Vladimir Nabokov's dream diary reveals experiments with 'backwards timeflow'

A 1964 diary in which Vladimir Nabokov recorded more than 50 of his dreams – ranging from the erotic to the violent to the surreal – is about to be published for the first time.

 “Intensely erotic dream. Blood on sheet,” the novelist writes on 13 December 1964. “End of dream: my sister O, strangely young and languorous … Then stand near a window, sighing, half-seeing view, brooding over the possible consequence of incest.”

Another entry sees him recording a dream in which he is dancing with his wife Vera. “Her open dress, oddly speckled and summery. A man kisses her in passing. I clutch him by the head and bang his face with such vicious force against the wall that he almost gets meat-hooked, on some fixtures on the wall (gleaming metal suggestive of ship). Detaches himself with face all bloody and stumbles away.”

The author, who struggled with insomnia all his life, began the dream diary after reading the British philosopher John Dunne’s An Experiment With Time, in which he advances a theory that dreams can sometimes be inspired by future events.

According to the Nabokov expert Gennady Barabtarlo, a professor of literature at the University of Missouri who has compiled and edited the diary, Nabokov’s experiment “followed the pedantic guidelines he found in the singularly rum and once very influential little book by John Dunne, an eccentric British philosopher of genius”.

“The chief object was to prove that in dreamland, that twilight zone between material and spiritual realms, timeflow goes backwards as it were, from effect to cause,” said Barabtarlo. “To give a rough example: the evening paper brings the news that in New York a Muslim ploughed into a crowd in a lorry. You vaguely remember your dream last night and check the record: indeed, you saw yourself on a tricycle hurtling downhill trying desperately, but failing, to avoid hitting a girl you knew in college. According to Dunne’s theory, it wasn’t your dream that previewed the actual event but the reverse – it was that horrific event that led to your dreaming that dream the night before. Nabokov was keenly interested in this theory and its ramifications and set out to put it to trial in that 1964 experiment.”

For a period of 80 days, the author of Lolita wrote down everything he could remember of his dreams as soon as he woke up, amassing 118 index cards recording 64 dreams. The text is reproduced in the book Insomniac Dreams, alongside material placing the experiment in the context of his life and writing.

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