The Browning Easter Egg.

I was looking through my ancient (corrected edition 1961, Third Printing) copy of Nabokov’s Nikolai Gogol when my eye hit upon something that must have puzzled me when I first read the book in college, but of course pretty much everything puzzled me then (ah, youth!), so I moved on and forgot it. Now I thought “I’ll bet the internet will solve this for me,” and sure enough it did. From Alex Beam’s The Feud: Vladimir Nabokov, Edmund Wilson, and the End of a Beautiful Friendship:

The final chapter, 6, re-creates an exchange between the author and his publisher, Laughlin, “in Utah, sitting in the lounge of an Alpine hotel.” Laughlin is badgering Nabokov to tell the reader what Gogol’s books are about: “I have gone through it carefully, and so has my wife, and we have not found the plots.” Nabokov tells the reader that he tacked on a seven-page chronology, with plot summaries, to placate Laughlin. Clearly he thought Laughlin wouldn’t read the addendum, because he inserted this random sentence into the recitation of Gogol’s life: “Browning’s door is preserved in the library of Wellesley College.” [It is.] The Robert Browning “Easter egg”—computer lingo for a hidden joke—survived the 1959 and 1961 reeditions of Nikolai Gogol, but later vanished from the text.

And an excellent joke it is, though hard on the poor puzzled student. (The diligent ctrl-F’er will find it used in sly homage on this критика page.)

Addendum (Mar. 2024). I was remiss in that final reference to “this критика page” in not noting the author, something I always try to do; the linked piece is Peter Lubin’s “Kickshaws and Motley” (first in the Northwestern TRIQUARTERLY Nabokov issue #17 [Winter 1970], pp. 187-209), of which Nabokov wrote (in his introduction to that issue):

The multicolored inklings offered by Mr. Lubin in his “Kickshaws and Motley” are absolutely dazzling. Such things as his “v ugloo” [Russ. for “in the corner”] in the igloo of the globe [a blend of “glow” and “strobe”] are better than anything I have done in that line. Very beautifully he tracks down to their lairs in Eliot three terms queried by a poor little person in Pale Fire. I greatly admire the definition of tmesis (Type I) as a “semantic petticoat slipped on between the naked noun and its clothing epithet,” as well as Lubin’s “proleptic” tmesis illustrated by Shakespeare’s glow-worm beginning “to pale his ineffectual fire.” And the parody of an interview with N. (though a little more exquisitely iridized than my own replies would have been) is sufficiently convincing to catch readers.

Now, that must have been a satisfying encomium. You can read more about Lubin here.


  1. It occurs to me that a reference to Browning’s door could serve as a more specialized version of a dog barking in the distance, a way (as Rosecrans Baldwin says there) for novelists (or Nabokovians) to wink at one another.

  2. Missed opportunity for a noun pile: Nabokov’s Gogol Wellesley College Library Browning Door Easter Egg.

  3. It is a standard way for Russian schoolchildren to check whether a teacher reads their submissions or not. Just insert some phrase that simply cannot be left without a comment and see what comes back.

  4. Hang on. Isn’t this the Barrett’s door? Or at least Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s door? Through whose mail-slot Robert’s correspondence passed, I suppose.

  5. At least that makes a bit more sense up front. “Browning’s door” otherwise sounds to me like “Hitler’s underwear”.

  6. Did Hitler have a Brauning?

  7. It is indeed the door from 50 Wimpole Street.

    Apparently the library’s rare books include a copy of Nikolai Gogol inscribed to Sarah Jane Manley with a drawing of the imaginary Wellesleyana browningi.

    Definitely an Elizabeth Browning “Easter egg.”

  8. When I was in school, the way to check if the prof had read your paper was to light a candle and let drop a single drop of hot wax between two sheets somewhere near the end. The wax creates a mild one-time bond; you can tell if you are the first one to spread the papers.

    It always struck me as a dicey proposition. If the reader did read through and notice the tripwire, would this not trigger annoyance?

    (One of my aunt’s great regrets in life was not taking any of the Russian lit courses back in the mid forties. Odd fellow teaching them. Big on butterflies….)

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