On the Trail of Nabokov.

Landon Jones’s NY Times article “On the Trail of Nabokov in the American West” is in the travel section, and it is in fact much more about travel than literature, but hey, it’s Nabokov, and I can’t resist passing it along. It’s got evocative photos and some piquant bits about Vlad and Vera:

And what would Nabokov have made of this sign: IF YOU DIE TONIGHT HEAVEN OR HELL? Followed by this one: GARY’S GUN SHOP.

As it happens, Véra Nabokov once packed a Browning .38 revolver in her purse. When she applied for her license to carry one, she explained primly that it was “for protection in traveling in isolated parts of the country in the course of entomological research.” She wasn’t kidding. Nabokov killed a large rattlesnake during their 1953 trip to Portal, Ariz.

So I pass it along for those who may enjoy it, but I would advise against taking anything it says on trust, since it makes the idiotic statement that Lolita “was first published in 1955 in England,” easily refuted by a cursory glance at Wikipedia, which explains (as I would have thought every schoolboy knew) that it was first published in France by Olympia Press, and by Weidenfeld & Nicolson in London only in 1959. I realize it’s only the travel section, but still, someone at the Times should have caught that.


  1. A specimen of that first edition is coming up for sale soon, for a couple of dollars or so.

  2. $80,000 – $120,000, yow! I’m glad I never caught the first-edition bug (or, I should say, was cured after a mild episode in which I spent a bit more than I could afford on old poetry magazines and editions).

  3. That was at Hugh Miller’s place in New Haven in the ’70s; I’d go in and he’d say “Steve, I was hoping you’d drop by — I’ve got a Zukovsky I know you’ll love!” The pushers always know what you crave.

  4. As you can imagine I only read Lolita in Russian translation, and all this Intermountain American just didn’t register then. Pretty cool to rediscover the now-familiar in this strange context 🙂

  5. I’m looking forward to reading the Russian version myself.

  6. I would advise against taking anything it says on trust

    Very wise. For that matter, I don’t believe that Browning ever made a revolver, in .38 or any other calibre – Vera Nabokov would have carried an automatic.

    Browning is famous for automatic pistols – as in the famous quote “Wenn ich Kultur höre … entsichere ich meinen Browning!” because revolvers don’t generally have safety catches. (Incidentally, is this a pun on Browning as pistol and Browning as poet? Or did Nazis not do puns?)

  7. An excellent question that had never occurred to me, and I’ve been quoting that for years. My instinctive answer would be no, regardless of Nazi aptitude or otherwise for puns, because I simply don’t think the poet was on the radar of non-Anglophile Germans, but now you’ve got me wondering.

  8. Sir JCass says

    “I came here on business, Miss Weld.”

    “Yes. I can imagine. Out. I don’t know you. I don’t want to know you. And if I did, this wouldn’t be either the day or the hour.”

    “Never the time and the place and the loved one all together,” I said.

    “What’s that?” She tried to throw me out with the point of her chin, but even she wasn’t that good.

    “Browning. The poet, not the automatic. I feel sure you’d prefer the automatic.”

    Raymond Chandler, The Little Sister.

  9. J.W. Brewer says

    At least according to Stacy Schiff’s biography, Vera Nabakov got into the habit of routinely carrying a gun in her purse in Weimar-era Berlin, where rattlesnakes (as opposed to the internecine violence of Russian emigre politics) were not a relevant threat. Presumably after she got to Ithaca, someone with knowledge off the local culture advised her as to what sort of excuse would be least likely to raise eyebrows when applying for N.Y. state pistol permit.

  10. Since it’s uttered by a student in a play by Hanns Johst, it might just possibly be a pun, but it’s a far fetch. Just before he started working on that play, Johst had joined Rosenberg’s Kampfbund für deutsche Kultur.

    Chandler went to Dulwich College about 1900-05 so no wonder Marlowe quoted Browning. Nabokov must have been a huge fan – he’s got Bob Browning all over the place. But these days, Browning is barely ever mentioned anywhere. Or am I wrong?

  11. Google Ngrams for ‘Robert Browning’.

    Basically references in books have been steady since 1960, with a small peak in the 60s and a trough in the 90s. Note that GN stops by default in 2000, but you can extend the end year as far as 2008, as I have done here. Of course, this doesn’t look at scholarly articles, blogs, and so on. There are still a lot more references to ‘Robert Browning’ than to ‘Browning automatic’, for what that’s worth.

  12. Sir JCass says

    Poems such as “My Last Duchess” and “Porphyria’s Lover” are still on the school syllabus in England at least.

    Directly or indirectly, Browning has been a massive influence on modern literature with his dramatic monologues ( inspiring TS Eliot, Cavafy et al.) and unreliable narrators. I’m not surprised Nabokov admired him. I might be wrong but I believe Browning was the true originator of the “Rashomon effect”, although more people will have seen the Kurosawa film than have read The Ring and the Book (I still haven’t got round to tackling the latter).

  13. J.W. Brewer says

    OK, Schiff’s biography of Vera is skimmable via google books. She says that Vera’s early-Berlin-period pistol was “[m]ost likely” a Browning (specific model https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/FN_M1900), and that later on in Ithaca her son Dmitri got her a revolver of unspecified make which she traded at a local gun store for a Browning .38, this being around the time she applied (with the entomology justification) to the Tompkins County Sheriff’s Dep’t for a pistol permit. There is also at least one mention of the poet Browning in the book (well, *a* poet Browning, not specified to be Robert rather than Elizabeth although perhaps Robert is more likely from the context).

  14. J.W. Brewer says

    See also Pound’s mocking-yet-perhaps-grudgingly-respectful attitude toward Rob’t Browning, as set forth in http://www.poemhunter.com/best-poems/ezra-pound/mesmerism-2/.

  15. Chandler went to Dulwich College about 1900-05 so no wonder Marlowe quoted Browning.

    In fact Chandler arrived there just after PG Wodehouse left. I like to think they had the same English teacher.


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