Sunday, March 15, 2020

Insomiac Dreams: Experimenting with Time by Vladimir Nabokov (2018).

In his 1989 graphic novel From Hell, Alan Moore posed a serious, yet out of the ordinary question to the reader.  “What is the fourth dimension”?  It was and remains an out-of-left-field topic to bring up for discussion in the midst of a narrative that was already in danger of careening away from all the comforts of the norm.  From there, Moore takes the reader on a kind of guided, mini-history tour into a topic brought up by Charles Howard Hinton in a book whose title is the very question that we’re being asked.  What is the Fourth Dimension?  The topic itself is unfamiliar to the great majority of people.  Therefore it has no choice in the matter, except to come off as strange at best, or else just sound like a bunch of nonsense.  You can't expect familiarity where new acquaintances are concerned.  Just as you can't expect old minds in young heads.

This lack of a familiarity was never enough to deter a writer like Moore from taking a deep dive into the subject with all the passion of a true enthusiast.  Nor is the topic limited solely to his work on Jack the Ripper.  Hinton’s Fourth Dimension, the area of Time, has made numerous appearances in others works by the author.  According to John Semley, from an article published in Maclean’s:

“It is, perhaps, a heady idea: that time itself constitutes its own dimension, its passage perceptible to humans while its grander design remains hidden out of view. And yet Alan Moore is the perhaps the most conspicuously heady of comics authors, equal parts deconstructionist, postmodernist, and bug-eyed mystic oddball. The view that history possesses a discrete but invisible “architecture” (as it’s described in Moore and Eddie Campbell’s Jack the Ripper comic From Hell) crops up repeatedly throughout his work, as it does in his new non-graphic novel Jerusalem”.

Semley is also quick to point out a detail that is “curiouser and curiouser”.  The exploration of the nature, dimensions, and possible functions of time has not been limited in history to just guys like Moore, or even to authors of fiction.  According to Semley, an entire series of diverse names ranging from physicists like Einstein to authors like Vonnegut and Thomas Pynchon have made up just a small handful on the list of notables who've tried to grapple with the subject.  The purpose of this essay is to take a closer look at two other men who tried to grapple with time’s other kingdom.  One was a physicist like Einstein, the other was often mistaken for a pervert.  

I don't blame those who turn away in disgust.  I also can't pin a fault on anyone with no other choice than to ask who the hell am I even talking about?  Vladimir Nabokov might exist today as a name on the tip of the tongue.  He's supposed to be famous, or something, but for what?  A few of the more bookish types might ask if he wasn't that old perv who wrote a book about the same?  The text they're thinking of is called Lolita.  It was known as a "successful scandal" in its day, and even a synopsis of its subject matter is enough to turn away the most dedicated of bookworms.  I know that's true, I still don't care to go near it.  The strangest part is that the author of a book like that seemed to have nothing in common with its contents.

Vladimir Nabokov first saw the light of day in April, 1899, on the turn of a new century in St. Petersburg.  He was born into an affluent household, complete with servants, a nanny, a quaint little country estate, and a lawyer/statesman for a father.  Nabokov's own words describe his early years as a time out of a fairy tale.  At least that is the constant, over-arching impression given off by his prose.  He was also something of a precocious lad, often given to pause and examine various persons, places, and things that caught his interest.  This kind of behavior makes sense from at least one angle.  If you're going to be a writer for a living, it helps to know how to gather material for your work based on observation, and Nabokov was a life-long stickler for reading the details.

The early interest in literature was combined with a fascination for the natural world.  He became a devoted butterfly collector, and his hobby soon became a part-time professional occupation as the writer could add recognition as a lepidopterist to his list of achievements.  The most interesting aspect that his scientific explorations held for his literary endeavors, however, is what it led Nabokov to conclude about the nature of reality.  It's not too much of a stretch to claim that the author's definitions of the real world were peculiar, to say the least.  A good example is provided from the following passage of his autobiography, Speak Memory, where he tries to grant the reader a suggestion of the very nature of time itself: "In the spiral form, the circle, uncoiled, unwound, has ceased to be vicious; it has been set free.  I thought this up when I was a schoolboy, and I also discovered that Hegel's triadic series (so popular in old Russia) expressed merely the essential spirality of all things in their relation to time.  Twirl follows twirl, and every synthesis is the thesis of the next series (265)".   

The closest author most of us could even begin to compare any of that to would, of course, be the tripped out panels of the graphic novels of Alan Moore.  I don't believe it is correct to say Nabokov is the literary equivalent of Moore.  There are too many stylistic and narrative differences for that.  A better way of thinking about it is to say that Moore and Nabokov may possibly be working in the same business, if not on the same office floor.  Either way, it is this mixture of the mundane interlaced with just a hint of the phantasmagorical that marks out Nabokov's approach to all his material, even if the events described are as prosaic as a couple moving to a new residence.

