I just finished reading “The Real Life of Sebastian Knight” and I was reminded again why Nabokov is one of my favourite writers. I first read an extract from “Lolita” in Sixth Form and I couldn’t quite wrap my head around it but something in the language fascinated me: the type of writing that makes you want to simultaneously keep reading and also immediately start writing something yourself.
The narrator of “The Real Life” journeys across Europe following the death of his half-brother, an author, in an attempt to produce a biography of his life. As Nabokov writes his book, so that of his narrator progresses: the process of creation is self-reflexively examined as the narrator struggles to produce a biography that is anything more than the fiction in which he himself exists. Nabokov scrutinises the nature of time and memory in such a way that reminds us we are all makers and tellers of stories concurrently, perpetually building fictions about our own lives even as we live them.
“The Real Life” is simultaneously a novel by Vladimir Nabokov and also the work produced by his narrator; although exactly which work is not quite clear: are we reading the book the narrator meant to produce? Or the chronicle of his experience of writing this elusive biography? There are still more books within this book: the narrator provides tantalising summaries of his brother’s genius works that make us wish they had really been written so we could read them ourselves.
This has to be one of my favourite things about Nabokov: the text within a text. “Pale Fire” is like a dictionary: its meaning lies in references to itself; it is at once both a map and a key. Like “The Real Life,” it is a detective story of documents; Nabokov creates both the researcher and the archive that he must navigate in extraordinary detail. His works do not just portray another world, but consist of actual documents from the world which his character inhabits. The reader is also a researcher, investigating the document for what it reveals about its author. “Lolita,” for example, is a sketch of H. Humbert where the events the narrator describes are not so important as the portrait he produces of himself in telling them.
“The Original of Laura” is a publication so interesting that its inconveniently large size did not prevent me from dragging it back home from Buffalo, New York. Even the title again implies a conflation of the actual work “The Original,” with the created work i.e. the character, Laura. It is the incomplete work which Nabokov was writing at the time of his death, reproduced in its unfinished state as a collection of numbered index cards filled with half-formed scenes and fragmentary sketches. For me it is infinitely interesting for what it can show about Nabokov’s writing process. Deciphering the scribbled out word beneath the one he decided to use is like following his actual train of thought.
Index cards have been an invaluable writing tool for me since Nabokov inspired me to use them. I have always been a “planner” rather than a “pantser” and I prefer to outline my scenes in long-hand first before I open my laptop. By using index cards I easily can re-arrange, insert and delete scenes without feeling that I’ve made any permanent decisions. I like to have something physical that represents the elements of my story at a glance. To me, if it only exists on the computer it feels somehow unreal.
Is there a particular author you can always turn to for inspiration? Have you ever tried one of your favourite writer’s techniques? Are you a planner or a pantser? I would love to know! Thanks for reading.