Saturday, November 29, 2008

Nabokov in Oregon

To the many obvious reasons there are to love the writing of Vladimir Nabokov, I add a smaller and more personal reason: as far as I can tell, he is the most important literary figure ever to have spent time in my beautiful home state of Oregon, and to have produced significant work there.

Nabokov and his wife Vera spent the summer of 1953 in a rented house in Ashland, Oregon (the small town near the California border that is world-famous for its Shakespeare festival). It is a picturesque and peaceful town that also afforded Nabokov great opportunities for butterfly-collecting in the surrounding hills. In Ashland, he passed an "extraordinarily productive writing summer": he finished Lolita, wrote the first chapter of Pnin as a short story for The New Yorker, and composed two poems, "The Ballad of Longwood Glen" and "Lines Written in Oregon" (citation). Pretty amazing, huh?

Though Nabokov never wrote extensively about Oregon, there are some brief references to the state scattered throughout his allusion-happy oeuvre. In Pnin, a character is described as "bursting into happy tears--for all the world like little Miss Michigan or the Oregon Rose Queen." Technically, this figure is called the Portland Rose Festival Queen--but her coronation is a big deal during the month of June, and I'm guessing that Nabokov read about it in the newspaper.

And in Lolita, in the section where Humbert provides a running commentary on all the corners of America that he and Lo visit, they make a couple of stops in Oregon. One of them is "Blue, blue Crater Lake." It amuses me that even the great Nabokov could find no better word to describe Crater Lake than "blue"; his genius is deep, but Crater Lake is deeper!

Here is Nabokov's "Lines Written in Oregon"--kind of a bizarre poem, but very evocative for those of us who grew up hiking in the Oregon woods, searching for trilliums, counting how many shades of green we could see, half-convinced that this was the land where fairy tales could come true.
Esmeralda! now we rest
Here, in the bewitched and blest
Mountain forests of the West.
Here the very air is stranger.
Damzel, anchoret, and ranger
Share the woodland’s dream and danger.
And to think I deemed you dead!
(In a dungeon, it was said;
Tortured, strangled); but instead –
Blue birds from the bluest fable,
Bear and hare in coats of sable,
Peacock moth on picnic table.
Huddled roadsigns softly speak
Of Lake Merlin, Castle Creek,
And (obliterated) Peak.
Do you recognize that clover?
Dandelions, l’or du pauvre?
(Europe, nonetheless, is over).
Up the turf, along the burn
Latin lilies climb and turn
Into Gothic fir and fern.
Cornfields have befouled the prairies
But these canyons laugh! And there is
Still the forest with its fairies.
And I rest where I awoke
In the sea shade – l’ombre glauque
Of a legendary oak;
Where the woods get ever dimmer,
Where the Phantom Orchids glimmer –
Esmeralda, immer, immer.


Dr.J said...

Clumsy as I am always with the internet, I see this post after sending you a question about the poem. I saw the title re-reading Boyd´s The american years. Do you think the Esmeralda in the poem is the same gipsy in Notre Dame by Hugo? It is still a name in spanish

Marissa said...

Yes, that is probably an allusion to the Hugo character, but also I think it might refer to how beautiful and GREEN Oregon is (Esmeralda = emerald).

Dr.J said...

Of course, but remember Gerald Emerald in Pale Fire, and he was a "negative" character.

Marissa said...

Haven't read it.

Acantholimon said...

One of my favorite Nabokov must read Pale Fire, Marissa. It is to Nabokov as Hamlet is to Shakespeare...his most enigmatic and perfect work.

Acantholimon said...
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Zelda del West said...

The house that Nabokov stayed in in Ashland was torn down a while back, but I used to walk by there often. It was just above where Evo's coffee house is now. There is a plaque, I believe, in front of the house that stands there now.

Marissa Skudlarek said...

thanks Zelda!

H Lynch said...

Should anyone read this who is interested in the identity of Nabokov's Esmeralda, I am afraid she is quite unrelated to Hugo's gypsy, nor is she a personified forest.

'Esmeralda' is a moth, the Large Emerald moth which the young lepidoperist knew and caught in the Russia of his childhood. The dungeon, then, is the Soviet Union. He saw a moth in Oregon (I presume the Southern Emerald), which was a reincarnation of Esmeralda.

A pretty detail: he mentions in his autobiography seeing "a soft, pale green wing caught in a spider's web".

totum said...
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decimoprimeirohumanidades said...

I am from the future.