Alexey Sklyarenko kindly pointed out my error: not Ivan Karamzin but Nikolay (Mikhailovich) Karamzin.

--Stephen Blackwell

Dating Anomalies in Nabokov and Pushkin

Ever since Brian Boyd’s “Even Homais Nods: Nabokov’s Fallibility, or, How to Revise Lolita,” there has been good reason to disregard the dating anomaly in the creation Nabokov had the “most affection” for.  But despite their force and eloquence, Brian’s arguments have never persuaded me, on various levels (unlike most of his other arguments). Despite Nabokov’s ability to make errors of various sorts, this error (that the fifty-six days Humbert claims he has been writing his confession is the wrong number, or that the September dates in the text are scribal errors) does not make sense, at least not as Nabokov’s error.  The placement of the key components of the puzzle is too highly marked: in the preface, and almost exactly one page before the end. Just as the beginning of Humbert’s text creates a riddle surrounding Dolly’s birth year, the beginning and ending of Nabokov’s novel clasp at this strangely provocative date.  The only remaining question, for me, is—why? 

In a discussion with Deborah Martinsen beginning at the recent ASEEES convention, I realized that her forthcoming article in Nabokov Studies 13, "Lolita as a Petersburg Text," to be released in January 2015, approaches the same problem from a complementary point of view, and I decided I should make my partial information public before the entire project is complete, so that our related efforts might mutually benefit.

A year and a half ago, I stumbled onto a partial explanation of the anomaly while teaching a freshman seminar on humor in Russian literature.  We were reading some of Pushkin’s Belkin Tales (Tales of the Late Ivan Petrovich Belkin) including the preface, called “From the Publisher,” and in that preface I came upon these passages at the beginning and ending of the letter from a “friend” of the late “Belkin” to the publisher (who is “A. P.”):


My dear Sir, ****!


I had had the honor or receiving your most honorable letter of the 15th of this month on the 23rd of this same month, and in it you pronounce to me your desire for a detailed accounting about the dates of birth and death, service, and domestic arrangements, as well as about the occupations and character of the late Ivan Petrovich Belkin, who was my sincere friend and neighboring estate owner.


[. . .]


There, my Dear Sir, you have all that I could recall concerning the way of life, occupations, character, and appearance of my late neighbor and friend.  If it so happens that you are pleased to make some sort of use of my letter, I most respectfully request that you not mention my name in any capacity whatsoever; for although I fully respect and admire writers, I consider it superfluous and, at my age, even indecent to embark on such a calling.  With my true respect etc.,

November 16, 1830

                Nenaradovo Village

 (Translation mine, SB)


Милостивый Государь мой ****!


     Почтеннейшее  письмо ваше от 15-го сего месяца получить имел я честь 23 сего  же  месяца, в коем  вы изъявляете  мне свое  желание  иметь  подробное известие о времени рождения и смерти, о  службе, о домашних обстоятельствах, также и о занятиях и нраве покойного Ивана Петровича Белкина,  бывшего моего искреннего  друга  и  соседа  по  поместьям.


Вот,  Милостивый Государь мой, всe, что мог  я  припомнить,  касательно образа жизни, занятий, нрава и наружности покойного соседа и приятеля моего. Но в случае, если заблагорассудите  сделать из сего моего письма  какое-либо употребление, всепокорнейше прошу никак имени моего не упоминать; ибо хотя я весьма уважаю и люблю сочинителей, но в сие звание вступить полагаю излишним и в мои лета неприличным. С истинным моим почтением и проч.

     1830 году Ноября 16.

     Село Ненарадово


The excerpted passages, from the beginning and end of a letter to the “publisher,” who is both “****” and “A. P.,” include several relevant features.  The most obvious, of course, is the cluster of dates and the chronological problem they present.  The letter was received on the 23rd, but replied to on the 16th of the same month.  Readers of Lolita will immediately notice that this strange date is the same one mentioned in John Ray, Jr.’s preface as the day Humbert completes his manuscript and dies.  It is also the same say he counts back fifty-six days to the beginning of his writing project.   So we have a fictitious preface, from the “publisher,” who includes a letter from a fictitious “friend” of the fictitious “Belkin”; and this friend’s letter introduces a dating problem.  The reference to dates of birth and death, and description of character and occupations, has clear parallels in John Ray’s text.  The letter-writer’s request for anonymity brings to mind Humbert Humbert’s pseudonymous mask, as well as Nabokov’s initial plan to publish his novel anonymously.  The good psychologist’s imaginary location, “Widworth, Mass.,” may echo the equally fantastical “Nenaradovo” from Pushkin’s text.

In a fairly recent article (“Кому посвящены «Повести Белкина»?”, in I. L. Popov, ed, “Literaturovedenie kak literatura”: Sbornik v chest’ S. G. Bocharova, (Moscow: Iazyki slavianskoi kul’tury, 2004) 75-78),  N. K. Gei convincingly proposes that Pushkin’s dating error is a deliberate, and hidden, dedication to Ekaterina Andreevna Karamzina, wife of the historiographer and sentimentalist writer Nikolay Karamzin: her birthday fell on November 16, and 1830 was her 50th.  Nabokov doubtless noticed the date problem, but it is not very likely that he was aware of this “secret dedication” in the “From the Publisher” section of the Belkin Tales

though nothing can ever be excluded in Nabokov’s case (Karamzina is not mentioned in the index to the Eugene Onegin commentary, for example).  Still, even without that knowledge, it seems clear that he embedded within Lolita a reference to an earlier dating anomaly, by his most beloved predecessor, in order to underscore the deliberateness of his own topsy-turvical dates. If by chance he suspected that Pushkin’s “slip” was itself a kind of covert literary dedication, then the primary meaning of his own slip might be, simply, to echo Pushkin’s act.   But even if it could be demonstrated that he suspected Pushkin’s intent, that still would not prove that Nabokov had no other designs in mind.

                I suspect that there is much more to this story, and I will be attempting to plumb it further in the coming months.


--Stephen Blackwell, University of Tennessee, Knoxville

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