Nabokov's Golliwoggs: Lodi Reads English 1899-1909
by D. Barton Johnson

Nabokov, who never set foot in England until his college years at Cambridge, proudly proclaimed his “English childhood.” Chapter Four of Speak Memory, entitled “My English Education” in its original New Yorker incarnation (March 27 1948), is, rather, an account of his early exposure to the English language.1 The chapter opens with the parade of products that marched into the Anglophile house from Drew’s English Shop on Petersburg’s Nevsky Prospect. Circa 1904 an English “grammar” (apparently a reading primer) appeared.2 Starting from three-letter words that limited the narrative possibilities (“Ben has an axe.”), its final pages offered a real story: “that promised land where, at last, words are meant to mean what they mean” (80-1). The world of English literature had opened for Nabokov.

Volodya’s acquaintance with English antedated that primer. Governesses and his mother spoke English and read aloud to him. English fairy tales and Arthurian knights seem to have been his earliest fare.3 Both left their traces. In a nameless English fairy tale read to him by his mother at bedtime “a small boy stepped out of his bed into a picture and rode his hobby horse along a painted path between silent trees” (86). Racing through his nightly “Our Father” (in English), the young Nabokov would imagine climbing into the framed aquarelle over his bed showing “a dusky path winding through one of those eerily dense European beechwoods.” Looking back at that scene, the autobiographer recalls that in due time he did indeed plunge into that “enchanted beechwood.” The image is echoed at chapter end where the writer describes a conversation with his former drawing teacher, the famed artist Mstislav Dobuzhinski, as they stroll through a beech forest in Vermont. More importantly, Nabokov uses the image of the boy stepping into a picture as the frame for his 1932 novel Glory, known in Russian as Podvig, the gallant feat or the geste. As a working title, Nabokov had used Romanticheskii vek or The Romantic Age. The novel opens and ends with the picture and the forest path.

King Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table was an equally rich source of inspiration. In Speak, Memory Nabokov traces the evolution of his romantic development through several stages. The earliest model is the Arthurian knight-errant and the damsel in distress.4 His ideal, as he says elsewhere, was Queen Guinevere or Isolda...(203). The ten-year-old Nabokov’s “first love,” Collette of the Biarritz beach, first the object of his sympathy, becomes much more. Nabokov speaks of the “surge of helpless anguish” he suffered at not being able destroy the mosquitoes that had bitten her tender neck and the relief afforded by “a successful fist fight with a red-haired boy who had been rude to her” (150). Tormented at the thought of her unhappy home life, he plans to carry her off -- to Spain? To America? They get no further than the local cinema. The knight-errant/damsel model is soon supplanted by that of the intrepid Texas mustanger (actually an Anglo-Irish baronet) and his fair Louise whom he saves from the wiles of the dastardly villain, Cassius Calhoun. This scenario is projected on to the young Nabokov’s fantasy of rescuing a very real American beauty from the uncivil attentions of her boyfriend at a Berlin roller rink (205-07). Just as the earlier romantic model derives from the Arthurian knight-errant, the later one stems from “mustanger” Maurice Fitzgerald, hero of Captain Mayne Reid’s 1866 The Headless Horseman. This incarnation of the knight-errant finds quite explicit echoes throughout the entire range of Nabokov’s oeuvre from the early poetry through the late English novels. One of Nabokov’s first literary ventures was a poetic recreation of the Headless Horseman in French alexandrines and Reid’s novel figures as one of the subtexts in Ada.5 But Reid’s adventure tales date from a later period of Nabokov’s English reading and are mentioned here only as a generic extension of the knight-damsel theme.

The first specific English work that Nabokov mentions hearing read is Misunderstood. Of it, he reports only that the fate of its hero, Humphrey “used to bring a more specialized lump to one’s throat than anything in Dickens or Daudet” (82). Written by Florence Montgomery (1843-1923), the maudlin Misunderstood (1869) was her most popular work.6 Author of around a dozen books, Montgomery held that Misunderstood was not a children’s story but for those interested in children (7). It is a tale of two brothers, Miles, age four, an affectionate, delicate little lad much under the sway of his older, high-spirited brother, Humphrey, age seven. Miles resembles his late mother, Lady Adelaide, and is adored by his father, Sir Everard Duncombe (MP). Mischievous Humphrey’s boisterous behavior conceals his adoration of his late mother (whose favorite he was) and his secret sadness at his father’s preference for his brother. Humphrey’s sense of adventure sometimes places his frail younger brother in jeopardy in their games at the family country estate. After one unfortunate episode, Humphrey has been particularly warned not to crawl out on a tree limb overhanging a pond or encourage Miles to do so. The temptation is too much for him, however. Both boys fall but Humphrey suffers head and spine injuries. He is paralyzed. Lying on his mother’s couch under her portrait, the delirious boy’s ramblings reveal his hidden grief over his mother’s death and his love for his brother Miles and their father. Only now does the father realize that he has “Misunderstood” his dying son. At the end, Humphrey’s pain-wracked expression is replaced by his old sunny smile as “he stretched out his arms and cried, `Has God sent you to fetch me at last, mother?’” (287). The story’s leit-motif is the “Humpty-Dumpty” nursery rhyme.

Speak, Memory and other works contain passages and phases that seem to echo bits and pieces of Florence Montgomery’s novella. In Misunderstood, the narrator describes Humphrey’s mother reading to him: “the quiet well-modulated .... clear, refined enunciation ... the white hand that held the book, ... the flashing of the diamond ring in the light, as the fingers turned over the pages!” (51). In Speak, Memory, Nabokov describes his mother’s reading to him: “When the hero faced some new dramatic hazard, his mother’s “voice would slow down, her words would be spaced portentously, and before turning the page she would place upon it her hand, with its familiar pigeon-blood ruby and diamond ring...”.7 Similarly, Nabokov’s first English grammar echoes Humphrey’s recollection of “learning to read words of one syllable out of the baby primer” on his mother’s knee (71).

