Nabokov, Mushrooms

In case I have yet to make this declaration on the site, it is time you are informed of my all-time, hands-down, no-doubt-about-it favorite author: Vladimir Nabokov. I know of no other author in the English language whose sentences zip and sting and gurgle like Nabokov’s do. He is the most electric author I have ever read; I put down a Nabokov book and my hair stands up on end, smoky residue flitting around the room. The world takes on a pinkish/greenish hue and I’ve been Vladimized.

First, “Lolita” was my favorite book. I named my cat for it. (Lolita, by the way, is at the groomers getting shaved because her hair is all matted. Her Thursday Night Dinner Song–“Meow Mix”–will be recorded upon her return). People who haven’t read Lolita assume it is a perverted book about a child molestor. Well, it is. But that’s like saying Citizen Kane is a movie about a sled. Nabokov’s language is so glorious, so alive and fizzy and–more than you can imagine–funny, you begin to love this child molestor. I mean, how can you not swoon at the opening sentence?

“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.”

Is there a better opening sentence in the English language?

And then there’s “Pale Fire.” I read “Pale Fire” a few summers ago on vacation witih my parents. There is no experience that compares with reading “Pale Fire.” It is exhausting and exhilirating. The premise is so novel, the novel is so peculiar that your whole life changes. The sky is filled with assassins in dark suits flying with umbrellas. The opening pages are an epic poem. The rest of the book is a line-by-line commentary on the poem. And within that, worlds collide.

Now I am reading Nabokov’s memoir, “Speak, Memory.” This is actually a second attempt: I wanted to read the entire Nabokov canon after finishing “Pale Fire,” but was so fried upon its completion I couldn’t let it go. So “Speak, Memory” went on the shelf and came down two days ago after I finished “The Tipping Point.” Again, of course, the prose glitters. I’m already swept off my feet, and I’m only three chapters in.

To lure you in as well, I will now quote heavily from the second chapter. Here, Nabokov recalls his mother and her love for mushrooms. I’ll end with the Nabokov passage and encourage you to marinate your brain in genius: read Nabokov ASAP.

[From “Speak, Memory.”]

One of her greatest pleasures in summer was the very Russian sport of hodit’ po gribi (looking for mushrooms). Fried in butter and thickened with sour cream, her delicious finds appeared regularly on the dinner table. Not that the gustatory moment mattered much. Her main delight was in the quest, and this quest had its rules. Thus, no agarics were taken; all she picked were species belonging to the edible section of the genus Boletus (tawny edulis, brown scaber, red aurantiacus, and a few close allies), called “tube mushrooms” by some and coldly defined by mycologists as “terrestrial, fleshy, putrescent, centrally stipitate fungi.” Their compact pilei–tight-fitting in infant plants, robust and appetizingly domed in ripe ones–have a smooth (not lamellate) undersurface and a neat, strong stem. In classical simplicity of form, boletes differ considerably from the “true mushroom,” with its preposterous gills and effete stipal ring. It is, however, to the latter, to the lowly and ugly agarics, that nations with timorous taste buds limit their knowledge and appetite, so that to the Anglo-American lay mind the aristocratic boletes are, at best, reformed toadstools.

Rainy weather would bring out these beautiful plants in profusion under the firs, birches and aspens in our park, especially in its older part, east of the carriage road that divided the park in two. Its shady recesses would then harbor that special boletic reek which makes a Russian’s nostrils dilate–a dark, dank, satisfying blend of damp moss, rich earth, rotting leaves. But one has to poke and peer for a goodish while among the wet underwood before something really nice, such as a family of bonneted baby edulis or the marbled variety of scaber, could be discovered and carefully teased out of the soil.

On overcast afternoons, all alone in the drizzle, my mother, carrying a basket (stained blue on the inside by somebody’s whortleberries), would set out on a long collecting tour. Toward dinnertime, she could be seen emerging from the nebulous depths of a park alley, her small figure cloaked and hooded in greenish-brown wool, on which countless droplets of moisture made a kind of mist all around her. As she came nearer from under the dripping trees and caught sight of me, her face would show an odd, cheerless expression, which might have spelled poor luck, but which I knew was the tense, jealously contained beatitude of the successful hunter. Just before reaching me, with an abrupt, drooping movement of the arm and shoulder and a “Pouf!” of magnified exhaustion, she would let her basket sag, in order to stress its weight, its fabulous fullness.

Near a white garden bench, on a round garden table of iron, she would lay out her boletes in concentric circles to count and sort them. Old ones, with spongy, dingy flesh, would be eliminated, leaving the young and the crisp. For a moment, before they were bundled away by a servant to a place she knew nothing about, to a doom that did not interest her, she would stand there admiring them, in a glow of quiet contentment. As often happened at the end of a rainy day, the sun might cast a lurid gleam just before setting, and there, on the damp round table, her mushrooms would lie, very colorful, some bearing traces of extraneous vegetation–a grass blade sticking to a viscid fawn cap, or moss still clothing the bulbous base of a dark-stippled stem. And a tiny looper catepillar would be there, too, measuring, like a child’s finger and thumb, the rim of the table, and every now and then stretching upward to grope, in vain, for the shrub from which it had been dislodged.”

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