IN VLADIMIR NABOKOV’S Pale Fire, the poet John Shade has a near-death experience and dreams of a white fountain, which he feels certain is a sign of eternal life. Reading an article about a woman who had the same vision, he seeks her out, only to learn later from the journalist who wrote the story that “fountain” was, in fact, a typo. The woman had actually seen a mountain.
Dreams can be potent sources of signs and symbols, but just as often they’re detritus from the landfills of our minds. More than most authors, Nabokov manages in his fiction to reflect both the transcendent and the nonsensical aspects of dream states. The narrator of The Real Life of Sebastian Knight notes absurdities and absences in our sleeping imagination, pinning them on a lackluster performance by the “dream-manager.”
In Insomniac Dreams: Experiments with Time by Vladimir Nabokov, the scholar Gennady Barabtarlo considers Nabokov’s ideas on dreams in detail. The basis of the book is a previously unpublished dream journal that Nabokov kept in 1964, after reading aeronautical engineer John Dunne’s early 20th-century treatise An Experiment with Time. In that book, Dunne sketched a theory that human consciousness was capable of tracking events both forward and backward in time, so that dreams might reflect future events in a perfectly logical sequence. He claimed that dreams contain “images of past experience and images of future experience blended together in approximately equal proportions.” This idea, Dunne argued somewhat ambitiously, “contains the first scientific argument for human immortality.”
Nabokov’s attraction to Dunne’s eccentric theory is hardly surprising. His mother, Elena Rukavishnikov, had a religious side that tended toward free-range spiritualism, and though he sometimes played the skeptic, he did come to believe that higher planes of existence could make themselves known to us through dreams and visions. Even as a teenager, he had staked out the conflicted ground he would later occupy, writing in a notebook, “The existence of eternal life is an invention of human cowardice; its denial, a lie to one’s self. Whoever says ‘There is no soul, no immortality’ secretly thinks ‘but maybe?’”
Thus Nabokov, following Dunne’s instructions, spent almost three months recording his dreams and comparing them to later events. Images of Nabokov’s index cards recording his experiment appear throughout the book. Barabtarlo adds occasional commentary, which is particularly helpful when, as is often the case, Nabokov fails to recognize that a dream echoes his own life or prior literary output. Along with an introduction to Dunne’s theories and the dream journal, Barabtarlo includes “a selection of Nabokov’s dream records,” mostly from a notebook and decades of Nabokov’s minimalist pocket diaries before and after the 1964 experiment. It’s unclear what the selection criteria are, as several dream entries in the diaries (including a vulgar one about a chamber pot and a touching snippet about reconciliation with his estranged friend Edmund Wilson) don’t appear in Insomniac Dreams.
What is here, however, is fascinating, and brings together everything from an imaginary showdown with Pelé on a soccer pitch to memories of Russia and Nabokov’s lifelong fear of dying alone overnight. In one account, he feels “sympathy which is quite genuine but not free from desire” while comforting “an attractive but not flawlessly pretty” young woman married to a man who may be his son. Mundane fears (forgotten pants, lost dentures) join unprofound profundities (“the cosmos with all its galaxies is a blue drop in the hollow of my palm”). Nabokovian magic, it becomes clear, emerges primarily in revision.
The everyday language of the summaries stands in sharp contrast to the section that follows: an assortment of dream passages culled from Nabokov’s published work. In one, the young narrator of The Gift slips through “the border between consciousness and sleep” and dreams of the return of his missing father, who disappeared years before on a expedition: “Expectancy, awe, the frost of happiness, the surge of sobs merged into a single blinding agitation as he stood in the middle of the room incapable of movement, listening and looking at the door. He knew who would enter in a moment, and was amazed now that he had doubted this return.”
