Nabokov and epilepsy

The first time I had what was later determined to be a mild epileptic seizure – acute anxiety in the pit of my stomach and in my chest, accompanied by a dazed sensation, and followed by a bewildering and alarming sense that I was entering a kind of a parallel, déjà-vu universe, where I knew exactly what the person I was talking to (and whom I had just met for the first time) was going to say before he said it – was at a Nabokov conference organized by Nabokov’s biographer, Brian Boyd, in New Zealand, in January 2012. It lasted no more than a couple of minutes but left me feeling nauseous, disoriented and scared. After my return to the United States, similar episodes started occurring every thirty days or so. They were always brief, and were preceded not just by dazedness and disorientation, or “cephalic auras” as they are called, but also by “olfactory auras”, a very sharp and acrid smell. Finally I was diagnosed with Temporal Lobe Epilepsy. I was stunned. To me, epilepsy was what Fyodor Dostoevsky and his characters experienced: stupor, frothing at the mouth, loss of consciousness, and even long spells of near-insanity.

The standard medical classification of epileptic seizures is as follows:
The manifestations of epilepsy depend on the area of the brain where the abnormal discharge occurs . . . . An attack of grand mal (tonic-clonic) epilepsy usually begins with bilateral jerks of the extremities or focal seizure activity. There is loss of consciousness and both tonic and clonic type convulsions . . . . Complex partial seizures, as in psychomotor (temporal lobe) epilepsy, usually, but not always, originate in the temporal lobe of the brain, often with a preceding aura . . . . Simple partial seizures, called also focal seizures, result from a localized cortical discharge. The symptoms may be either motor, sensory, autonomic, or any combination of the three.
Dostoevsky had “grand mal” seizures; mine were the simple partial ones. And they may have made me a much more discerning reader of the very same Nabokov who was the subject of the conference where my first seizure took place. I write about Nabokov and teach him every year, which means that I constantly re-read him (“One cannot read a book”, Nabokov famously advised his students; “one can only re-read it”). And certain passages in his autobiographical and fictional writings – amounting overall to a kind of obsession – started to come into sharper focus: he, too, must have suffered from some form of epilepsy.

Nabokov is, in fact, as generous in distributing epilepsy among his characters as was Dostoevsky who, as I will discuss below, may have been the main reason why the author of Lolita was not more open about his affliction. Nabokov’s personal testimonies do, however, at times approach the confessional. Thus in the second chapter of his autobiography, Speak, Memory, he writes:
As far back as I remember myself . . . I have been subject to mild hallucinations. Some are aural, others are optical . . . . Just before falling asleep, I often become aware of a kind of one-sided conversation going on in an adjacent section of my mind, quite independently from the actual trend of my thoughts. It is a neutral, detached, anonymous voice, which I catch saying words of no importance to me whatever – an English or a Russian sentence, not even addressed to me . . . . This silly phenomenon seems to be the auditory counterpart of certain praedormitory visions which I also know well . . . . On top of this I present a fine case of coloured hearing.
Nabokov shared his synaesthesia – “coloured hearing” and seeing letters in colours – with his mother; it occurs, we are told, in at least 4 per cent of temporal lobe epilepsies. He also apparently shared with her, as he reveals in the same chapter, “double sight . . . premonitions, and the feeling of the déjà vu”, all three definitely characteristic of epileptic seizures. Nabokov further elaborated on these strange sensations in “Inspiration”, an essay written late in 1972 for the Saturday Review (January 6, 1973; see Edmund White’s article in this issue). In this piece he even uses the notion of “an epileptic attack” to describe what is taking place: “A prefatory glow, not unlike some benign variety of the aura before an epileptic attack, is something the artist learns to perceive very early in life . . . . [It] has neither source nor object. It expands, glows, and subsides without revealing its secret. In the meantime . . . a window has opened, an auroral wind has blown, every exposed nerve has tingled”.

When Nabokov reveals the effects of epilepsy on his characters who suffer from it, the accuracy is uncanny. In Pale Fire, the poet John Shade, who, if we are to believe his “annotator” Charles Kinbote, has “a mild form of epilepsy”, gives the following account of his childhood fainting fits:

There was a sudden sunburst in my head.
And then black night. That blackness was sublime.
I felt distributed through space and time:
One foot upon a mountaintop, one hand
Under the pebbles of a panting strand . . .
During one winter every afternoon
I’d sink into that momentary swoon.