This fairy tale quality to VN's writing has not been lost on other critics.  Roger Ebert was one fan who picked up on this element.  "An odd thought occurred to me a few hours after I saw writer/director Wes Anderson's The Grand Budapest Hotel for the first time. It was that Anderson would be the ideal director for a film of Lolita, or a mini-series of Ada. Now I know that Lolita has been filmed, twice, but the fundamental problem with each version has nothing to do with ability to depict or handle risky content but with a fundamental misapprehension that Nabokov's famous novel took place in the "real world." For all the authentic horror and tragedy of its story, it does not. "I am thinking of aurochs and angels, the secret of durable pigments, prophetic sonnets, the refuge of art," Humbert Humbert, the book's monstrous protagonist/narrator, writes at the end of "Lolita." Nabokov created Humbert so Humbert might create his own world (with a combination of detail both geographically verifiable and stealthily fanciful), a refuge from his own wrongdoing (web)".

Likewise, Lila Azam Zanganeh notes the presence of this same folkloric element in her apt-titled study, The Enchanter.  "But I had expected to find enchanters and demons in Nabokov.  Shuddering magic.  The stuff of fairy-tales, "noble, iridescent creatures with translucent talons and mightily beating wings (xviii)".  Such is the apparent response Nabokov is able to leave with those readers who are able enough to find the garden path that leads them into being one of his fans.  My own way in was a lot more modest.  Though perhaps there is a sense in which it can be described as "somewhat out there".  I know it was off the beaten track.  I'm not sure if I took a dive right into the deep end, though for certain I've wound up in the kind of place where all the normal rules of life take an odd turn.

One of the first VN related books I picked up was a piece entitled Insomniac Dreams by Gennady Barabtarlo.  It wasn't a novel, and I'm not sure why they chose to stack it in the fiction section.  Either way, what I discovered on opening the pages was a curious form of journal.  The publication of the private diaries of famous writers is a common literary practice that I think goes as far back as the 1800s.  The earliest such publication I can recall belonged to an old timer name Samuel Pepys, and his journal dated from the 18th century.  However, what was between the covers of the book I picked up was less a standard record of a writer’s insights into life and the work of his own hands.  It was more like a very weird science experiment.

It’s when I try to describe the nature of Nabokov’s experiment that things get difficult.  Part of the reason is because of how strange it sounds, whether you try and say it out loud, or even just write it down.  In order to talk about the experiment, I have to discuss not one, but two authors.  In addition to Nabokov, this experiment concerns a man he never met, and who was long gone by the time it was attempted by the author of Lolita.  The other man’s name was John William Dunne.  He wrote a book quite a while back that acted as something of an inspiration for Nabokov.  He took Dunne’s book to heart and decided to try it out for himself.  
The diary that made up that experiment is the subject of Barabtarlo’s new book about the whole affair.  It's the secrets hidden in this private diary that makes up the main content for the book of Dreams under discussion here today.  I had no clue what to expect, and the results are hard to quantify.  The good news is I'm just here to give a fail or passing grade.  With any luck, however, there may still be a few morsels for thought along the way.     

The Dreamer.
It didn’t start with Nabokov, but with Dunne.  Up till he had a peculiar experience, Dunne was little more than a decorated and respected aeronautical engineer.  One of his wing designs almost helped revolutionize air travel.  The picture of the man before the incident occurred is perhaps as close as you could get at the time to a success story.  He had a career, a roof over his head he could keep, and best of all a wife and kids.  It was a good life, and Dunne welcomed it.  There was nothing about it he would have disturbed.  As far as he was concerned, everything was as right as a man could hope for.  It all changed with a series of dreams. 

It started out small, of course, as these sort of things tend to begin.  The first one involved a dream about a stopped watch.  Initially Dunne thought he was just recalling a moment earlier in the day during his sleep.  When he woke up, however, he discovered that the only time his watch could have malfunctioned was sometime after he woke up the next day.  It was a curious occurrence and Dunne wondered what it could mean, yet he never really did anything about it at first.  It was a series of nightmares that occurred during a tour of duty in Martinique during the First World War that set his entire life in a new direction. 

