Posts by Ryan
My final post to this blog is a reflection on road trips, travel, and “American experience.” I haven’t included much about myself in these posts, but I am very interested in travel in tourism. I am hoping to do an Independently Design Major that focuses around studying tourism. I like thinking about which advertisements for certain travel experiences work, and why. What is an “authentic” travel experience, whether in the U.S. west, or abroad? Nabokov’s long descriptions of his travels are filled with advertisements and his snarky commentary on them.
“The would-be enticements of their repetitious names–all those Sunset Motels, U-Beam Cottages, Hillcrest Courts, Pine View Courts, Mountain View Courts, Skyline Courts, Park Plaza Courts, Green Acres, Mac’s Courts. There was sometimes a special line in the write-up, such as ‘Children welcome, pets allowed’ (You are welcome, you are allowed). The baths were mostly tiled showers, with an endless variety of spouting mechanisms… [that turned] instantly beastly hot or blindingly cold upon you, depending on whether your neighbor turned on his cold or his hot to deprive you of a necessary complement in the shower you had so carefully blended. Some motels had instructions pasted above the toilet (on whose tank the towels were unhygienically heaped) asking guests not to throw into its bowl garbage, beer cans, cartons, stillborn babies” (Lolita, 146).
I drove from Colorado Springs to Los Angeles, and back, over spring break, passing through various parts of Arizona, New Mexico, California, Nevada, Utah, and Colorado. As I mentioned in my last post, a lot of these descriptions to a certain point are still accurate descriptions of this part of the country to a degree. There are certain patterns, certain repetitions that seem to stick out if you observe all that you can as you drive. As Nabokov writes, the motels seem to have a certain cheeky monotony, with some failed expectations. (The car I was in broke down on the way, so instead of camping one night, we got a room on the outskirts of Vegas that reminded me of his descriptions. It was called “The Fisher’s Inn”, and there was not one hint at any nautical theme to be seen.) I was drawn in his descriptions to how everything was advertised, how everything seemed to want to draw you in and yet didn’t seem to live up to standard. I’m personally interested in where this advertisement manifests itself with tourism to other countries, so it was helpful, even in fiction, to find some helpful examples. I noticed this on my own trip as well: seemingly infinite and repetitive billboards and advertisements of niche history all intermingled between a wide variety of scenery. Nabokov does a good job of capturing this weird balance:
“Winter in the desert, spring in the foothills, almonds in bloom. Reno, a dreary town in Nevada, with a nightlife said to be ‘cosmopolitan and mature.’ A winery in California, with a church built in the shape of a wine barrel. Death Valley. Scotty’s Castle. Works of Art collected by one Rogers over a period of years. The ugly villas of handsome actresses. R. L. Stevenson’s footprint on an extinct volcano… Somber Yellowstone Park and its colored hot springs, baby geysers, rainbows of bubbling mud–symbols of my passion. A herd of antelopes in a wildlife refuge. Our hundredth cavern, adults one dollar, Lolita fifty cents… The Bearded Woman read our jingle and now she is no longer single” (Lolita, 157-158).
Nature and oddities intertwined. Maybe even in conversation with one another. That’s the last Nabokov selection I’ve chosen to share. I mentioned that I would try and relate my own road trip to his, so I am including parts of something that I wrote after my road trip. I used to be declared in Creative Writing, and I still continue to write. This class ended up stimulating a variety of disciplines! Here is part of what I’m writing, inspired by the trip and Nabokov:
“Needles. An interesting name for a California town with now pines, and no noticeable epidemic. The town isn’t too sharp, and car breaks down after a mechanic jiggles some parts the wrong way. Sigh, goes the car engine, putt-putting one last cough. Sigh, goes the crowd of three in the parking Rite-Aid parking. The Rite-Aid is a sort of grail here. The town is in fact Weedles, informs one of the mechanics. He isn’t working on the car. There are four marijuana dispensaries, and a Rite-Aid as a grocery store. Would Rite-Aid sell hot dogs to grill for dinner? No, but they’ve been trying for years. The hot dogs never arrive. Behind the Rite-Aid was surprising grandeur a plain, a train, and a full-scale mountain chain. This was the triad to find in each Western town, even if it meant looking behind the Rite-Aid or underneath a couple cars. Not your typical back-alley scene. Orange, simple, stunning, blue, bountiful, lush, lurching, white, wonderful. Who cares that the car broke down, with all this to gaze at? Not us, whisper the mountains. In the other direction, two gas stations. One has a freezer of raw hot dogs, that they refuse to sell raw. That’s not food code violation, but we are happy to heat our dogs for you.
