- Letters to Véra ed. by Vladimir Nabokov
There is an early Virginia Woolf story, “Lappin and Lapinova,” written sometime before 1918, in which a rather stiff, newly married couple make a small, intimate fantasy world between them out of a pair of pet names. His nose twitches a little when he eats so he is a rabbit, or rather King Lappin, and she is therefore Queen Lapinova, and together they reign over a private, desolate world of streams and mists. Until, that is, he gets a bit bored of it, and a few years later tells her that Lapinova has been caught in a trap, before sitting down to read the paper.
Nabokov was equally merciless about pet names in Laughter in the Dark (1938). To Albinus, his 17-year-old mistress Margot is his “pet,” his “poor hunted little bunny,” while he is her “doggy,” to be kept neatly on her leash, and eventually tortured in the cruel experiment that Margot and Axel Rex play with Albinus’s perceptions after he has been blinded. The theme of pet love is more explicit in the Russian original, Kamera Obskura (1933), which begins with a story about how a sensitive young physiologist, horrified by the cruelty of animal vivisection, suggests to Robert Gorn (the original of Rex) that he draw a cartoon image of a guinea pig, to remind the general public of the “the cruelty of science to those very creatures, who in another time aroused in humanity a warm tenderness, by their fluffiness, their warmth.” No sentimentalist, Gorn is reminded only of a rat—“let it whine under the scalpel!”—but is eventually inspired to create a cute cartoon figure, Cheepy, a guinea pig dressed in modern clothes, with semi-human features, whose antics in newspaper pages—dancing the Charleston, doing gymnastics on a laboratory stool—win the love of a worldwide public, making Gorn a rich man. It is an elaborate parable of the hidden sadism implicit in what English calls “cuteness,” that instinct in which adult, child, and animal are messed together in a mix that is at once infantile and erotic, [End Page 175] and which Nabokov would later elaborate in Lolita, that novel about Humbert and little Lolita, his “precocious pet.” And there is a curious insight here: that the longing for a knowledge too precise, too vivisective, produces, seemingly as a counter-reaction but perhaps in fact as a continuity, a willed blindness, a desire to touch but not to know, a salivating sentimentality.
One does wonder, though, how Véra Nabokov felt when she first read Kamera Obskura’s mockery of pet names. Less than ten years earlier, Nabokov had been in the habit of addressing her, in his letters, as one little animal after another: across letters of 1925 and 1926 she is (in Olga Voronina and Brian Boyd’s translation) “kitty,” “poochums,” “puss,” “mouse,” “goosikins,” “monkeykins,” “dipod,” “sparrowling,” “mosquittle,” “pussykins,” “kidlet,” “skunky,” “long bird of paradise with the precious tail” (!), “mothling,” “little one,” “kitty-cat,” “roosterkin,” “tigercubkin,” “fire-beastie,” and—more simply—“pussycat” and “puppykin.” It’s hard not to choke on all this loving drool. “I sense your sweet long legs, your neck through your hair, your trembling eyelashes—and then such happiness, such simmering bliss follows me in my dreams that I simply suffocate.” Perhaps it is to protect against the risk of suffocation that the animals have to keep changing; pet love is warm but stuffy, so it depends on small variations to keep it oxygenated. The transitions come so fast that the animals start to blur into one another—not only does Vera become a “pupuss” (“a little cross between a puppy and a kitten,” as Nabokov helpfully explains to her), but at one moment Vladimir draws for her a cheering visual riddle that is a Breughelesque composite of various animals: “a mouse,” “a bunny,” “a chick,” “a pony,” “a little monkey,” “another face,” and “Mrs Tufty” (i.e. Véra) “in a new hat.”
This amorous bestiary...