While encamped with his squad, Dunne dreamed he was in a blasted landscape.  The ground beneath him was beginning to crack and flake.  Underneath the broken earth came the unmistakable light and heat of a lava flow.  Dunne realized he was standing in the middle of a volcano, and it was set to erupt at any minute.  It’s difficult to tell here if there is, in fact, a break between one nightmare and the next, or if the whole sequence was in fact part of the same dream.  Either way, as Dunne tells it: “There followed a most distressing nightmare, in which I was at a neighboring island, trying to get the incredulous French authorities to dispatch vessels of every and any description to remove the inhabitants of the threatened island. I was sent from one official to another; and finally woke myself by my own dream exertions, clinging to the heads of a team of horses drawing the carriage of one “Monsieur le Maire,” who was going out to dine, and wanted me to return when his office would be open next day (34-5)”.

When he came back to waking life, everything seemed normal.  On the 8th of May, 1902, Mount Pelee erupted, taking 28,000 lives from the village of Saint-Pierre, which lived at its foot.  There was a certain window of time in which it could have been possible to evacuate all the people living in the danger zone of the surrounding area.  However, that was all just a dream.  The curious part is that the reality seemed to match Dunne’s vision.  

The young soldier knew, as a scientist, that he had to find some logical reason for why these pre-visions of events kept happening to him.  So, he decided to keep a journal of any and all dreams that floated through his mind while he slept.  To his surprise, the phenomena kept recurring.  Dunne would see the image of an event in his head, and later on the same mental picture would be reproduced in the reality outside his mind.  Dunne soon became fascinated by the regularity of these events.  While they were not like clockwork, it was possible to say that he was dealing with a regular series of phenomenal occurrences.  Dunne decided to see if friends and willing participants could replicate this same experiment.  He was able to compile enough dream diaries of similar occurrence, each with the same feature of seeing a moment in time before it happened in the real world.  Dunne was able to compile enough material from his experiment to enable him to publish it all in a book.   

He called it An Experiment with Time.  He used the text to set out his theories about the nature of time.  Like Einstein, he believed that time is not an immutable force of nature, and rather something that depends on the relative viewpoint of the observer.  In dreams, Dunne theorized, we are able, if we can, to enter a level of observation in which we can observe Hinton’s Four Dimensional architecture without being entirely limited by it.  His name for this theory was Serialism, and it’s difficult to know quite what to make of it from the vantage point of everyday life.  However, it does seem that Dunne’s ideas caught on at some level of popular culture.  

A great number of literary types were able to make great use of Dunne’s Serialism in their own artistic projects.  One of the latest authors who displayed a Dunnian influence, that I’ve been able to discover, was Malcolm Lowry, whose novel Under the Volcano is partly modeled on Dunne’s concept of time as multivalent.   Other writers who have taken a leaf from the Experiment were J.B. Priestly, Jorge Luis Borges, and it even made an appearance in Philippa Pearce’s novel, Tom’s Midnight Garden.  Even J.R.R. Tolkien tried to tackle the material in fictional form at one point.  There was one other literary scribe on whom Dunne seemed to exert a continuing influence aside from these others.  What makes it interesting is he’s not the sort of author you expect to take an interest in this kind of subject matter.  Then again, few people ever stopped to take a closer look at his work.  

The Writer.

When people think of Vladimir Nabokov, the last thing they tend to think about is the fantasy genre.  They also don’t equate him with ideas of time travel, or the normal tropes and conventions of the Gothic genre such as wraiths, phantasms, and messages from beyond.  As far as the popular culture is concerned, he’s one of those continental guys who write a lot about stuffy or decadent rich types going through the motions of their own personal illnesses.  He may be able to provide a prurient form of escapism, the kind reserved for old, Roman circuses, and 20th century geek shows.  Some may consider it a high form of art, though there’s no way he could ever be a household name.  This, in essence, seems to be what’s left of the popular impression of Nabokov.

I wonder what anyone holding this image of the author in their minds would know what to say or think if they turned to the first page of the first tale in The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov, and found themselves reading this: “The door knob creaked timidly, the flame of the runny candle tilted, and he hopped sidewise out of a rectangle of shadow, hunched, gray, powdered with the pollen of the frosty, starry night.  I knew his face - oh, how long I had known it!  His right eye was still in the shadows, the left peered at me timorously, elongated, smoky-green. The pupil glowed like a point of rust....That mossy-gray tuft on his temple, the pale-silver, scarcely noticeable eyebrow, the comical wrinkle near his whiskerless mouth - how all this teased and vaguely vexed my memory!  I got up. He stepped forward.  His shabby little coat seemed to be buttoned wrong - on the female side. In his hand he held a cap - no, a dark-colored, poorly tied bundle, and there was no sign of any cap....Yes, of course I knew him - perhaps had even been fond of him, only I simple could not place the where and the when of our meetings. And we must have met often, otherwise I would not have had such a firm recollection of those cranberry lips, those pointy ears, that amusing Adam's apple....” (3).

