A warm flow of pain was gradually replacing the ice and wood of the anesthetic in his thawing, still half-dead, abominably martyred mouth. After that, during a few days he was in mourning for an intimate part of himself. It surprised him to realize how fond he had been of his teeth. His tongue, a fat sleek seal, used to flop and slide so happily among the familiar rocks, checking the contours of a battered but still secure kingdom, plunging from cave to cove, climbing this jag, nuzzling that notch, finding a shred of sweet seaweed in the same old cleft; but now not a landmark remained, and all there existed was a great dark wound, a terra incognita of gums which dread and disgust forbade one to investigate.
– Vladimir Nabokov (1957)
Ha. This reminds me of getting my four wisdom teeth taken out last summer. I was hopped up on laughing gas and numb-er than a tongue left out in the cold, wandering the halls of Kaiser Permanente on Broadway in Oakland to pick up something or other medication, when a passersby looked upon me in shock and quickly ushered me into a single-serving restroom. I looked at my reflection in the mirror and realized I had gashes of blood streaming down my chin in two gory rivulets. Cotton rounds stuffed into my fresh crimson coves, I would have handily won the Miss American Vampire (chubby bunny) contest or been mistaken for a psychotic killer (squirrel).
Pnin was written in English rather than Nabokov’s native Russian, and contrary to popular belief, it is credited with his initial success, not Lolita, which was published one year later in the U.S. rife with controversy over its illicit subject (originally published in Paris 1955). There are lots of meandering, banal chunks to this book, but also lyrical gems throughout such as the metaphor above. My interest in Nabokov was rekindled when I read about the recent publication of Letters to Véra, a compilation of romantic missives written to his wife. For a creative type to admit his only source of angst is “the impossibility of assimilating, swallowing, all the beauty in the world”, I figured that such is a mind worth encountering again (I read Lolita ten years ago.). Writing every day is a long-abandoned ritual for most, and even moreso, writing declaratively to someone you cherish. The reason for which I have kept every love letter I have ever received. What romance is there to a fraught digital correspondence? Easily blocked, distilled, deleted. Letters are the physical manifestations of an intimate piece of ourselves, memorialized by handwriting, instrument and ink, fingerprint and scent. Like teeth they will eventually leave us, but their imprint on us and hopefully another, remain.
(You can read the NY Times Letters to Véra book review here.)
Any other Nabokov readers out there? I also have Pale Fire sitting on my shelf. Shout out to my dear friend Miles (whom I’ve known since the 7th grade) for mailing them to me.
xo your friend alice
you are the only person I can talk with about the shade of a cloud, about the song of a thought—and about how, when I went out to work today and looked a tall sunflower in the face, it smiled at me with all of its seeds.
Location: Tokyo, Japan