Webs of Style

Gustav Fjaestad: Autumn landscape with roundpole fence, 1921

In the early autumn of 1950 Vladimir Nabokov received a letter from his editor’s husband, who was writing from their home in Brooklin, Maine. 

Dear Vladimir:

There is a large grey spider that commonly inhabits out-buildings and sheds, and I turn to you on the chance that you know her and can enlighten me as to certain of her more intimate habits and functions—this because she figures in a book I am writing and I find myself, at this point, stuck.

I have observed this spider on the place here, but do not know her name. She is pearl-grey overall, except that her legs are tan and grey alternately along the sections. Her abdomen is plump and about the size of a Tokay grape. She is an orb weaver and her web is as big as the wheel of a perambulator. She waits at the top of the web, not in the center.

What I particularly wish to know is her name and her span of life. I presume that she is hatched in the fall, spends the winter inside the egg case, matures and mates in summer, and then dies after egg laying. But I am not enough of a naturalist and observer to be sure of this, and my digging around in spider books has not yet led me to the answers. I would like to know whether her egg case is the round kind—like a little basketball—or whether it is a flat, whitish, cocoonlike thing plastered against rafters and beams. I would like to know, too, whether she fills her case with eggs immediately after constructing the case, or whether she waits a few days and gives herself a breather.

I do not know whether you are an arachnologist, as well as a lepidopterist, but it occurred to me that [you] might have all this information at the tip of your tongue and could impart it to me without pain or effort. If the subject of spiders is distasteful to you, or boring, or both, then that in itself would be reason enough to dispense with the whole matter.

Katharine and I are planning to return to New York next week, so you had better direct your reply to the New Yorker rather than to the above address.


Andy White

“Andy” was the name by which Elwyn Brooks White had been known since his college days at Cornell, where any student who happened to share the surname of the university’s founder, Andrew Dickson White, was by tradition called Andy from the moment he set foot on campus. Andy’s wife, Katharine Sergeant White, had by then been editing Nabokov’s submissions to The New Yorker for five years; her support was instrumental in Nabokov’s transition from a Russian to an American writer. Nabokov, who was at that point at work on Lolita, had recently taken up a teaching job at Cornell, where the Whites’ son Joel was expected to enroll. Nabokov’s reply, written a few days later, can be found in White’s archive in Ithaca:

Dear Katharine and Andy,

Alas, I know as little about spiders as Petrunkevich (the Yale man whose exaggerated profile appeared last year in the New Yorker and whose name is incorrectly accented in this country, rhyming with “chunky witch” instead of “cave itch”) knows about butterflies i.e. nothing at all. However I have a good friend in New York, Dr. Gertsch, the spider man (and lepidopterist) at the Amer. Mus. Nt. Hist. and if you ring him up or write him a note or drop in to see him (5th floor, I seem to remember) he will tell you everything. I’m awfully sorry I can be of so little use—heating system so plangent in these hotel rooms—in your spider quandary, especially as your description is so utterly delightful.

Katharine, I had been looking forward so much to having Joel, when I saw his name on my list of students! But of course you are absolutely and admirably right in letting him do what he really wants. This was my parents’ policy too, and as you well know the result is not an unfortunate one. Will he be able to play soccer at the M.I.T.?

As usual, that nice little New Yorker Anthology cheque came at a nice hollow moment and filled the hollow—many, many thanks!

As you can see we are (for a couple of days) in Cambridge—for a rendezvous with my son and then heading for Smith College—a lecture there on Pushkin—the N.Yer would weed out some of these “fors” and “sos”

We were awfully sorry to learn you were still weak after your illness, K.

I am wet-nursing a bad cold. We both send you our love.


