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Sleep, Memory

Melissa Purkiss

[1]Vladimir Nabokov and Gennady Barabtarlo (ed.)
Insomniac Dreams: Experiments with Time by Vladimir Nabokov
Princeton University Press
202 pp
£20 (hbk)

On 5th November 1964, Vladimir Nabokov awoke in his suite at the Montreux Palace Hotel, where he had resided for the past three years, and scribbled out the bare bones of a dream on five separate index cards. He describes accompanying his mother as she hurries for a train. They are separated from each other as he attempts, and fails, to pay the taxi driver. When he turns back, the train thread has been abruptly dropped, and he must now climb a hill up to a cable car station in order to say farewell. As he begins the ascent, “the entire hill—or island-like hill—or island-like hill-like liner” sets sail. He scrambles across the hillside and, clinging to a conveniently-jutting branch, swings across the slowly widening channel of water onto firm land. As he watches the receding “hill-liner”, he searches its miniature silhouettes for his mother but cannot make her out.

It’s a frayed edge of a story whose unsatisfying events are governed by a characteristically nonsensical dream-logic. Other people’s dreams [2] are [3] boring [4], etc. But Nabokov’s intentions in recording it were far from literary. He was in the midst of a private experiment: for a period of eighty days at the end of 1964, immediately on waking, he recorded all available details of his dreams and, during the following days, kept an eye out for similar motifs and scenarios in order to test the hypothesis that dreams are informed by future events. The eccentric theory of time behind the experiment came from John William Dunne, an early twentieth-century aeronautical engineer, writer and philosopher. Encouraged by his friend H. G. Wells, Dunne speculated in An Experiment with Time (1927) that dreams were “precognitive” (i.e. they could foretell the future). The book went through various iterations—Nabokov owned the 1934 revised third edition—and is thought to have influenced James Joyce, T. S. Eliot and Aldous Huxley.

The “dream diary” that resulted from this short-lived and inconclusive experiment forms the central focus of Nabokov’s latest from-beyond-the-grave publication, Insomniac Dreams: Experiments with Time by Vladimir Nabokov, compiled, edited and with commentaries by Gennady Barabtarlo. Insomniac Dreams is a strange assemblage: part biography, part scholarly overview, it weaves together Nabokov’s fragmentary dream diary and corresponding moments from his general diaries and fictional writings. It is, thankfully, less concerned with proving or disproving Dunne’s far-fetched theory than with drawing intricate connections between Nabokov’s dreams and his artistic works.

Other people’s dreams are boring, then, except when “other people” are startlingly innovative and—perhaps more pertinently—eminently lucrative twentieth-century authors. In her preface to a posthumous 1979 edition of Nabokov’s Russian verses, Véra Nabokova claimed that the late author’s foremost concern had until then been overlooked: “Undetected by anybody, this theme, like a watermark, permeates everything Nabokov wrote.” The theme in question was potustoronnost’ (“потусторонность”), a Russian word that translates roughly into English as “on-the-other-side-ness”. The assertion elicited a flurry of attention to Nabokov’s abundant fictional “otherworlds” and “beyonds” that endures today. The prevalence of dreams—located at a threshold between the physical and the metaphysical—in Nabokov’s prose has been less exhaustively mined.

The dream diary itself is a chaotic affair. Alongside fears of missed trains and lost luggage, there are fleeting glimpses of sexual jealousy involving Véra (“[h]er open dress, oddly speckled and summery”), amusing vignettes of butterfly hunting expeditions (“[i]nstead of a net am carrying a huge spoon”), recurring dachshunds, and public speaking nightmares: “It is a lecture room dream and I am the lecturer. Cannot decipher my notes, fuzzy lines with illegible corrections, murky insertions, messy deletions.” Barabtarlo, to his credit, does not seek to downplay the fragmentary and open-ended nature of the diary, at one point even acknowledging that one prospective publisher, “a good Freudian by his own admission”, declared after reading it that he was disappointed by the lack of material ripe for psychoanalytic interpretation. (Nabokov notoriously hated Freud and applications of his theories to his fiction.)

