Review: David Potteron Nabokov's dreams

Nabokov in Dreamland

I read till half-past eleven, and then tussle with insomnia till one a.m. about twice a week I have a good, long nightmare with unpleasant characters imported from earlier dreams, appearing in more or less iterative surroundings– kaleidoscopic arrangements of broken impressions, fragments of day thoughts, and irresponsible mechanical images, utterly lacking any possible Freudian implication or explication, but singularly akin to the procession of changing figures that one usually sees on the inner palpebral screen when closing one’s weary eyes

– Vladimir Nabokov, Strong Opinions

‘Nabokov writes prose the only way it should be written, that is, ecstatically.’ That was John Updike’s assessment. It’s been a favourite quotable chunklet of publishers for decades, popping up above, beside, or below the backpage blurbs on new paperback Nabokovs. It’s that rare specimen of a ‘tasteful soundbite’ that is worth noticing. Ecstatic prose is crucial to Nabokov’s writing, and that ecstasy lies in the potential for readers to make connections – erotic, thematic, even paranoid – between syntactical units. In his later work, the sheer volume and complexity of these interlinkages is still bewildering. This  is especially so in his longest novel Ada, or Ardor: A Family Chronicle (1969). For some readers, this novel’s defiant contradictions and enigmas are a source of intense frustration, while for others they fuel its charm. In either case, the mysteries of Ada are hard to resist, and so is a new work that promises to unravel them. Insomniac Dreams, the first complete publication of a dream diary kept by Nabokov as he wrote the novel, illuminates the time-bending dream-logic that holds it all together. Aside from a small sample published in the Times Literary Supplement in 2014, access to this diary has been  limited since Nabokov’s death in 1977, stored alongside the rest of the Nabokov Papers in the Berg Collection in New York, referred to in passing in a few of his biographies but never ‘available’ to a wider audience.

The authorship of Insomniac Dreams is surprisingly ambiguous. Yes, it contains the unpublished dream diary of Vladimir Nabokov – but that takes up just over sixty pages of a two hundred-odd page book. So what about the rest? The cover gives some indication. ‘Experiments with Time by Vladimir Nabokov’ is displayed on an index card – Nabokov’s favourite piece of stationery – that sits beneath a big white pillow emblazoned with the book’s title. Nabokov’s name is printed as a reproduction of his signature, as if the cover’s index card had been signed by Nabokov himself. And in a way it was; in its archival form, the dream diary consists of 118 index cards on which Nabokov recorded his dreams over about eighty days – from 14 October 1964 to 3 January 1965. Nestled modestly between the card and the pillow is the crux of the ambiguity – ‘Compiled, edited & with commentaries by Gennady Barabtarlo’.

In effect, this is a posthumous collaboration. Broken into five parts, there’s a three-two split between Nabokov and Barabtarlo respectively. Barabtarlo’s sections serve as bookends, with the opener offering helpful background information into the circumstances surrounding Nabokov’s decision to record his dreams, and the closer offering Barabtarlo’s scholarly interpretation of its contents. The remaining three parts are drawn from Nabokov’s writing: never-before-published archival material, the dream diary itself, and fragments from other diary entries or letters in which Nabokov described his dreams.

Their assembly owes a great deal to Barabtarlo’s editorial acumen. Barabtarlo deftly guides the reader through the material, using footnotes to fill the many, often abbreviated, placenames and personages that drift in and out of Nabokov’s dreams, tracing connections between entries, and imbuing what are essentially a series of private shorthand scribblings with enough context to be appreciated by a broad audience.