A tow to a Needles mechanic. Dogs running around. Woof, says one dog. Remind me of when I cared, reads on mans Rite-Aid T-shirt. No car part. A tow to Vegas. Lights, hills, cascading arrows and dots of yellow. A stop at the itchy Fisher’s Inn, a fishy place–not one ocean, not one boat to be moored. No images of beach cookouts, no hot dogs, no beach dogs. Stiff and itchy beds are the sand you find at the end of the day.
The next day, a bus out of Vegas. No more car. A man in a full clown costume has white makeup around his eyes, crisp and gleaning in the desert bus-stop sun. His clashing green hat reflects all the green to be found in this mad country—the rolling hills, the standoff shrubbery, the one tree amidst the swirls of dust and dirt. He’s smoking a cigarette, pacing his drags carefully. He’s the plain waiting under the desert sky. He’s the idle train, loading up for a trip across America. He’s the frost-tipped mountains pointing to nothing in particular, with an authority that is so bold, and yet so patient. There’s no need to go any quickly, he seems to say. Stay, if you may, just one more day.”
The car-breaking was not enjoyable, but I enjoyed writing bits of the account down, and fragmenting parts of a very odd journey for my own enjoyment. This is my final post, as it is now Block 7. If you’ve been following along on these posts, thank you for reading, and for putting up with my writing and excessive quotation. Be sure to take a road trip with Nabokov in hand as soon as you can.
Well, the course “Topics in Literature: Vladimir Nabokov” has now ended. By the numbers, we sampled a chunk of his work: 1 poem, 1 essay, 1 novel-length autobiography, 6 novels, and 15 short stories (not forgetting the Stanley Kubrick film!). As a brief closing statement for the course, I found this line quite fitting: “so fast / Did life, the wooly caterpillar run” (Pale Fire, 42). This quote seems apt to share as a final reflection for the course, and it is perhaps one of my favorite quotes from a Nabokov piece (I like caterpillars). It comes from Pale Fire, the final novel which we read this week. Pale Fire is a wacky novel in which Nabokov has created a foreword, a poem, and commentary on the poem. Yet, these components are created by a fictional poet and a fictional commentator, and the real story, rather than helpful information, is found in the rather lengthy footnotes. The fictional commentator instead describes a faraway kingdom, Zembla, and a series of fantastical stories that follow. I’m trying not to spoil some key details, but it was my favorite from the course, and I highly recommend reading it.
By telling a story through the footnotes, Nabokov cheekily comments on the nature of academia. He points out the absurdity of having an artistic piece with footnotes and forewords—often, they read too much into the author’s intentions, and it seems tedious that a piece can have commentary longer and lengthier than the piece itself. Nabokov repeatedly and pointedly shows some of the excesses of the academic world. For a final reflection on the course, this is something that I have noticed and reflected on as perhaps my favorite feature of his writings. In the final piece we read, the essay “The Art and Literature of Commonsense”, Nabokov reflects that “commonsense has back-kicked dirt at the loveliest of queer paintings because a blue tree seemed madness to its well-meaning hoof” (Lectures on Literature, 372). While not speaking directly about academia, I think that the point comes across here. Common and institutional thinking can often be dangerous to creativity and expression. The reference to the art and the sullied painting made me laugh, too.
