Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Nabokov's House

I was at a friend's house the other day and spotted a copy of Pale Fire on her dining room table. "Hey, funny," I said. "Because I always think of that book when I'm driving through this neighborhood." In Pale Fire, John Shade's house is apparently in my friend's neighborhood. Nabokov taught at Cornell for a number of years and PF is set here.

"Oh, yeah," she said. "I told you he lived here, didn't I?"

Um, NO!

Of course the rest of the visit I couldn't stop thinking of his big-nosed Russian profile at the picture window. It's a beautifully spare, modernist house, and it feels just like Nabokov's writing: part stylishly European and part suburban vernacular. Its big uncurtained windows look down over everything.

One of the books I keep on my desk to thumb through at odd moments is VN's last published novel, Look at the Harlequins!, which is a sort of fake autobiography. There's an awful lot of moving from house to house in it, which is true to VN's life -- he lived in ten or a dozen houses in Ithaca in as many years. And one of the many things I like about his writing is his attention to the trappings of daily life: the socks, the armchairs, the windows, the cars, the houses. Here's a bit about a different house he rented, where, according to local legend, wife Vera saved Lolita from the burn barrel:
The furnished apartment we finally rented on the upper floor of a handsome house (10 Buffalo St.) was much to my liking because of an exceptionally comfortable study with a great bookcase full of works on American lore including an encyclopedia in twenty volumes. Annette would have preferred one of the dacha-like structures which the Administration also showed us; but she gave in when I pointed out to her that what looked snug and quaint in summer was bound to be chilly and weird the rest of the year. (pg. 130)

Chilly and weird. That's Ithaca all right.

Anyway, living in Nabokov's house, living with the same doorways and shrubs and windows... can my friend help sharing something significant with Nabokov? Just being there for a couple of hours was a thrill.


jrlennon said...

The "real" Lolita house is evidently 802 E. Seneca, which is divided into apartments now. No commemorative plaque or anything, which I've come around to thinking is a good thing. There's no incinerator anymore, either, but you can kind of see where it would have gone!

zoe said...

I'm re-reading Lolita at the moment and had completly forgotten how great it is. There's also the added bonus of getting some of the dirty jokes my 17 year old self didn't get.

I really enjoyed the pics of writer's writing spaces that you had on a while ago. Is it sad to admit that if I could get over to your neck of the woods, I'd willingly stand in the cold outside 802 E. Seneca and think colourful thoughts?

jrlennon said...

I've certainly done that! When we lived closer to downtown that house was on my walk to the post office and library...I enjoyed a moment of silence or two there from time to time. A little informal mojo absorption, ya know.

grumpy said...

Nabokov lived in Ashland, Oregon, in the summer of 1953, when he was nearing the completion of Lolita. He had come to the area in part because of the butterflies, which have always been abundant in the mountains around the town. The house he rented is still standing, and draws occasional gawkers. We Oregonians think of it as the “real” Lolita house :).

jrlennon said...

Ha! You got Carver, man, let us have our Nabokov!

Writer, Rejected said...

Lolita: One of the best books I ever read. I love the annotated version too. I love to teach the book. I always learn so much about fiction. Very cool to be in one VN's houses.