In Nabokov’s witty and disarming ‘Ballad of Longwood Glen’, published in the New Yorker in 1957, shy, dreamy Art Longwood climbs a tree on a family picnic to retrieve his son’s ball – and carries on climbing:

Up and up Art Longwood swarmed and shinned,
And the leaves said yes to the questioning wind.
What tiaras of gardens! What torrents of light!
How accessible ether! How easy flight!
His family circled the tree all day.
Pauline concluded: ‘Dad climbed away.’
None saw the delirious celestial crowds
Greet the hero from earth in the snow of the clouds.
Mrs Longwood was getting a little concerned.
He never came down. He never returned.

Something in Art – an artful mystery, an unnameable quality, a quirk of character, something – divides his fate from that of his picnicking, small-town loved ones and ‘removes him’, in Brian Boyd’s words, ‘from life into a special and triumphant kind of death’. Never as transparent as he seems, Nabokov does not elucidate Art’s ‘something’: it stays as unvouchsafed as the secret that V. is waiting for from his dying brother at the end of The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, the word that is supposed to explain everything. So we’re left with journey and question – Art’s climb, V.’s quest – unanswered. Anything can happen: all we’re allowed to do is to partake joyfully of both, of their actuality, their delightful particularity and unconstrained timescape.

Nabokov’s poem came back to me after a train journey to Vichy in central France a month ago. The occasion was a small literary festival, a sort of annual celebratory Mass for the town’s only literary son. His name, coincidentally, has a made-up Nabokovian ring – as if once in a small explosion of municipal creativity the town hit on the idea of dreaming up a great writer to mitigate certain embarrassing historical facts.Valery Larbaud (1881-1957) sounds as fictitious as Vivian Darkbloom or V. Cantaboff; but Larbaud existed, as poet, novelist, critic, translator, born in Vichy, son of an excessive mother and a quiet pharmacist father, who made a pile from discovering and bottling the mineral springs of Saint-Yorre and then died. Valery was an enviably endowed son, both in wealth and natural advantages. He made it his business from his teenage years onwards to journey obsessively (first-class), to dominate other literatures thanks to a fantastic receptivity to their languages, to turn the countries he wandered through into exquisite poetry, half-Baudelaire, half-Baedeker; and, in the course of falling in and out of love with their women, found himself with reprehensible frequency in situations that could only be resolved by boarding yet another train or ship. If there was something of Baudelaire about Larbaud, there was also a touch of Terry-Thomas.

Larbaud’s best-known work is probably the novel Fermina Marquez, about a Colombian beauty who sows sentimental-erotic havoc among the students at a boys’ boarding school – the missing link, one might say, between The Red and the Black and The Catcher in the Rye. But his most interesting creation, introduced in 1908 with the publication of Poèmes par un riche amateur, was the blithe, exotic, multimillionaire A.O. Barnabooth, his Active alter ego, a precocious entrant in the impersonation games of Modernist authorship. Barnabooth was invented on his first trip to London after a visit to the Barnes branch of Boots the Chemist. Poems by a Rich Amateur was the pilot light of French Modernism; it was also a provocation and manifesto, and the young Valery’s camouflaged revenge on a stupid, authoritarian mother who had obliged him to accept legal control of his inheritance.

Je veux faire tout ce qui est justement défendu
Je veux me plonger dans l’infâmie
Comme dans un lit très doux
Ah, je suis amoureux du mal!

                          ‘L’Eterna Voluttà’

The punk-Baudelairean tantrums were undermined, however, by the delirium of escape, by the trains de luxe and their ‘Corridors of gilded leather’, by the quick succession of figures, places, kisses; and by Larbaud’s understanding that every wanderlust that turns into a journey becomes a landscape which necessarily turns back into memory’s timescape. We can’t return – but the poet summons the blessedness of movement with a particularity entirely suited to the onset of our century of science, wars and exile:

J’ai senti pour la première fois toute la douceur de vivre,
Dans une cabine du Nord-Express, entre Wirballen et Pskow ...
Ah! il faut que ces bruits et que ce mouvement
Entrent dans mes poèmes et disent
Pour moi ma vie indicible, ma vie
D’enfant qui ne veut rien savoir, sinon
Espérer éternellement des choses vagues.


