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

Nabokov’s memory was, first and foremost, visual. It was further developed by his art teacher, the celebrated painter Mstislav Dobuzhinski, who assigned the boy exercises in reproducing from memory chance objects and scenes. It is hardly surprising that Nabokov’s recollections of his early reading matter center more upon their illustrations rather than the texts. Not only was this so for the Golliwogg picture books but for the more adult adventure books of his later boyhood. Most of the scenes that Nabokov describes in Speak, Memory from his Mayne Reid years are from the illustrations.18 Not only the pictures but many details from them were recalled with remarkable accuracy (and a few mistakes) forty-five years later. Even at seventy when Nabokov wrote his austere novella Transparent Things, Florence Kate Upton’s scenes remained in his mind. His sad hero, Hugh Person, has made a pilgrimage back to the Ascot Hotel in Switzerland where he had courted his faithless, but much loved wife whom he has strangled in a nightmare. After eight years in jails and asylums, he has returned and obtained the same room where Armande first visited him. The hotel receptionist who very much reminds him of Armande has hinted that she may make a nighttime visit to his room. After a large dinner accompanied by much alcohol, Hugh retires to await his caller. Meanwhile, the novel’s ghostly narrator, Mr. R., dips beneath the surface to watch Hugh’s churning stomach: “A mess of sprouts and mashed potatoes, colorfully mixed with pinkish meat, could be discerned, if properly focused, performing hand-over-fist evolutions in Person’s entrails, and one could also make out in that landscape of serpents and caves two or three apple seeds, humble travelers from an earlier meal “(101). Hugh awakes from his troubled dreams to discover that hotel is ablaze. He is unable to escape from the room which is rapidly filling with smoke: “Rings of blurred colors circled around him, reminding him briefly of a childhood picture in a frightening book about triumphant vegetables whirling faster and faster about a nightshirted boy trying desperately to awake from the iridescent dizziness of dream life” (104).

This image appears to be drawn from yet another of Upton’s books—The Vegeman’s Revenge (1897), one of the few that did not feature the Golliwogg and his penny-woodens. Its plot obviously arises from the similarity of “Vege-Men” and “revenge.” Its heroine, young Miss Poppy Cornflower, is sent to the kitchen garden to pick some vegetables. There, Harry Carrot and Don Tomato offer to escort her down to the vegetable kingdom so that she may learn how they grow. In a pumpkin coach drawn by an onion, they drive through a hole in the ground to arrive at King Murphy’s court.19 The King, a potato, of course, addresses Poppy:

Behold me! King of the Vege-men’s Land!
The earth is peopled by my useful band,
Without us you would starve, and maybe die,
And yet you torture us without a sigh!
In boiling fat
We’ve often sat
That you might eat French Fry.
King Murphy orders Poppy be planted and grown as food for a royal banquet. The ripened melons bearing Poppy’s features are duly picked, cooked, and set out for the banquet which is accompanied by a minstrel band. The animated vegetables feasting on Poppy include a tomato, a carrot, Miss Corn (with yellow silk tassel and a green sheath dress), King Murphy, an asparagus stalk, an egg plant, a Bermuda onion, a beet, cucumber, and turnip.

“Swift as a flash the music takes a turn, / With weirder light the colored candles burn, / the table seems to disappear from view / As into mystic dance these strange folks flow, While round and round / with whirring sound, / Each moment wilder the excitement grew.”

The vege-men become frenzied in their dance of vengeance. “Swifter and swifter twine their clinging feet, / A Dervish dance by color made complete, / Only a tinted whirlpool now they seem, / The whirring sound becomes the storm-wind’s scream. / The yellow light / is blurred to sight, / ‘Tis like the nightmare of a troubled dream.”

But then: “A shudder seems to wring the vibrant air, / It fills the ears like wails of wild despair, / A splitting screen! A crash! A deafening call / Wild arms they throw, -- / Down! Down they go! / And total darkness quickly covers all.”

At this point, Poppy, who has fallen asleep in the garden, awakens from her nightmare. For comparison, we once again quote Transparent Things:

Rings of blurred vegetables circled around him, reminding him briefly of a childhood picture about triumphant vegetables whirling faster and faster around a nightshirted boy trying desperately to awake from the iridescent dizziness of dream life. Its ultimate vision was the incandescence of a book or a box grown completely transparent and hollow. This is, I believe, it: not the crude anguish of physical death but the incomparable pangs of the mysterious mental maneuver needed to pass from one state of being to another (104).
The match is not perfect, since Poppy is not “a nightshirted boy” but given Nabokov’s familiarity with Upton’s picture books, it is more than plausible that The Vege-man’s Revenge supplies the final image of Transparent Things. Poppy awakens from her nightmare; Hugh Person awakens from his nightmarish life into his ghostly narrator’s dimension.