White did consult the expert Nabokov recommended, but his chroniclers have assumed that he did so after coming across Willis J. Gertsch’s name on the cover of a book about spiders. (Gertsch later wrote to White thanking him for a copy of Charlotte’s Web and informing him that his young daughter had transferred her barnyard affiliation from goats to pigs.) White’s letter to Nabokov has never before been published, though it was included in a 1999 exhibit at the New York Public Library and was mentioned in Stacy Schiff’s biography of Véra, Nabokov’s wife.


For Nabokov, White’s gracious, charming note was an occasion not only to highlight his penchant for some of The New Yorker’s stylistic bêtes noires but also to express an odd bit of animus toward a third party, the zoologist Alexander Petrunkevitch. Petrunkevitch was the son of a founder of the Russian Constitutional Democratic Party who in 1908 was sentenced to several months of imprisonment along with Nabokov’s father, another member of the “Kadets,” as party members were called, for protesting the dissolution of the newly empowered Russian legislature. (Nabokov’s father and Petrunkevitch senior appear together in several group photos.) Alexander, twenty-four years older than Vladimir, emigrated to Germany at the start of the century, married an American, and eventually became a professor of zoology at Yale, where he charmed students with his entomological exuberance and his adventures in idiom: “The lobster stomach, she pumps all time long.”

Petrunkevitch was interested in literature as well as science. He translated Byron into Russian and Pushkin into English, and in 1919 published with his wife a translation of the oldest surviving literary work written in Russian, the thirteenth-century “Igor Tale,” forty-one years before Nabokov would do the same. In the New Yorker profile Nabokov mentions, the staff writer Eugene Kinkead goes spider hunting in New Haven with Petrunkevitch, describing these outings in ways that were echoed twenty years later by journalists tagging along on Nabokov’s butterfly expeditions in Switzerland.

There may have been something territorial about Nabokov’s suggestion that White turn elsewhere for advice, as though Nabokov were steering him away from an alternate, inferior version of himself. It may also be that Nabokov channeled some of his animosity toward this prominent double into the portrait and plot of his subsequent novel, Pnin, parts of which began appearing soon after in The New Yorker. Pnin revolves around the conflict between two émigré professors, one of whom has not fully assimilated—especially linguistically—into American life, while the other (the book’s narrator) has a perfect command of English. (Galya Diment, a professor at the University of Washington, insists that the title character was modeled on the historian Mark Szeftel, but as one of the characters suggests in the novel, there may be as many as seven Pnins on a single campus.)

In a scene that resembles one of Pnin at his kitchen sink near the end of Nabokov’s novel, the conclusion of Kinkead’s profile leaves the reader with a picture of Petrunkevitch cleaning up after one of his weekly teas:

Around six, the guests began to leave, one by one or in little groups. By the time darkness had fallen, Petrunkevitch was all alone. He turned off the Bunsen burners, put the tea things away, and stacked the dishes in the sink. Then he sat down at a table and got back to work on his spiders.

Five months after the exchange on spiders, Katharine White rejected Nabokov’s story “The Vane Sisters,” which went on to become one of his most famous, published several years later in The Hudson Review. In large part its fame is predicated on its sly ending. The story is related by a callous French professor whose narration is haunted to the point of coauthorship by two dead women; they affix their signatures in an acrostic contained in the final paragraph. (“This particular trick can be tried only once in a thousand years of fiction,” Nabokov later noted.) Neither White nor anyone else at The New Yorker noticed the acrostic, and she expressed her disappointment that “in this case your style overwhelms the story, which in itself is rather light.”

White generally had an excellent understanding of Nabokov’s work. She championed stories such as “Signs and Symbols” and the reminiscences of childhood that would become chapters of Speak, Memory. But for years she had been urging him to rein in his showiness. In 1949 she wished that he were not so inclined to “overload [his] dice,” citing Harold Ross, The New Yorker’s editor in chief, who wasn’t fond of “writer-conscious” prose:  

perhaps, you learned your English first out of dictionaries (and while you were also learning Latin) and therefore perhaps you sometimes tend to use a word with a Latin root or roots rather than the Anglo-Saxon equivalent. Mr. Ross says that he would feel self-conscious and embarrassed to use all of your big words, especially since the New Yorker has always strived for simplicity and for the simple way of saying the hard thing.

