Friday, June 24, 2011

This only happens to Nabokov

I was planning to write today about the letters of William Maxwell and Eudora Welty, but I was unexpectedly waylaid by another set of letters, ones that arrived as a completely unexpected and unheralded treat in the June 13-20 issue of the New Yorker: five letters sent by Vladimir Nabookov to Vera in the autumn of 1942 as he traveled the United States on a lecture tour.

The letters are a joy, loving and slightly absurd and polished and precise like all of Nabokov's prose. The first letter, which finds him having difficulty convincing several different South Carolinians who are waiting to meet a visiting Russian professor that he is that man, reads like a deleted scene from Pnin, all gentle misunderstanding and comedy. But the most wonderfully Nabokovian letter, the one that really makes it hard not to conclude that he somehow lived in a slightly different, stranger dimension and just sent back dispatches, is one mailed from Springfield, Illinois on November 7, 1942:
At the station in Springfield I was met . . . by the club secretary, a creepily silent melancholic of somewhat clerical cast with a small stock of automatic questions, which he quickly exhausted. He is an elderly bachelor, and his profession consists of doing secretarial work for several Springfield clubs. He livened up and flashed his eyes one single time--got awfully nervous, having noticed that the flagpole by the Lincoln mausoleum had been replaced by a new, taller one. It turned out that his hobby--or, rather, the passion of his life--is flagpoles. He sighed with relief when a watchman gave him the exact information--seventy feet--because the pole in his own garden is still ten feet taller.
The occasional treat like this would be enough on its own to make a New Yorker subscription worthwhile; as far as I'm concerned, everything good the magazine publishes for the rest of the year now is gravy.

1 comment:

  1. Yes, I read that one certainly was a treat! I'm glad I'm not the only one who thought so.