Is Book History the Future of Nabokov Studies?

May 2nd, 2014 § Comments Off on Is Book History the Future of Nabokov Studies? § permalink

The following is my contribution to the Nabokov Doctoral Day event. While I hope to return to the questions posed by this paper in future research, I’m posting the talk here as a record of my argument.


[Before embarking on my topic, it is worth briefly reflecting on the processes I took to arrive at it. My initial PhD prospectus was ambitious, outlining a working methodology for exploring the digital annotation of post-War novels including Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire. As I am currently in limbo between submission and examination of a completely different PhD, I am aware of how ambitious this plan was. Nonetheless, my interests have remained with digital humanities, but over the development of my PhD, another field garnered my interest: book history. These two nebulous pseudo-disciplines gel and offer fertile methodological grounds that are still in development. This shift in focus pushed Nabokov outside my primary focus in order to develop new models of (hyper)textuality. Fortunately, there was still room to explore the book history of Pale Fire. If I were to start again now, with the ability to write purely on Nabokov and the necessary resources, the following sketches out my ideal thesis. It also expands upon methodological strengths and weaknesses of the approach for future work.]

Nabokov studies have thus far been largely immaterial, ignoring the problems of publication and reception that create the socio-economic conditions of Nabokov’s works. The field of book history offers a critical vocabulary to enrich Nabokov studies. Book history emerged as a nebulous interdisciplinary activity in the twentieth century in response to the much more conservative field of bibliography. The “New Bibliography” of the early twentieth century resulted in an empirical fussiness towards the idealized state of a great text that overwhelmed the potential to historicize the development of these texts. In particular, the concept that the author was the sole important contribution to the composition of the text jarred against the appearance of many colourful characters who dot the history of the book (e.g. Wynkyn de Worde, Thomas Jefferson, and the Little Giddings community). Book history, on the other hand, revels in the supporting cast—almost to a fault—and exposes the material, socio-economic and intellectual conditions in which texts are produced. In recent decades, work such as Leah Price’s How to Do Things with Books in Victorian Britain, William Sherman’s Used Books and James Secord’s Victorian Sensation have offered vital evidence of the real reader within the empirical study of the book. These scholar projects refer to pre-1923, or what Matt Kirschenbaum termed “B©,” texts as true book historical research requires access that copyright, archival permissions and belligerent literary estates often prohibit. That is not say that we cannot make a good start towards this with an author who primarily published after year-zero of current copyright protection.

It would be churlish to suggest that good work in this area has not already been undertaken—Maxim Shrayer and Lyndsay Miller’s work on Nabokov’s revision processes, Brian Boyd’s Library of America editions of the American works and Michael Juliar’s extensive enumerative bibliography rank among the most important—but within the field, it is undeniable that critical arguments are rarely built upon the material conditions of his literary output. The idiosyncrasy of referencing conventions and standard editions in the scholarship is one of the most apparent and immediate manifestations of this blindspot. This, however, may all change in the next few years due to an unorthodox catalyst: The Original of Laura. When Dmitri Nabokov decided to publish TOoL in its unfinished form, complete with perforated index cards, this revealed the processes behind his other polished texts. The aesthetic quality of the artifact (for it is hard to call it a novel) is secondary to its importance as a book historical object as we are confronted with the stark reality of not only Nabokov’s revision process, but editorial decisions that make up the final text.This suggested a move in the literary legacy from tightly controlled access to more open and amenable conditions towards reassessing our understanding Nabokov as an actual author in the complexities of the book trade. Early criticism of TOoL has taken the prompt to assess the book historical value of the novel. This critical move is only possible because of TOoL’s unique form, unlike previous posthumous publications, most notably his Lectures on Literature, edited by the domineering Fredson Bowers, a stout disciple of the New Bibliography. While TOoL has been a major catalyst in pushing critical attention in this direction, Nabokov literary output also encourages it. From Lolita onwards, Nabokov’s fiction frequently parodied, questioned and otherwise cajoled all aspects of the book trade. Take the unfinished quality of Lolita, Pale Fire and Ada, which all feature moments where it is clear that the work has not received the careful editing it may have otherwise received it was complete. Take for example, Humbert Humbert’s note for the printer of Lolita: “Lolita, Lolita, Lolita, Lolita, Lolita, Lolita, Lolita, Lolita, Lolita. Repeat till the page is full, printer,” which is left ignored; and Ada’s fictional editors Ada and Van Veen have also presented their final text with marginal comments to each other intact, such as “Hue or who? Awkward. Reword! (marginal note in Ada Veen’s late hand)” embedded directly into the textual world. In Pale Fire, this can be seen in the juxtaposition between “Insert before a professional” and “A professional proofreader has carefully rechecked the printed text of the poem.” The unfinished quality of these works prompts readers to delve further into their composition and reception.

If we choose to approach Nabokov studies with a book historical tint, a whole range of new questions become apparent. The methodologies central to book historical practice offer a variety of new approaches to Nabokov including, but not limited to, looking at composition processes, the role of editors, his sales figures, and the way in which he was received by a popular audience. Today, I will primarily take a holistic view by approaching at the macro-scale of modelling the book trade. The most famous model of the book trade is Robert Darnton’s communication circuit, which posits three significant prompts for the study of book history: (1) the continuous link between reception and (re)publication; (2) the importance of the socio-economic factors around the text; and (3) the role of pirates, smugglers and other unsavoury agents in shaping the text’s reception.