His poetic subjects show no prejudice: he must be the only poet – French or English – to have written lines on ‘A November morning near Abingdon’, ‘Madame Tussaud’s’ and ‘Weston-super-Mare’ (‘Oh! comme la pluie les rend sages’). His world seemed to offer itself in verse-ready state: a disused railway station at Cahors, a woman in Kharkov offering a small boy a drink, the sound of maids’ voices calling through the morning, ‘one of those moments swollen with health, one of those cruel moments when one is truly oneself’. His urban alexandrines are uniquely his:

Après avoir aimé des yeux dans Burlington Arcade
Je redescends Piccadilly à pied, doucement.
O bouffées de printemps mêlées à des odeurs d’urine,
Entre la grille du Green Park et la station des cabs,
Combien vous êtes émouvantes!

Lorsque je serais mort depuis quelques années ...
Puissé-je être une main fraîche sur quelque front!
Sur le front de quelqu’un qui chantonne en voiture
Au long de Brompton Road, Marylebone ou Holborn,
Et regarde en songeant à la littérature
Les hauts monuments noirs dans I’air épais et jaune.

This year is the 40th anniversary of Larbaud’s death. At Vichy there was talk of his other activities – as essayist, fictional miniaturist (Proust called his short stories, Enfantines, ‘my favourite book’), spinner of literary pranks and fancies. This wealthy schoolboy who never grew up was a major reader of major writers, an intelligent prefacer and – an inspired variation on the Vichy theme – an unflagging literary collaborator: he translated Arnold Bennett, Butler, Coleridge, Landor and Whitman, championed Faulkner and Unamuno, supervised Auguste Morel’s translation of Ulysses. He was – that extinct species – an homme de lettres. And a man of letters: his correspondence with Gide, Proust, Joyce and Claudel, among others, runs to many volumes.

In 1934, for Christmas, Larbaud sent all his friends a poem entitled ‘La Neige’. It mixes with promiscuous delight all the languages he ever soaked up:

Un año mas und iam eccoti mit uns again
Pauvre et petit on the graves dos nossos amados édredon
E pure piously tapàudolos in their sleep
Dal pallio glorios das virgens und infants ...

And so on across the breadth of Europe, to the Carpathians and back again: at first blush dandyish, but the poem is more subtle than that, becoming all interesting shades and hushed musical patterns. ‘La Neige’ was Larbaud’s last work. Shortly afterwards, walking in his garden in Paris, disaster struck. He suffered a thundering stroke and fell victim to what is called Locked-In Syndrome. For the next 22 years, until his death in 1957, this cultivated, restless nomad sat in an armchair in silence.

It would have been fascinating to hear what Larbaud could have said about his condition if the techniques of speech therapy had been more advanced. He slowly recovered his ability to read, but was unable to communicate except by an occasional nod or shake of the head. Jean-Dominique Bauby’s recent account of his own brainstem disaster, The Diving-Bell and the Butterfly,* ‘dictated’ by blinking his one active eyelid, gives an overwhelming idea of the shape of the locked-in universe: a place with the atmosphere more of a moon-walk than of a deep-sea dive, where life’s possibilities have been left behind, at a distance as nearly unconquerable as that of the Earth’s ‘blue orange’ seen from Apollo 13. It would also be interesting to know how the overlooked poet made the journey to Bauby’s tiny bookshelf in the naval hospital at Berck-sur-Mer. Seneca, Zola, Chateaubriand – and Valery Larbaud; once you start looking, he keeps cropping up.

Bauby and Larbaud’s last, almost post-humous journeys are not ones we can partake of joyfully. Although Bauby died mercifully 16 months after his stroke, it is beyond imagining to visualise what Larbaud’s 22 years must have been like. But there is another remarkable episode parallel to him in his armchair; one that has never been clarified. It is to do with Larbaud and the big shot himself.

Nabokov’s brush with French Modernism when he first read Proust developed into a full-blown phase with his move to France in 1937. Two years later, in Paris, ‘the first little throb’ of Lolita went though him when he was laid up with neuralgia. He and Larbaud never met: among any number of reasons, Larbaud was already immobile. But they had friends in common: Joyce and other Paris figures like Jean Paulhan, the poet Jules Supervielle and Sylvia Beach. I had once read a story of Larbaud’s that seemed Nabokovian in texture, but didn’t think twice. If you tap Larbaud, he chimes with plenty of others. But when I mentioned this by chance to the novelist Michel Déon in Vichy, he suggested I read Larbaud’s essays, and one in particular.

In Paris I tracked down the essays. Back in London, the single reference to Larbaud I was able to find in any text on Nabokov was a letter to a Professor John Kenneth Simon at the University of Illinois, sent from Montreux in February 1971, in which Nabokov says he does not remember ‘having ever read anything by Valery Larbaud – even in my youth when I absorbed a lot of contemporaneous French stuff’.