Another instance where Nabokov tries to make the defense for art is in a short story about going to a museum, excitedly titled, “The Visit to the Museum”. On campus, I work at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, so I enjoyed reading a brief story about being in the museum. In the story, the narrator gets lost in the back corridors and finds himself lost and terrified by the arrays of displays, until finally he realizes he is back in a Russia that isn’t the one that he remembered. The narrator describes: “Now and then, on one side or the other, stone stairs, with puddles on the steps, which gave me a strange sensation of fear, would descend into misty abysses, whence issued whistles, the rattle of dishes, the clatter of typerwriters, the ring of hammers” (The Stories of VN, 283). The museum in this story is dark, labyrinth-like, full of horrifying sounds, and even a bit wet. While this does remind me of some more-or-less decent contemporary exhibits, this seems to sum up common fears about museums: that they are scary, easy to get lost in, and filled with indecipherable messages. I think here Nabokov critiques not the art, but how it is assembled in these back rooms—the art and the museum process seem confusing because of their institutional nature. My brief advertisement for the CSFAC is that I can appreciate that it is the opposite there. I will admit that the layout can be a bit wacky, but it is a museum that tries to make art easy and fun to access. And, unlike Nabokov’s description, there are no puddles in the museum.
Nabokov’s pokes at institutions and “common thinking” aren’t always so discreet. Those tired of reading and hearing about Freud, in class or in daily life, would enjoy the frequent jokes he makes at Freud’s expense (“the Viennese quack!”). He makes jokes at how quickly we jump to interpreting dreams and behaviors in a Freudian way. It’s hard not to see his point, considering the variety of disciplines (literature, psychology, social science) that employ readings of Freud in a liberal-arts setting.
The last three novels of the class, Pnin, Lolita, and Pale Fire each take place in school-related settings and feature eccentric atypical professors. Nabokov can’t help but insert snubs at how college institutions work, with their generic campuses and odd means of distributing funding. Humbert Humbert from Lolita is openly fascinated by underage children. Charles Kinbote from Pale Fire parachutes in from a fictional country to teach language at a college. Perhaps my favorite example of the against-the grain, seemingly against-the-institution professor is Pnin (from Pnin). My favorite description of him: “Desdemona…who came on Fridays and with whom at one time God had gossiped daily…happened to glimpse Pnin basking in the unearthly lilac light of his sun lamp, wearing nothing but shorts, dark glasses, and a dazzling Greek-Catholic cross on his broad chest, and insisted thereafter that he was a saint” (Pnin, 40). It’s a bit unpleasant (and probably unprofessional) to imagine any college professor like this, sun-bathing and mistaken for sainthood. Pnin frequently misunderstands situations and is the aloof and lovable professor that doesn’t quite fit into rigid academia. So here is Pnin, tanning under his sun lamp. Nabokov questions many institutions and means of common thinking—be them museums, literature footnotes, college campuses, or Freudian analyses.
By the time you have finished reading this, I should hopefully be in Orange County California, taking inspiration from Pnin with short shorts and dark sunglasses (though no Greek-catholic cross, no bald head, no sun lamp—but plenty of sunshine). I’ll be working on a last reflection that thinks about road trips and Lolita, but this is the last of my week-end (week-late) reflections for this course. What a time! I hope you enjoyed reading, and that you have a lovely spring.
The majority of our third week was spent reading and discussing Nabokov’s infamous best-seller Lolita. For those not familiar with this work, it depicts hilariously-named Humbert Humbert and the gross, evil, and maliciously sexual relationship that he seeks out with Lolita. Lolita is just twelve years at the start of the novel, and fifteen by the end of her time with Humbert. This disturbing relationship is even more complicated by their relationship to one another. Humbert Humbert first marries Lolita’s mother and acts as her stepfather, but when Lolita’s mother dies, Humbert Humbert is her only guardian. (We would also watch Stanley Kubrick’s film version of the tale–it was just as jarring.) A common theme we have been discussing in Nabokov’s works is how to grapple with narrators that are uncomfortable, perverted, and otherwise crazy, yet are given clever and beautiful Nabokovian language to tell their stories. Nabokov himself is an expert at creating these eccentric characters that make us cringe, while simultaneously loving and savoring parts of the novel that feel grittier.