Nabokov’s own father, V. D. Nabokov, who was shot in a botched 1922 assassination meant for someone else, appears frequently in his dreams. But the dream father who shows up in Nabokov’s diaries is a bland creature. Watching him sitting gloomy on a beach, Nabokov worries that he will get sunburned. Sadly plinking out notes on a piano in another, the resurrected father fails to get a joke, showing none of the high spirits he possessed in life. Nabokov’s dreams about his father, far from reflecting the future, could not even summon the past.
Barabtarlo and Nabokov both find predictive meaning in some of the recorded dreams, though whether they reflect future events seems inconclusive at best to this reader. What Barabtarlo’s compendium makes clear, however, is the manner and degree to which Nabokov used visions and dreams to shape time in his writing. Barabtarlo organizes the literary passages into thematic groups, adding to the dream categories proposed by Nabokov in his journal. “Doom” has subheadings including “False Predictors” and “Recurrent.” “Daytime Impressions” is followed by “Memories of the Remote Past.” He notes the ways in which Nabokov considers the interplay between imagination and memory in art and in fiction, leading to outcomes that are, in Barabtarlo’s estimation, “precognitive verging on prophetic.”
The collection of dream passages here dovetails neatly with a body of scholarship that has considered questions of time and reality in Nabokov’s work. In his autobiography Speak, Memory, Nabokov describes his fondness for the thematic warping of chronology. “I like to fold my magic carpet, after use,” he writes, “in such a way as to superimpose one part of the pattern upon another. Let visitors trip.” There is hardly a novel in which he does not manipulate time or introduce otherworldly elements. Because of a glitch in Lolita’s chronology, debate has persisted for decades about whether events late in the book take place only in Humbert Humbert’s imagination. In Pale Fire, an unreliable narrator’s fantasies swallow the entire book as the careful reader tries to parse out whether any part of his story is true. Yet in the midst of the novel, despite the narrator, a troubled girl serves as a conduit from the spiritual realm for a voice that tries to warn of impending murder.
For all his curiosity about the great beyond, Nabokov’s most striking prophecy was not at all mystical. A lepidopterist by profession in the 1940s, Nabokov demonstrated remarkable insight about the evolution of a group of butterflies known as the Polyommatus blues. In 2011, decades after his death, gene-sequencing techniques confirmed his hypothesis about their migration patterns over millions of years. It may be tempting to invest this perspicacity with transcendent meaning, but it has a homely empirical basis. Nabokov’s early, intuitive hypothesis — unverifiable during his lifetime — was based on years of close observation. Barabtarlo steps onto a shaky limb when he mentions that a 2011 physics experiment may have recorded a particle traveling faster than the speed of light, hinting that Nabokov’s approach to time might be as scientifically demonstrable as his butterfly theory. Though a footnote acknowledges that a subsequent experiment called the finding into question, it fails to mention that those initial results have been repeatedly and thoroughly discredited.
Insomniac Dreams is much stronger when Barabtarlo writes about Nabokov’s innovative use of time in his art. He claims that the act of rereading — which Nabokov explicitly demanded — “amounts to a spatial reversal of time.” In Pnin, professor Timofey Pnin is unable to stop imagining how a childhood sweetheart died at Buchenwald.
[S]ince the exact form of her death had not been recorded, Mira kept dying a great number of deaths in one’s mind, and undergoing a great number of resurrections, only to die again and again, led away by a trained nurse, inoculated with filth, tetanus bacilli, broken glass, gassed in a sham shower bath with prussic acid, burned alive in a pit on a gasoline-soaked pile of beechwood.
Here Nabokov portrays a reality in which the fictional Mira Belochkin is always alive, always dying, and always dead, trapped in a roulette of possible methods of extermination. Manipulating time, Nabokov wrestles not just with questions of eternal life but with the instability of the present, the future, and even the past. For many of Nabokov’s characters — as well as Nabokov himself, and the rest of us — dreams and art cannot forestall death or undo what has been lost. But they offer another kind of immortality, sometimes a bitter one, inside the only worlds over which we ever rule as gods.