The main draw, of course, is the dream diary itself, and it really is a treat to be given a glimpse into the workings of Nabokov’s brain, especially that particular part that would have been active when he was sleepily scribbling what he could remember of his dreams immediately after waking. Barabtarlo recalls that one of the publishers to whom he offered the project, a card-carrying Freudian by their own admission, found the content of Nabokov’s dream diaries disappointing. So might some readers, I guess, if this is the first piece of Nabokov’s autobiographical material they have read. Nabokov’s unwavering disdain for Freud and everything he could be made to stand for – this was flexible depending on whatever Nabokov was writing at the time – is an idée fixe throughout his oeuvre. Nabokov liked to call Freud the ‘Viennese Quack’, and in Ada he even merges Freud with Adolf Hitler to create the side-character ‘Herr Froid’. This should serve as a firm warning to anyone excited by the prospect of ‘interpreting’ Nabokov’s dreams. One can try, of course, and I’m sure someone will, but there’s no escaping that Freud’s methods were unceremoniously banished from Nabokov’s own experiment – still ‘present’ in their absence, perhaps, but also absent in their absence.

The impetus to start recording his dreams in such a systematised fashion came from Nabokov’s reading of J. W. Dunne’s An Experiment in Time (1927). That book’s main thesis is either bold or preposterous, depending on your threshold for pseudoscientific mysticism. Dunne believed that time moves in both ways: the future flows through the present and the present the future, etc. He was surely not the first thinker to propose something like this. However he is unique in thinking that he had found incontrovertible evidence that proved it once and for all, and that that proof could be found in dreams. Dunne’s basic premise was that events in the future could cause dreams in the present, ie. not that dreams predicted the future, but that events in the future had always already happened, and that our brains  can pick up their rippling backward in time when we are asleep. Barabtaro summarises it thus: ‘according to [Dunne’s] proposition, time’s progress is not unidirectional but recursive: the reason we do not notice the backflow is that we are not paying attention. Dreamland is the best proving ground.’ It isn’t hard to see how this unintuitive yet strangely elegant idea would have appealed to Nabokov as a writer; one of his favourite tools in a very wide and deep tool-chest is prolepsis, and discovering a real-life equivalent would have been exciting.

So who was  Dunne? He started his career and made his fortune as an aeronautical engineer in the early twentieth century. Speculative science became his main activity once he’d accrued enough wealth to quit the day-job. It seems odd that Nabokov was so charmed by his work. If Dunne had been making similarly broad-sweeping and unfounded claims about lepidoptery as he did about physics, Nabokov would have despised him.

His confidence in Dunne may have had something to do with H. G. Wells, whom Nabokov had admired since boyhood. Wells wrote a glowing review of Dunne’s Experiment when it first came out in 1927, and this seems to have ensured his books were circulated among literary types for the next few decades at least. Case in point, Jorge Luis Borges wrote an article about one of them 25 years before Nabokov’s experiment, though he was more sceptical than either Wells or Nabokov:

What reasons are there for assuming that the future already exists? Dunne gives two: one, premonitory dreams: another, the relative simplicity this hypothesis lends to the complicated diagrams typical of his style.

So why would Nabokov, a published scientist in his own right, have been less critical of Dunne’s conclusions than Borges? And how do we reconcile Nabokov’s usual rigour with his uncharacteristic credulity to Dunne’s proselytisation? Barabtarlo doesn’t really venture much of an explanation, beyond noting that Nabokov ‘was a mystic after a fashion’. And this is basically correct: when asked if he believed in God during his Playboy interview in 1964, Nabokov’s answer was the writerly equivalent of a beguiling ‘maybe’, as overt as he ever got to a concrete expression of spirituality:

To be quite candid — and what I am going to say now is something I have never said before, and I hope that it provokes a salutary chill — I know more than I can express in words, and the little that I can express would not have been expressed, had I not known more.

Another explanation lies in the evidence Barabtarlo has assembled and published for the first time in Insomniac Dreams itself. Throughout his life Nabokov experienced a number of eerily prescient dreams for which he had never been able to find a rational explanation. Barabtarlo gives a particularly potent example regarding Nabokov’s younger brother Sergei, who perished in a concentration camp during the second world war. In a previously unpublished letter, Nabokov confides to a friend that: ‘Just before I received word that he perished, I had seen him in a terrible dream, lying on the bunk gasping for air, convulsing in agony.’ Barabtalo leaves his reader to draw their own conclusions.

