NABOKV-L post 0012120, Thu, 24 Nov 2005 08:45:50 -0800

Fwd: Nabokov in Ithaca ...
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Date: Thu, 24 Nov 2005 11:00:29 -0500
From: "Sandy P. Klein" <>
Subject: Nabokov in Ithaca ...


Nabokov in Ithaca
Ithaca Times, NY - 17 hours ago
By: Katherine Klein 11/23/2005 This year, the literary world
celebrated the 50th anniversary of the publication of Vladimir
Nabokov's landmark novel, Lolita. On Sept. 15, 1955, Paris publisher
Olympia Press released the constroversial novel that would spark
moral and literary debates everywhere - from the major publishing
houses in the 1950s to college and high school classrooms today - and
would solidify Nabokov's reputation as a major author of the 20th
But if you really know the story of the novel's creation, you
should know that the anniversary of another critical juncture in the
life of Lolita came and went without much attention a few years ago.
No one celebrated the 50th anniversary of the day Lolita was saved
from destruction in the backyard of 802 E. Seneca St. in Ithaca.
One day in the summer of 1950, a frustrated Nabokov carried the
rough draft of what would eventually become Lolita out to the
incinerator behind his rented home just downhill from Collegetown.
Although the story of a 37-year-old European intellectual named
Humbert Humbert and his obsession with a pubescent girl had been
ruminating in his mind for years, Nabokov became discouraged with his
new novel. Plagued by technical difficulties in writing and facing the
start of another consuming semester of teaching at Cornell University,
he decided, with his characteristic flare of drama, to send the
project up in a puff of smoke.
Nabokov's wife, Véra, stopped him before the flames could lick
up the "light of my life, fire of my loins" and advised him to
reconsider. That quiet backyard near Collegetown played host to a
pivotal moment in American letters; Nabokov did not burn the
manuscript, but went on to write most of Lolita in Ithaca. He
realized, as he notes in the afterward of Lolita, "the ghost of the
destroyed book would haunt my files for the rest of my life."
With Lolita, one of America's most controversial yet critically
acclaimed novels, alive and well, it's Nabokov's ghost that haunts
certain locations in Ithaca. It lingers behind the windows of 802 E.
Seneca St., where Nabokov sent irritated notes to his noisy upstairs
neighbors, and in the sound of the brook that runs past 880 Highland
Rd., the Nabokov's favorite Ithaca home.
Nabokov's ghost haunts students and faculty of literature
departments at Cornell, with lasting rumors about his eccentric
teaching style. His ghost also pops up once in a while in Cornell
professor Ken McClane's office. Goldwin Smith Hall 278 at Cornell
once belonged to Nabokov, who was a professor of Russian literature.
McClane, the W.E.B. Dubois Professor of English at Cornell, says
visitors frequently ask to stop by, and he obliges. A sense of awe
comes over the visitors, although no physical traces of Nabokov
"Often these admirers walk about the office - which is really
just an office, full of books - mine - and artwork - mine - and
painted the usual banal white," says McClane. "And yet the people
come and ruminate. In fact, once or twice, visitors have been moved
to tears."
That Nabokov's mere memory inspires such emotion sometimes
puzzles McClane. Still, as a writer himself, he says, "It is
wonderful to be in the environs of one of the greatest writers of the
20th century."
It's hard to speculate on Nabokov's place in the literary world
had he burned his Lolita draft. Would another of his English writings
- Pnin or Ada or perhaps his great translation of Pushkin's Eugene
Onegin - have earned him the same popular recognition? Would people
still remember his many early Russian novels?
It's also hard to guess exactly how much Ithaca shaped Lolita.
No specific local landmarks appear in the book, but an Ithaca reader
can't help recognizing some local geography. Written in another town,
in another state, would 342 Lawn still be, as Humbert Humbert
describes it, "a steep little street"? Would Lolita's preteen jargon,
famously influenced by the Ithaca schoolgirls Nabokov overheard on
local buses, be precisely the same?
