001. 24: In this fashion a few more weeks elapsed, weeks of murmuring, exploration, persuasion, intensive remolding of another’s pliable solitude.
002. p37: [regarding his connubial duties] …he perceived ever more clearly that the moment of reckoning had arrived, that now no escape remained from what he had of course long foreseen, but without giving it much thought (when the moment comes I’ll manage somehow); now that moment was knocking at the door and it was perfectly clear that he (little Gulliver) would be physically unable to tackle those broad bones, those multiple caverns, the bulky velvet, the formless anklebones, the repulsively listing conformation of her ponderous pelvis, not to mention the rancid emanations of her wilted skin and the as yet undisclosed miracles of surgery…here his imagination was left hanging on barbed wire.
003. 40: …the door to her bedroom had been underlined with rulerlike precision by a fine-honed point of light.
001. iii: …my books are not only blessed by a total lack of social significance, but are also mythproof: Freudians flutter around them avidly, approach this itching oviducts, stop, sniff, and recoil.
002. 7: After all, in order to live happily, a man must know now and then a few moments of perfect blankness. Yet I was always exposed, always wide-eyed; even in sleep I did not cease to watch over myself, understanding nothing of my existence, growing crazy at the thought of not being able to stop being aware of myself, and envying all those simple people—clerks, revolutionaries, shopkeepers—who, with confidence and concentration, go about their little jobs.
003. 18: …a man who has decided upon self-destruction is far removed from mundane affairs, and to sit down and write his will would be, at that moment, an act just as absurd as winding up one’s watch, since, together with the man, the whole world is destroyed…
004. 23: … sinner’s torment in the afterworld consists precisely in that hi tenacious mind cannot find peace until it manages to unravel the complex consequences of his reckless terrestrial actions.
005. 27: However, now, as I indulged in this juxtaposition, I did not feel a bit humiliated. Ever since the shot—that shot which, in my opinion, had been fatal—I had observed myself with curiosity instead of sympathy, and my painful past—before the shot—was now foreign to me. This conversation with Weinstock turned out to be the beginning for a new life for me. In respect to myself I was now an onlooker. My belief in the phantomatic nature of my existence entitled me to certain amusements.
006. 27-8: It is silly to seek a basic law, even sillier to find it. Some mean-spirited little man decides that the whole course of humanity can be explained in terms of insidiously revolving signs of the zodiac or as the struggle between an empty and a stuffed belly; he hires a punctilious Philistine to act as Clio’s clerk, and begins a wholesale trade in epochs and masses; and then woe to the private individuum, with his two poor u’s, hallooing hopelessly amid the dense growth of economic causes. Luckily no such law exist: a toothache will cost a battle, a drizzle cancel an insurrection. Everything is fluid, everything depends on chance, and all in vain were the efforts of that crabbed bourgeois in Victorian checkered trousers, author of Das Kapital, the fruit of insomnia and migraine. There is titillating pleasure in looking back at the past and asking oneself, ‘What would have happened if…’ and substituting one chance occurrence for another, observing how, from a gray barren, humdrum moment in one’s life, there grows forth a marvelous rosy event that in reality had failed to flower. A mysterious thing, this branching structure of life: one senses in every past instant a parting of ways, a ‘thus’ and an ‘otherwise,’ with innumerable dazzling zigzags bifurcating and trifurcating against the dark background of the past.
007. 32-3: …while Smurov is comparatively a newcomer, although he hardly looks it. None could discern in him the shyness that makes a person so conspicuous among people who know each other well and are bound together by the established echoes of private jokes and by an allusive residue of people’s names that to them are alive with special significance, making the newcomer feel as if the magazine story he has started read had really begun long ago, in old unobtainable issues; and as he listens to the general conversation, rife with references to incidents unknown to him, the outsider keeps silent and shifts his gaze to whoever is speaking, and, the quicker the exchanges, the more mobile become his eyes; but soon the invisible world that lives in the words of the people around him begins to oppress him and he wonders if they have not deliberately contrived a conversation to which he is a stranger. In Smurov’s case, however, even if he did occasionally feel left out, he certainly did not show it.
008. 33: He spoke little, but everything he said was intelligent and appropriate, and his infrequent jokes, while too subtle to arouse roars of laughter, seemed to unlock a concealed door in the conversation, letting in an unexpected freshness.
