Nabokov’s Dreams

John Lanchester

There’s a joke, attributed to Oscar Wilde, that the most frightening sentence in the English language is: ‘I had a very interesting dream last night.’ If Wilde did say that, it’s a safe bet that he wouldn’t have liked Insomniac Dreams, because this short book is focused entirely on the dream-life of Vladimir Nabokov.[*] It has at its heart a record of dreams that Nabokov kept for eighty days from October 1964, while he was living at the Montreux Palace Hotel – in terms of his books, after he had finished Pale Fire and before he wrote Ada. He recorded the dreams on waking, using the set-up he employed for writing his books, in his neat pencil handwriting, on lined A6 index cards.

The usual reason people take an interest in their own dreams is to divine their meaning. That wasn’t Nabokov’s motive. The inspiration for his project came from An Experiment with Time, a book by J.W. Dunne, published in 1927 and renowned in its day. Dunne’s theory was that time doesn’t only run forwards in a linear direction, and that, as a result, dreams can contain glimpses of the future. Not that dreams, in Dunne’s view, are only predictive: they mix past events, future events, and random mental fluff. The experiment of recording dreams at the moment of waking was to get evidence for precognition, through a contemporaneous record of dream-predictions which subsequently turn out to be accurate. An Experiment seems kooky now, but H.G. Wells took an interest, and so did the Tolkien/Lewis Inklings, and J.B. Priestley, among others. Dunne was an aeronautical engineer and former soldier, and part of the appeal of his book was probably that he dressed his speculations with the correct amount of scientific apparatus. It is also evident from reading him that he believed his own theory – so he might be a visionary and a fool and a crank, but he wasn’t a liar or a con man.

On that basis, Nabokov gave it a go. He already had a long-standing interest in dreams, which often crop up in his fiction. Gennady Barabtarlo, the Nabokov specialist who compiled, edited and wrote the commentary for Insomniac Dreams, puts together a chapter of dream-extracts from the fiction, divided into categories – filial, precognitive, erotic, ‘oneiric realism’ and so on. The varieties of dreams in the fiction are unsurprisingly similar to those in the dream-diary. Barabtarlo puts the dreams, and the project of recording them, in the context of Nabokov’s troubles with insomnia, which were spectacular. Nabokovians have long known that their hero had problems with sleep – only a lifelong insomniac could have made the beautiful, terrible observation of Transparent Things, ‘night is always a giant’ – but the specifics are grim even so. ‘My usual extent of sleep (apart from periodical insomnias), even if induced by more or less potent pills (at least thrice daily) is a 3+2+1 or at best 4+2+2 or at frequent worst 2+1+1+2+1-hour affair with intervals (+) of hopelessness and nervous urination.’ This doesn’t sound like much fun at all. A night’s sleep:

August 21 [1975]: Sample of a ‘good’ night. Fell asleep around 8.45 slept till 8.45 with the following toilet interruptions at

10.05 pm
11.05
12.35
1.40 am
2.20
3.45
5.35
6.20
8.45

Let the record show that, on the evidence of the photograph on the book’s inside jacket flap, Nabokov’s sleep hygiene was poor. There he is, writing in bed! Vladimir: bed is for sleep! Sleep Hygiene 101! Another ignored lesson from Sleep Hygiene 101 is don’t look at the time. But you can see that sleep and waking blurred into each other; he might well have been too knackered to write anywhere else. It’s tiring to fight a giant.

There is no single key to Nabokov’s dream-life: Insomniac Dreams doesn’t produce a conclusion or even have a central thesis, and is none the worse for that. There are no revelations in the dreams, not least because we already knew what his dreams were like from his books. As for how the experiment went, he found a couple of bits of evidence for what he thought was precognition, but these seem thin – for instance, a TV programme that appeared to have been foretold by a dream three nights earlier. This doesn’t convince, not least because, as Barabtarlo points out, the dream also echoes (as Nabokov didn’t realise) one of his own short stories from decades before.

