Matthew Turner

A Telephone Rings in An Empty Apartment

May 29, 2019

In 2009, around the same I was revisiting Nabokov’s Lolita and would go on to reread his other works, a newspaper published a sequence of articles on writers’ rooms. It was, of course, a voyeuristic treat to see these mappings of writers’ minds played out spatially in the objects that filled the spaces and the books coating the walls. Whether as instantiations of the elusive creative process, or as a writer grandly reassuring themselves of their worth, they say something about the person who inhabits them that rarely reaches their work.

J.G. Ballard’s room for example, was a bare, old dining room table in a peripheral corner of his family sitting room—confirming, for me at least, that his imaginary travels were infinitely more important than any trite safari undertaken in the real world. Like the rest of Shepperton, his immediate environment was almost non-existent: a challenge for his mind to work on. I also noticed that the larger the desk the bigger the writer’s ego and, the more old-hat they were, the greater the room’s artifice. Will Self’s man-dungeon speaks more of a stagnant mausoleum than of a space for someone with an open and developing view of the world.

With the writer’s room bivalence dawning on me at once, I tried to imagine what Nabokov’s writing room might have looked like (an exercise I now perform on everyone I read). Alas, I couldn’t. Late one night, I compulsively scrolled through reams of old black-and-white photographs of him at work, to quickly realise he never really had one, so amorphous was his personality and imagination to be shackled by space or time. Not only did he not have a writing room, he barely had a house. He owned one once—a large, picturesque villa inherited from his rich uncle that he never had the chance to step foot in as owner—but he spoke of homes very rarely. Once, he did it by describing why he was too old to own a house, another time —though it’s a claim to which I can no longer find a reference—he did it by imagining his perfect home as a hermetically sealed and silent glass box hanging high above a writhing and pulsing New York.

Many writers lead troublesome lives; Nabokov’s, in comparison—if we take him at his word—was a perpetually blossoming bower of butterfly-collecting and knickerbockers. Yet all the major traumas that beset him as a youth and would pursue him around world for the rest of his life appear to be cataclysms of geography, of dwelling, of place and of home; most severely triggered with his family’s uprooting from their Russian estate. Following the October Revolution, they were forced to flee from Saint Petersburg for Crimea, never to return.

Much of “Lolita” was scrawled on index cards in a 1952 Buick during a transcontinental butterfly hunt with Vera at the wheel (Matthew Turner, 2019).

Long before this, though, Saint Petersburg had a long and distinguished record of being ever spatially and politically on the verge of collapse. Its wind, for instance, was disorienting, leading Gogol to conclude that it must be the only place where gusts blew in from all four points of the compass simultaneously. Though its architecture was imposing at first glance, behind its hijacked Palladian facades things were decidedly more dicey. Even the stones were counterfeit: there is no quarry remotely near Petersburg, and much of the city was built of plaster over brick and doctored to appear majestic, permanent. If architecture so often stands to reinforce a nation’s identity and its people’s relationship to place, it would seem Petersburg’s was paper-thin.

But while this superficiality could easily seem negative, it could also contain untold possibilities for constant personal evolution and revolution, provided it is possible to shift or shed identity as easily as one turns a page. This echoes the transcendent qualities present in the final pages of Nabokov’s “Invitation to a Beheading”, where the papier-mâché stage-set of the protagonist’s labyrinthine entrapments just falls away, leaving behind a condition of escapist bliss. He sheds the shroud of the tormenting spaces in which he has found himself in the same way a butterfly casts off its cocoon.

Politically and environmentally, the fragile state of Russia resulted in what can be seen as Nabokov’s fear to permanently settle anywhere or, more specifically, of putting down roots. This nomadic impetus would filter into every level of his life, personality, books and even his relationships.

In his short essay “Dream Textures”, W. G. Sebald conjures the amorphous quality of Nabokov’s prose. Though not explicitly mentioned, the texture it evokes in me is similar to that of Rococo architecture, and it’s within these sinuous spaces that I picture Nabokov (Matthew Turner, 2019).