009. 37: His suspiciousness required regular nourishment.
010. 45: Her happiness did not speak. Sometimes she would suddenly ask a brief question and, having received the answer, would immediately fall silent again…
011. 53: I could already count three versions of Smurov, while the original remained unknown. [This is one of Nabokov’s continual themes of the various ways people have more than one self. Sometimes he calls it a person’s true self.]
012. 54: In the same way I resolved to dig up the true Smurov, being already aware that his image was influenced by the climatic conditions prevailing in various souls—that within a cold soul he assumed one aspect but in a glowing one had a different coloration.
013. 63: …this decrepit prattler, loath to keep hidden a single grain from the storage bins of his experience, started a conversation with an elderly lady who did not know him, but who was evidently fond of openhearted strangers.
014. 64: …when one knew what bliss had smitten him—yes, smitten (for there is bliss so strong that, with its blast, with its hurricane howl, it resembles a cataclysm)
015. 71: Only when I finally realized that my desire was bound to remain insatiable and that Vanya was wholly a creation of mine, did I calm down, and grow accustomed to my own excitement, from which I had extrated all the sweetness that a man can possibly obtain from love.
016. 72: These doings Smurov recounted in full detail, and not without a certain pride, to Weinstock, who abhorred indecent stories and would emit a strong eloquent ‘Pfui!’ upon hearing something salacious. And that is why people were especially eager to tell him things of this nature.
017. 91: …it often happens that one’s style of speaking to a person affects one’s way of thinking in that person’s presence.
018. 103: For I do not exist: there exist but the thousands of mirrors that reflect me. With every acquaintance I make, the population of phantoms resembling me increases. Somewhere they live, somewhere they multiply. I alone do not exist. Smurov, however, will live on for a long time. The two boys, those pupils of mine, will grow old, and some image or other of me will live within them like a tenacious parasite. And then will come the day when the last person who remembers me will die. A fetus in reverse, my image, too, will dwindle and die within that last witness of the crime I committed by the mere fact of living. Perhaps a chance story about me, a simple anecdote in which I figure, will pass on from him to his son or grandson, and so my name and my ghost will appear fleetingly here and there for some time still. Then will come the end.
I have realized that the only happiness in this world is to observe, to spy, to watch, to scrutinize oneself and others, to be nothing but a big, slightly vitreous, somewhat bloodshot, unblinking eye. I swear that this is happiness.
Invitation to a Beheading
001. 18: This night the password was silence, and the soldier at the gate responded with silence to Cincinnatus’ silence and let him pass; likewise at all the other gates.
002. 24: From his earliest years Cincinnatus, by some strange and happy chance comprehending his danger, carefully managed to conceal a certain peculiarity. He was impervious to the rays of others, and therefore produced when off his guard a bizarre impression, as of a lone dark obstacle in this world of souls transparent to one another; he learned however to feign translucence, employing a complex system of optical illusions, as it were—but he only had to forget himself, to allow a momentary lapse in self-control, in the manipulation of cunningly illuminated facets and angles at which he turned his soul, and immediately there was alarm. In the midst of the excitement of a game his coevals would suddenly forsake him, as if they had sensed that his lucid gaze and the azure of his temples were but a crafty deception and that actually Cincinnatus was opaque. Sometimes, in the midst of a sudden silence, the teacher, in chagrined perplexity, would gather up all the reserves of skin around the eyes, gaze at him for a long while, and finally say: “What is wrong with you, Cincinnatus?” Then Cincinnatus would take hold of himself, and, clutching his own self to his breast, would remove that self to a safe place.
003. 25: Therefore Cincinnatus did not crumple the motley newspapers, did not hurl them, as his double did (the double, the gangrel, that accompanies each of us—you, and me, and him over there—doing what we would like to do at that very moment, but cannot…)
004. 26: Those around him understood each other at the first word, since they had no words that would end in an unexpected way, perhaps in some archaic letter, an upsilamba, becoming a bird or a catapult with wondrous consequences. In the dusty little museum on Second Boulevard, where they used to take him as a child, and where he himself would later take his charges, there was a collection of rare, marvelous objects, but all the townsmen except Cincinnatus found them just as limited and transparent as they did each other. That which does not have a name does not exist. Unfortunately everything had a name.
