“In the early years of this century, a travel agency on Nevski Avenue displayed a three-foot-long model of an oak-brown international sleeping car. In delicate verisimilitude it completely outranked the painted tin of my clockwork trains. Unfortunately it was not for sale. One could make out the blue upholstery inside, the embossed leather lining of the compartment walls, their polished panels, inset mirrors, tulip-shaped reading lamps, and other maddening details. Spacious windows alternated with narrower ones, single or geminate, and some of these were of frosted glass. In a few of the compartments, the beds had been made.”
–Vladimir Nabokov, “First Love”
Here’s an excerpt from an interview Jim gave with Jesse Pearson for Vice Magazine:
I know that you are very into Nabokov. How would you recommend that somebody who is coming to him totally fresh should begin?
I would recommend they start with Nabokov’s Dozen, which is a small collection of short stories, and then move out from that to some of the more accessible novels. The obvious one is Lolita, but there are others as well, whether it’s Bend Sinister or Pnin or Invitation to a Beheading.
What do you love about Nabokov?
I think that what Nabokov is amazing for is what Updike was considered amazing for as well, but the reason I don’t cite Updike as often as I cite Nabokov is that I think, as Updike himself would say, that Nabokov is sort of doing a better version of it. And what I’m talking about is just an astonishing, astonishing attention—sort of a lover’s attention—to the world. It’s observational precision, but it’s a combination of that and tenderness, which means not only are you describing the shade of a tree in a certain kind of light better than anybody else could describe it, but you’re describing it with a certain affect attached to it that allows you to do all sorts of complicating things when you then put that into juxtaposition with something that’s going on with human beings in the foreground.
And that’s a wonderful instrument to have as part of your toolbox, to be able to say, “Jim and Biff were having an argument, but meanwhile, behind Jim and Biff’s argument here’s what was happening in the shade of the oak tree.”
What do you think about his more complicated or experimental works like Pale Fire?
There are no Nabokov works that I don’t like. I just have some that I don’t respond to as much as others. Ada and Pale Fire seemed to me to tilt more toward the game playing and away from the heartbreak, and I like to try and keep it as balanced as I can. But then, others have found Pale Fire the most heartbreaking of the books. For me, the two books that most perfectly balance his game-playing and his ability to render suffering are Pnin and Lolita. Those are the books that I keep coming back to…