Why was Professor Simon asking? Because in Jaune, Bleu, Blanc, a collection of Larbaud’s essays published in 1927, there is a series of sketches in which the traveller wanders through his passion for girls’ names. Spain, he writes, has the most varied and beautiful: names embellished by diminutives capable of expressing every degree of age and intimacy. And then this:

Lolita est une petite fille; Lola est en âge de se marier; Dolores a trente ans; Doña Dolores a soixante ans ...

Compare those cadences with the second paragraph of Humbert’s confession:

She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.

‘Pour tout le monde: Doña Dolores; pour moi seul: Lolita.’ If only Professor Simon (as it appears he didn’t) had pursued the matter. Nabokov’s reply is a masterpiece of amused evasion: what does he mean by saying that ‘from my Pushkin studies I know that the most spectacular parallel readings do not always meet at the points where We find them’? The more he says, the more he gives away. He quotes page references from Larbaud’s complete works, as though they are to hand, then, admitting to an eerie resemblance, indulges in a quickfire interrogation of his own. ‘But who, au fond, is your “aficionado”? Humbert? My reader?’ This isn’t serious either. It is a typically cheerful, obscuring malarkey. Decoded, I think it reads: Okay, pal, you’ve got me.

At Vichy a scrap of hearsay came to light: a French or German journalist who went to Montreux in the Seventies had apparently discovered a copy of Larbaud’s Oeuvres complètes (Pléiade edition), well thumbed, on Nabokov’s shelves. I drew a blank on this. But there is another textual question. If Nabokov did come across Larbaud when confined to bed in 1939 – or some time between settling in France and 1949, when he wrote the first chapter of Lolita – did he also read Larbaud’s 1923 short story ‘Beauté, mon beau souci ...’? Set in Chelsea, ‘ivy and glass and everywhere the pale, delicate colour of bricks beneath the soot’, this is the sensual, autobiographical story of Marc Fournier, a wealthy Frenchman who, calmly conducting an affair with his housekeeper, falls in love with her 14-year-old daughter, Queenie.

There was a marvellous new name in the world: Queenie. Why are certain names so beautiful? Who can explain the charm there is in them that makes one never tire of saying them out loud when one is alone, and repeating them in one’s head in company, and which sometimes makes us even write them down in the margins of a notebook or the pages of a diary, with great care, one letter at a time, just to be able to look at them?

Queenie is lost to Marc by his negligence. Larbaud’s story, both a homage to the secret transition from girlhood to womanhood and a self-examination of male vanity, is structurally quite different from Humbert Humbert’s autobiography. But there is more than a flavour of the ‘subliminal co-ordinate’ in that passage, and in the domestic situation and the personal. Edith, Queenie’s mother, is also a widow, also dies, also possesses Charlotte Haze’s irritating appetite for tepid ideas; and then there is the decreed time-gap between older man and nymphet.

Marc thinks ‘an ocean of blue thoughts’: ‘a blue-sea wave’ swells under Humbert’s heart. Humbert has a ‘dark romantic European way’ in big Haze’s eyes: Marc is ‘Continental ... mysterious, disconcerting’. Lolita possesses a procuress called Edith. Humbert’s great-grandfather, like Marc, deals in silk; in both, a mask-motif, and gastric gurglings that Nabokov calls a ‘voice’, Larbaud ‘the only human voice that doesn’t lie’. ‘Parallel readings’, of course. Nabokov invented America, Nabokov invented ‘my Lolita’. But to re-put his own question: did she have a precursor? She did, indeed she did.

What might Larbaud have thought? The rich amateur was in his last year when, up to its neck in the mire of Suez, the French Government agreed to show solidarity with the Home Office by banning the Olympia Press edition of Lolita. By January 1957 l’affaire ‘Lolita’ was in full swing. Charming, sweet-tempered, gracious, easily amused, above envy, had he been able to speak Larbaud would probably have reaffirmed his belief that writing was a process of quotation, adaptation, appropriation – and plagiarism – and nodded the questioner towards another essay from his collection ‘Sous l’invocation de Saint Jérôme’:

‘Where did you get that from?’ ‘Where did he get that from?’ These are the questions I always want to ask when I hear or read a literary work worthy of the name, by which I mean one whose attraction makes me want to hear it or read it a second time. And ‘where did I get that from?’ is a question I ask myself, too, each time – that is to say, pretty rarely – I don’t know where I ‘got that’.

It’s impossible not to like the spirit of a man who said throughout a tragically curtailed career that literature is never one person’s effort alone but a ‘collective work, like the cathedrals’.

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