The most compelling achievement of Insomniac Dreams is its attentive comparison of the disparate dream-fragments with concurrent motifs of his novels and short stories, which provide an extensive reference point for those familiar with the latter. Nabokov’s method of recording his dreams (on a growing stack of index cards held together with an elastic band) echoed his own preferred method of fictional composition, as well as John Shade’s in Pale Fire (1962). Heavy-handed attempts to extrapolate psycho-interpretive readings from these shards would only echo Charles Kinbote’s extensive and tangential commentary to Shade’s poem.

Nabokov was a compulsive self-editor. He wrote his autobiography no less than three times: first in English as Speak, Memory (1951) then in Russian as Drugie berega (1954) and finally, in a revised and extended edition, as Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited (1966). He was acutely aware of his own quotability and blurred the lines between his professional and personal guises through a vast array of interviews, lectures, prefaces, autobiographies and autotranslations. But even then, Nabokov rarely reached an audience unedited: he famously demanded that he be sent interview questions in advance to allow him time to compose written responses, which, in the case of certain [5] television appearances, he did not even pretend were spontaneous.

Following Nabokov’s Butterflies (2000) and Letters to Véra (2014), Insomniac Dreams presents a compact and previously unpublished corpus of Nabokov’s non-literary writing for readerly consumption. The fetishization of the flotsam and jetsam of Nabokov’s writing has in the past proven a (not always positive) talking point, as the controversial publication of The Original of Laura (2009), the unfinished novel that he was writing at the time of his death, attests. In Insomniac Dreams, the reader gains access to streams of (un)consciousness: omitted apostrophes, spelling inconsistencies, even photographic reproductions of selected index cards covered in his scrawl. Seeing an author known for his linguistic virtuosity unfiltered in this manner can at times feel salaciously voyeuristic.

Yet the main concern of Insomniac Dreams is arguably not the writing itself, but the disconnect between writing and reading that the project of recording one’s dreams—themselves surely the most private of narratives—appears to have thrown up. Or, as Hermann, the protagonist of Nabokov’s Despair (1934), puts it

During the process of writing I was under the impression that I was turning out something very smart and witty; on occasions a like thing happens in dreams: you dream you are making a speech of the utmost brilliancy, but when you recall it upon awakening, it goes nonsensically: “Besides being silent before tea, I’m silent before eyes in mire and mirorage,” etc.

We’ve all been there, Hermann. The act of rereading one’s own writing, like that of regurgitating one’s dreams, can stir up a curious sensation of comprehension and disgust, recognition and estrangement. In certain recorded dreams, characters’ words are comprehensible, but the precise language in which they have spoken is unclear. Later in the experiment, a second maternal separation anxiety dream featuring the author’s four-year-old self mid-tantrum crops up; it is directly attributed to Nabokov’s having reread the Russian version of his autobiography two days earlier. Elsewhere, he describes a dream in which he lies on a couch, dictating “a new, expanded The Gift” to Véra:

Simultaneously I am thinking rather smugly that nobody every rendered the theme of nostalgia better than I and that I had subtly introduced (in a wholly imaginary passage of The Gift in Russian) a certain secret strain: before actually anybody had left forever those avenues and fields, a sense of never-returning was already inscribed into them.

Nabokov’s dreams may not have conclusively foreseen the future, but he accurately divined his own posthumous allure, and perhaps this is the real “experiment with time” at stake. Insomniac Dreams voices his ongoing translation, rereading and appraisal of his past selves during his lifetime, as well as his assured awareness of the reader’s voracious desire to sift through the detritus of his words and thoughts.


Melissa Purkiss [6] is reading for a DPhil in Russian at Wolfson College, Oxford, and is a former Editor-in-Chief of the Oxonian Review.