Other passages from Misunderstood foreshadow perceptions from early Nabokov novels. Setting out at dawn to pick mushrooms, Humphrey and Miles pass through the quiet house: “Anyone who has risen at an unusual hour, and come into the sitting-rooms before the household is stirring, will understand.... The chairs and tables are undergoing a phase which to them is familiar but which is quite strange to us. We only know them as in connection with ourselves, and do not dream that they have an existence in which we are not, with which we have nothing to do. We know them in the busy day and in the lighted room at night; but with the grey dawn creeping in upon them they are quite strangers, and seem mysterious” (82-83). This insight occurs in transmuted form in Speak, Memory where Nabokov describes the dawn-transformed Berlin street as he returns home from the hospital following the birth of his son Dmitri. It is also found in Mary’s final scene where Ganin walks the freshly perceived Berlin street at dawn on his way to new life, free of his past.

A final example is reminiscent of Nabokov’s most famous story, “Signs and Symbols,” in which nature secretly speaks of the old couple’s deranged and doomed son. As Humphrey’s father sadly watches the departing doctors: “He seemed to be listening to the sighing of the wind, and watched the trees bowing mournfully before it: and he wondered vaguely what was the language of the winds and breezes, and in what words nature was learning his boy’s fate” (244). To suggest direct parallels would be rash but such insights, reinforced by his mother’s sensory acuity, might well have stimulated the young Nabokov’s own perceptual habits and, ultimately, his art.

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1. Citations to Nabokov’s autobiography are to the 1966 Putnam edition unless otherwise indicated. Elsewhere we have occasion to cite the 1951 Conclusive Evidence version as reprinted under the title Speak, Memory (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1960), as well as the Russian edition Drugie berega (New York: Izdatel’stvo imeni Chekhova, 1954). These editions will be respectively specified as SM, CE, and DB.

2. According to Harvey Pitcher, When Miss Emmie Was in Russia. English Governesses Before, During and After The October Revolution (London: John Murray, 1977), English governesses of the time commonly relied upon The Royal Reader which was then widely used in British elementary schools (p. 97). The Royal Reader was an “alternative title” for The Infant Reader’s Short Stories in Simple Words, with Illustrations (London: T. Nelson & Sons, n.d., rpts: 1960 & 1969.). Part of a series of “Royal Readers,” the book originally dates from around the turn of the century and was reprinted by Nelson & Sons in 1960 and 1969. I have not been able to examine a copy, but it seems a likely candidate for Nabokov’s reading primer. I invite the readers’ assistance on the matter.

3. Nabokov was apparently introduced to English fairy tales to the exclusion of their Russian counterparts. The 1932 novel Glory is autobiographical in spots and it Is not amiss to take parts of Martin Edelweiss’s early reading as a reflection of Nabokov’s own. In Glory, Martin’s mother loathes the popular Russian children’s magazine Zadushevnoe Slovo (The Heartfelt Word) with its moralizing tales “with “cute lisping words” (3). Russian fables, she finds “clumsy, cruel and squalid, Russian folksongs inane, and Russian riddles idiotic” (4). The narrator concludes: “Thus in early childhood Martin failed to become familiar with something that subsequently...might have added an extra enchantment to his life. [I]t was not the Russian knight-errant Ruslan but Ruslan’s occidental brother [i.e., King Arthur’s knights -- DBJ] that awakened his imagination in childhood” (4).

4. I am indebted to Charles Nicol for first calling my attention to the Arthurian allusions in Speak, Memory. The “Arthurian theme” is somewhat stronger in the Russian text than in the English versions. In Section 2 of Chapter Four where Nabokov’s mother reads to him, the English texts refer only to the “hero” (CE 47; SM 81), while the Russian substitutes “Tristam” (DB 70). Nabokov’s Russian poetry contains many allusions to knights: “Tristan,” “Morte d’Arthur,” “Krestonostsy” (Crusaders), “Pianyi rytsar’” (The Drunken Knight), “Rytsar’” (The Knight), and so on. For sources, see D. Barton Johnson with Wayne C. Wilson, Alphabetic & Chronological Lists of Nabokov’s Poetry,” Russian Literature Triquarterly, 24 (1991), pp. 355-415.

5. Brian Boyd, Vladimir Nabokov: The Russian Years (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1990, p. 81. For a discussion of the role of Reid’s novel in Nabokov’s work, see my “Vladimir Nabokov and Captain Mayne Reid” in Cycnos (Nice), 1992, pp. 99-106.

6. Florence Montgomery, Misunderstood (Leipzig: Bernard Tauchnitz, 1872). A good many of the English novels in the Nabokov family library were Tauchnitz small-format editions designed for travelers, not unlike the Olympia Press edition in which Lolita first appeared. Misunderstood, volume 1209 in Tauchnitz’s “Collection of British Authors,” does not appear in the family library catalogue. Sistematicheskii katalog biblioteki Vladimira Dmitrievicha Nabokova (St. Petersburg: Tovarishchestvo Khudozhestvennoi Pechati, 1904) or its Pervoe prodolzhenie (First Supplement), 1911.

7. Nabokov’s first use of the image (sans ring) opens Chapter Two of the 1932 Glory: “Now in one of the English books that his mother used to read to him (how slowly and mysteriously she would pronounce the words and how wide she would open her eyes when she reached the end of a page, covering it with her small, lightly freckled hand as she asked, ‘And what do you think happened next?’” (4).

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