October 7, 2020

Laughing in the Dark With Nabokov and Kafka

By Stuart Mitchner

I am as American as April in Arizona.

—Vladimir Nabokov, from a 1967 interview

After citing “the flora, the fauna, the air of the Western states” as his “links to Asiatic and Arctic Russia,” the author of Lolita speaks of the “warm, light-hearted pride” he feels whenever he shows his USA passport at European frontiers.

Nabokov’s “light-hearted pride” likely dates back to his first encounter with U.S. customs in 1940 after arriving on the last boat out of Nazi-occupied France with his wife and 4-year-old son. When a customs official inspecting the luggage noticed a pair of boxing gloves (boxing lessons being one of Nabokov’s income sources when he was living in Paris), he and another official “pulled on the gloves and began playfully sparring.” In Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years, Brian Boyd writes that, “as Nabokov retold the story decades later, still enchanted by America’s easygoing, good-natured atmosphere, he repeated with delight: ‘Where would that happen? Where would that happen?’”

And where would playful, good-natured customs encounters happen in today’s America? Given the one-two punch of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s death and the Covid superspreader White House event celebrating the rush to confirm her replacement, plus the careening mix of playoff baseball in plague time and the presidential debate from hell, it’s no wonder Nabokov has joined Kafka on my bedside table.

Laughter in the Dark

It’s thanks to researching RBG’S back story that I’m writing about a “man in love with the sound of words” as Justice Ginsburg (Cornell ‘54) put it after naming Nabokov among her most influential professors. Another student in Nabokov’s Masterpieces of European Fiction course, Alfred Appel Jr., was sitting behind the Nabokovs at an Ithaca, N.Y., movie theater the night the author of Laughter in the Dark lived memorably up to the title of his 1932 novel. The film was Beat the Devil (1953), a write-it-as-you-go-along jeu d’esprit concoted by Truman Capote and John Huston. In his eye/ear-witness account (TLS October 7, 1977), Appel, the eventual editor of The Annotated Lolita (McGraw Hill 1970; Vintage 1991), remembers Nabokov’s prolonged bouts of “loud laughter” becoming so “conspicuous” that his wife Véra had to nudge him, “Volodya!” Soon it became difficult to distinguish those laughing at the film from those laughing at Nabokov’s laughter, which reached its spectacular apogee after a non sequitur delivered by Peter Lorre, with “his famous nasal whine.” As Appel describes it, Nabokov “exploded — that is the only verb — with laughter. It seemed to lift him from his seat.”

I wonder if the famously protective Mrs. Nabokov ushered her husband out of the theater before the houselights came on. It’s doubtful that the distinguished lecturer whose Lolita scandalized the nation a year later would have minded being revealed to students or colleagues as the epicenter of the uproar. When asked in the 1967 interview to specifically address “the value or detriment” of “teaching at Cornell,” Nabokov observed that a “first-rate college library with a comfortable campus around it is a fine milieu for a writer.” Except for the time a student brought a transistor radio into the reading room, his excuse being that he was playing “classical music” and anyway there were “not many readers around in summer.” Nabokov made it clear that he was very much there, “a one-man multitude.”

Nabokov and Kafka

Ever since learning about the Nabokov-RBG connection I’ve been indulging in flights of fancy, including one with the other Vladimir at the Kremlin as the exquisitely devious Clare Quilty stalking the Lolita on steroids of Trump’s America. The jacket copy on the 1955 American edition gave readers a choice between “Old Europe debauching young America” or “Young America debauching old Europe.”

Another scenario, in which Nabokov and Kafka are watching the news at a celestial cinema, was inspired by a pilot video for an apparently unreleased PBS Artists in Residence series showing Christopher Plummer as Nabokov striding into a packed lecture hall. Since it’s the first class of the semester, he begins by announcing impossible homework assignments in a booming baritone.

Towering over the students as he moves among them toting his bulging briefcase, Plummer’s Nabokov introduces his subject, Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis, with the declaration that “beauty plus pity is the closest we can get to a definition of art. Where there is beauty there is pity, for the simple reason that beauty must die.”

At this point, I began to imagine a certain petite female among the students who have been scribbling down the lecturer’s every word, even the ones spoken in jest; upon hearing this theatrically declaimed testimony for beauty and pity as art, Ruth Bader begins taking notes. He could be standing a foot away, he’s that close to more than one riveted coed, when he declares Franz Kafka “the greatest German writer of our time” while fervently dismissing Rilke and Thomas Mann as “dwarves or plaster saints” compared to Kafka. These judgments are delivered with such passionate intensity and at such a volume, it’s clear that Plummer knows he’s impersonating a self-proclaimed one-man multitude. 