The book also provides an insight into Nabokov’s ambivalent relationship to sleep and sleeplessness. A lifelong insomniac, Nabokov was 65 when he started recording his dreams for this experiment. He dreaded sleep his entire life, even as an otherwise supremely happy child. Though resigned to his fragmented sleep-patterns by his later years, his insomnia had seen him develop night-terrors which could seize hold of him in the small hours, overwhelming his senses with a visceral fear of imminent death. A note from Nabokov’s diary on 24 April 1976, a year before his death, records one of these episodes, murky with the kind of dream-logic stirred by an abrupt transition between sleep and wakefulness:

At 1 am was roused from brief sleep by horrible anguish of the ‘this-is-it’ sort. Discreetly screamed hoping to wake Vé [Véra, Nabokov’s wife] in the next room, yet fearing to succeed (because I felt quite all right).

A similarly naked insight comes in another diary entry dated after the main dream experiment. Nabokov wakes up at dawn, the ‘diurnal part of [his] brain still in dream gear’, and struggles to process the streaks of light falling on his carpet. In its drowsiness, his mind resolves these ‘vertical and horizontal shadows in a barred and broken twilight’ into a pair of guillotines set up for himself and Véra, and that this makes perfect sense as the way their lives end – ‘That’s the way they do it, of course – in one’s bedroom.’ Even when Nabokov’s sleep was good – at least by his standards – it was always fragmented, or in his words: ‘3+2+1 or at best 4+2+2 or at worst 2+1+1+2+1-hour affair with intervals… of hopelessness and nervous urination.’ Still, Nabokov’s complaints of broken sleep exhibit flashes of his sparkling humour, as in this one-line description of a ‘good’ night’s sleep: ‘September 12 9-12, 1-9, 1 WC. Best night in my life.’

Nabokov’s diaries have not been fully published, so this is the most sustained view we’ve ever had of the way his mind worked, day-to-day, even regarding mundane things. The dream diary is unexpectedly moving, written with an unguarded vulnerability Nabokov never let show in his interviews or autobiography, where the ‘I’-persona he cultivated was usually one of haughty indomitability and doubt-free truculence. It’s the closest glimpse we’ve got so far of what it might have been like to have Nabokov’s brain – without the meddling, censorious influence of this ‘I’-persona (which even looms over his letters). The Nabokov we encounter in these diary entries feels a lot closer to the Nabokov who’s responsible for his ambivalent books, and behind the eyes of his often deeply, crushingly human characters.

Fans of Nabokov’s virtuosic prose-style will not be left wanting. ‘Nabokov could not avoid translating his vaguely previsionary dreams into the hyperobjective language of waking life’, writes Barabtarlo. As with much of his best fiction, the greatest pleasures to be had from this material lie in Nabokov’s masterful rendering of smaller details. Once Nabokov started actually recording his dreams he seems to have lost interest in testing Dunne’s thesis, allowing himself to be side-tracked by the aesthetic challenges and satisfaction of capturing his dreams in prose. They preserve raw feelings, impressions, sensation, emotions, and disturbances, the production and replication of which  would so often  mark the success of his intricate literary compositions.

There are longer, more labyrinthine dreams recorded over multiple cards, for when Nabokov’s memory was working particularly well. The transitions from one scene to another – one minute a taxi, the next an ocean-liner – are especially well-executed, almost phantasmic. The highlights are the sharp turns in a longer dream, or single isolated fragments rescued from one mostly forgotten. The best of these course with humour or horror, veins which in Nabokov’s fiction almost always belie dreamlike qualities anyway. ‘Funny’ dreamlets see Nabokov going butterfly hunting with a ‘huge spoon’ instead of a net – ‘wonder how I shall catch anything with it’ – or bemoaning with his nephew that the chicken served to them at a formal dinner tastes oddly like candle grease. One nightmare that’s almost certainly more amusing to the reader than it was to the dreamer sees a displaced Leo Tolstoy, reclining in a comfy deckchair, idly declare his dislike for Lolita much as its famously and performatively truculent author would himself dismiss a good chunk of the work of his contemporaries as ‘topical trash’.