One way that Nabokov accomplishes this in Lolita is with his beautiful descriptions of, well, anything but Humbert Humbert’s relationship with Lolita. A theme for our discussions was “America” and how Nabokov is able to provide exhaustingly rich pictures of America in the 40s and 50s. Nabokov composed Lolita in the late 40s and early 50s, and we learned that every summer he would take a road trip with his wife Véra out west. As an article in the New York Times puts aptly, “At the height of the Cold War, an expatriate Russian novelist with the resonant name of Vladimir was roaming through the reddest of red states” (link). This same NYT article even writes that the word “nymphet”, invented by Nabokov and used grossly by Humbert Humbert to describe Lolita, was added to the Oxford English Dictionary. Nabokov’s works are filled with self-conscious reflections on what it means to be a Russian émigré writer now living in the United States, and he makes big efforts to integrate himself as an artist by familiarizing himself with English—the creation of nymphet, for instance. But another possible way that Nabokov fixes himself into American culture and literature is by taking these road trips—a classic staple and fascination of many classic U.S. novels. Corinne, our professor, informs us that Nabokov composed most of Lolita while he was on these trips with his wife. In addition to writing and seeing the West, Nabokov of course also hunted for butterflies.
Nabokov’s descriptions of The American West should still resonate with us today in a variety of non-natural scenes—whether from places we have heard about in a history textbook, or those places we see as trying to pass as having an “authentic” vintage style (don’t fall for it!), or places that simply haven’t changed. A drive towards Manitou Springs shows some of these styles, especially with some of the smaller roadside motels and diners. As usual, no description of Nabokov’s writing is complete without sharing some of his own words:
“There is nothing louder than an American hotel; and, mind you, this was supposed to be a quiet, cozy, old-fashioned, homey place—“gracious living” and all that stuff. The clatter of the elevator’s gate—some twenty yards northeast of my head but as clearly perceived as if it were inside my left temple—alternated with the banging and booming of the machine’s various evolutions and lasted well beyond midnight.”
“We passed and re-passed through the whole gamut of American roadside restaurants, from the lowly Eat with its deer head (dark trace of long tear at inner canthus), “humorous” picture post cards…impaled guest checks, life savers, sunglasses, adman visions of celestial sundaes, one half of a chocolate cake under glass, and several horribly experienced flies zigzagging over the sticky sugar-pour on the ignoble counter; and all the way to the expensive place with the subdued lights, preposterously poor table linen, inept waiters (ex-convicts or college boys).”
Being both an émigré and a writer Nabokov saw a lot of the subtleties and nuances of sales and experiences being advertised in The American West with a keen attention to all of the odd details. His descriptions of diners and of the hotels resonate with me. Next week I will be taking a road trip West from Colorado to California, and in a final post hope to share how his descriptions hold up today, and even share how he describes the beauty of the untouched West.
On a final and sweet note from the week, Corinne invited us to her home for a class dinner with her and her family (and no, it did not align with Nabokov’s description of American eateries with the “subdued lights” and “preposterously poor table linen”). With a paper due the following day, we found that the Mediterranean food, the informal class gathering, and even a silly book with no pictures were all a lovely way to relax and finish our week as a class (Thank you again, Corinne!).
My tardy Week 2 post (it’s now Week 3 on the Block Plan) for the Nabokov course reflects on nature. Nabokov frequently uses imagery from nature and the natural world in his writing. I mentioned that Nabokov was fascinated by butterflies throughout his entire life. As a child, he would spend time outdoors with his nets and collection materials. In his later years, travel and hiking often revolved on where he could see more (and hopefully see new) butterflies. So, his extensive time in the outdoors gave him a plenty amount of time to think about the natural world, and, as a result, a bountiful supply of images. His years in Europe and in America allowed him to travel, with much delight, as well. His writing is frequently populated with thick descriptions that foster and appreciation for the beauty of the natural world.