In the same novel one of the rare astute observations by Kinbote in his commentary to Shade’s poem can be found in the description of “what physicians call the aura, a strange sensation both tense and vaporous, a hot-cold ineffable exasperation pervading the entire nervous system before a seizure”. And then there is the hapless but lovable Timofey Pnin, from the eponymous novel, whose seizure in a park in an unfamiliar town is depicted through the overwrought reaction, immediately recognizable to all epileptics, to this inexplicable occurrence:
that eerie feeling, that tingle of unreality overpowered him completely. . . .Was it a mysterious disease that none of his doctors had yet detected? . . . He felt porous and pregnable. He was sweating. He was terrified. A stone bench among the laurels saved him from collapsing on the sidewalk. Was his seizure a heart attack? I doubt it. For nonce I am his physician, and let me repeat, I doubt it . . . . Pnin felt what he had felt already on August 10, 1942, and February 15 (his birthday), 1937, and May 18, 1929, and July 4, 1920 – that the repulsive automaton he lodged had developed a consciousness of its own and not only was grossly alive but was causing him pain and panic. He pressed his poor bald head against the stone back of the bench and recalled all the past occasions of similar discomfort and despair . . . . The seizure had left him a little frightened and shaky . . .
When the narrator steps in to “doubt” that Pnin’s seizure stemmed from a heart attack, he appears to give us a clear indication not only as to what this “mysterious disease” was not, but also as to what it was. I believe the narrator’s diagnosis here was based on Nabokov’s own medical history.

Since there are no medical records available, the best sources of relevant clues are of course Boyd’s biography and Nabokov’s personal letters. Boyd lists the following known health problems that the writer apparently suffered from: “adenoma . . . concussion . . . heart palpitations . . . influenza/pneumonia . . . intercoastal neuralgia . . . lumbago . . . lung damage . . . nervous strain . . . pleurisy . . . psoriasis . . . shadow behind the heart . . . sunstroke . . . urinary tract infection . . .”.The “nervous strain” is particularly intriguing, since it is so vague. “Volodya has had a kind of nervous breakdown, due to overwork”, Edmund Wilson wrote in 1946 to their mutual friend, Roman Grynberg, the editor of Russian émigré journals. In 1952 Nabokov himself wrote to Grynberg, that his state of health was such that his nervous system only just then “had stopped resembling tangled barbed wire” (“перестала походить на спутанную колючую проволоку”), which is quite reminiscent of Kinbote’s characterization in Pale Fire of Shade’s clusters of epileptic seizures as “a derailment of the nerves at the same spot, on the same curve of the tracks, every day, for several weeks, until nature repaired the damage”.

“I was so joggy and jittery and buzzy with insomnia and so forth”, Nabokov complained to Wilson the following year, “that I decided to lay aside Pushkin for a few months.” “Pushkin” was his translation of Eugene Onegin, and he was already working on Lolita by then as well. There was definitely enough labour and anxiety there – as there had surely been in 1946, and in 1952 – to cause much general stress, but the way he describes it – “joggy and jittery and buzzy” – is also a perfect characterization of epileptic events.

As to Nabokov’s heart problems, he once suggested to Grynberg, who in 1950 was recovering from a mild heart attack, that when “one’s diaphragm presses onto one’s heart” it can by itself cause “seizures and faintings”, therefore revealing that he at that point must still have preferred to attribute those in his own experience to his heart troubles rather than to epilepsy. By the time he came to depict poor Pnin’s seizure in a strange city park, Nabokov seems to have already ruled that possibility out. While Pnin, like his creator, also suffers from “heart palpitations”, the “mysterious disease” here is obviously of an epileptic nature. Nabokov actually liked to apply the attribute “mysterious” to epilepsy. “Dostoevski . . . from his early years . . . had been subject to that mysterious illness, the epilepsy”, he stated in his Lectures on Russian Literature.

Nabokov knowing or suspecting he had epilepsy may also explain why he never drove a car. Back in the 1940s when the Nabokovs bought their first American automobile, people diagnosed with any form of epilepsy, including the mildest, were routinely prevented from having a licence. I should note, however, that it is probably equally likely that – as most Nabokov memoirists and biographers suggest – he simply proved to be a talentless learner and, in general, preferred to be chauffeured by his wife, Véra, just as he and his family had been chauffeured in St Petersburg and Vyra, where they spent the summers.

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