Other vignettes are unsettling. In one, Nabokov and his son Dmitri – just a boy in the dream, but an adult at the time – ‘are trying to track down a repulsive plump little boy who has killed another child – perhaps his sister’. Elsewhere, Nabokov manages to recover a striking episode from ‘several nasty dreams & dreamlets’ on a particularly bad/good night. In it, he leaves a man he suspects of being a spy alone in a room, slipping into the next to regather himself and consider his next move:

I knew he was dangerous—a ruthless agent. I tried to bolt the door, fumbled at the latch, it was hard to push in. Suddenly I collected my wits, I told myself it was shameful to fear that man. I decided to go back and as I re-entered the living room I stepped into a blast of blackness.

He also records fatidic nightmares, in which the spectre of death looms in unusual and distinctively Nabokovian ways. Where the abortive spy-tale at least had a basic plot, Nabokov’s fatidic dreams often consisted only of shapes, colours, and textures – the kind of information his synaesthesia amplified. Throughout the two-and-a-half month experiment, he records several manifestations of a ‘death-sign’. Its makeup is different each time, but his dream-mind always unambiguously interprets it as spelling doom: ‘a thick orange-red spiral on a dull brown field’, ‘two roundish golden-yellow blobs with blurred edges, placed not quite side by side but more so than one above the other, for an instant, on my right.’

Following the dream-experiment and additional dream records the fourth part of the book consists of a hefty compilation of dream-scenes cribbed from Nabokov’s novels and short stories. This is the weakest section of the book, not least because it lacks the detailed expository notes that were so helpful and detailed in the previous sections. Nabokov wrote a list of ‘Types of dreams’ on an undated card inserted near the end of the experiment, a summation from a later date:

1. Professional & vocational (in my case: literature, teaching, and lepidoptera).
2. Dim-doom dreams (in my case, fatidic-sign nightmares: thalamic calamities, menacing series and riddles).
3. Obvious influences of immediate occupations & impressions (Olympic games etc.).
4. Memories of the remote past (childhood, émigré life, school, parents).
5. ‘Precognitive.’
6. Erotic tenderness and heart-rending enchantment.

Noting that the dreams Nabokov recorded ‘do not fit these categories neatly’, Barabtarlo nevertheless uses this taxonomy to organise the dreams in Nabokov’s fiction, expanding the number of categories to eleven and then starting ‘from the top’ chronologically at the beginning of each. And while Nabokov’s loose schema may have held together for the duration of one index card, its utility as the organising principle for more than fifty pages of extracts spanning more than fifty years of work grows increasingly precarious. (Probably the most useful extract appears before this categorisation even begins. The introduction to this part reproduces five whole pages from Van Veen’s much longer exegesis on Time in Ada, a piece which rewards revisiting in light of what’s just been read.)

Around the time Nabokov compiled the dream diaries he was prescribed potent drugs to help combat his insomnia. While his doctors assured him everything they gave him was ‘innocuous’, these days some of them are recognised as heavy hypnotics and drugs of abuse. Most references to medications in Nabokov’s diaries are fairly brief (often complaints that such-and-such pill was or wasn’t working) but it’s plausible that whatever medication he was taking may have altered the timbre of his dreams during the experiment. Barabtarlo doesn’t take this up for further consideration. It is strange that the episodes where Nabokov explicitly writes about the effects of narcotisation on perceptions and on the character of dreams are missing. In a particularly revealing passage from Speak, Memory, for instance – which isn’t in Barabtarlo’s taxonomy – Nabokov remembers the dream-like visions and surreal hallucinations he experienced when he was partially anesthetised with ether for an appendectomy. He describes how his senses were assaulted by a seemingly random combination of involuntary impressions, crystallising into a ‘decalcomonia picture’ of himself ‘in a sailor suit mounting a freshly emerged Emperor moth under the guidance of a Chinese lady who I knew was my mother.’ ‘It was all there,’ he writes, ‘brilliantly reproduced in my dream, while my own vitals were being exposed’.