"It's clear all his experiences in Ithaca . . . transformed in
his mind to literary material," says M.H. Abrams, professor emeritus
of English at Cornell and a colleague of Nabokov's during the 1940s
and 1950s, "but it's very hard to point to any one thing. He's too
good of a writer for that."
Nabokov was a published author long before he wrote Lolita, and
long before he arrived in Ithaca to accept his Cornell teaching post
in July 1948. In fact, writing, "the unreal estate" of art, was the
only constant factor in a life marked by political exile and personal
Born in St. Petersburg to a family with aristocratic
connections and a love of the English language, Nabokov had to flee
Russia with his family in 1919, under pressure from the Soviets. They
left wealth and stability; among other things, the Soviets confiscated
an estate Nabokov inherited at age 16 from his uncle, worth what would
have been more than $1 million.
While his family settled in Berlin, Nabokov began his
undergraduate studies at Cambridge University. The year before
Nabokov finished his degree, his father, a liberal intellectual, was
shot and killed during a political meeting in the Berlin Philharmonic
Hall. In a heroic move, he took the bullet intended for another man.
Despite this blow, Nabokov finished his degree at Cambridge
then settled in Berlin with the rest of his family. There he wrote
and between 1923 and 1938, published eight novels in Russian,
including Mary, Despair and Invitation to a Beheading. He started to
build a small following in the émigré community. Then, in 1938, the
growing strength of the Nazis in Germany forced Nabokov to move with
his wife and their 4-year-old son, Dmitri, to Paris. Again in 1940,
political pressure and the threat of war forced the family out, this
time to America.
For the first few years they lived on the slow sales of
Nabokov's books and his contributions to The New Yorker and the
Atlantic. During the early 1940s, Nabokov formed life-long
relationships with these magazines, especially The New Yorker.
Nabokov was not only an author; he was an accomplished
butterfly expert, or lepidopterist. Between 1942 and 1948, Nabokov
worked simultaneously as a research fellow at the Museum of
Comparative Zoology at Harvard University and as a lecturer in
literature at Wellesley College. Wellesley appreciated his teaching
abilities and his growing reputation as a writer, but his appointment
came year-to-year with no promise of stability. Cornell offered
Morris Bishop, a professor of Romantic Languages at Cornell,
considered Nabokov "one of the best writers of our time" when he
invited Nabokov to consider a post as a professor of Russian
literature. The Nabokovs arrived in Ithaca on July 1, 1948.
"We are enchanted with Cornell, and very, very grateful to the
kind fate that has guided us here," Nabokov wrote soon after arriving
in Ithaca. They would live in Ithaca for nearly 11 years. Until the
success of Lolita in America earned Nabokov the freedom to move to
Switzerland and write full time, it was the most permanent home
they'd have.
Yet it wasn't permanent at all, really. In 11 years, the family
inhabited eight rented houses, in addition to traveling West nearly
every summer to collect butterflies. They couldn't buy a home and
settle down if they'd wanted to, says M.H. Abrams, in a recent
interview at his Ithaca home.
"His income before Lolita was published was modest, so they had
to be very careful," says Abrams, who had been a Cornell English
professor for three years when Nabokov arrived to teach Russian
Literature. "And to buy a house would mean they were setting anchor."
The wandering life, it seems, was in the Nabokov blood. Even
after leaving Ithaca to write full time in Europe, Nabokov never
bought a house. He and Véra lived happily for years in rented rooms
in a Swiss hotel, up until his death in 1977.
"He enjoyed America," says Abrams, who says he knew the
reclusive Nabokovs as well as anyone. "He enjoyed Cornell, even
though it turns up with ironic treatment in his novels."