That passage came from Nabokov’s first published short story, The Wood Sprite.  To the uninitiated, it almost reads as if a hobbit or Keebler Elf had somehow wandered out of the pages of folklore and then somehow made its way into the middle of an old issue of The New Yorker, or maybe something a bit more upscale like Cosmopolitan.  Think of it as something along the lines of a James Thurber children’s yarn with a buried message about being exiled from country and home.  The effect of the whole thing is unusual to say the least, and it was written by the same guy who created the troubled Mr. Humbert.

My own views of Nabokov have sort of shifted the more I read and study him.  I can see why he remains so popular with the ivory tower/New Yorker crowd.  I just can’t help thinking they’ve barely begun to scratch the surface of things.  They seem too content to follow the author up to the point where he appears to reach their level and then grind to a halt.  Anything beyond their point just isn’t worth thinking of.  The trouble is sometimes Nabokov goes a lot further, and I don’t just mean that in terms of risqué, depraved, or any real kind of envelope pushing material.  I’m talking about something else.  He has a way of writing his stories that often makes them seem like intricate puzzles or riddles to be solved by the reader.  Part of it is this incredible way he has of stacking literary or cultural (Pop hadn’t quite come into its own during his time) allusions in even his college lecture courses.

It’s enough to say that I hope I can find another Nabokov project to talk about sometime in the future after this.  For now it’ll be enough to sketch out the basic idea I have about the way VN writes.  There seem to be exactly three components that appear in and unite all his work.  They are Exile, Otherworld, and Happiness.  These three themes can be taken and examined in isolation from one another.  However my fundamental conviction is that not only are they linked, they sort of go together to form a triadic sequence of themes that have their place in almost everything Nabokov ever wrote.  However, for the purposes of this review, it is the second theme that takes center stage in Barabtarlo’s book .

His wife’s term for it was “postustoronnost”.  A good translation roughly emerges as “otherworld”, or “otherworldly”.  It is here that we turn to the fantastic, fairy tale, and Gothic tropes that populate his work.  Critics like to focus in on either whatever political allegories can be discovered in the author’s work (placing their interests under the heading of Exile), or else they content themselves with the stylistic gameplay with which VN liked to construct all of his novels.  However I think Nabokov’s interests were more diverse than that.  I think he took an interest in the subject matter for its own value.  Perhaps the best study text for this theme is the aptly titled Nabokov’s Otherworld. 

Its central premise is that there is an underlying element of the supernatural in everything the author ever wrote.  V. Alexandrov even goes so far as to claim that it was Nabokov’s main driving concern as an artist.  It’s an interesting statement to make, and the study introduces readers to an argument that, if true, reveals a very quirky side to the writer’s nature.  The author displayed in these pages is not one to go searching after cryptids, conspiracy theories, or anything like that.  On the other hand, I am sort of curious now of just how familiar Nabokov was with medieval bestiaries, ancient myths, and a lot of older, symbolic forms of writing.  

In addition to Alexandrov’s book, there are two other books which at least touch tangentially on this thematic motif.  Dana Draguniou’s Vladimir Nabokov and the Poetics of Liberalism makes a nice transition or bridge text from the theme of Exile to Otherworld.  She opens with a discussion of the hidden political satire of the VN canon, and somehow manages to either trace or pioneer a path to the author’s sense of existentialism.  It can be eyebrow raising for this day and age, yet it’s a fascinating read either despite or because of it.  While Siggy Frank is able to demonstrate an aspect of the Otherworld theme that ties in neatly with the subject of this post.  The insight comes when Frank examines the themes of one of the author’s few theatrical plays.  It’s a piece called The Waltz Invention.  One of the conceits of the plot is that at a certain point, it becomes unclear whether the fictional Waltz is to be looked at as a normal main character inhabiting a secondary world, or if he’s instead just the fictional creation, or dream of a figure known only as the Foreigner.  The audience is left asking which is the dream and what is the true reality of the situation.

It’s this blurring of boundaries, begging the question of what do we mean by dream and real life, or even whether real life is just the slow fulfilling of a dream, that Frank singles out as a common trope of the author’s work in general.  “In this twofold vision in which the borders between reality and dream are blurred, it remains unclear which reality is the original and which is the reflection, which is the lost territory and which is the new territory, who is the native and who is the exile… (110)”.  It almost grants the author an interesting thematic relationship with the often mind-bending fiction of Philip K. Dick. Bear in mind, The Waltz Invention was written some years before Nabokov had ever picked up a copy of Dunne.  It’s one of those quirks that can sometimes make the historical record a bit more interesting.  

