Nabokov and epilepsy

Currently I am reading Colin Grant’s A Smell of Burning: The Story of Epilepsy for review. As it happens, I open the TLS webpage  this morning and come across this article on whether Vladimir Nabokov had a form of epilepsy. Galya Diment, the author of the piece, is certainly a careful reader of Nabokov:

I write about Nabokov and teach him every year, which means that I constantly re-read him (“One cannot read a book”, Nabokov famously advised his students; “one can only re-read it”). And certain passages in his autobiographical and fictional writings – amounting overall to a kind of obsession – started to come into sharper focus: he, too, must have suffered from some form of epilepsy.


I am always a little wary of attempts at retrospective diagnosis. This is especially so in psychiatry, where a trawl through a writer’s journals will almost certainly reveal introspective passages that can be spun as depressive, or ecstatic passages that can be spun as manic, etc. etc. It can also lend itself to a form of nothing-buttery; Philosopher X’s thought is best understood as HE HAD ASPERGER’S SYNDROME.Politician X’s acts are best understood as HE WAS A PSYCHOPATH. While there can be some interesting insights from this kind of thinking, retrospective diagnosis can only be part of a story, and to my mind a relatively small part. I have written about this at more length and in a more academic setting before. And this kind of things is not confined to psychiatry.

One of the fundamental issues in retrospective diagnosis is simply this; a doctor in practice wouldn’t make a diagnosis without seeing a patient, “taking the history”, doing some form of examination etc. So why suspend this principle for a case in which the patient is dead, possibly a very long time?

In fairness Galya Diment’s TLS piece of Nabokov is more nuanced than other examples of the genre, although this passage is fairly typical of mining the literary data for hints of a diagnosis:

Since there are no medical records available, the best sources of relevant clues are of course Boyd’s biography and Nabokov’s personal letters. Boyd lists the following known health problems that the writer apparently suffered from: “adenoma . . . concussion . . . heart palpitations . . . influenza/pneumonia . . . intercoastal neuralgia . . . lumbago . . . lung damage . . . nervous strain . . . pleurisy . . . psoriasis . . . shadow behind the heart . . . sunstroke . . . urinary tract infection . . .”.The “nervous strain” is particularly intriguing, since it is so vague. “Volodya has had a kind of nervous breakdown, due to overwork”, Edmund Wilson wrote in 1946 to their mutual friend, Roman Grynberg, the editor of Russian émigré journals. In 1952 Nabokov himself wrote to Grynberg, that his state of health was such that his nervous system only just then “had stopped resembling tangled barbed wire” (“перестала походить на спутанную колючую проволоку”), which is quite reminiscent of Kinbote’s characterization in Pale Fire of Shade’s clusters of epileptic seizures as “a derailment of the nerves at the same spot, on the same curve of the tracks, every day, for several weeks, until nature repaired the damage”.

“I was so joggy and jittery and buzzy with insomnia and so forth”, Nabokov complained to Wilson the following year, “that I decided to lay aside Pushkin for a few months.” “Pushkin” was his translation ofEugene Onegin, and he was already working on Lolita by then as well. There was definitely enough labour and anxiety there – as there had surely been in 1946, and in 1952 – to cause much general stress, but the way he describes it – “joggy and jittery and buzzy” – is also a perfect characterization of epileptic events.


The evidence Diment marshals  includes some family history (his cousin Nicolas Nabokov) and some features possibly (only possibly) linked epilepsy :

Nabokov shared his synaesthesia – “coloured hearing” and seeing letters in colours – with his mother; it occurs, we are told, in at least 4 per cent of temporal lobe epilepsies. He also apparently shared with her, as he reveals in the same chapter, “double sight . . . premonitions, and the feeling of the déjà vu”, all three definitely characteristic of epileptic seizures.

“Definitely characteristic” may be accurate, but “characteristic” does not mean diagnostic. At times Diment acknowledges the weaknesses in her argument:

Nabokov knowing or suspecting he had epilepsy may also explain why he never drove a car. Back in the 1940s when the Nabokovs bought their first American automobile, people diagnosed with any form of epilepsy, including the mildest, were routinely prevented from having a licence. I should note, however, that it is probably equally likely that – as most Nabokov memoirists and biographers suggest – he simply proved to be a talentless learner and, in general, preferred to be chauffeured by his wife, Véra, just as he and his family had been chauffeured in St Petersburg and Vyra, where they spent the summers.

Perhaps the most interesting – and in its way possibly more convincing than other pieces – element of her argument is that Nabokov would have concealed his seizures. A strong theme of what I have read so far of Grant’s book is stigma – not entirely historical – of epilepsy. As is clear from the above, I am something of a sceptic of retrospective literary diagnosis – but what Diment’s article illustrates very well is Nabokov’s extraordinarily specific ability to describe certain states of mind and experiences that hover between the mental and physical.