The voice of one in exile reverberates through Nabokov's
fiction. Mary, his first novel, tells the story of an émigré who
longs for his love back in Russia. In Pnin, which Nabokov published
serially in The New Yorker in 1957, a Russian émigré professor
suffers comically - and alone - through the unfamiliar world of an
American university. In Lolita, Humbert Humbert is a passionate,
poetic European drifting through the glittering, cheap thrills of
American popular culture.
But this outsider view of American culture precisely clinches
the greatness of Lolita, says Abrams. "What we take for granted, he
registered as an oddity."
Nabokov observed America keenly and never forgot a detail that
would benefit his writing. Consider Lolita's teenage vocabulary. For
instance, he developed a strong sense for the American idiom
precisely because phrases like "you dope" were literally foreign to
"Nobody, as far as I know, has rendered the American landscape
more indelibly than Nabokov has," says Edgar Rosenberg, professor
emeritus at Cornell and a former student of Nabokov's. "As a
foreigner, he would probably notice things which we, dulled by the
eyes of habit, routine and movies, no longer perceive half so sharply
as Nabokov does."
The gap between the European Nabokov and American university
showed in Nabokov's lectures as well, although his dramatic flair
helped him cultivate an image of an eccentric professor. He started
out teaching small sections of Russian literature, in which he
required students to speak in Russian.
In the fall of 1950, however, Nabokov took on Literature
311-12, European Fiction, teaching Tolstoy, Chekhov, Austen, Pushkin,
Gogol, Mann, Joyce and other authors. While his Russian literature
courses were small enough to meet at his home on Seneca Street,
almost 150 students signed up for his first European Fiction class
and the number increased through the years.
This course, says biographer Brian Boyd, made Nabokov's name at
Cornell: "By his last years at Cornell, it had become the most popular
academic option on campus and was eclipsed in student number only by
Pete Seeger's folk-song class."
Although Nabokov considered himself an awkward public speaker,
his dramatic sense soon earned him the reputation as a brilliant
lecturer. "His lectures were extraordinary, oddball in a way," says
Abrams. "His wife was his assistant. He would walk in first, in the
European great professor tradition, and she would follow, carrying
lecture notes and things."
Abrams adds that rumors always exaggerated the quirks of
Nabokov's lectures. Abrams himself attended one public lecture given
by Nabokov, in which "he tore the Soviet novel to shreds." Nabokov's
disdain for Soviet literature - for all things Soviet, in fact - had
the audience rolling with laughter. One public lecture was so well
attended, the Nabokovs themselves couldn't find a parking spot close
to the auditorium; Nabokov had to walk several blocks and enter late
to a hall packed with everyone but the featured speaker.
Rosenberg has a different memory of Nabokov's lecture style,
however. He took Nabokov's class as a senior and found it
distractingly informal. "The course in no way reflected the splendid
essays on literature he published later on," says Rosenberg. "At the
time, Nabokov was publishing Pnin serially in The New Yorker, and
this seemed to be his chief claim to fame just then."
Although they kept to themselves more than other faculty
couples, Véra and Vladimir would entertain occasionally, at whatever
rented home they occupied. Nevertheless, Nabokov remained on the
fringes of the department faculty, says Abrams. "He was fun to talk
to if you didn't touch the wrong buttons and get him angry by saying
something positive about Soviet Russia or Soviet Russian literature,"
he says.
For all the attention as a popular lecturer, no one really
appreciated Nabokov's talent as a writer until Lolita's success after
American publication, says Abrams. The popular following may have
surprised even Nabokov, who was not especially modest about his
abilities as a writer. "I doubt he had any intention of writing a
highly popular novel," says Abrams. "He never pandered that way.
Though he never minded making money that way, either."
After its 1955 publication in Paris and leading up to eventual
publication in America, some critics ruled the novel "pornography."
Other critics, however, gave highly favorable reviews, among them
Graham Greene and Lionel Trilling, who met up with Nabokov at a party
at Abrams' home.