I am at least willing to admit that the Alexandrov text is convincing enough to the point that I’d like to compare how Nabokov handles the literary use of phantoms and visions in comparison with more famous genre practitioners like Dickens or Peter Straub.  Perhaps we mistake Nabokov when we
view his novels as examples of classic mid-20th Century realism.  Instead maybe the truth is that he occupies that intriguing middle ground frequented by a diverse company including the Borges of “Tlon, Uqbar,Orbis Tertius” or the 60s era John Fowles who liked to publish mind-bending puzzles like The Magus.  It’s an aspect that I find fascinating enough to perhaps warrant further study.  A good place to start is his interactions with the work of J.W. Dunne.

The Experiment.

Barabtarlo writes:

“On October 14, 1964, in a grand Swiss hotel in Montreux where he had been living for three years, Vladimir Nabokov started a private experiment that lasted till January 3 of the following year, just before his wife’s birthday (he had engaged her to join him in the experiment and they compared notes).  Every morning, immediately upon awakening, he would write down what he could rescue of his dreams.  During the following day or two he was on the lookout for anything that seemed to do with the recorded dream.  One hundred and eighteen handwritten Oxford cards, now held in the Berg Collection of the New York Public Library, bear sixty-four such records, many with relevant daytime episodes.

“The point of the experiment was to test a theory according to which dreams can be precognitive as well as related to the past.  That theory is based on the premise that images and situations in our dreams are not merely kaleidoscoping shards, jumbled, and mislabeled fragments of past impressions, but may also be a proleptic view of an event to come – which offers a pleasant side bonus, a satisfactory explanation of the well-known deja-vu phenomenon.  Dreams may also be a fanciful convolution of both past and future events.  This is possible because, according to this proposition, time’s progress is not unidirectional but recursive: the reason we do not notice the backflow is that we are not paying attention.  Dreamland is the best proving ground (1-2)”.

The experiment was Dunne’s of course, and it was taken from his original Time text.  At some point in his career, Nabokov evidently heard or learned about Dunne and his theories, and bought his own copy of AEWT somewhere along the line.  That’s the basic picture the reader can figure out for himself.  The curious part is that while this is an established fact of Barabtarlo’s study, it’s one that the author is willing to let stand as a bare bones statement.  It came as something of a shock to realize that at no point does Barabtarlo bother to enlighten the reader about Nabokov’s background history of discovering Dunne and his work.  Compare this method to all the amateur and professional papers that try and attempt a step by step reconstruction of the thought processes that led up to all the major writings surrounding Middle Earth, and almost right away it’s easy to see the gaping hole in an otherwise neat and succinct historical narrative.

I’m not sure if this counts a strike against the author, however.  All he had to work with from the start was a series of cards with information scribbled on them.  It was from VN’s dream index that Barabtarlo discovered that Nabokov knew of and had read Dunne’s work, and was now anxious to try it on for size.  That’s as far as the available evidence could take him.  At no point did Nabokov provide future readers with any useful background info leading up to his experiment.  The fault then seems to lie with the subject, and not the biographer.  Nor does it seem like such a fault when you take the time to consider that a man who spent much of his life on the run would naturally tend to want to guard his words and actions, in case of emergencies.  His experiences with totalitarianism are the real driving force behind Nabokov’s peculiar aesthetic demands, especially his need to assert as much control over his material as possible.  This particular drive could sometimes mean that he wouldn’t bother to help others fill in the gaps if he felt they couldn’t be trusted.

The good news is the handicap doesn’t slow Nabokov’s experiment down.  Barabtarlo is able to document the writer’s dream diary with skill and exactness.  The real question in all this is whether or not Nabokov was able to find any proof for Dunne’s experiments?  The best answer I’ve got is to say that the results in Barabtarlo’s book are intriguing, yet tentative.  At one point VN has this surreal dream where he’s taken through a museum and shown what looks like a series of ancient soil samples, which he promptly begins to consume like a gourmet at a Left Bank cafe.

"Two days later he records what he will call his "first incontestable success in the Dunne experiment" because he has "the absolutely clear feeling" that a film he watched on television three days after a certain dream was the source of that dream - "had the latter followed the former," he hastens to explain.  What he fails to register is that his dream distinctly and closely followed two scenes in his 1939 short story, "The Visit to the Museum": the dreamlike encounter with the museum's director in his office, and the odd exhibits in the local museum that looked like his spherical soil samples, the chief subject of his dream (22)".