005. 27: Having artificially developed a fondness for this mythical Nineteeth Century, Cincinnatus was ready to become completely engrossed in the mists of that antiquity and find therein a false shelter, …
006. 49: [Rules of the prison] It is desirable that the inmate should not have at all, or if he does, should immediately himself suppress nocturnal dreams whose content might be incompatible with the condition and status of the prisoner, such as: resplendent landscapes, outings with friends, family dinners, as well as sexual intercourse with persons who in real life and in the waking state would not suffer said individual to come near, which individual will therefore be considered by the law to guilty of rape.
007. 87: Cincinnatus opened a book and buried himself in it, that is, he kept reading the first sentence over and over.
008. 93: Wait! There, I feel once again that I shall really express myself, shall bring the words to bay. Alas, no one taught me this kind of chase, and the ancient inborn art of writing is long since forgotten—forgotten are the days when it needed no schooling, but ignited and blazed like a forest fire—today it seems just as incredible as the music that once used to be extracted from a monstrous pianoforte, music that would nimbly ripple or suddenly hack the world into great gleaming blocks—I myself picture all this so clearly, but you are not I, and therein lies the irreparable calamity. Not knowing how to write, but sensing in my criminal intuition how words are combined, what one must do for a commonplace word to come alive and to share its neighbor’s sheen, heat, shadow, while reflecting itself in its neighbour and renewing the neighboring word in the process, so that the whole line is live iridescence; while I sense the nature of this kind of word propinquity, I a nevertheless unable to achieve it, yet that is what is indispensable to me for my task, a task of not now and not here.
009. 95: No, I have as yet said nothing, or, rather, said only bookish words…and in the end the logical thing would be to give up and I would give up if I were labouring for a reader existing today, but as there is in the world not a single human who can speak my language; or, more simply, not a single human who can speak; or, even more simply, not a single human; I must think only of myself, of that force which urges me to express myself.
010. 96: … and even to this day I still feel an ache in that part of my memory where the very beginning of this effort is recorded, that is, the occasion when I first understood that things which to me had seemed natural were actually forbidden, impossible, that any thought of them was criminal.
011. 181: … for what is a recollection, if not the soul of an impression?
012. 194: The thought, when written down, becomes less oppressive, but some thoughts are like a cancerous tumor: you express it, you excise it, and it grows back worse than before.
013. 205: This is the dead end of this life, and I should not have sought salvation. Just like a man grieving because he has recently lost in his dreams some thing that he never had in reality, or hoping that tomorrow he would dream that he found it again.
King, Queen, Knave
001. viii: One might readily conjecture that a Russian writer in choosing a set of exclusively German characters (the appearance of my wife and me in the last two chapters are merely visits of inspection) was creating for himself insurmountable difficulties. I spoke no German, had no German friends, had not read a single German novelin either the original, or in translation. But in art, as in nature, a glaring disadvantage may turn out to be a subtle protective device.
002. ix: (a similar object also figures, I see, in my Speak, Memory, 1966, and quite properly, too, for its shape is that of the famous In Search of Lost Time cake.)
003. 4: These were images that Franz usually held at bay but that always kept swarming in the background of his life greeting with a hysterical spasm any new impression that was kin to them.
004. 15: That old sewing machine with its arthritic pedal wrapped up in brown paper is so clear right now, and yet in an hour or two I shall forget it forever; I shall forget that I looked at it; I shall forget everything.
005. 22: …it was the room that was noisy! Its hubbub comprised the hollow hum of irksome human thoughts…
006. 23: [Our protag has lost his glasses and is in a city unknown to him] Once in the street he was engulfed in streaming radiance. Outlines did not exist, colors had no substance. like a woman’s wispy dress that has slipped off its hangar, the city shimmered and fell in fantastic folds, not held up by anything, a discarnate iridescence limply suspended in the azure autumnal air.
007. 27: He could not have said with certitude if he found this blurry lady attractive. Nearsightedness is chaste.
008. 33: …in the no-time of human thought he also recalled…
009. 74: The lustre of the black asphalt was filmed by a blend og dim hues, through which here and there vivid rends and oval holes made by rain puddles revealed the authentic colours of deep reflections—a vermilion diagonal band, a cobalt wedge, a green spiral—scattered glimpses into a humid upside-down world, into a dizzy geometry of gems. The kaleidoscopic effect suggested someone’s jiggling every now and then the pavement so as to change the combination of numberless coloured fragments. Meanwhile, shafts and ripples of life passed by, marking the course of every car. Shop windows, bursting with tense radiance, oozed, squirted, and splashed out into the rich blackness.
