The Notecards on Which Vladimir Nabokov Wrote Lolita: A Look Inside the Author’s Creative Process


If you picked up The Orig­i­nal of Lau­ra, Vladimir Nabokov’s final nov­el, you’ll have seen his dis­tinc­tive index card-based writ­ing method in action. Hav­ing died in 1977, Nabokov nev­er com­plet­ed the book, and so all Pen­guin had to pub­lish decades lat­er came to, as the sub­ti­tle indi­cates, A Nov­el in Frag­ments. These “frag­ments” he wrote on 138 cards, and the book as pub­lished includes full-col­or repro­duc­tions that you can actu­al­ly tear out and orga­nize — and re-orga­nize — for your­self, “com­plete with smudges, cross-outs, words scrawled out in Russ­ian and French (he was trilin­gual) and anno­tat­ed notes to him­self about titles of chap­ters and key points he wants to make about his char­ac­ters.” That comes from a post by Dominic Basul­to at Big Think, who high­lights cards with “a full-on dis­cus­sion of the pre­cise word that Nabokov would like to describe a female char­ac­ter (fille, in French) and how best to ren­der that word in Eng­lish, while keep­ing the con­no­ta­tions and mean­ing of the word in French.” Review­ing The Orig­i­nal of Lau­ra, Alexan­der Ther­oux describes the cards as a “portable strat­e­gy that allowed [Nabokov] to com­pose in the car while his wife drove the devot­ed lep­i­dopter­ist on but­ter­fly expe­di­tions.”


Nabokov could thus, between thoughts of his winged objects of inter­est, use the cards for “insert­ing words, writ­ing mem­os to him­self, scrib­bling after­thoughts: ‘invent trade­name [for a med­i­cine], e.g., cephalop­i­um.’ ” They also served him ear­li­er in his career; at the Library of Con­gress’ site for its Man­u­script Divi­sion’s Nabokov col­lec­tion, you can see a cou­ple of the cards on which he wrote his best-known nov­el, 1955’s Loli­ta. Asked about his work­ing meth­ods by Her­bert Gold in the Paris Review, he described the method forth­right­ly: “The pat­tern of the thing pre­cedes the thing. I fill in the gaps of the cross­word at any spot I hap­pen to choose. These bits I write on index cards until the nov­el is done. My sched­ule is flex­i­ble, but I am rather par­tic­u­lar about my instru­ments: lined Bris­tol cards and well sharp­ened, not too hard, pen­cils capped with erasers.” For every craft, the prop­er tool, and Nabokov remains, frag­men­tary last book and all, one of west­ern lit­er­a­ture’s most respect­ed crafts­men of lan­guage — or, rather, lan­guages, plur­al.

Note: You can down­load essen­tial works by Vladimir Nabokov as free audio­books (includ­ing Jere­my Irons read­ing Loli­ta) if you sign up for a free 30 Tri­al with Audi­ble. Find more infor­ma­tion on that pro­gram here.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Vladimir Nabokov Mar­vels Over Dif­fer­ent Loli­ta Book Cov­ers

Vladimir Nabokov (Chan­nelled by Christo­pher Plum­mer) Teach­es Kaf­ka at Cor­nell

Alfred Hitch­cock and Vladimir Nabokov Trade Let­ters and Ideas for a Film Col­lab­o­ra­tion (1964)

Nabokov Reads Loli­ta, Names the Great Books of the 20th Cen­tu­ry

Vladimir Nabokov’s Delight­ful But­ter­fly Draw­ings

Col­in Mar­shall hosts and pro­duces Note­book on Cities and Cul­ture and writes essays on cities, Asia, film, lit­er­a­ture, and aes­thet­ics. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on his brand new Face­book page.

by | Permalink | Comments (1) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.