There's a neat little irony tucked away in the corner of Barabtarlo's commentary in this passage.  On the one hand, it can be read as a straightforward attempt of the commentator to simply debunk the author he is writing about.  Now go back and read the passage again.  See if it is possible to catch the second possible meaning that can be attached to the commentary.  On the one hand, it is just possible that all Nabokov did was mistake a snippet of memory encountered in sleep for a proof of Dunne's theory that isn't really there.  Then again, by pointing out that the sequences from a short story corresponds to a dream he had later on, only to encounter a similar museum showcasing eerily identical exhibits could raise an interesting conundrum in the form of a different question.  Is it possible that Nabokov had a pre-vision of a pre-vision?  Did he somehow pick up and cut off a piece of tapestry from his then distant future timeline, and place it all unknowing in the middle of one of his light entertainments?  In other words, was the author on the receiving end of a double vision of the future?

The truth is Barabtarlo's statement can be read either way, and its this strange sense of frustration mixed in with genuine fascination that sort of marks the whole tone and flavor of the book.  I mention frustration as an aspect of the text.  However I'm not at all sure if this counts as a genuine slight against it.  For one thing, although its difficult to say that either Nabokov or Barabtarlo are able to reach any definitive conclusions, one way or the other, about Dunne's experiments, that somehow also helps to deepen a sense of mystery that hangs over the whole affair.  It's the same aesthetic experience one gets after reading or listening to the poetry of Alan Moore, or one of the phantasmagorias of Julio Cortazar.

The result is a mixture of fascination mingled with a lingering sense of hunger for more.  The reader is presented with an intriguing picture of the nature of reality.  Only the picture itself is vague to a great extent.  Its like the image of a strange and multifaceted city, like the one Coleridge glimpsed in Kubla Khan.  Its something that's there, yet it exists in just a faint outline.  One gets this sense of Nabokov, no longer as just a writer, but also as this kind of existential explorer facing something he can see, yet somehow it always remains out of reach.  If there really is anything to his little experiment, then I all I can say is its difficult determine if there really are any right words for it, I guess.  At least that's as good as I can do.  That's not the typical experience the common reader expects to get from his entertainment these days.  That also might not be a bad thing.  I suppose Nabokov is able to sum it up best with a passage from the favorite of his own novels, Invitation to a Beheading:

"And yet, ever since early childhood, I've had dreams....In my dreams the world was ennobled...; people whom in the waking state I feared so much appeared there in a shimmering refraction, just as if they were imbued with and enveloped by that vibration of light which in sultry weather inspires the very outlines of objects with life; their voices, their step, the expressions of their eyes and even their clothes - acquired an exciting significance; to put it more simply, in my dreams the world would come alive, becoming so captivatingly majestic, free and ethereal...But then I have long since grown accustomed to the thought that what we call dreams is semi-reality, the promise of reality, a foreglimpse and a whiff of it; that is, they contain, in a very vague, diluted state, more genuine reality than our vaunted waking life which, in its turn, is semi-sleep, (a, sic) drowsiness into which penetrate in grotesque disguise the sounds and sights of the real world, flowing beyond the periphery of the mind - as when your hear during sleep a dreadful insidious tale because a branch is scraping on the pane, or you see yourself sinking into snow because your blanket is sliding off.  But how I fear awakening (148)"!


There is good news and bad to be had with a book like Insomniac Dreams.  The good news is that I came away liking it.  I found it all a fascinating, mind-bending read from start to finish.  The whole thing is one great brain twister that leaves thoughtful readers with more questions than answers, and does so in the best way possible.  The bad news is I’m not real sure this is ever going to be the kind of book that catches on in a big way with general audiences.  I think what we’ve got here is going to be one of those fringe texts that enjoy a long shelf life on the margins.  I don’t mean to say its doomed forever to lounge on the shelves in a survivalist’s bunker or anywhere like that.  Instead I mean it’s what’s best described as a head text, the kind of work that is best enjoyed by the kind of minds that are just a bit more expansive than normal in their ability to digest a lot of high concepts.

Barabtarlo is able to give the reader several items of food for thought.  Some of them, like his theory of creating a poetics of time, while intriguing, sound too limited under the terms he's giving it.  Others, such as Nabokov's beliefs about the nature of time and reality, are fascinating ideas.  In part what makes following Nabokov down this particular rabbit hole is just how he is to leave things open-ended.  If the writer did believe in Dunne's theories, then both he and Barabtarlo make the perhaps wise choice of leaving ultimate judgment in the mind of the individual reader.  If the time experiments of J.W. Dunne do amount anything like a kind of system, then its difficult to know just what the right words for it are supposed to be, or even if the topic itself is considered valuable enough to dig into further.  It's like a jigsaw puzzle made of fragments.

