The Enthralling, Anxious World of Vladimir Nabokov’s Dreams

Dreams are boring. On the list of tedious conversation topics, they fall somewhere between the five-day forecast and golf. As for writing about them, even Henry James, who’s seldom accused of playing to the cheap seats, had a rule: “Tell a dream, lose a reader.” I can remember when I accepted that my own unconscious was not a fount of fascination—I’d dreamed, at length and in detail, of owning an iPhone that charged really, really fast.

How unfair it is, then, that Vladimir Nabokov can show up, decades after his death, with a store of dreams more lush and enthralling than many waking lives. In 1964, living in opulence at Switzerland’s Montreux Palace Hotel, Nabokov began to keep a dream diary of a sort, dutifully inscribing his memories on index cards at his bedside in rubber-banded stacks. These cards, and Nabokov’s efforts to parse them, are the foundation of “Insomniac Dreams,” a recently published chronicle of the author’s oneiric experiments, edited by Gennady Barabtarlo, a professor at the University of Missouri.

Nabokov’s ambitions weren’t interpretive. He “held nothing but contempt for Freud’s crude oneirology,” Barabtarlo explains, and in tracking his dreams he wasn’t turning his gaze inward. For him, the mystery was outside—far outside. Nabokov had been reading deeply into serialism, a philosophy positing that time is reversible. The theory came from J. W. Dunne, a British engineer and armchair philosopher who, in 1927, published “An Experiment with Time,” arguing, in part, that our dreams afforded us rare access to a higher order of time. Was it possible that we were glimpsing snatches of the future in our dreams—that what we wrote off as déjà vu was actually a leap into the metaphysical ether? Dunne himself claimed to have had no fewer than eight precognitive dreams, including one in which he foresaw a headline about a volcanic eruption.

If all of this sounds too batty for a man of faculties, consider that Dunne’s “An Experiment with Time” had gained currency among a number of other writers, including James Joyce, T. S. Eliot, and Aldous Huxley. Its path to Nabokov is unclear, but, however it came to him, in its pages he recognized a fellow-traveller. (The author had his mystical side, Barabtarlo notes, “and the notion of metaphysical interfusion with, even intervention into, one’s life was very close to him.”) Consider, too, that, by 1964, when he began keeping his dream diary, Nabokov was barely sleeping at all. At sixty-five, he had an enlarged prostate that exacerbated his lifelong insomnia. He described episodes of “hopelessness and nervous urination,” his sleep punctured as often as nine times a night by “toilet interruptions.” In extremis, he turned to powerful sedatives and hypnotics, but even with these he struggled to make it through the night. In the depths of sleeplessness, mired in a somnolent fog, who among us wouldn’t feel a little oracular?

To detect precognition, Dunne laid out an exacting regimen for recording one’s dreams. Nabokov decided to follow it scrupulously, and almost instantly he found himself brimming with precognitive powers. On the second night, he dreamed of a clock set at half past ten; the next day, he came across the very same time in Dunne’s book. That’s nice, but it’s not volcanic-eruption nice. A few nights later, he saw a more “incontestable success” while dreaming about a museum: “I was absent-mindedly eating exhibits on the table—bricks of crumbly stuff which I had apparently taken for some kind of dusty insipid pastry but which were actually samples of rare soils.” Afterward, watching French television, he came across a program discussing soil samples in Senegal. Eureka! He had eaten the dirt of a future time.

And yet Nabokov didn’t seem to linger on his victory or its metaphysical ramifications. Though he kept up his index-card routine for eighty nights, he drifted from Dunne’s method. Rather than flagging his dreams for their precognitive potential, he began to find patterns among them, breaking them into categories: nostalgic or erotic, shaped by current events or professional anxieties. Apart from a dry spell he referred to as “dream constipation,” Nabokov was a prodigious dreamer, his mind a wellspring of trenchant, tender, and perturbing images that he recounts with verve. An old Cambridge classmate “gloomily consumes a thick red steak, holding it rather daintily, the nails of his long fingers glisten[ing] with cherry-red varnish.” A cryptic caller “wonders how I knew she was Russian. I answer dream-logically that only Russian women speak so loud on the phone.” There are capers: in one, Nabokov and his son, Dmitri, “are trying to track down a repulsive plump little boy who has killed another child—perhaps his sister.” And there are intimations of mortality: “A tremendous very black larch paradoxically posing as a Christmas tree completely stripped of its toys, tinsel, and lights, appeared in its abstract starkness as the emblem of permanent dissolution.”

There are also butterflies. Nabokov was a skillful lepidopterist, and he’d taken up residence in Montreux in part because it sat at the foot of the Alps, where rare species fluttered. He had a recurring nightmare of “finding myself in the haunts of interesting butterflies without my butterfly net and being reduced to capturing and messing up a rarity with my fingers.” In an ominous instance, a butterfly “eyes me in conscious agony as I try to kill it by pinching its thick thorax—very tenacious of life. Finally slip it into a Morocco case—old, red, zippered.” On another night, Nabokov lashes into a stranger with the “light metal, vulcanized handle” of his butterfly net. The stranger lives.

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