Abrams recalls that author and critic remained on opposite ends
of the large living room for most of the evening, "each with a coterie
of admirers." At the end of the evening, however, author and critic
confronted each other near the door. "I have your Lolita with me,"
Trilling told Nabokov. He said he planned to spend the summer "coming
to grips with it." In the end, Trilling wrote a favorable review.
At first, the controversy surrounding Lolita overshadowed its
artistic merits, but the book has taken a rightful place among the
best of the century, says Abrams. "In my mind, Lolita is an important
novel," he says. "It seems to me perfectly rendered from beginning to
Even before Putnam published the novel in America and Britain,
Lolita was a hot commodity on the Cornell campus in 1957. With no
American publisher, black-market copies sold briskly at a local
Ithaca bookstore and across the country while complicated court
decisions were pending and American publishers weighed their options.

In his biography of Nabokov, Boyd notes that the Lolita
controversy and a National Book Award nomination for Pnin fueled a
Nabokov cult among promising Cornell writing students, including
novelists Thomas Pynchon and Richard Farina, editor Michael Curtis
and science-fiction writer Joanna Russ.
Nabokov continues to be part of university lore for current
Cornell students. Some gain a new perspective on Lolita because the
author walked the same corridors and streets they do. Katherine Groo,
a Cornell graduate student in Comparative Literature, taught Lolita in
a writing seminar this fall. She says Nabokov's historical proximity
brought the novel close in an uncomfortable way for her students, who
were already struggling to understand Humbert Humbert and the audacity
of his actions. Some of them were even more disturbed at Humbert's
illicit love for Lolita, knowing that the author wrote some of those
scenes from a local address.
Still, rather than anchor Lolita in a specific locale, Nabokov
creates a more general image of "cheap thrills of the American
landscape," she says. "What you get is not something that can be
located in a particular place."
Although he studied Lolita this fall, Cornell freshman Matt
Safran discovered that Nabokov lived in Ithaca in a New York Times
opinion piece about the book's 50th anniversary. "Reading Lolita
really got me thinking about where he got the inspiration for the
subject," says Safran. He says he was shocked but pleasantly
surprised at once by the content of Lolita. "As a new student here,
I'm still getting to know the place, so I don't see any direct
connections in the novel," says Safran, "but it's interesting to keep
that in mind."
Cornell University celebrated some of the tangible connections
between Nabokov and Ithaca with a special display in September and
October of some of its extensive collection of the author's
manuscripts and correspondence. The Division of Rare and Manuscript
Collections in the Carl A. Kroch Library contains first and early
editions of all Nabokov's books, says Katherine Reagan, Curator of
Rare Books and Manuscripts at the Kroch Library. The recent display
of letters mailed from Nabokov's Ithaca addresses and books marked by
his pen shed light on his thought process and creative motivations
that paperbacks never could, she says.
Highlights of the collection include rare books of Russian
poetry Nabokov published as a teenager, correspondence with Cornell
professors and more than 2,500 letters between Nabokov and his
publishers between 1940 and 1977, the year of his death. The library
even has Nabokov's personal copy of his novel Bend Sinister.
"Handwritten on the flyleaf of the book," says Reagan, "is a
stern direction that the copy must be returned to 'Professor Nabokov
at Goldwin Smith Hall, Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y.'"
Fueled by the success of Lolita, Nabokov has lept from local
eccentric to internationally known author, but Ithaca still claims a
small bit of his story. His presence is still very real, for example,
to those visitors to Nabokov's old office in Goldwin Smith Hall, says
current occupant Ken McClane.
"As the temporary custodian of his symbolic home, I can let
those who admire him have their moment of reflection," says McClane.
"In their eyes, he's somehow present in that room; in their eyes, at
times, he becomes present for me, too."
* * * *
The Cornell University Library's Division of Rare and Manuscript
Collections owns a collection of first editions, manuscripts, letters
and some of Nabokov's own copies of his works. The library marked the
50th anniversary of Lolita with an exhibit of documents on the
history of its publication from September 15 to October 17.
Highlights of the collection are available online at[3].[4]


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