As Barabtarlo states, "To a pre-twentieth-century consciousness, the phenomenon Dunne describes would seem flatly opposed to the conventional view of time legislated by the unassailable structure of physics.  "In these circumstances, our hypothetical dreamer would have to take refuge in Mysticism.  He would have to accept the existence of two disconnected worlds, the one rational, the other irrational," says Dunne.  But what if the two worlds are not disconnected?  Deep inside, Nabokov was a mystic after a fashion, and the notion of metaphysical interfusion with, even intervention into, one's life was very close to him, a translucent backdrop in most of his fiction (13)".

That's a very out there statement to make.  Perhaps there's even a sense of scandal attached to it.  If that's the case, then in some ways it doesn't come as a complete surprise.  Nabokov was always the kind of writer who knew how to get under his audiences skin to deliver just the right shock effect.  This kind of strategy seems to have had two goals in mind.  On the one hand, it forces people to pay attention to you, no matter how reluctant they are.  The second and more important is that it forces audiences to try and read on your level.  VN was always looking for ways to challenge his audiences to read better.  I don't mean that he was a snob, or anything like it.  There's too much of an undercurrent fondness for fairy-tale structures and tropes embedded in his writings for that.  Instead, a better way of putting it is that he wanted audiences to be able to look under the hood of the novel in order to gain a better understanding of what made it tick, and of how it related to the nature of the wider world.

He was often relentless in this pursuit, and sometimes it made him enemies with the cultural literati of the time.  The most famous being a fallout the author had with critic Edmund Wilson.  On the other hand, writers like John Updike seemed to have had their own careers influenced by the fact that they had Nabokov as a college English teacher.  VN's approach was often like that of a coder or a cipher maker.  If there was no more than one layer to the narrative, he was often unhappy with it.  If it also wasn't at least trying to ask the big questions, he preferred to have no truck with it.  His pursuit of the question of time seems to have been one of his more esoteric thematic interests.

In his final closing section of his study, Barabtarlo tries to tie all his findings about Dunne and Nabokov into as neat a package he can manage.  Reading these final pages is like walking through the workshop of a surrealist painter like Rene Magritte, and discovering a series of unfinished portraits whose subjects still manage to be intriguing because of the suggestions they leave the viewer with in terms of their subject matter.  Barabtarlo knows that all he can do is leave his readers with the fragments of suggestion that Nabokov left behind.  Those readers wishing for a greater sense of traditional novelistic closure may find the remaining section to be something of an unfulfilling meal. There are elements I can criticize about the way Barabtarlo closes up his study of Nabokov's time experiment.  The biggest eyebrow-raiser for me is when the critic tries to coin a new literary category of Chrono-Poetics.  Barabtarlo seems to be trying to urge new talents to find ways of exploring the same mysteries of the time dimension in fiction in a similar vein to the author of Lolita.

To be fair, I can see how the way an author handles the concept of time in a novel can be a valuable contributing factor in the success of a book.  However, in order to do this, it has to be remembered that it is all down to a question of artistic talent, coupled with the ability to use it well in a creative way.  Besides this, I also have to question whether their needs to be a new literary category in order to get the job done.  I can recall a fair score of creative works by authors like Peter Straub, J.K. Rowling, and even J.R.R. Tolkien who have integrated the concept of the melting and reversal of time into their works.  The thing is its all part of the bells and whistles of their stories, and its all there to be picked up and examined at the critic's leisure.  The authors can take or leave it as they will, or as the narrative demands.  I don't see any real need to create a separate category for the trope all on its own.  Wouldn't that tend to isolate it to such an extent that it gets exaggerated all out of proportion, or even fall into neglect once artists got tired of it?  I just think it makes more sense to see the time element as part of the basic arsenal of the novel as a concept.  

However, that's about all I have in terms of anything negative to say of Barabtarlo's closing statements.  The remainder of it comes to rest just fine enough.  For my part, I'm sort of not surprised at all.  Somehow it just makes sense to me that VN would take us about as far as the entrance to the gate of mysteries, and then leave us there with the question of whether to continue on our own, or just take up our lives once more.  It reveals an interesting level of Humanism in an author who so often gets pigeonholed as a callous snob.  It's sort of a feature of Barabtarlo's entire study.  I don't know whether or not Insomniac Dreams is the best introduction to the work and thought of Vladimir Nabokov.  However I can say that it is a rewarding time well spent.  All you need to have is an open mind.


  1. (1) A very thoughtful examination of some fascinating material.

    (2) I think we had some back and forth on Nabokov at one point. I don't know his work at all, unfortunately. I've seen the Lolita movies and read various appraisals of both the movies and how they relate to their texts, as well as overviews of the author. I've always walked away from those with the impression that the author was fascinating, multi-faceted, misunderstood, and, well, brilliant, for lack of a better word. One of these days, I tell myself, one of these days.