Does it make sense to think that a great writer will have more interesting dreams than the rest of us? Barabtarlo, though he can be unbuttoned (‘the English term “novel”, a secondhand Italian import, is feckless’), is careful not to make that claim, correctly I think. The dreams are quite difficult to read, not through any density of prose or complication of thought, but because they are not really written – they are not finished prose. Comparison with the inevitably dazzling extracts from Nabokov’s fiction make this point. The dreams are not so much fragments of writing as fragments of not-writing or near-writing or pre-writing. Another odd thing about the project is that Nabokov not only had no interest in the interpretation of dreams, he was specifically and explicitly opposed to it. The same was true of Dunne – which is one of the reasons Nabokov was attracted to the Experiment. That’s fine, but a large part of the relevance of dreams, for people who are interested in them, is in their interpretation: that’s where the meaning is to be located. Abandon the idea of interpreting a dream, and what of interest is left?

I may be biased. A reader’s attitude to this whole project will be influenced by her attitude to literary dreams. I’m neutral to sceptical. ‘I don’t read dreams,’ a critic (a good critic) once told me flatly. He meant, dream sequences in novels. Every time I come across a dream sequence in a novel I remember that remark and am tempted to skip. In brutal truth, if you do, you don’t miss much. Cyril Connolly once said that if we threw out every novel written by a writer under the age of thirty, it would be ‘amusing to note how little is lost’. If you skip dreams in prose fiction, how much are you really missing, in terms of the canon? I can’t think of a single great sequence set in a dream in any major novel. Pretty much by definition, dreams don’t tell you much about plot or character, so their primary function in fiction is as mood-music. This is often how Nabokov uses them, as a form of emotional syncopation, a kind of psychological off-beat. It may be that if a book is having to resort to a character’s dream for mood-music, something about its daylight life is not fully resolved.

That said, the dream diaries have their charm, meaning, they have Nabokov’s charm. His tendency to act out versions of his loftiest, lordliest self – a ‘set of attitudes, prejudices, habits, remarks, performances which is highly visible, highly stylised, and which I find dull and narrow’, as Michael Wood put it – is not present. Instead we find him struggling with sleep, dreaming about appointments in museums and zoology departments (an entire category of what he called ‘professional dreams’) and remembering his father: ‘It is odd that my father who was so good-natured, and gay, is always so morose in my dreams.’ He watches rubbish television with Véra, he has a dream in which ‘somebody discussed “anti-Semitism in the world of waiters”,’ he has another in which Pelé shoots a football and he lunges to save it (once a goalkeeper, always a goalkeeper) and, in real life not the dream, almost breaks his hand against the bedside table.

The book needs that charm, because there is otherwise a sense in it of the Montreux years. In the mid-1990s I went on a pilgrimage to the Montreux Palace Hotel, curious to have a look at the place where Nabokov lived for the last fifteen years of his life. I found three things: first, an amazing lack of any reference to the great writer whose long residence there was the hotel’s single biggest claim to fame. (I wonder if they’ve fixed that by now? From the general vibe of comfortable philistinism, I wouldn’t bet on it. There’s no mention of Nabokov on the hotel website.) Second, it made me realise just how important butterflies were to Nabokov – you notice them straightaway in the lakeside and mountainside setting. (Three days later I met my Italian publisher, who had known Nabokov. The great man once told him he had never been to Venice. The publisher expressed amazement but Nabokov just shrugged and said: ‘No butterflies.’) Third, the main impression the hotel interior gave was of not being anywhere. It was a version of placelessness, or non-place. That, I think, was what appealed to Nabokov: if he could never get back the world and the language he had lost in exile, he could live in the most luxurious and comfortable version possible of nowhere. I can see why he did that, but I think it contributed something to the airless atmosphere of the books he wrote in Montreux.

I once had a plan to write a radio play imagining Nabokov getting stuck in a lift at the Palace with the heavy rock band Deep Purple, who were recording in Montreux when the casino complex burned down in 1971. The fire was commemorated in their best-known song, ‘Smoke on the Water’, arguably the most famous riff in all rock music. My ambition has changed over time: instead of writing it, I’d like someone else to write it: ideally, Tom Stoppard. Useful starting point for the stuck-lift conversation: Roger Glover, the band’s bassist, said that the title ‘Smoke on the Water’ came to him in a dream.

[*] Insomniac Dreams by Vladimir Nabokov, edited by Gennady Barabtarlo. (Princeton. 202 pp., £19.95, November 2017, 978 0 691 16794 7).