Vladimir Nabokov predicted the emoji. In 1969, responding to a reporter’s question, the famously eloquent polyglot said: “I often think there should exist a special typographical sign for a smile — some sort of concave mark, a supine round bracket, which I would now like to trace in reply to your question.” In what might well have been the first public call for this kind of symbolic language, Nabokov inadvertently revealed himself as a soothsayer, a man with a window or inclination into the future.

Nabokov’s clairvoyant genius is a mere subplot in a new book about the writer’s nocturnal preoccupations, Insomniac Dreams: Experiments With Time. The centrepiece is Nabokov’s meticulous dream diary, begun in October 1964, designed to test whether dreams could be precognitive; in other words, to test whether his dreams could, in fact, be caused by future events working in reverse. The experiment follows an instruction manual from early 20th-century aeronautical engineer and philosopher John Dunne. Each morning upon waking, Nabokov would write down, with typical precision, the details of his nocturnal wanderings, on his beloved flash cards.

Vladimir and Vera Nabokov in Montreux, 1969. Photo: Giuseppe Pino under a CC licence

The reader is led through the five sections of Insomniac Dreams by the leading academic on Nabokov, Gennady Barabtarlo. The book’s main preoccupation is the extent to which time and its elusive texture permeate the life and work of Russia’s most notable butterfly collector.

In Nabokov’s autobiography Speak, Memory — widely understood to be highly embellished — he writes: “I confess I do not believe in time. I like to fold my magic carpet, after use, in such a way as to superimpose one part of the pattern upon another. Let visitors trip. And the highest enjoyment of timelessness — in a landscape selected at random — is when I stand among rare butterflies and their food plants. This is ecstasy, and behind the ecstasy is something else, which is hard to explain.” Evidently, time is a curious, enigmatic, even magical concept for Nabokov. It is not fixed. It is something malleable, something to play with, something that moves forwards and backwards, something behind which stands “something else”. Does he mean death? Truth? The afterlife?

No definitive answers are given, but time is a rich lens through which Nabokov is able to explore the Moebius-like structures of the world. His novel Ada is an exploration in time-travel with an embedded essay, The Texture of Time, most likely inspired by his dream experiment; at the end of another novel, The Gift, the protagonist states his intention to write a novel of the same name, inviting the reader back to the beginning.

Time is a curious, enigmatic, even magical concept for Nabokov. It is not fixed. It is something malleable, something to play with

Nabokov’s collection of dream notes emerges as an indirect ode to Russia’s literary past and present. The references to both contemporary and classical writers feature heavily in his jottings and serve two main purposes.

First, they further entrench Nabokov in the contemporary literary epoch with an inordinate number of subtle calls to his peer, emigre writer Vladislav Khodasevich. Barabtarlo refers to a letter from 1939 when Nabokov writes about a dream in which he hears of Khodasevich’s death, five days before it happens. Aside from several other dreams involving Khodasevich and his wife, Nabokov’s dreams of tours on motorcycles and trips to the Italian coast indirectly call forth images from “Sorrento Photographs”, one of Khodasevich’s most famous poems, in which two memories of Russia are superimposed onto each other, creating a dreamy, hazy reality.

  • Nabokov’s dream cards

    A flash card with Nabokov's recollections about his dreams. Photo: from the Berg Collection of English and American Literature, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations. Copyright © the Dmitri Nabokov Estate. Used by permission of The Wylie Agency, LLC

  • Nabokov’s dream cards

    A flash card with Nabokov's recollections about his dreams. Photo: from the Berg Collection of English and American Literature, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations. Copyright © the Dmitri Nabokov Estate. Used by permission of The Wylie Agency, LLC

  • Nabokov’s dream cards

    A flash card with Nabokov's recollections about his dreams. Photo: from the Berg Collection of English and American Literature, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations. Copyright © the Dmitri Nabokov Estate. Used by permission of The Wylie Agency, LLC

Second, references to writers Alexander Pushkin, Ivan Turgenev and Leo Tolstoy are so frequent in his dreams, it’s as if Nabokov at times becomes a flâneur of his own mental bookshelf. In a humorous dream about Tolstoy, Nabokov recalls: “I hear him saying… ‘I do not like his Lolita, but how well he describes the Russian landscape’.” A writer who forever struggled with the trauma and displacement of a life lived in exile, Nabokov’s literary dreams go beyond the rational preoccupations of his mind, and delve into the wounded chambers of his soul.

The publication of Insomniac Dreams was a risk. Listening to someone else’s dreams can, after all, prove a frustrating, even dull experience.

Insomniac Dreams is a rebellious text, one that reveals Nabokov at the height of his vulnerability, in a way never seen before. When are we more human and more shameful than in our dreams?

But publication is also brave as it contradicts the manicured, highly private and rehearsed impressions we have of the writer as a public figure. In the foreword to the collection of interviews and essays Strong Opinions, Nabokov reveals: “Throughout my academic ascent in America… I have never delivered to my audience one scrap of information not prepared in typescript beforehand and not held under my eyes on the bright-lit lectern.” All interviews Nabokov gave to the press were prepared in writing and reproduced verbatim. This perfectionism also extended to his fiction, which was the culmination of a painstaking process of editing, correcting, revisiting and further editing by both him and his wife, Véra. In this regard, Insomniac Dreams is a rebellious text, one that reveals Nabokov at the height of his vulnerability, in a way never seen before. When are we more human and more shameful than in our dreams, when our psyche reveals its squalid pot-holes?

In one dream featuring his wife, affectionally referred to as Vé, Nabokov writes: “A man kisses her in passing. I clutch him by the head and bang his face with such vicious force against the wall that he almost gets meat-hooked, on some fixtures on the wall.” The man we witness here is a far cry from his doppelgänger in front of the lectern, reading a rehearsed script on Gustave Flaubert or Marcel Proust. This is Vladimir the man. Though, at other times, we aren’t so lucky and are afforded only a brief glimpse of his psychic chambers. He writes one morning: “Several dreams, one of them keenly erotic, replaying (for perhaps the five-hundredth time) with perfect freshness a fugue of my early youth”" It’s as if Nabokov, the teaser extraordinaire, is pre-empting his nosey reader years in advance.

Vladimir Nabokov in Montreux, Switzerland, in 1973. Photo: vesnavfialte / Vkontakte

Nabokov’s entries in Insomniac Dreams are studded with occasional analyses from Barabtarlo, drawing attention to parallels between the writer’s dreams and his fiction, which are not only insightful and enjoyable but a juicy dividend to the sometimes impenetrable dream fragments. For example, Nabokov’s dream of his father reproaching him as a young boy “in a kind of lecture-hall” poignantly echoes the unfortunate circumstances in which Nabokov's father died in reality, “in a lecture-hall of sorts”, by an assassin's bullet intended for Pavel Milyukov, a leading Russian liberal. Likewise, in his final Russian-language novel The Gift, we learn that the protagonist’s “father often appeared to him in dreams, as if just returned from some monstrous penal servitude”.

At its worst, Insomniac Dreams is a list of fragmented, jumbled images spat out by a confused, sleep-deprived mind. But as the reader leafs through the book, whether or not dreams can actually predict the future becomes ever more immaterial. Because at its best, Insomniac Dreams — more Impressionist painting than scientific report — reveals the intricate links between Nabokov’s fiction, his life and his dreams, mystically bound together in a timeless cocoon.

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