This is not the only case in which Nabokov’s childhood reading supplied his writing with images and thematic motifs. Nabokov’s account of his youthful friendship with his cousin Yuri Rausch, the subject of Speak, Memory‘s Chapter Ten, rests precisely upon images and episodes from Reid’s books, especially The Headless Horseman. But Nabokov’s use of Reid’s work in Speak, Memory is not restricted to one chapter or even one theme. Reid’s Wild West adventures introduced Nabokov to America. It is one of the earliest thematic strands in an autobiography that ends with Nabokov’s departure for America.

The young Nabokov’s much-traveled Uncle Ruká (Vasily Ivanovich Rukavishnikov) was another source of the English-language picture books that entered the house. It was he who brought from America the Buster Brown volumes (69). “Busy Little Buster Brown” (The New York Herald ) was one of the creations of R. F. Outcault who is credited as the father of the colored comic strip just before the turn of the century.20 Nabokov recalls “a forgotten boy in a reddish suit” whose pranks usually ended with a sound spanking from his mother (69). In the black and white example from 1905 shown below, his punishment is administered instead by a ram. Each “story” was followed a wordy panel expounding the strip’s “moral” -- in the case at hand, an attack on duplicitous self-promotion by President Teddy Roosevelt.

Another of Uncle Ruka’s American gift books contained the “Foxy Grandpa” strips which originally appeared in the New York Evening Journal. Drawn by Carl Schultze, this series too usually featured retribution on its young heroes.

Corporeal punishment was unknown in the Nabokov household and the sight struck Volodya as scarcely less exotic than the image of “the burying a pop-eyed wretch up to his chin in the torrid sand of a desert,” depicted in the frontispiece of Mayne Reid’s Wild West adventure novel The Death Shot.21

Nabokov’s strongest association with his uncle was, however, not the American picture books, but those of the Comtesse Sophie de Ségur (1799-1874). Daughter of Moscow Governor Fyodor Rostopchin (who, according to legend, and War and Peace, set Moscow aflame to thwart Napoleon), had married a French aristocrat. In her later years, an invalid and unable to play with her young grandchildren, she instead wrote tales for them. Her enormously popular French children’s books remained in print until very recent times. The most famous is Les Malheurs de Sophie (1859) which became a classic for almost as many generations of Russian as for French children. Loosely based upon her own Russian childhood, she transferred the setting of the stories to a French estate. Her heroine, the four-year-old Sophie, is a mischievous child who constantly ignores her mother’s injunctions with disastrous results for herself and her more virtuous playmate and cousin, Paul, age six. French governesses, fixtures of aristocratic Russian households, often read Les Malheurs de Sophie aloud to their young charges as did “Mademoiselle O” to Volodya and Seryozha. In 1908 or 1909, well past Nabokov’s “Sophie stage,” his Uncle Ruka came across the volumes in the Vyra nursery. Opening the Bibliothéque rose volume at random he hit upon a favorite passage from his own childhood (circa 1876). Moaning ecstatically, he reads “Sophie n’était pas jolie...”. Encountering the same volume in a chance nursery many years later, Nabokov writes “my moan echoed his.” Madame de Ségur’s preciously vulgar recreation of Russian country estate life, exactly predating Nabokov’s own by a century, exerted a double tug. Not only did Nabokov relive his own childhood experience but also the memory of his Uncle Ruka reliving his youth.

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Notes

18. I have discussed these scenes in the article mentioned in note 5 above.

19. The parallel to Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, which Nabokov translated into Russian in 1923, is obvious, as is the allusion to Cinderella.

20. Cartoon Cavalcade, ed. Thomas Craven (Chicago: Consolidated Book Publishers, 1945), p. 11. The Buster Brown and Foxy Grandpa illustrations are drawn from this volume, pp. 40-41 & 43 respectively.

21. Nabokov began reading (and playing out scenes from) the Mayne Reid’s adventure tales at about age nine. The Death Shot (London: Routledge, 1873?) was catalogued in the family library. See my “Vladimir Nabokov and Captain Mayne Reid.”

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