Orally a cripple: Nabokov’s dental woes

Sometime last year I picked up a copy of Dear Bunny, Dear Volodya, a collection of correspondence between Vladimir Nabokov and Edmund Wilson, but it wound up at the bottom of a stack and I only recently pulled it out. (The pile teetered until I reorganized a few books at the very top. The whole thing will probably collapse the next time a cat brushes against it.)

In his first letter, dated November 12, 1940, Wilson compliments a review Nabokov wrote for The New Republic, and then instructs him “do please refrain from puns, to which I see you have a slight propensity. They are pretty much excluded from serious journalism here.”

Just over a month later, Nabokov sends another letter admiring and criticizing Wilson’s To the Finland Station. He slips in at least one pun: “And now we come to Ilyitch — and here I itch (sorry).” And he includes a review of another book (Slava Bohu. the Story of the Dukhobors, by J.F.C. Wright). “If you find the last sentence (about “beggar” and “bugger”) superfluous,” he writes, “just leave it out.” Wilson let that part stand. Here’s the last paragraph:

An irritating feature of the book is Mr. Wright’s dismal trick of sticking in Russian words, all of which are misspelled, or misplaced, or ridiculously wrong. It is always rather perilous for a writer to try to toy with a foreign idiom. I like to recall the case of the famous Russian writer Herzen who, living in Putney and knowing very little English, illustrated a brilliant essay on the Britisher’s innate contempt for poverty by the unfortunate remark that the worst invective commonly heard in London was the word “begger.”

(I wonder: what would Lolita be without Humbert Humbert’s puns?)

For purely selfish reasons, I delighted particularly in a letter (dated November 23, 1943) that chronicles the aftermath of Nabokov’s multi-tooth extraction:

some of them had little red cherries — abscesses — and the man in white was pleased when they came out whole, together with the crimson ivory. My tongue feels like somebody coming home and finding his furniture gone. The plate will only be ready next week — and I am orally a cripple.

In his notes, editor Simon Karlinsky compares this section of the letter to a passage from Pnin (chapter 2, section 4):

A warm flow of pain was gradually replacing the ice and wood of the anesthetic in his thawing, still half-dead, abominably martyred mouth…. 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, climing 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.


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