The Mind of Nabokov
This map peeks into the curious and captivating mind of Russian-born American writer Vladimir Nabokov (1899–1977), who said that his renowned novel Lolita isn’t really about sex and that his memoir, Speak, Memory, may have an unreliable narrator. Through these and other works we look at his love of lepidoptery (the study of butterflies)—for which a New York Times headline dubbed him “Vlad the Impaler”—and the synesthesia that gave him “colored hearing.”
Vladimir Nabokov’s best-known work, Lolita, is the story of the taboo relationship between the middle-aged narrator, Humbert Humbert, and 12-year-old Dolores “Lolita” Haze, who becomes both his stepdaughter and his lover. Deemed “indecent” and “pornographic,” the novel was highly controversial—and a big seller—when published in the U.S. in 1958.
Publisher Hugh Hefner faced a similar response when he launched Playboy, subtitled Entertainment for Men, which includes provocative photographs of nude women alongside articles on current events and fiction by notable authors. Hefner denied his magazine was simple pornography, telling interviewer Mike Wallace in 1956, “I would estimate that no more than five percent of any issue of Playboy is concerned with sex, and we seem to be devoting an entire half-hour program to it tonight.”
Nabokov argued that public outrage to Lolita was misplaced, insisting the novel’s true themes are human fallacy, weakness and love. In a 1964 interview for Playboy he said: “Sex as an institution, sex as a general notion, sex as a problem, sex as a platitude—all this is something I find too tedious for words. Let us skip sex.” Nabokov published several pieces in Playboy, including excerpts from his 1969 novel Ada.
The title characters of Nabokov’s novels Ada and Lolita are both “nymphets” tangled in socially reprehensible romantic relationships that begin when they are 12 years old: Lolita with her stepfather, Humbert Humbert, and Ada with her elder “cousin,” Van, who is in fact her brother (their relationship continues into adulthood, even after they learn they are siblings).
Nabokov, however, did not consider these relationships depraved; to him they were love stories. Male critics of the day agreed, including Lionel Trilling, to whom Nabokov denounced the public reaction to Lolita: “They think in clichés...they don’t know what love is, perhaps, and perhaps they don’t know what sex is either.” New York Times critic Elizabeth Janeway, reviewing the novel in 1958, found it neither romantic nor pornographic. “Poor panting” Humbert’s story is, she writes, about “the essential, inefficient, painstaking and pain-giving selfishness of all passion, all greed.” She celebrates in Lolita’s survival “a triumph for the vital force that has managed to make a life out of the rubble that Humbert’s passion created.” Janeway didn’t yet know that the heroine’s name would, as the authors of Nabokov’s Blues note, fill “a semantic gap in the English language”—for a sexually precocious girl.
Nabokov explores the untrustworthiness of memory throughout his body of work but especially in Ada, or Ardor, his epic novel about 100 years in a family’s history, and Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited, chronicling his first 40 years. The latter was a revision of an autobiography published 15 years earlier in the U.S. as Conclusive Evidence: A Memoir (1951).
In Ada, 94-year-old Van exults in both the clarity and the haziness of memory: “Eighty years later he could still recall with the young pang of the original joy his falling in love with Ada. Memory met imagination halfway.” Nabokov similarly allows himself to blur his own history in Speak, Memory. In the revised version’s foreword, he admits that his family fact-checked his memoir after it was first published and “found that in many cases I had erred, or had not examined deeply enough an obscure but fathomable recollection.” To him, the overall color or substance of a memory is far more important than its details. He explained in a 1969 interview, “The distortion of a remembered image may not only enhance its beauty with an added refraction, but provide informative links with earlier or later patches of the past.”
“I present a fine case of colored hearing,” Nabokov says in his autobiography, Speak, Memory. He is describing synesthesia, a psychoneurological condition characterized by cross-sensory experiences, such as “tasting” sounds or “smelling” by touch. Nabokov’s wife, Véra, and son, Dmitri, had synesthesia as well, possibly to an even more measurable degree. Nabokov clarifies: “Perhaps ‘hearing’ is not quite accurate, since the color sensation seems to be produced by the very act of my orally forming a given letter while I imagine its outline.” Dmitri later said: “He himself realized that imagery is colored for poetic reasons rather than instinctive ones. So there is a kind of delicate balance between the two.”
Speak, Memory is saturated with multisensory descriptions of locations and experiences, as are all of Nabokov’s works. Some critics attribute the richness of Nabokov’s prose to his poetic nature combined with his well-documented eidetic (acutely visual) memory; others describe his writing as “synesthetic.” This vividly drawn experience of a character from his novel Ada, or Ardor supports either theory: “Demon needlessly and unwillingly recollect[ed] (with that special concussion of instant detail that also plagued his children) a violet-and-black-striped fish in a bowl, a similarly striped couch.”