Also omitted are episodes from Nabokov’s fiction in which a character experiences a kind of waking dream, jolted from their (relatively) stable reality by involuntary flashes of something else. Ada’s narrator Van Veen describes his own struggles with insomnia in old age, with an emphasis on the lead-up to sleep rather than dreaming itself. It is then that he feels himself overwhelmed by a cascade of viscerally unpleasant sensory information, ‘drowning in a cataract of worse wakefulness, with rage and regret, desire and despair sweeping me into an abyss where sheer physical extenuation stunned me at last with sleep.’ And then there’s the episode in Lolita in which Humbert, having just gunned down his mercurial arch-rival Clare Quilty, experiences a waking-dream of Lolita’s long-dead mother Charlotte, to whom he was briefly married and pitied entirely:

I may have lost contact with reality for a second or two – oh, nothing of the I-just-blacked-out sort that your common criminal enacts… a kind of momentary shift occurred as if I were in the connubial bedroom, and Charlotte were sick in bed. Quilty was a very sick man. I held one of his slippers instead of the pistol – I was sitting on the pistol.

Though it’s ambiguous whether Humbert hallucinated these images or simply found an unusual way to recount his sudden and unexpected nursing impulse towards the man he’s midway through the process of murdering, the sudden involuntary shift from one perception of reality to another is crucial, and a favourite motif of Nabokov’s. This is the kind of state in which Nabokov experienced his ether visions, and one he felt to be inseparable from the mechanisms of sleep. It’s a half-awake, half-dreaming stupor which seems coincident and compatible with the kind of dialectical disjunct encoded in the book’s title ‘insomniac dream’. It’s here that Nabokov’s dream experiment offers the most for fresh and exciting readings of his later fiction – and the omission strikes me as substantial.

A pivotal figure in Ada is Lucette, ostensibly the younger cousin of Van first introduced as ‘a neutral child of eight, with a fringe of shiny reddish-blond hair and a freckled button for nose.’ Through a complicated blend of infidelity, mental illness, a miscarriage, and a post-birth substitution perpetuated by their parents and parents’ siblings, redheaded Lucette is actually Van’s half-sister and the titular Ada his full-sister. Since it’s a Nabokov book, Ada and Van engage in a passionate lifelong romance, knowing nothing of their closer kinship at first, and remaining unperturbed when they do figure it out. Lucette, meanwhile, pines after Van, and Van and Ada purposefully tease and titillate her. An innocent childhood crush on her handsome ‘cousin’ develops into an unhealthy obsession whose seriousness her siblings are either too late to recognise or cruel enough to ignore. Even as she develops into a beautiful young woman of grace and kindness, Lucette’s doomed hope that Van will ever love her back – or at the very least make (even disinterested) love to her – underwrites her beauty with sadness. In the novel’s most famous scene she overdoses on sleeping pills and throws herself from the side of an ocean-liner.

Many of the novel’s narrative and thematic threads foreshadow the night of Lucette’s death, but one in particular resonates with the dream diary. Van drifts in and out of bars, cafes, and restaurants throughout the first few decades of his life. Usually distracted by some more immediate piece of plot, at different times (and years apart) he notices an enigmatic figure of a lady in black with her back to him. While visiting Ada at her boarding school, Van sees the mysterious silhouette for the first time at the back of a tearoom:

It was empty, save for a slender lady in black velvet, wearing a beautiful black velvet picture hat, who sat with her back to them at a ‘tonic bar’ and never once turned her head.

Much later, Van is dining at ‘a passably attractive restaurant’ the night before a duel. Though looking forward to the fight, he’s as interested in sex as he is food, and spies what he thinks might be a suitable candidate for the former:

At the far end of the room, on one of the red stools of the burning bar, a graceful harlot in black—tight bodice, wide skirt, long black gloves, black-velvet picture hat—was sucking a golden drink through a straw. In the mirror behind the bar, amid colored glints, he caught a blurred glimpse of her russety blond beauty; he thought he might sample her later on, but when he glanced again she had gone.

