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.
Just a few days after Nabokov’s death, there was an invasion of butterflies out in Springs, Long Island. It probably happens every year. But the reason I noticed the butterflies this time was the presence—or the absence—of Nabokov.
Q: Is writing your novels pleasure or drudgery?
A: Pleasure and agony while composing the book in my mind; harrowing irritation when struggling with my tools and viscera — the pencil that needs resharpening, the card that has to be rewritten, the bladder that has to be drained, the word that I always misspell and always have to look up. Then the labor of reading the typescript prepared by a secretary, the correction of my major mistakes and her minor ones, transferring corrections to other copies, misplacing pages, trying to remember something that had to be crossed out or inserted. Repeating the process when proofreading. Unpacking the radiant, beautiful, plump advance copy, opening it — and discovering a stupid oversight committed by me, allowed by me to survive. After a month or so, I get used to the book’s final stage, to its having been weaned from my brain. I now regard it with a kind of amused tenderness as a man regards not his son, but the young wife of his son.
Which is the worst thing men do?
To stink, to cheat, to torture.
Which is the best?
To be kind, to be proud, to be fearless.