The family in Ada resembles Nabokov’s own in many ways: The characters, like the Nabokovs, are noblemen and -women, bouncing around the novel’s equivalent of Europe at the turn of the century. The main character, Van, has synesthesia (his sister and his father may also have it), a condition Nabokov and his mother, wife and son all shared. Van recalls events in association with different colors (“grayish blue, purple, reddish gray”) and declares himself “inordinately prone” to synesthesia.
Richard E. Cytowic and David M. Eagleman, authors of Wednesday Is Indigo Blue: Discovering the Brain of Synesthesia (2009)—with an afterword by Nabokov’s son, Dmitri—note that in Nabokov’s synesthetic color-coding, the letters A and D correspond with black and yellow, respectively. Nabokov associates these colors with Ada throughout the book: She and Van first make love on a black divan with yellow cushions, and she wears black and yellow at critical points in the arc of their relationship. The authors further suggest that the yellow-black-yellow (A-D-A) pattern mimics the colors of a butterfly—perhaps the “splendid creature” Nabokov mentions in Speak, Memory that inspired him to become a lepidopterist, a career to which Ada also aspires.
Recalling the bygone age of gentlemen naturalists, Nabokov was an avid and accomplished lepidopterist, and he planned much of his career around butterfly-hunting opportunities. He devotes an entire chapter of his autobiography, Speak, Memory, to his special relationship with butterflies, which Kurt Johnson and Steve Coates explore in their book, Nabokov’s Blues.
In Speak, Memory, Nabokov describes the butterfly that began it all, a “splendid, pale-yellow creature with black blotches, blue crenels, and a cinnabar eyespot above each chrome-rimmed black tail.” Just seven years old, he was transfixed: “My desire for it was one of the most intense I have ever experienced.”
In 1945, while working at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology, Nabokov published a study proposing a new taxonomy and revised evolutionary lines for an American Neotropical subset of the blue butterflies, but his conclusions were dismissed at the time. Kurt Johnson later uncovered Nabokov’s report, and found that Nabokov had “forged the pivotal part of the chain of research that created the modern picture of the Latin American Blues. All the basic taxonomy rests on the foundation he laid.” Recent DNA research has shown that Nabokov was also correct about the blues’ evolutionary branches.
Nabokov’s lifelong infatuation with the lovely and delicate butterfly perhaps sheds some light on the way in which his feckless characters fall unendingly in love with fragile young beauties, as Humbert Humbert does in Lolita. The word nymphet, which Nabokov coined to describe Lolita, has a curious connection to entomology. Nymphs, named for the mythological Greco-Roman young females who inhabited natural settings, are a life stage of certain insects, a smaller version of the fully mature insect—that is, a miniature adult and thus a convincing metaphor for Lolita. Furthermore, Humbert often describes Lolita, nee Dolores Haze, a.k.a. Dolly, as his “doll,” which in Latin is pupa, our word for another pre-adult insect life stage.
The lepidopterists who built upon Nabokov’s work named two species of butterfly after his characters: Pseudolucia humbert and Madeleinea lolita. The latter is described in Nabokov’s Blues as “a delicate little…cross-country traveler with a captivating and enigmatic personality.” It’s likely no accident these scientists gave the name humbert to a species in a different genus and with a range some 1,500 miles away from that of lolita. A New York Times book reviewer called this, “the scientist’s equivalent of a judicial restraining order.”
Lengthy, dense and rich with compound symbolism decades in development, Nabokov’s Ada is considered by many to be his masterpiece. In The Ada Poems, Cynthia Zarin reflects and builds upon many of the novel’s themes, especially those all-important two: love and memory. But Zarin makes clear these are Ada’s words from Ada’s mouth, not dialogue romanticized and misremembered by her lover or another of Nabokov’s untrustworthy narrators.
Zarin’s choice to write from Ada’s point of view transforms Nabokov’s heroine from wispy nymphet to fully formed person, illuminating the fact that while Nabokov’s women may be complex in character, they remain untouchable and enigmatic. Zarin uses Nabokov’s synesthetic toolbox, his global points of reference and his thematic materials, but she rebuilds Ada from inside Ada out.
I’d have a baby, yours, cette fois,
and I’d smoke Parliaments
and we’d drink our way through the winter
in spring the baby would laugh at the moon
who is her father and her mother who is his pool
and we’d walk backwards and forwards
in lizard-skin cowboy boots
and read Gilgamesh and Tintin aloud
I’d wear only leather or feathers
plucked from endangered birds and silk
from exploited silkworms
—from “Late Poem”