Milton Glaser Remembers Nabokov

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Shortly after I posted a story about an author’s experience of book design, I accidentally opened my copy of McSweeney’s 4, which consisted of a box of pamphlets, and I found that one pamphlet comprised an essay by Paul Maliszewski, called “Paperback Nabokov”, about Vladimir Nabokov’s experience of paperback cover design. (This subject just keeps getting more recursive, and I apologize for that.)

It seems that Nabokov had a positive experience with Milton Glaser, who had been assigned to draw a cover for Pnin, mostly because Glaser took him seriously.

Glaser recalled it was an extraordinary experience for him, chiefly because Nabokov had such a precise idea of what his character looked like. [Nabokov had included, in a letter to Glaser, pictures of Russian men for Glaser to refer to as he worked.] With his pictures of the Pnin-like Russians, Nabokov introduced Glaser to the faces of Baykov, Pavlov, and Maslov, Obrastov, and Yegorov. They showed “Russian men in public life — soldiers, diplomats, etc.,” Glaser recalled. “My memory,” he said, “which is faulty at best, recalls that most of these clippings were from Russian newspapers and periodicals and that Cyrillic characters were visible.” [Glaser and Nabokov referred to these Russians by last names only, and their] identities very likely included among their number one cosmonaut, a prominent economist, the Marshall of the Soviet Air Force, and one master puppeteer (who apparently wrote a widely translated autobiography called My Profession, about puppetry), a poet regarded as Pushkin’s most notable precursor in Russian verse, and the Pavlov of conditioned reflex fame. But none of this can be known for sure, really, without the photographs, and they’re gone. Glaser said there was less than a remote chance he had the photographs anymore. “They weren’t something you’d keep,” he said. Later he wrote, adding, “I fear the photographs themselves have vanished into the dark pool of history.”

One of Nabokov’s instructions was that Timofey Pnin should be depicted holding a book whose cover read:

ПНИН
В.НАБОКОВ

So maybe I shouldn’t really apologize for the recursive aspects of this post after all.


Jeremy Hatch is a writer, musician, and professional bookseller leading a cheerful, aimless life in San Francisco. He is the Junior Literary Editor of the Rumpus and has a blog which he updates once in a while. More from this author →