Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0026832, Wed, 27 Jan 2016 12:36:30 -0800

Re: Nabokov on food
It is worth adding to Brian's comments that food often allows Nabokov to
introduce a play on words or to contribute, by accretion, to one of a
work's important themes. Food items, like dreams, are not essential to a
fabula, have a certain arbitrary quality (since the author doesn't actually
have to do the work of shopping and cooking) and thus are places in a text
where hidden meaning may be particularly likely to lurk. Perhaps because
he was a proud synaesthete, Nabokov often seems more inclined to taste the
word than the dish it signifies.

On Tue, Jan 26, 2016 at 11:14 AM, Brian Boyd <b.boyd@auckland.ac.nz> wrote:

> 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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