Our readings this week focused upon a crazed prisoner in a wacky prison, a trip to the museum that goes awry, and a famous king. The highlight for me, however, was reading the short story “Cloud, Castle, Lake.” The subject of the story, Vasiliy Ivanovich, has won a free trip by train across his country. The highlight of the trip was simply seeing a cloud, a castle, and a lake all together. In this story, I was especially reminded of Colorado College and cross-country road trips. The landscapes in Colorado and in surrounding states aren’t just beautiful, but quickly-changing. A drive to California takes you through snow-tipped mountains, cavernous hills, and slow dusty deserts. Vasiliy notices this as he is driving: “Trees appeared in groups and singly, revolving coolly and blandly, displaying the latest fashions. The blue dampness of a ravine. A memory of love, disguised as a meadow. Wispy clouds—greyhounds of heaven.” Nabokov writes so tenderly about the fleeting images that come and go on a trip. It’s almost impossible not to make the connection to the CC (or, the Western, the American) road trip.
Vasiliy is a Russian émigré in a German-speaking country, and so this trip was an opportunity to see more of the country. Coming from the Boston area, I have had certain moments where I’m awestruck of the scenery here. A familiar favorite might be the mountain ranges going from Nevada into Southern California. The most special and climactic moment of the short story is when he sees the cloud, the castle, and the lake. I wrote in my last post that I would be using some of Nabokov’s writings, so, here we go:
“That very happiness of which he had once half dreamt was suddenly discovered. It was a pure, blue lake, with an unusual expression of its water. In the middle, a large cloud was reflected in its entirety. On the other side, on a hill thickly covered with verdure (and the darker the verdure, the more poetic it is), towered, arising from dactyl to dactyl, an ancient black castle. Of course, there are plenty of such views in Central Europe, but just this one—in its inexpressible and unique harmoniousness of its three principle parts, in its smile, in some mysterious innocence it had, my love! my obedient one!—was something so unique, and so familiar, and so long-promised, and to so understood the beholder that Vasiliy Ivanovich even pressed his hand to his heart, as if to see whether his heart was there in order to give it away.”
What love he has for such a simple and fleeting scene! Whether it is driving, hiking, flying, you name it—I know we can all think of brief places that might have struck us in a profound way.
Hi, My name is Ryan and I will be blogging for the Block 6 class titled “Topics in Comparative Literature: Vladimir Nabokov”. This class will be focusing on the writings Vladimir Nabokov, the author most notoriously known for writing Lolita.
We spent the majority of our first week reading and reflecting on Nabokov’s autobiography Speak, Memory. Originally from St. Petersburg Russia, Nabokov would frequently move over the course his career. He would study in Cambridge, England, before living in Berlin, Paris, and eventually the United States.
His autobiography is much more intricate and complicated than just where has lived, and what he has accomplished, however. Nabokov writes passionately about various things that repeatedly occurred in the first part of his life: phantoms and ghosts, repeated childhood affairs, and searches for butterflies (he had some named after him). These details, we learn, will repeatedly pop up in his writings. His style of writing about himself is profound and poetic as he often prophesizes what it means to have and to live retroactively through memories.
After finishing this piece, the class is anticipating a block that savors Nabokov’s tasty and clever writing—a joy of the class is reading the passages out loud. So, talking about Nabokov’s writing isn’t complete without sharing a bit of it: “A sense of security, of well-being, of summer warmth pervades my memory. That robust reality makes a ghost of the present. The mirror brims with brightness; a bumblebee has entered the room and bumps against the ceiling. Everything is as it should be, nothing will ever change, nobody will ever die.”
Over the course of the block, we will be reading six of his novels. I’m looking forward to sharing more about the class, and about his writing!