Immediately, we can see case studies of when these would be applicable to Nabokov Studies:

(1) The prestige of Lolita in allowing Nabokov’s older texts to become republished and translated with the addition of textual apparatus, leading to sustained fame that lasted throughout his career; the fight for rights to Nabokov’s publications; Strong Opinions originating in order to fulfill a contract with McGraw-Hill; and the drawn-out public debate surrounding the publication of TOoL;

(2) Nabokov depositing selected manuscripts at the Library of Congress for tax break reasons and holding back the manuscript of Ada due to perceived worth; the eventual publication of TOoL;the initial censorship of Lolita; the scant appearances of Nabokov’s literary works in anthologies; and Nabokov’s careful preservation of a persona in all public appearances; and

(3) The smuggling of Lolita into America and other texts into the USSR; Girodais’s impact on the manuscript of Lolita when removing many unnecessary French phrases; the widespread circulation of pirate editions of Nabokov’s works in the former-USSR and on the web; and Nabokov’s general opinion of editors and publishers despite the evidence that they often helped improve the text.

This list is potentially endless and offers a plethora of new avenues for exploration in Nabokov studies. My contribution to the growing body of book historical research is a refined model of the book trade reflecting the importance of hypertext in the processes of composition and reception. The model  is the shape of an hourglass to show the importance of a physical manifestation of a text in the process, as opposed to its disappearance in Darnton’s circuit. The two axes represent the most fundamental concepts of the hourglass: on the vertical axis, time, and the horizontal axis, meaning. The practical implication of this is the model displays the flow of meaning from author to reader via the text. This can never be reversed as compositional meaning is completely different to receptional meaning, even when the author makes a comment post-publication, such as Nabokov’s repeated assertions about the authorship debate in Pale Fire that are completely contradictory. Moreover, the hourglass is not cyclical as a new version of the text derives from the original but does not recreate it. The model’s also develops a framework for critiquing the reception of text more effectively than the other models of the book trade that conflate this multifaceted aspect to an after-thought in book history. This offers a robust mechanism to look at the development of a text such as Pale Fire, which has a substantial composition and reception history, although I want to focus on one particular aspect: reprints and appropriations.

When Pale Fire was published in 1962, it had undergone a long gestation period dating back not only to the first index cards dated 1957, but also to the 1930s with “Ultima Thule” and “Solus Rex.” The composition process is relatively invisible as we only have archival evidence for the manuscript, so work-in-progress and galley proofs, all of which show Nabokov’s development of the central themes of the novel, but not to a degree that can satisfactorily account for the changes between manuscript and published novel. This can be supplemented by Nabokov’s correspondence discussing the novel and two pre-publication extracts: “King’s Gambit,” a revised version of the note to line 130 that was due for publication in Harper’s Bazaar, but was pulled because of creative differences; and “The Late Mr. Shade,” an early version of the Foreword published in Harper’s magazine. From this, we can reconstruct some of the early development of the novel including, most enticingly, three major changes:

(1) “your favorite” appears in the manuscript as “my favorite;”

(2) Goldsworth is a professor rather than a judge at an early point in the manuscript; and

(3) “See my notes to line 949-999” warps into “see my note to line 999” to “note to line 991.”

While these offer intriguing alternate versions of Pale Fire, my interest lies instead in the changes that have occurred in the development of the novel through its complex lifespan. The traces of the reception process are some of the most interesting parts of this model to emerge, which can only be seen through close comparison of states of the text and reader’s reactions to the text. Some of these completely change the reader’s understanding of the text, such as Penguin’s decision to remove the Kindle version’s index as Amazon provide ‘superior’ forms of automated indexing through their software packages. Audiobook and radio-play editions of the text also offer interesting variations on a novel that relies on its bookishness to generate meanings. Through tracing the digitization process of certain texts we can also begin to deduce which versions copy each other. Most egregiously, Shannon Chamberlain’s version has been copied by GS Lipon, which can be seen through the scanning mistakes unique to both editions, most explicitly characterized in the transformation of “the turf” to “the turd” to create the ludicrous “with incredulous fingers he picks up from the turd that compact ovoid body.” This brief sketch demonstrates the importance of remembering the text is only a version rather than the definitive edition.

A further significant factor when considering the transmission history of Pale Fire is the rhetorical significance of the novel’s hypertext structure. There have been at least six unauthorized editions of Pale Fire on the Web, and many more that were never shared. Recent eBook editions have also included basic hypertext mechanisms. The reception of the novel has been intertwined with the hypertext network Nabokov constructed within the novel and readers have tried to appropriate this with their web-based editions. The hypertext poetics of Nabokov’s novel are complex and not easily represented in the mechanisms of the Web, so many of these versions alter the structure of the novel. The novel requires a delicate balance between the poem and commentary, since Kinbote creates explicit links from the commentary to the poem, but never the other way round. The technology of hypertext could also be better exploited, as a digital edition could track the reception of the novel through the reader’s pathways. This empirical data could test the claims of critics who suggest there are standard ways of traversing the novel.

While this may be exciting new areas for exploration, there are several caveats at adopting such an approach. Most readily, such research needs the availability of archival research, and this presents several problems. The material is scattered over the US, mainly in the Library of Congress and New York Public Library, but also spread in various locations and in publisher’s archives to document his complex history with various publishers. This is then ignoring the problem that much of this material either has not been uncovered or simply does not exist. The value of the Lolita manuscript will forever be unknown, to name the most obvious example. The third problem is the effort required in order to undertake serious book historical work, which may require tracking down multiple pressings and searching in the archive for countless hours to find little fruitful evidence, given the patchiness of Nabokov’s archives. Despite these potential problems, book history promises to be a fruitful approach to Nabokov studies.