The most primitive and often most reliable spatial configuration may be the space between lovers, or between creators and their art. When Nabokov first met his muse and close collaborator, the inimitable Vera, this too was rendered ambiguous. They met late one night on a dark bridge in Berlin and, to Nabokov’s surprise, Vera was wearing a mask. Eight months later he would chide her for this, writing in one letter: ‘But you really wouldn’t dare wear a mask,’ to which she replied with ‘You are my mask.’ [1]

More truthfully, however, they were both each other’s masks. Although love is triggered by the space between bodies, enduring love and companionship eradicates the space between two human vessels, lending their boundaries and edges with an ambiguity similar to how the pair would often share the same pen when they couldn’t afford to buy two. When people write about Nabokov they are simultaneously writing about Vera, the beguiling VN they would sign their letters with in later life, containing both of their names. VN or Nabokov, whichever the signifier, was not really a person but a gradient in continuous coalescence—the fluid border of a coastline, more than the stable bounds of flesh. Intriguingly, and famously, they also shared the gift of synaesthesia. While synesthetics tend to have superior memories, they often suffer from difficulties with spatial navigation: a revealing factoid, in light of how the edges of their bodies often became interchangeably lost in each other.

At the end of an early love letter to Vera, shortly after the masked meeting, Nabokov makes a rather strange request of her, by asking her to telephone his old apartment very late at night, so as to be certain to disturb his former neighbours. [2] The suggestion that she telephone a place he no longer lived in order to confer he’s still there captures a bodily and geographic displacement, a nomadic drift—material or otherwise—that would be present throughout the remainder of their lives together. Nabokov thought that personality was a prison, something that he personally wished he could escape from. Spaces and fixed abodes physically betray and lock down people’s psyches, and he was keen to defer them throughout his writing life—as with the bit of sleight-of-hand involved in the telephone prank.

After Vera’s entrance into his life, he began to grapple with the notion that while space may be finite, time is not— and it was in the modulations of time that he would feel most at home. Spaces, writing rooms, houses, objects, dust and closets all collect time and tether it deterministically to a fixed point. For Nabokov, this inertia was the antithesis of creativity. In his personality, his work and in the spaces he would write them in—even in the way he would go about writing them— he coveted movement and limens. From a moth-eaten sofa in a German boarding house on which, recumbent, he composed his first novel, to a plethora of hotels in Berlin and Paris, on to borrowed houses in America, on many beds—the usual place for nocturnal sojourns—and then the back seat of a car; in brief pauses while on constant, itinerant trips around the United States. A final resting place would come in the shape of a hotel, that most transitional of factual locations, where he spent the rest of his life. They are all temporal places of flux, just as the index cards he was famous for writing on, that could be shaken up at any moment to produce something unexpected.

Nabokov’s immaterial Rococo writing room (Matthew Turner, 2019).

If for Nabokov personality was a prison; then the room, especially the writer’s room, was its manifestation. Spaces, notably those that are new or unfamiliar, are coated with a sheen of fiction until time, actions and objects dispense their multifarious—and frequently toxic—layers of lacquer over every surface, transforming them into concrete, fixed places where roots can spread and poison be drawn up. The room seems like a datum, a reassuring horizon—but it is a fossilised trap. Instead of reaffirming existence, writers’ rooms, to paraphrase the narrator of Nabokov’s short story “Terra Incognita”, comprised only the furnishings of nonexistence.

The deep, psychological reflections space can imprison us in are most apparent in Humbert Humbert’s description of a hotel room in Lolita: ‘There was a double bed, a mirror, a double bed in the mirror, a closet door with mirror, a bathroom door ditto, a blue-dark window, a reflected bed there, the same in the closet mirror, two chairs, a glass-topped table.’ [3] The whole room is a little cache of mirrors, a metaphor for circumscribing obsession and for how Humbert is caught in his own psyche (which is constantly reflected back at him). ‘In our earthly house, windows are replaced by mirrors,’ [4] writes Nabokov in The Gift. His characters are continually confronted with mirrors where they had hoped to see through windows.