This was a principle E. B. White would later enshrine in his contribution to The Elements of Style, in which he urged writers not to be “tempted by a twenty-dollar word when there is a ten-center handy, ready and able.”


Now Nabokov responded, explaining the story and revealing the acrostic:

All my stories are webs of style and none seems at first blush to contain much kinetic matter….You may argue that reading downwards, or upwards, or diagonally is not what an editor can be expected to do; but by means of various allusions to trick-reading I have arranged matters so that the reader almost automatically slips into this discovery, especially because of the abrupt change in style…. I am really very disappointed that you, such a subtle and loving reader, should not have seen the inner scheme of my story.

Katharine White stood firm: 

I think it’s fine to have your style a web, when your web is an ornament, or a beautiful housing, for the content of your text, as it was in ‘Conclusive Evidence,’ but a web can also be a trap when it gets snarled or becomes too involved, and readers can die like flies in a writer’s style if it is unsuitable for its matter.

The web analogy was not the only affinity between “The Vane Sisters” and Charlotte’s Web. Both are about females who write or edit without adequate credit for their work and must transmit their messages through mysterious signs.

A close reading of Pnin suggests that Nabokov took Katherine’s words, or some sense of them, to heart. At the end of its penultimate chapter, the afterglow of Pnin’s dinner party is darkened when he learns that his teaching contract will not be renewed in the coming year. He is about to be replaced by the verbally showy narrator, who is given to saying things like “he actually seemed to forehear the babe’s vagitus” and has been delighting in Pnin’s misfortunes since the start of the book. While washing up, Pnin drops a nutcracker into the sink and thinks he has broken a beautiful bowl he just received as a present. As he looks despairingly into the sink, the style and tone of the story change:

Gently he removed a broken goblet. The beautiful bowl was intact. He took a fresh dish towel and went on with his household work.

When everything was clean and dry, and the bowl stood aloof and serene on the safest shelf of a cupboard, and the little bright house was securely locked up in the large dark night, Pnin sat down at the kitchen table and, taking a sheet of yellow scrap paper from its drawer, unclipped his fountain pen. 

What has happened here? For just a couple of paragraphs Nabokov has muted the self-consciousness of his prose, suggesting Pnin’s eventual escape from the narrator. I had always understood this passage as a shift into the language of a fairy tale, even a children’s story. (The original version of this passage appeared in The New Yorker three years after Charlotte’s Web, which Nabokov had read and enthusiastically praised in a letter to Katharine, was published. There, Zuckerman’s barn, where “nothing bad could happen ever again in the world,” appears to be echoed meaningfully after Pnin puts the bowl safely up on its high shelf: a “sense of its security there communicated itself to his own state of mind, and he felt that ‘losing one’s job’ dwindled to a meaningless echo in the rich, round inner world where none could really hurt him.”) But against the backdrop of Nabokov’s editorial correspondence with the Whites, the almost childish language of Pnin’s resistance to the narrator becomes a parody of the advice Nabokov had been receiving from The New Yorker for years.

Parody seems absent, however, from the novel’s ending, when Pnin escapes one early morning in his automobile, “spurt[ing] up the shining road, which one could make out narrowing to a thread of gold in the soft mist where hill after hill made beauty of distance, and where there was simply no saying what miracle might happen.” Many novels, including Mary, Nabokov’s first, end with the departure of a hero, but here Nabokov may be channeling E. B. White once again. Stuart Little, a book Nabokov had enjoyed reading to his son, concludes with Stuart “climb[ing] into his car, and start[ing] up the road that led toward the north”:

The sun was just coming up over the hills on his right. As he peered ahead into the great land that stretched before him, the way seemed long. But the sky was bright, and he somehow felt he was headed in the right direction.

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