Of Nabokov, Lancelot, and Ashland

Navokov placque on Meade Street in Ashland. Photo by Debra Murphy

Nabokov in 1973. Wikipedia.














I love to walk, to see the world on foot. That my hometown of Ashland, Oregon is one of the primo towns in the country for hiking, whether perambulating path or pavement, was a major incentive to move here.

Last summer, one Sunday morning, coming down from a hike in the hills above the Boulevard to meet the Clan for coffee at Bloomsbury, I came upon this sign between a couple of newer homes on Meade Street:

All the years we had visited and/or lived here, almost two decades in all, I had somehow neglected to stumble on the fact that Vladimir Nabokov had lived in Ashland for a couple of months in the summer of 1953, collecting butterflies in the mountain meadows and finishing Lolita.

Not a bad way to spend a summer, that.

The Arthurian Connection

Seeing as how it had been forty years since I had read Lolita, I did some digging: turns out there are some Arthurian links in the famous Russian novelist’s life and work.

[:amazon_link asins=’0679729976′ template=’ProductAd’ store=’debramurphy-20′ marketplace=’US’ link_id=’bce28567-9afb-11e7-b359-bf7948db34c1′]Describing his own childhood as nearly “perfect,” Nabokov grew up trilingual (Russian, French, English) in a wealthy St. Petersburg family. He could read English before he could read Russian. His early literary fare: the legends of King Arthur, his Knights, and the Round Table.

Apparently the early exposure made an impact. In 1952 Nabokov published a short story in The New Yorker entitled “Lance” about an aging medievalist named “Boke” (a futuristic declension of “Nabokov,” presumably) keeping vigil at the bedside of his wounded son Lance, just returned from a failed expedition to Mars. According to Charles Nicol in his article, “Nabokov and Science Fiction: Lance”

…the language and subject matter of medieval romance are frequently invoked in the story. For instance, “if Boke’s sources are accurate, the name ‘Lanceloz del Lac‘ occurs for the first time in Verse 3676 of the twelfth-century ‘Roman de la Charrete.”‘ (The reference is to Chretien de Troyes’ Le Chevalier de la Charrette, also known as Conte de la Charrette, or simply Lancelot, which Boke may have read with an English crib; my translation includes the following note: “V. 3676.-The hero of the poem is here first mentioned by name” [Chretien: 372]). This apparenta side actually is a direct identification of Lance (who leaves from the region of the Great Lakes and lands near a Martian “lake”) with Lancelot of the Lake. The comparison of Lance and Lancelot is a continual metaphor, running throughout the story.

Nabokov the Arthurian…who knew?

How to get to Ashland’s Vladimir Nabokov plaque:

Downtown, go to the corner of Main and First Street. (First is one block south of Pioneer, which leads up to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.)

Turn south on First Street. If you’re not sure which is south, think “uphill.” Go two blocks (uphill!), past Hargadine, to the intersection with Vista. Turn left on Vista.

Vista veers left up the hill and becomes Meade Street. The Nabokov plaque is on the right side of the street (facing uphill) between two newer homes. (The original home from the fifties was torn down to make way for the new ones.)

Here’s a map:

Categories: Arthur and Grail, Books and Publishing, and Pacific Northwest and Mythical State of Jefferson.

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