Thomas Karshan

Vladimir Nabokov on the Telephone


Full transcripts appearing online for the duration of Telepoetics (27 May – 5 June 2020) have been reduced to excerpts of approx. 750 words .

[Presentation script]

Hi – I’m Thomas Karshan, and I teach at the University of East Anglia

Today I’m going to be reading and talking about my translations of three poems by the very young Vladimir Nabokov, about the telephone (and the telegraph) – poems written in the early 1920s, when Nabokov was himself only a year older than the century – ‘Telegraph Poles’, of 11th May 1920, ‘Telephone’ (May 23rd, 1921), and ‘On the Telephone’ (October 11th, 1923). None have been translated before, and the two latter poems were never published, and exist only in manuscript.

We’ve put up on the website a handout on which you’ll find the poems I’m going to be reading and talking about, along with some other quotations; if you download that you’ll be able to follow more easily. You’ll also find on that handout my e-mail; if you have any feedback or are just intrigued by my presentation, please do drop me a line – I’d be glad to hear from you.

I think these poems have a particular interest for this conference as being very early examples of what I think is a distinct modernist issue. One becomes aware of the technology of communication when it fails; you notice phones when they don’t work; that’s what makes you start thinking about them, lets you do so; the same of course is true of letters – when they go astray, you start to notice the post.  And that gives rise to a distinct modernist scene, in which the poet or novelist hunkers down in the middle of the message, mid-delivery. Maybe the most important example of that I can give is Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, the whole of which follows a letter which is never delivered, and in whose course we have to become aware of the postal network that makes communication possible. Arguably it’s Finnegans Wake that gives rise to the question about the technology of communication underlying this conference: modern media theory really gets going with Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media and The Gutenberg Galaxy, the original working title for both of which was The Road to Finnegans Wake, and with the questions posed around the letter which Derrida and Lacan drew from the Wake.

2.  Actually you could see Nabokov’s Lolita as modelled on the template of the Wake, in that it also takes place in the space of the undelivered letter: the perverse magic of the novel really begins when Charlotte Haze is run over on the way to post the letter condemning Humbert Humbert, and comes to an end when Humbert receives a more sober-voiced letter from Dolores Haze, now grown-up. Indeed, it is for Nabokov a test of art that it notices the postman, the post-box, remembers the circumstances in which a letter was written and read, pays attention to the envelope, the ink, the paper; or even to the telephone-box, the shape of the telegraph-poles, the buzzing of the line. Leaving aside the letters, for the sake of time, let’s mention a few instances of the phone: Krug in Nabokov’s 1947 novel, Bend Sinister makes an image of the pips of the engaged phone line – ‘that sequence of small bar-shaped hoots was like the long vertical row of superimposed I’s in an index by first lines to a verse anthology’, and fondly recalls his dead wife in ‘the back of the telephone book on which we used to jot down names and figures, our hands mixed, slanting and curving in opposite directions’;  while in Ada, Nabokov’s novel of 1969, Demon describes to Marina how ‘“I rang you up at your hotel from a roadside booth of pure crystal still tear-stained after a tremendous thunderstorm”’. 

3. OK, all this lies far in the future; I want now to tack right back to these early poems of the young Nabokov – ‘Telegraph Poles’, written on the 11th of May, 1920, when Nabokov was only 21. In it, Nabokov adapts the Romantic image of the poet as Aeolian harp canonised by Coleridge and Shelley among others. Here, however, the strings on which the wind of the cosmos plays are not those of the harp but of the telegraph wires, on which ‘message passes after message, the rumble of countless voices, anxious and mournful’ – for the telegraph now of course carries not only telegrams but also the voices of telephone calls. The poet, pictured as a barefooted wanderer on the empty plains through which the poles pass, has the lonely vocation of eavesdropping on ‘the song swimming through’, catching the messages mid-passage, and making their song his own.