nabokov’s unfinished last novel Laura.
“Ancient literary texts have a habit of turning up at historical junctures.”
Perhaps the same can be said of contemporary literary texts as well—turning up at various literary junctures. Some real—others imaginary.
So that this lovely stack of 3-by-5 cards allows the reader to work on any section he wants to, then place it “in the sequence he had unforeseen, among the stack already written” — and, in the case of “Laura,” a series of stories within stories could easily keep any reader busy transferring his index cards into more than a novel or two for simply years of personal entertainment and pleasure.
One could ad lib somewhat like Tim Whitmarsh does in his Times Online essay “A Nabokov of the ancient world,” applying the scholarly approach of George Economou’s interesting book ANANIOS: Ananios of Kleitor, Shearsman Books, 2004, to more recent times and books:
"In AD 2010 a mighty earthquake shook the coast of California, exposing an underground cavern near Eureka; in that cavern was a precious text, written in “Arcadian letters.” The manuscript eventually ended up in the hands of the emperor Schwarzenegger, who summoned his experts to decode it. Amazingly, it turned out to be the journal of one Appaloosabeachicus, a participant in the Persian War. Ancient literary texts have a habit of turning up at historical junctures. When Nixon the Great captured the Cambodian city of Twot in 1968 AD, one of his soldiers found a tomb outside the city. Alongside the coffins was a cypress chest, which turned out to contain a marvelous novelistic account of adventure, magic and love, much of it set mysteriously in that same mysterious north-Pacific town of Arcata (Arcadia?)." What are the odds for that? llegitimi non carborundum?
Kevin Hoover's So-Called Thoughts: The alternate-reality Arcadia – July 8, 2009 “Arcata is well and deservedly known as an alternative to the real world. Because, though there are some things you can never, ever do here, people somehow have.” http://www.arcataeye.com/index.php?module=pagesetter&tid=2&topic=4