Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Nabokov the bad Samaritan?

A tip from Dan Visel sent me to the library today, where I secured a couple of volumes of Guy Davenport's letters. The most immediately interesting was the one from 2007 collecting his correspondence with New Directions founder James Laughlin, a figure who's long been of interest to this blog. Even a cursory flip through the book offered up some gems, like this passage from Davenport:
Both Hemingway's tight style and D. H. Lawrence's sloppy one are now in the attic. Neither had any sense of humor whatsoever; this tells a lot. The Terribly Serious writer is serious in relation to his age and the eternal verities wear very different clothes from one age to the next.
And there's a line from Laughlin that I'll never forget:
Shadow are useful in love poems.
The most striking discovery thus far, though, is a brief, almost tossed-off story Laughlin shares about Vladimir Nabokov in a letter from July 30, 1989:
You're so right about Nabokov. He had beautiful manners but his blood was icy. One day that summer when he was staying with me in the mountains of Utah he came in for dinner and told me that he had heard what sounded like groaning in Grizzly Gulch. What was it? He hadn't gone to investigate because he was chasing a lepidopteroid he had never seen before. Next day some hikers found the body of an old prospector who had fallen in the steep gulch and cracked open his head and bled to death.
Davenport doesn't seem to take the story very seriously, replying only
I forget what I said about Nabokov. I think the old prospector was lucky to be desamaritanized by him.
Now, even if one, not necessarily unreasonably, wants to more or less let Nabokov off the hook here (Was he sure about what he was hearing? Would we all definitely have investigated, butterflies or no?), it's odd that the story seems never to have gone anywhere beyond Laughlin. It doesn't appear in Brian Boyd's biography, and while I initially thought that could be an artifact of timing, as the Laughlin letter wasn't published until 2007, sixteen years after Boyd's book, I later found a slightly different version of it, also credited to Laughlin, though (at least so far as I can tell from Google Books) without explicit footnoting, in Clifton Fadiman's 1989 anthology The Little, Brown Book of Anecdotes (which was picked up verbatim by Bartlett's Book of Anecdotes in 2000).

But that's basically it: the literary world, which generally is ready to hyperventilate over any Nabokov-related news, seems to have completely missed this chilling-if-true story. And while a single-source anecdote is always eligible for substantial discounting, Laughlin would seem tough to impeach: while the pair had their differences over the years, Laughlin was nonetheless one of Nabokov's biggest supporters, and while there may have been an edge to their interpersonal relationship, it's hard to imagine him inventing such a damning story out of whole cloth.

The anecdote has lived on, it seems, in one way--and this is perhaps the strangest part of the whole story. A search on "Nabokov prospector gulch" turns up . . . sermons. Laughlin's story has, it seems, been folded into standard sermons on selfishness, become one of those brief bits of filler that a desperate minister might turn to when his text needs some fleshing out. Could there be a more bizarre outcome of this tale?


  1. That's a good idea. A quick search in their archive finds a query from 1995 that began with an unannotated telling of the anecdote in the NYTBR by Donald Hall (in a piece about Laughlin) in 1981, which pushes the date of discovery farther back. But the query doesn't seem to have generated any replies from anyone who knew anything further.