    (3) I do have a book of stories from Julio Cortazar around here somewhere. I remember really liking what I read, but I don't remember much. (I always get/got the same impression as described above for Nabokov on Borges, as well. One of these days i look forward to the challenge.)

    (4) This JW Dunne book sounds fascinating. Is there an "In Search of" episode about this guy/ that volcano WW1 story? I do remember seeing it somewhere, but who knows where.

    (5) You piqued my interest in all this material. Good stuff!

    (6) I hope you and yours are doing okay during increasingly worrisome times.

    1. (2) I'm trying to remember that "back and forth", and, don't be hatin' over this, I'm kind of drawing a blank at the moment. Otherwise I'm willing to agree there is a great deal of brilliance based on what I've read of VN. As for his reception, I've read enough criticism about him to know he's not regarded as a one note writer in academic circles. However I've seen no proof that this awareness exists on an everyday level. As far as popular audiences seem concerned, he's just that creep with a fascination for writing about perversity. Such is the price of fame, apparently, or at least as far as most readers can take it.

      (3) Do the memories of Cortazar somehow involve the image of pink bunny rabbits, or an aquarium (he asked with a very knowing grin on his face)? I suppose Magical Realism is the accepted critical term for guys like Cortazar, though I'm not sure seen the label attached to Nabokov as yet.

      I do know that "Ada or Ardor" has been described as a contribution to the genre of alternate timeline Sci-Fi. "Ada" is a book I've just begun trying to tackle. So far, I've had better luck with the collected short stories.

      (4) I believe you are referencing the final episode of an old early 60s TV show, "One Step Beyond". The episode your thinking is "Eye Witness", and some good background on it can be found here.

      Fun fact: As I was writing this part I got an interesting sense of deja-vu, which is something Dunne has ideas about. Cue "Twilight Zone" theme.

      (5) Pleasure to oblige.

      (6) So far, all I know is that there have been just four presumptive cases around here, and just one confirmation. On top of that, I live alone and prefer not to go out much to begin with. In that regards I'm very lucky.

      The real frustration for me these last few days has been witnissing just how much a lot of professionals are harming their own cause. I remember reading tweets by one doctor, an actual professional, citing doomsday scenarios and urging everyone to start grabbing stuff off the shelves. Later, when I went on my usual grocery rounds, a store employee said it best, "It's people who are the problem".

      The worst part is that it was clear to me that this catch as can approach could never really work, and just wasn't feasible in either the short or long term. What made it worse was that it was an actual certified doctor who let her emotions get in the way of her professionalism, which should have guided a more measured and controlled approach.

      From there, the worst part is reading reports that actively contradict her own concerns, or viewing half-baked prognostications by people who think they know how much infection there is going to be, only for them to admit later on that they "just don't know". I'm having to vet a lot of the info I'm getting on this whole deal right now.

      My best advice is to make sure you have what you need, and then just wait out the next two weeks. With any luck, this could peak and start to slow down.


  2. (1) I've never read "Lolita," but am familiar with the Kubrick movie. Not my favorite Kubrick movie; not bad, but not a favorite. I'd like to read the novel someday, but will it ever happen? I wouldn't bet on it.

    (2) Interesting thoughts from Ebert.

    (3) "It wasn't a novel, and I'm not sure why they chose to stack it in the fiction section." -- I think that's how I first read Doug Winter's book about Stephen King. Not a bad thing to steer someone toward criticism when they're looking for fiction! Well, maybe it is if you're some people; not us, though.

    (4) Not sure I've ever even heard of J.W. Dunne, but his work sounds compelling.

    (5) "Is it possible that Nabokov had a pre-vision of a pre-vision?" -- That's the kind of thing that makes me want to dive into all of this material. Still waiting on my brain to be transplanted into a robot body so such things can become fully doable.

    1. (1) I'm aware of the Kubrick adaptation. Not sure I care to see it, though.

      (2) It was food for thought, I admit.

      (3) Good point. I think my trouble was I haven't seen it happen much in the mainstream fiction racks. Even in antique bookstores, my experience has been that the sellers tend to separate the authors pretty firmly from the critics, even if they are review the same writer that is on another shelf. Guess it was just the novelty of seeing author and critic occupy the same space that struck. Who knows.

      (4) It really is one of those mind-trip type books, the kind that might have had a window of opportunity for underground fame during the 60s, yet somehow I've found no proof that it ever caught on during that decade. Which is a shame, cause if that book ever had a time to shine, that was it.

      (5) I know it can be a very intriguing read, in the right hands.