010. 74: …almost instantly Sleep, with a bow, handed him the key of its city…
011. 82: …he would search her beauty for some little fault on which he could prop his mind and sober his fancy, and thus allay the relentless stir of his senses.
012. 130: When the inevitable explosion (somehow sensed as inevitable just before it occurred) was on the point of interrupting an absorbing although incoherent conversation with an unshaven Magyar or Basque about treating surgically, with buckets of blood, a seal’s tail to enable the seal to walk upright, Dreyer abruptly returned to the morality of a minter morning, and with desperate haste, as if he were dealing with an infernal machine, stopped the alarm clock that was about to ring. [Personal note: I like the way Nabokov captures the reality of dreams—the shifting reality that people live in.]
013. 141: Our cruellest enemy is less hateful than the burly stranger whose placid back keeps us from squeezing through to a ticket window or to the counter of a sausage shop.
014. 161: …she knew that she had achieved her end, that he had been fully prepared, was completely ripe, and that the time had come to act. She was right. Franz no longer had a will of his own; the best he could do was to refract her will his own way. The easy fulfillment of two merged dreams had become familiar to him, owing to a very simple interplay of sensations. By now Dreyer had already been several times murdered and buried.
015. 161-2: The discussion of methods of murder became with them an everyday matter. no uneasiness, no shame accompanied it; neither did they experience the dark thrill gamblers know, or the comfortable horror a family man enjoys when reading about the destruction of another family, with gory details, in a family newspaper. Te words “bullet” and “poison” began to sound about a normal as “bouillon” or “pullet,” as ordinary as a doctor’s bill or pill. The process of killing a man could be considered as calmly as the recipes in a cookbook, and no doubt Martha first of all thought of poison because of a woman’s innate domestic bent, an instinctive knowledge of spices and herbs, of the healthful and the harmful.
From a second-rate encyclopedia they learned about all sorts of dismal Lucrezias and Locustas.
016. 163: But she did not give up the idea of poison. In the morning, alone, she again scanned the evasive articles in the encyclopedia, trying to find that plain, unhistorical, unspectacular, matter-of-fact poison or powder that she so clearly imagined.
017. 164: In her mind she know reviewed the little she had known before and the little she had dug up about poisoners’ techniques. Two things she had gleaned: first, that every poison has its echo—an antidote; and, second, that a sudden death led to an inquisitive zestful autopsy.
018. 164: The most attractive poison seemed to be cyanide. It had a brisk something about it with no romantic trimmings: an ordinary mouse that has swallowed an insignificant fraction of one gram falls dead before it can run thirty inches. She saw the stuff as a pinch of colorless powder, which could be dropped unnoticed with a lump of sugar into a cup of tea. “It says here that in certain cases cyanide cannot be traced in the cadaver. What certain cases? Tell us!”
019. 166: Because he wore glasses even for love-making, he reminded her of a handsome, hairy young pearl diver ready to pry the live pearl out of its rosy shell as in that Russian ballet they had seen together, or that picture of conches facing the last page in volume M.
020. 177: In the course of that month she and Franz had investigated several new methods, and as before, she spoke of this or that procedure with such austere simplicity that Franz felt no fear, no discomfort, for a strange rearrangement of emotions was taking place in him.
021. 178: …plagiarizing villainy (an act which after all had been avoided only by Cain)…
022. 180: Believing, with so many novelists, that if the details were correct the plot and characters would take care of themselves.
023. 200: …a curious debility blurred his movements as if he were existing only because existing was the proper thing to do; but one did it unwillingly and would have been glad to return at any moment to a state of animal stupor.
024. 201: And behind these regular everyday thoughts, as behind words written on glass, lay darkness, a darkness into which one ought not to peer.
025. 203: As for her, she mistook his moodiness for the malady from which she herself suffered, the white-hot fever of incessant murderous thought.
026. 226: That third of a man’s consciousness, the imaginable future, had ceased to exist for Franz…
027. 247: …he had reached a stage at which human speech, unless representing a command, was meaningless.
028. 270: …he rode up in the lift with the pseudo-Franz… The false Franz and the more or less real one stood side by side…