Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0026831, Tue, 26 Jan 2016 19:14:37 +0000

Re: Nabokov on food
Here’s a delightful NPR blog on Nabokov and food<http://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2016/01/26/464343304/lolita-and-lollipops-what-nabokov-had-to-say-about-nosh>, based on Letters to Véra and an interview Nina Martyris did with me.

And here’s the original written interview:

NM: 1) Would you agree that food does not form a central part of Nabokov's writing in the way it does in other novelists, say, Jonathan Franzen, who uses food almost as a lens into Americana?

BB: Food isn’t central to Nabokov but neither is it peripheral. He serves it to suit the different ambiances of his different novels: they’re not all part of the same restaurant brand, the same food chain. In King, Queen, Knave, for instance, food characterizes the grossness, physical and otherwise, of the characters; in Pnin, it contrasts the memories in Pnin’s Russian palette and his engaging but off-key attempts to adapt to American tastes; in Pale Fire, it adds to the comic counterpoint of the sane stay-at-home poet Shade, who has to struggle to eat a vegetable, and the crazy exile and critic Kinbote, a vegetarian who offers his neighbor Shade the most meager fare (“We shall have for dinner a knackle of walnuts, a couple of large tomatoes, and a bunch of bananas”); in Ada, it showcases the excesses, the opulence and avidity, of the Veens.
In Invitation to a Beheading Cincinnatus is sentenced in the first paragraph of the novel to the beheading that happens on the last page, and spends the time in between in solitary confinement. In the giddy first chapter Rodrig, the director of the prison, visits Cincinnatus in his cell, samples the meal Cincinnatus has not touched, even sits down to the dessert. In response to the condemned man’s request about how much time he has left before his beheading (“I should like to know if it will be long now”) Rodrig replies “Excellent sabayon! Should still like to know if it will be long now.” Sabayon or zabaglione is made from eggs, sugar, and scented wine or fruit juice beaten over hot water until thick and light, and served warm or cold in a glass. The surreal luxury of the meal that the prisoner spurns and the director scoffs, the false or inverted civility of every process in this condemned cell, encapsulates the weird discords and distortions of the novel.

NM: 2) In his letters to Vera, Nabokov itemizes his meals, but he does it quickly, almost as if he wants to get over with it. However, there are some beautiful lines in the letters where he uses food metaphors to describe the environment around him -- the street-lamps at Prague are like well-licked lollipops, the sky in Berlin is like boiled milk with a skin, etc. How does one explain this gap between his disinterest in food and his ability to use food so poetically?

BB: It’s not that Nabokov wasn’t interested in food, but in his letters to Véra he was reporting dutifully on what he ate, as she appears to have instructed him to do in the summer of 1926, while she was at her sanatorium. Since his German boarding-house fare appealed very little, his descriptions, as it were, quickly scrape the plate into the receptacle of the day’s letter.
I have just edited a book of essays on Nabokov that contains an essay by a French scholar, “Some Foodnotes on Nabokov’s Works,” and one of my former graduate students, after becoming a wine writer, proposed a book on Nabokov and food—an excellent idea. Just as Nabokov did not know how to prepare a meal any more complicated than a boiled egg, he couldn’t drive a car, but offers priceless descriptions of travelling America by road. He made a point of being helpless around the house (“neither of us being at all familiar with any heating systems (except the central kind) we would hardly be able to cope with any but the simplest arrangement. My hands are limp fools”), but he could still astonish with household imagery, as in this description of his affection for Lolita: “Every serious writer, I dare say, is aware of this or that published book of his as of a constant comforting presence. Its pilot light is steadily burning somewhere in he basement and a mere touch applied to one’s private thermostat instantly results in a quiet little explosion of familiar warmth.”

NM: 3) What is "roast bearlet"? Is it bear meat? As you will have guessed, I'm referring to the last meal that Lucette eats on the liner before killing herself -- it's one of my favorite Nabokov chapters, one which I've come back to repeatedly, mainly because it's so heartbreaking but so beautifully written. But that last meal of yellow grugru weevils and roast bearlet seems to be almost pointedly weird, even decadent. Would you agree?

BB: Yes, it must be roast bear cub. Poor teddy. Decadence pervades Ada. Some of the food seems paradisal, the glistening honey on Ada’s sticky lips at breakfast, and some of it seems hellish, as here, or even worse: look up the paragraph on Cherry, a boy prostitute at a luxury chain of high-class whorehouses (all right, here it is, but it’s stomach-churning: “worst of all, the little fellow could not disguise a state of acute indigestion, marked by unappetizing dysenteric symptoms that coated his lover’s shaft with mustard and blood, the result, no doubt, of eating too many green apples. Eventually, he had to be destroyed or given away”). In this novel Nabokov recreates the range of Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights, from the Edenic to the utterly infernal.

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