Counting the Butterflies

Philippe Halsman/Magnum Photos
Véra and Vladimir Nabokov, Montreux, Switzerland, 1966

Language has many forms of quiet kindness, refusals of stark alternatives. “Never” can mean “not always,” and “impossible” may mean “not now.” Insomnia may mean a shortage of sleep rather than its entire absence, and when Gennady Barabtarlo writes that “Nabokov typically remembered having his dreams at dawn, right before awakening after a sleepless night,” or indeed calls his own book Insomniac Dreams, we are looking not so much at a paradox as a touch of logical leeway. There is no need to go “beyond logic,” as Nabokov says one of the characters does in his story “The Vane Sisters,” but we do often need to bend it a little, ask it to relax.

In October 1964, Nabokov began the experiment that Barabtarlo expertly unfolds for us:

Every morning, immediately upon awakening, he would write down what he could rescue of his dreams. During the following day or two he was on the lookout for anything that seemed to do with the recorded dream.

He continued the record, written in English on index cards now kept in the Berg Collection of the New York Public Library, until the beginning of January 1965. He and his wife, Véra, were living at the Palace Hotel in Montreux, Switzerland. Lolita and his teaching career at Wellesley and Cornell lay in the past. He had published Pale Fire in 1962 and completed his translation of and commentary on Eugene Onegin, which appeared in June 1964. The English version of his early novel The Defense came out in September of that year, and he was working on the Russian translation of Lolita. The novels still to come were Ada, or Ardor (1969), Transparent Things (1972), Look at the Harlequins (1974), and the fragmentary, posthumous The Original of Laura (2009).

The “experiments with time” of Barabtarlo’s subtitle have several points of reference. There is the book An Experiment with Time, by J.W. Dunne, first published in 1927, with several later editions, which prompted Nabokov’s attempt at a dream record. A card dated October 14, 1964, is headed “An Experiment” and the words “Re Dunne” are written in a corner. “The following checking of dream events,” Nabokov writes,

was undertaken to illustrate the principle of “reverse memory.” The waking event resembling or coinciding with the dream event does so not because the latter is a prophecy but because this would be the kind of dream that one might expect to have after the event.

“Not because the latter is a prophecy” is the voice of Nabokov’s caution, and pretty much contradicts Dunne’s claim. His idea is that we routinely dream of the future but deny our experience because we think this can’t happen. Precognitive dreams are as normal as memory or anxiety dreams. They are “ordinary, appropriate, expectable,” but they find themselves…


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