The Russian-born novelist’s writing habits were famously peculiar. Beginning in 1950, he composed first drafts in pencil on ruled index cards, which he stored in long file boxes. Since, Nabokov claimed, he pictured an entire novel in complete form before he began writing it, this method allowed him to compose passages out of sequence, in whatever order he pleased; by shuffling the cards around, he could quickly rearrange paragraphs, chapters, and whole swaths of the book. (His file box also served as portable desk; he started the first draft of Lolita on a road trip across America, working nights in the backseat of his parked car — the only place in the country, he said, with no noise and no drafts.) Only after months of this labor did he finally relinquish the cards to his wife, Vera, for a typed draft, which would then undergo several more rounds of revisions.
Vladimir Nabokov’s United States immigration ID, from the fascinating story of how he became an American.
Vladimir Nabokov on literature and life, 1969.
Not the sunset poem you make when you think aloud, with its linden tree in India inkand the telegraph wires across its pinkcloud;
not the mirror in you and her delicate bareshoulder still glimmering there; not the lyrical click of a pocket rhyme—the tiny music that tells the time;
and not the pennies and weights on thoseevening papers piled up in the rain; not the cacodemons of carnal pain;not the things you can say so much better in plain prose—
but the poem that hurtles from heights unknown—when you wait for the splash of the stonedeep below, and grope for your pen, and then comes the shiver, and then—
in the tangle of sounds, the leopards of words,the leaflike insects, the eye-spotted birdsfuse and form a silent, intense,mimetic pattern of perfect sense.
Vera and Vladimir Nabokov, chasing butterflies, Ithaca, New York, September 1958. Photograph by Carl Mydans for LIFE Magazine.