Kafka’s Laughter

While Kafka’s dark image precludes the sort of artist whose “flashes of merriment were wont to set the table on a roar,” his closest friend Max Brod and various witnesses have said that he was known to “laugh uncontrollably” when reading his own work. It’s also said that he laughed with pleasure while reading aloud his bravura “Nature Theatre of Oklahoma” chapter from Amerika (1927), clearly sharing the Arizona All-American Nabokov’s fascination with the West.

“A. Person, Porlock”

The January 19, 1914 entry in Kafka’s diary begins: “Anxiety alternating with self-assurance at the office. Otherwise more confident. Great antipathy to ‘Metamorphosis.’ Unreadable ending. Imperfect almost to its very marrow. It would have turned out much better if I had not been interrupted at the time by the business trip.”

Perhaps only Romantic period secret sharers of connectivity will notice the parallel between Kafka’s “what might have been” interruption and the one Coleridge blamed on “the person from Porlock who interrupted his transcription of the opium dream of “Kubla Khan.” Nabokov is on the same wavelength when he has Clare Quilty sign himself as “A. Person, Porlock” on various motel registers as he pursues Humbert and Lolita from New England to Arizona.

Kubrick’s “Lolita”

Even as I read Appel’s account of Nabokov’s epic laughing fit, induced by Peter Lorre in Beat the Devil, I was thinking of Stanley Kubrick’s masterful film version of Lolita (1962), in which Peter Sellers steals the comic heart of the show as Quilty, James Mason abides magnificently as Humbert, Shelley Winters is a Charlotte Haze for the ages, and Sue Lyon is at once infatuating and funny-sad in the title role. When Lyon died the day after Christmas last year, I didn’t have time to pay tribute to her luminous Lo. Like so many scenes and characters in Nabokov’s labyrinth of associations, it would have meant a detour in the direction of Edgar Allan Poe, who, as it happens, died on this date, October 7, 1849, in Baltimore, age 40, his alleged last words, “Lord, help my poor soul.”

Among Lo’s scenes, one that amusingly evokes the pity and beauty of Nabokov’s art comes when she brings Humbert breakfast, eating his bacon on her way up the stairs, and is then introduced to “the divine Edgar” as Professor Humbert rewards her with a brief elegant reading from “Ulalume.” While James Mason points out the way Poe makes the “mid” in “the misty mid regions of Weir” a mirror image of the “dim” in “the dim lake of Auber,” Lo gives Poe her nodding pseudo respectful attention as she munches on a piece of Humbert’s toast (“yeah, dim mid, that’s good”) and then receives an “A-plus” when she nails one of Poe’s “corny” rhymes (“that’s like Lolita-sweeta”).

The Almighty “K”

Assuming those kindred spirits Nabokov and Kafka were watching this past week’s anything-goes news cycle in some interstellar drive-in a few light years this side of Dr. Who’s red phone box, I wonder if they were covering their eyes, at the chaos, the carnage, the folly, or were they laughing at the sheer tragic absurdity of it all as the mortal Nabokov did one night in that Ithaca cinema?

My guess is that they gave up on news so devoid of pity or beauty or art, so crass, so absurd, so far from the light-hearted easygoing ambiance Nabokov admired in America, and, at Kafka’s urging, turned their attention to baseball’s strangest, most Kafkaesque, Nabokovian season ever.

“A great player just died,” Kafka tells Nabokov. “His name was Bob Gibson, a pitcher for the St. Louis Cardinals who once struck out 17 batters in one game in the 1968 World Series. He was an intimidating presence. When he died the newspapers called him “A Feared Flamethower,” and when reporters asked him about his record-breaking accomplishments, he said, “I’m never surprised by anything
I do.”

Both writers can relate to Gibson’s statement. When Nabokov asks his friend why such an interest in a pitcher famous for strikeouts, Kafka explains that every time a pitcher strikes someone out, the official scorer puts a K on the scorecard, and when a strikeout pitcher is on a roll, the hometown fans hold up a series of placards, a veritable victory parade of Ks. “You can see the connection,” says Kafka. “Only in America.” They agree, in spite of everything: ‘Where else would that happen? Where else would that happen?’”

The interview with Nabokov I quoted from is in the Summer/Fall 1967 Paris Review. My source of information about Nabokov’s arrival in the U.S. is John Colapinto’s “Nabokov’s America” from the June 30, 2015 New Yorker.