This enigmatic thread finally coalesces even later in the narrative. Soon before they both board the ocean-liner from which Lucette will jump to her death, Van discovers her drinking in a bar called Overman’s not far from his hotel:

He headed for the bar, and as he was in the act of wiping the lenses of his black-framed spectacles, made out, through the optical mist (Space’s recent revenge!), the girl whose silhouette he recalled having seen now and then (much more distinctly!) ever since his pubescence, passing alone, drinking alone, always alone, like Blok’s Incognita…. She wore a high-necked, long-sleeved romantic black dress with an ample skirt, fitted bodice and ruffy collar, from the black soft corolla of which her long neck gracefully rose…. From under the wavy wide brim of her floppy hat of black faille, with a great black bow surmounting it, a spiral of intentionally disarranged, expertly curled bright copper descends her flaming cheek, and the light of the bar’s ‘gem bulbs’ plays on her bouffant front hair, which, as seen laterally, convexes from beneath the extravagant brim of the picture hat right down to her long thin eyebrow.

When read against Insomniac Dreams, the first two manifestations of Lucette’s lonely silhouette seems less like simple acts of narrative foreshadowing, and more as if they were intended by Nabokov as echoes of a future event, or ‘future recollections’ as they are called elsewhere in Nabokov scholarship. Each glimpse, always through some sort of dreamlike haze or ‘optical mist’, is of Lucette as she appears close to her death; wearing the same clothes, seated at a bar, sad, beautiful, graceful, and alone. The Aleksandr Blok play Nabokov references, Neznakomka in Russian, is more commonly translated as The Unknown Woman, and its action revolves around a similarly timeless figure. Blok’s Woman is a concatenation of divine mystery and earthly passion, manifesting to the poet-hero (or ‘Blue One’) in a dreamlike between-space, ‘a beautiful woman in black’ with a ‘pale, falling brilliance.’ ‘She, like a statue, waits’ for the poet to meet her on a bridge in Saint Petersburg. Time dilates and contracts at once when they meet, as if they’re catching a moment together as separate time-streams momentarily cross:

Centuries flowed by like dreams.
I have waited so long for you on this earth.

Centuries flowed by like moments
In space. I glided as a star.

When Van finally catches up to Lucette, he experiences a similar kind of time-bending alongside his moment of enigmatic revelation: ‘It was a queer feeling—as of something replayed by mistake, part of a sentence misplaced on the proof sheet, a scene run prematurely, a repeated blemish, a wrong turn of time.’ The moment of Lucette’s death stirs up even more time-bending ripples:

As she began losing track of herself, she thought it proper to inform a series of receding Lucettes—telling them to pass it on and on in a trick-crystal regression—that what death amounted to was only a more complete assortment of the infinite fractions of solitude.

These receding, regressing Lucettes are that little bit easier to make out now, with our newfound insight into how Nabokov was thinking about dreams and time-flow during Ada’s gestation. His enigmatic blending of prolepsis, future recollections, and the dreamlike shifts in reality that run rampant there owe a great deal to his earlier experiments. With its thorough presentation and examination of the counterintuitive-yet-strangely-elegant premise of Nabokov’s original experiment – dreams that predict the future – Insomniac Dreams gives us a backdoor into thinking about some of the stranger aspects of Nabokov’s plots and style.

Works Cited

Gennedy Barabtarlo, ‘Textures of Time: A Dream Experiment by Vladimir Nabokov’, Times Literary Supplement (31 October 2014).
Jorge Luis Borges, ‘Time and J. W. Dunne’, Collected Non-Fiction, edited by Eliot Weinberger, translated by Esther Allen, Suzanne Jill Levine, & Eliot Weinberger (Viking, 1999).
Aleksandr Blok, Aleksandr Blok’s Trilogy of Lyric Dramas: A Puppet Show, The King on the Square, and The Unknown Woman, edited and translated by Timothy C. Westphalen (Routledge, 2003).
W. Dunne, An Experiment with Time (Faber, 1939).
Vladimir Nabokov, Ada, or Ardor (A Family Chronicle) (1969).
Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita (1955).
Vladimir Nabokov, Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited (1966).
Vladimir Nabokov, Strong Opinions (1973).