As much as he hated ‘the Viennese quack’, the recurrent image is reminiscent of Freud’s studio in Berggasse 19, where a small framed mirror hanging against the window reflected the lamp on his work table. In Freudian theory, the mirror represents the psyche, and the placement of Freud’s mirror on the litmus between inside and out undermines the status of the boundary as a fixed limit. Interior and exterior cannot be simply separated, and this is why Humbert Humbert [5] cannot escape his deep-seated state of contortion, which the novel copiously refracts.

Whether mirrored or not, many spaces are tyrannous in just this way, and writers’ rooms—with their careful tracings of the most intimate synapses—are intensely culpable. Nabokov turned his back on a steady place to write so it did not transform into a distorting prism of his work and mind. This might seem to be the opposite of what a person needs to be creative: how can someone live, let alone make art, without a sure footing in the world? But the spiral down into an abyss can represent another freedom, which may have conceivably helped him surmount the primitive need for stable ground and a reassuring horizon.

   Zoom-in of Nabokov’s immaterial Rococo writing room (Matthew Turner, 2019).

In his discussion of the vertiginous, Theodor W. Adorno [6] criticises philosophy’s obsession with earth and origin; for him, the experience of vertigo is not about the panicked loss of ground, the datum imagined to be a safe haven of being. It is, rather, a fall towards objects without reservation, embracing a world of forces and matter which lacks any original stability and sparks the sudden shock of openness: a freedom that is terrifying, unsettled and ever unknown. Falling or disequilibrium can mean ruin (in the way that ruins wait for the imagination to renew them), demise and regeneration, as well as love and abandon, passion and surrender. Falling contains everything literature needs through a constant liberation that does not only mean falling-apart but also falling-into-place, time and again. Such a state surmises Nabokov’s shape-shifting oeuvre and grows naturally from his precarious dwelling and writing habits.

Nabokov preferred the camouflage of a butterfly to the distinct and defining characteristics of architecture. Within this near-immateriality he discovered a transcendent [7] space (perhaps the ‘special Space’ [8] referred to in Speak, Memory) where he could dissolve into an abstract entity, at one remove from himself. Such is the ‘special Space’ many creative people crave as they seek to diffuse and view their work from the outside, as objective observers of it. Nabokov never really had a writer’s room with stacks of books around him; the telephone, instead, would ring in an empty apartment. Despite the joy he took in turbulence and tumult, in knots and tangles, in afterimages and coruscating horizons, Nabokov did feel at home in one place. The hearth, or the fireplace, is the traditional centre of the home, a focal point to anchor those within it. For Nabokov—and this was probably the only writing room he ever had—this warm, crackling, glowing and comforting hearth was his memory: ‘One is always at home in one’s past’. [9]


[1] Schiff, Stacy. Vera (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov). New York: Modern Library, 1999, p.14.
[2] Schiff, ibid, p.11.
[3] Nabokov, Vladimir. Lolita. London: Penguin Classics, 2000 [1955] , p.119.
[4] Nabokov, Vladimir. The Gift. London: Penguin Classics, 2000 [1938] , p.322.  
[5] Humbert Humbert shares his mirror obsession with another presumed paedophile, the Czech architect Adolf Loos. See: Colomina, Beatriz. Sexuality & Space. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1992, pp.85-86.
[6] Steyerl, Hito. The Wretched of the Screen. Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2012, p.27.
[7] For an extended discussion of transcendence in Nabokov’s work see Annette Wiesner “Behind the Glass Pane: Vladimir Nabokov’s “Perfection” and Transcendence”, in The International Fiction Review, no.1&2, 1998. For an overt exploration of shifting spatial and bodily transcendence in Nabokov’s shorter fiction, see Nabokov’s ‘Perfection’, in Collected Stories. London: Penguin Classics, 2000 [1995] , pp.338-347.
[8] Nabokov, Vladimir. Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited. London: Penguin Classics, 2000 [1951], p.229.  
[9] Schiff, ibid, p.24.  


Matthew Turner is a writer living in London. He studied at University College London and is now working as writer and assistant editor for LOBBY magazine while also teaching at Chelsea College of Arts. His first novella Other Rooms will be published by Hesterglock Press in 2019.