Vladimir Nabokov in the Berg Collection: An Introduction

by Rodney Phillips
Curator, Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature

Rough drafts, false scents, half explored trails, dead ends of inspiration, are of little intrinsic importance. An artist should ruthlessly destroy his manuscripts after publication, lest they mislead academic mediocrities into thinking that it is possible to unravel the mysteries of genius by studying canceled readings. In art, purpose and plan are nothing; only the results count.
Vladimir Nabokov (1899-1977), from the Introduction to Eugene Onegin (1964)

Much of Nabokov's "purpose and plan" has nevertheless survived, along with the results, and in July 1991, the Vladimir Nabokov Archive crossed the Atlantic, from Montreux, Switzerland, to New York City, to take up residence in The New York Public Library's Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature. That crossing was the culmination of an undertaking that began in November 1982 when then Berg Collection curator Lola L. Szladits inquired of the writer's widow, Véra Nabokov, as to the availability of the collection. Eight years later, both Véra and Lola were gone, and the Library sent me, along with Lisa Browar, then Assistant Director for Rare Books and Manuscripts, to investigate the Nabokov Archive in Montreux. The experience proved to be one of the most memorable of my professional career.

Lisa and I were both astonished by our first view of the collection, amazed at its size and obvious organization (thanks to the efforts of Nabokov biographer Brian Boyd, following in Véra's footsteps). And when we found ourselves sharing our first meal along Lake Lucerne with a pale blue butterfly that alit on our table, we took it as an omen. The next few days we combed through representative boxes of the Archive, continually amazed at the richness and depth of the collection and especially intrigued by the magical, early metrical notebooks, among the first individual items we saw separated out. On our return to The New York Public Library, Lisa and I both advised in favor of acquisition of the Archive, and nearly a year later we found ourselves back in Montreux to oversee its packing and shipping.

Today, the collection is housed a world away, in the quiet and secure vault of the Berg Collection in The New York Public Library's Humanities and Social Sciences Library at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street, in the midst of a very busy New York City. The Archive, fully cataloged and available to qualified researchers, now occupies one hundred three-foot shelves and documents the life and work of this complex individual.

The collection begins with ten albums into which Nabokov meticulously transcribed fair copies of his early poems (1917-23), and another six albums kept by his mother, which include her transcriptions of his work and clippings of published poems and stories. The originals of these are now mostly lost or destroyed, due to the vicissitudes of revolution, war, and emigration. The earliest work in the writer's own hand is a poem composed in the summer of 1914, the manuscript of which is pasted into one of his mother's albums. Much of this early material in Russian remains unpublished.

The mature work in Russian is represented in part by typescripts of draft translations by the writer's son, Dmitri Nabokov, and others, heavily corrected by Vladimir Nabokov, for The Eye, Mary, Glory, and King, Queen, Knave. Of particular interest and value are copies of the first printed translations of Kamera obskura (Laughter in the Dark) and Despair, in which Nabokov has retranslated the text interlinearly. The Archive also includes some early notes for Pale Fire, though most of the material for that work resides at the Library of Congress. Lolita is represented in the NYPL Archive in two forms: the manuscript for Nabokov's own translation of the novel into Russian, and the complete version of his screenplay (the one not used by Stanley Kubrick for his 1962 film). Of primary importance are the materials Nabokov used to transform his memoir Conclusive Evidence into Speak, Memory in 1966.

As its centerpiece, the Archive preserves the manuscripts on index cards for his final novels, Ada, Transparent Things, and Look at the Harlequins! In addition, the Archive includes all the materials, used and unused, for a variety of collected editions such as Poems and Problems, A Russian Beauty, Tyrants Destroyed, Strong Opinions, Details of Sunset, Stikhi, and the posthumously published Lectures on Literature and Lectures on Russian Literature, for the classes he taught at Wellesley College and Cornell University. Many annotated books, magazines, and journals from Nabokov's library are included, most notably the heavily annotated copies of books he used for teaching. Of particular note is Nabokov's copy of Franz Kafka's The Metamorphosis, so heavily annotated that it constitutes almost a retranslation of the story.

One of the great treasures of the collection is a complete set of all of Nabokov's papers on butterflies, which have been bound into a volume with a dedicatory preface to his wife. Other lepidopteral materials include the unpublished manuscript and drawings for his magnum opus, The Butterflies of Europe.

The correspondence section of the Archive consists of nearly 50 linear feet of files, including family, business, and personal correspondence; Nabokov's own letters are represented by carbons, drafts, and photocopies. The largest correspondence files are those with his parents and wife, and with his publishers, McGraw-Hill, Putnam's, Henry Holt, and New Directions, and with translators Michael Glenny and Michael Scammell. Edmund Wilson's letters to Nabokov, and copies of Nabokov's to Wilson, are also included; the letters were published posthumously as The Nabokov-Wilson Letters.

Now, eight years after the Vladimir Nabokov Archive's arrival at its new home in New York City, the Library is pleased to commemorate the centenary of the author's birth with an exhibition on view from April 23 through August 21, 1999. Spanning more than fifty years of a writing life in three languages - French, Russian, and English - on three continents, and celebrating the creative life of one of the most magnificent writers in any language on any continent, the selection of materials from the Archive included in the exhibition, some of which are pictured in this website, offers an anniversary salute to the power of memory, triumphing, at last, over loss and emigration.

The exhibition on view at the Humanities and Social Sciences Library is dedicated to the memory of Lola L. Szladits (1923-1990), second curator of the Berg Collection, whose dream it was for the Library to house the Vladimir Nabokov Archive and whose generous bequest to the Berg Collection made possible its acquisition.

The four sections of this online exhibition correspond to significant periods of Nabokovís life in four parts of the world: Russia, Europe, the United States, and Switzerland. Materials in each section are organized into groupings relating to specific works by Nabokov, his contributions to The New Yorker, his correspondence with Edward Wilson, his university teaching, etc. Clicking on the grouping titles will lead you to text about the subject, as well as to a checklist of the items in that grouping that are on display in the exhibition at The New York Public Library.

Russia 1899-1919 | Europe 1919-1939 | U.S. 1940-1960 | Switzerland 1960-1977
TOC | Introduction | Berg Collection | About Nabokov Under Glass | Suggested Reading | NYPL Home

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