New York Diarist

Step into room 316 of the 42nd Street library any day of the week and you will find a dozen or more people slowly making their way through "Nabokov Under Glass," a salute to the writer, who was born 100 years ago, on April 23, 1899. Nabokov enthusiasts are a varied lot--including the young and the old, the straitlaced and the very casually dressed--but I expect that they are all mesmerized, as I am, by a show of rare books and manuscripts that makes them laugh out loud. Pedantry has never been quite so exhilaratingly--and weirdly--hilarious as when Nabokov gives letter grades to all the short stories listed in the tables of contents of The Best American Short Stories (1946) and 55 Short Stories From The New Yorker (1949). In the New Yorker anthology, the teacher grants himself an A+ and also has one for J.D. Salinger's "A Perfect Day for Bananafish." Jean Stafford receives a B, Mary McCarthy and John O'Hara are tied at a C+, Peter Taylor gets a D and Frank O'Connor a D-. Of his own performance, Nabokov may have felt that practice makes perfect, considering that, three years earlier, in The Best American Short Stories, he had given himself a mere A, while Lionel Trilling rated a B-, Taylor a C+, and Elizabeth Hardwick an E.

There's much more of this exquisite (and sometimes nasty) fun. Not to be missed is a list of items to be taken on a visit to see Edmund Wilson on Cape Cod and several sheets filled with "Favorite Hates." But what's so endearing about these perfectly calibrated explosions of silliness is that they are so evidently--so nakedly--a release valve for a man with a merciless, relentless faith in the literary endeavor. Nabokov's grading system may have been meant to tell the world that just about nobody wrote as well as V.N., but mostly the show is about Nabokov grading Nabokov, pushing himself to be clearer, more precise, more elegant. Nabokov wrote his later novels on index cards, and a series of cards for Transparent Things, on which, in pencil with innumerable erasures and crossings out, he developed a glitteringly perfect description of a pencil, has to rate as some sublime example of the craftsman contemplating the most basic tool of his trade. 

Since mirrorings, doublings, doppelgangers, and shades are at the core of Nabokov's art, it's natural that this glorious exhibition should be shadowed by a smaller, quirkier show, called "Revised Evidence," at Glenn Horowitz Bookseller, 19 East 76th Street. Nabokov adorned his wife's copies of his books with elaborate colored pencil drawings of butterflies, and most of these are in Horowitz's exhibit and in an accompanying catalog, Vera's Butterflies. Some are, as we are told in the catalog, sly variants on real specimens, with "resplendent new markings and colors, always more luxuriant than in any of the genus's actual butterflies." Other drawings are madcap inventions, such as the Arlequinus arlequinus, right out of the commedia dell'arte, that Nabokov created for his last novel, Look at the Harlequins!

Nabokov's butterfly drawings are central to this show, but there's lots more to see. Horowitz is a man who revels in the near-absurdist heights to which bibliomania can be carried, and, in the artist Barbara Bloom, who curated "Revised Evidence," he has found just the person to turn his elegantly appointed offices into a romantically conceptual fantasy on Nabokovian themes. In "Revised Evidence," Bloom is the demi-aesthete romancing the ultimate aesthete. Spun around Horowitz's Nabokov holdings are Bloom's jokes and apercus: walls covered with black silhouetted images of Nabokov's butterfly drawings, manuscripts, and meticulously revised galleys; cases of butterflies specially arranged to echo themes in the novels; a Bloom-designed rug that reproduces the cover of the Olympia Press edition of Lolita, complete with Nabokov's red pencil notations; and little Bloomesque fictions, among them several doctored copies of the books. Bloom's earlier meditations on collecting and cataloging, seen in various gallery and museum shows, have never convinced me: there didn't seem to be all that much there there. This time, however, she has a winner.

Bloom is playfully dissecting and embroidering Nabokov, activities that she is not wrong to believe are in his spirit. Everywhere you look during this centenary season, enthusiasts are pursuing byways with an energy that they surely regard as Nabokovian. Stacy Schiff's new biography of Vera (Random House) is an attempt to tease the muse out from behind the master, but she keeps receding into his biography. Coming out this fall is Nabokov's Blues: The Scientific Odyssey of a Literary Genius by Kurt Johnson and Steve Coates (Zoland), a full-scale evaluation of Nabokov's standing as a lepidopterist. Next year, Beacon Press will bring out a collection of all the butterfly writings, including notes for a projected work on the butterfly and art.

The centennial is a fine time to examine the pieces of the Nabokov puzzle, but, of course, what brings us back to Nabokov is his way of finding the pattern in the game, of reconstructing what he's deconstructing. A loony high point of the New York Public Library show is a 1972 manuscript titled "Eggs a la Nabocoque," in which he explains how to boil an egg--the most ordinary act, now taxonomized and dramatized. "Boil water in a saucepan (bubbles mean it is boiling!)," he begins. A few lines later, the two eggs have slipped "soundlessly into the (boiling) water. Consult your wristwatch. Stand over them with a spoon preventing them (they are apt to roll) from knocking against the damned side of the pan. If, however, an egg cracks in the water (now bubbling like mad) and starts to disgorge a cloud of white stuff like a medium at an old fashioned seance, fish it out and throw it away."

Even when it comes to boiling an egg, Nabokov has strong opinions. This insistence on letting everybody know what you think must be one of a number of traits that endear him to all the New Yorkers and New Yorkers-in-spirit who visit the 42nd Street show. In what other city do so many people strive for that Nabokovian combination of toughness and romanticism? Nabokov knew all about turmoil and change, but he believed that, with sufficient mind, imagination, and energy, you could turn the confusions into something good. No wonder New Yorkers, who regard daily life as a mesmerizing chaos that they'll be able to master just as soon as they get a grip, are among his most ardent fans.

This article originally ran in the July 12, 1999, issue of the magazine.