Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0008678, Tue, 30 Sep 2003 09:50:37 -0700

Fw: Certainly not a fractious fracas: topics proposed by Don,
Carolyn, Jansy, David Morris, et al.
----- Original Message -----
From: Dmitri Nabokov
To: D. Barton Johnson
Sent: Tuesday, September 30, 2003 6:53 AM
Subject: Certainly not a fractious fracas: topics proposed by Don, Carolyn, Jansy, David Morris, et al.

Dear friends,

First of all, I would like to say how deeply I am touched by the many inquiries about my health and wishes for my recovery. I feel I should give those who wish me well a little update. What I've had is a kind of palimpsest effect: an abscess caused by an ill-starred anti-inflammatory injection (on top of previous injections) that, not having responded to simpler treatment, grew to apple size and finally required two fairly lengthy, full-whammy cleansing operations. I shall have a scar, but no longer a pain in that part of my body although, unfortunately, I've had to cancel many commitments between now and Christmas while it heals. The underlying complaint was a year's bout with what turned out to be a combination of myeloma and polyneuropathy that caused problems with two lower vertebrae and a general dégringolade. I was off my feet and in various hospitals for many months. Along the way, a mis-diagnosis caused a major medical mistake: an increasing dosage of morphine when neither cause nor cure could be found for the pain. The only interesting by-product of that was a TV-like series of mildly nightmarish but always bizarre installments experienced in parallel with a semblance of conscious existence. They have been carefully recorded for future use, but the images, the plots, the atmosphere remain indelibly etched in my totally lucid mind. Following a correct diagnosis, brilliant treatment and an enormous amount of rehab brought about total remission of the major ills. I may still be a little testy at times, but, contrary to doomful predictions, I am walking again and playing some cautious tennis, and am back in the saddle of my Cavallino rampante or that of my racing bike, also Italian (with a Campagnolo gearset like Tom's but a bigger frame for my own 6' 5" frame), with which I have failed so far to describe a single-track lemniscate of appropriate size, even on a hard surface (the best test is to ride through a puddle first). An ampersand, also mentioned by VN, would at least have been an easier figure to enter.

A frac, of course, is a swallow-tailed formal coat or what, especially in American English, is called simply "tails." The image of the conjuror "with frac tails flying" recurs here and there in Nabokov. Probably, as in Jansy's case, it was imprinted on Father's memory by a magician seen in childhood, but in a special context. The man had come to our Petersburg house to perform for a children's party. Young Vladimir thought he had unmasked one of his tricks, but at the end of the performance it turned out that it was the conjuror who had the last laugh. The step from frac tails to fractals is a bit too long. It is true that VN was a mathematical wunderkind, able to juggle Juggernaut-sized numbers, until a childhood illness erased that talent overnight. But mathematics, as he matured, did not become a field of concentration for him. I can almost totally exclude that fractals, a recent concept, entered the equation of the lifelong frac image. By 1975 all of the major prose works except The Original of Laura had been published, and Father had less than two years to live. If a few books on advanced mathematics, particularly Laguerre Polynomials, are found among the checked baggage when I check out, they are mine and were sent to me, at a time when I was researching such things, by their author, my Harvard classmate and old friend James Ward Brown, who had become a professor in Michigan and a world expert on those and other algorithms.

As for the Swiss Bernoulli dynasty of mathematicians and scientists, I don't know if VN ever read Jakob (1654-1705), Johann (1667-1748), or Daniel, son of Johann (1700-1782), but he was a voracious and eclectic reader, and remains full of surprises. The Bernoulli with some of whose work I am familiar because of my interest in aviation is Daniel, originator of Bernoulli's theorem, or the Bernoulli effect, i.e., the acceleration of gases under pressure when they pass though a restricted opening, which is the principle behind a basic ram jet engine, and a basis for the development of more complex designs (turbojet, fan jet, etc.). It was, in fact, my mother who introduced me to this concept and its origin when I was ten. VN may have had some idea, more poetical than strictly mathematical, of the logarithmic spiral. He liked the spiral concept in general; for example, he often mentioned the Hegelian spiral of thesis, antithesis and synthesis, which can be applied in many disciplines.

However many lives I may have in store, I have now used up two (the other biggie was brief clinical death and eleven months of hospital after unknown well-wishers caused a car of mine to crash at high speed and burst into flames), I can say that whatever optimism and fortitude pulled me through in both cases was learned directly from my parents.

To bring a smile to those who recall the Famous Controversy About the Three-Legged Chair (a photographic illusion obscured the fourth in an image of the VN statue that Moscow presented to Montreux for the Centennial), I attach a chair on which my father was not sculpted. It is an oversize piece of "statuary" at the United Nations complex in Geneva.

My best to all,