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Donald Barton Johnson: The Man and His Work: Two Tributes

From: Nabokov Studies
Volume 10, 2006
pp. xi-xiv | 10.1353/nab.2007.0008

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Curiosity is a supreme virtue for Nabokov and a supreme virtue in a scholar. Don Johnson embodies it in a particularly pure form. Like my favorite colleague at Auckland, a world-class Shakespeare scholar who can't stop himself researching the Phaistos disk, or a detail of a Carpaccio painting, or the sonnets of Eugene Lee-Hamilton, or precognition in dreams, Don follows his curiosity wherever it takes him— around the world of nature, in pursuit of birds, and around the world of culture, in pursuit of Nabokov. Fortunately for us, Nabokov values and rewards the curious mind so well that as a scholar Don has for over thirty years worked on little else. Regardless of fashion or fame, he will take tenaciously after any spoor that interests him: L'Inconnue de la Seine, the Marlborough and Turkish tobacco theme in Ada, Nabokov's early English reading, birds in Ada, a whole slew of clues in Pale Fire (I cannot wait to see where this current trail emerges), obscenity in Ada, synesthesia, Greta Garbo, Pierre Louÿs, letters anywhere in Nabokov, painting in Ada

This begins to sound like the passage in Pale Fire glossing "two tongues": "English and Zemblan, English and Russian, English and Lettish, English and Estonian, English and Lithuanian, English and Russian. …" One reason why I personally feel so grateful to Don is that he has picked out paths into Ada I know I would never have had the energy to explore fully in my attempt to follow simultaneously all the trails I can see as I crash through its thickets. With the bulk of Ada still to annotate, I feel reassured whenever I hear Don working somewhere up ahead, because I know that at least one more will-o'-the-wisp track will have been explored to the end and securely signposted. I half wish I could clone him and send scores of Don Johnsons ahead, each on the scent of his own hunches.

But fortunately, again, there is only one D. Barton Johnson. Those who don't know him personally can get the wrong impression. A young PhD student I supervised assumed—in about 2000—that Don too must be young, because of the boyish brio of the title "Taking [End Page xi] Nabokov Clitorally." I see him differently, a blend of a white-haired Buffalo Bill and the Cheshire Cat, with his lingering wry smile, his dry droll drawl, his reinforcing "Oh yeah" (emphasis on the "Oh"), his self-presentation as a crusty misanthrope when anyone can see his soft interior, his tarantula-on-the-wall story offered to the many Nabokovian guests who have enjoyed the hospitality of his home at the end of a Californian canyon. Even those who do not know Don face to face have enjoyed his hospitality to Nabokovians in setting up Nabokov Studies, with its high scholarly standards, and Nabokv-L, with its initial mix of scholarliness and welcoming openness to any inquirer, however naïve.

Don has a rare combination of generosity to new ideas and skepticism about them. He has a wariness—his own, not reflexively Nabokovian—about grand meanings and a converse passion for particulars. Where Alexander Dolinin focuses intently on literary allusions, Don will chase any kind of detail, lexical, literary, visual, musical, filmic, natural. Where Dieter Zimmer identifies particulars for their own sake, with methodical and painstaking comprehensiveness, Don will scurry over any barrier after his prey but then pen the particulars he runs down into a meaningful pattern if he can. Where I tend to book- or shelf-length projects, Don simply follows his nose. He is almost too purely curious, too free of ambition, for a scholar. Anyone else who had amassed such a distinguished body of articles on one subject would have long since collected them. I can still remember in 1985 reading his first collection, Worlds in Regression, with mounting excitement and a growing sense of kinship. Everyone in Nabokov studies is waiting for the same thrill again from D. Barton Johnson, tome two.

Brian Boyd

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As a Nabokov scholar, and as one who has nourished and stimulated the scholarship of others, D. Barton Johnson is a central Nabokovian...



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