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Camera Obscura, John Long, 1936

1936 John Long Camera Obscura, dust jacket front

John Long, an imprint of the British publisher Hutchinson, issued the first translation of Nabokov’s 1933 Russian novel, Камера обскура, into English as Camera Obscura in January 1936 in black cloth-covered boards with gilt stamping and with a dust jacket illustration, by an artist named Abbey, of a man in a three-piece pinstripe suit glaring intensely at an awkwardly seated woman. The translation was credited to a Winifred Roy.

John Long royalty statements (in the Nabokov holdings of the New York Public Library’s Berg Collection) show that 567 sets of sheets of Camera Obscura were printed. The sheets were warehoused and then bound and shipped according to John Long’s marketing needs.

First released were full price copies into the domestic market at 7/6 (i.e., seven shillings and six pence) on 2-Jan-1936. Only 99 copies were sold. At about the same time, John Long, following standard British publishing practice of the time, shipped copies overseas to countries and colonies of the British Empire for sale at less than the full price edition, probably six shillings. These were bound with a preliminary sheet pointing out that the copy was for sale only in a restricted area of the British empire. (See John Long records that only 10 such copies were sold.

Eventually, John Long, following its standard practice of re-releasing at a lower price point 7/6-priced books that didn’t sell out, issued Camera Obscura in its “cheap” line at 3/6. One-hundred fifty-seven cheap copies were sold. Last of all were 277 copies sold at an unknown, remaindered price. A dozen copies were recorded as “free”, probably for the author, reviewers, promotions, etc. That left 12 sets of sheets unaccounted for.

Of the 567 possible bound copies of Camera Obscura, only a stackful survive. Those still in their dust jackets are even rarer. I’ve been able to track three such copies: one at the Berg Collection and which had previously been Nabokov’s own copy; a depository copy at the Cambridge University Library; and, one unsuccessfully offered three times (2002, 2005, 2008) by Sotheby’s in London, for which I have little information. Ten other institutional copies, almost certainly without dust jacket, are listed on WorldCat and multiple others are in private hands or dealers’ catalogs. The surviving population, with and without dust jacket, therefore is minimally a couple dozen.

The copies I’ve examined and the citations I’ve found reveal several points regarding bindings, dust jacket spines, and advertisements. For each point, the findings are listed in their probable order of issue. First are the bindings:

  • Binding a – Black cloth-covered boards with gilt stamping;

    Camera Obscura, John Long, 1936

    Binding a in black cloth with gilt stamping.

  • Binding b – Red cloth-covered boards with black stamping;

    Camera Obscura, John Long, 1936

    Binding b in red cloth with black stamping.

  • Binding c – Wrappers (cited but unobserved).

Then are the dust jacket spines:

  • Dust jacket spine a – Black and red lettering on a white ground (reading from the top down: title, blurb, author’s name, price at 7/6, and publisher’s name);

    Camera Obscura, John Long, 1936

    Issue a, dust jacket spine.

  • Dust jacket spine b – A strip, overlaying the original spine, with black and red lettering on a yellow ground (reading from the top down: probably (because of incomplete information on a poorly preserved spine) the author’s name, title, two lines mentioning Despair, price at 3/6, and probably the publisher’s name).

    Camera Obscura, John Long, 1936

    Dust jacket with spine b

In addition, bound into each copy is a concluding separately paginated signature of advertisements for John Long books. Those signatures are listed here in their probable chronological order. (Be aware of John Carter’s admonition in ABC for Book Collectors that when using bound-in advertisements to assess priority of issue, one must use the evidence with great caution.):

  • Advertisement set a – Sixteen pages headed “JOHN LONG | Books | SUMMER LIST, 1935”. There are 11 pages for summer 1935 books, three pages for spring 1935 books, one for cheap editions, and one for a writing competition “…for a mystery or detective novel to be submitted…not later than 1st July, 1935…”. There is no mention of Camera Obscura or the 1937 John Long Despair anywhere in the ads;
  • Advertisement set b – Sixteen pages headed “JOHN LONG’S NEW BOOKS”. Page one has the further heading “GENERAL”, encompassing eight pages of listings and page nine is headed “NOVELS” and encompasses eight pages. Camera Obscura is advertised on p. 10. There is no mention of Despair;
  • Advertisement set c – Sixteen pages headed “JOHN \beginning of publisher’s rectangular device\ LONG’S | NEW \continuation of publisher’s rectangular device\ BOOKS”. There are 15 pages, plus one page for “RECENT NOVELS”. Camera Obscura is advertised on p. 9 and subheaded “Author of ‘Despair’”. But there is no separate listing for Despair;
  • Advertisement set d – Four pages headed “JOHN LONG’S 3/6 LIBRARY | LOVE, LIFE & ROMANCE”. There is no mention of Nabokov or either of his two John Long titles. The fact that all of the books listed here are part of the “3/6 Library” implies that these advertisements were intended to be bound in with a John Long book selling at 3/6.

We come now to the actual copies examined:

  • Binding a, dj spine a, advertisement set a;
  • Binding a, dj spine a, advertisement set b;
  • Binding a, unknown dj, advertisement set c;
  • Binding b, unknown dj, advertisement set d;

And the copies, unexamined, with incomplete citations:

  • Binding b, unknown dj, four pages of ads that are possibly advertisement set d;
  • Binding c, unknown dj (if any), unknown ads, released in 1938.

With this information in hand, I have parsed this edition into three issues:

  • Issue a – Binding a (black) and dust jacket spine a at 7/6: certainly the full price issue;
  • Issue b – Binding a (black) and dust jacket spine b at 3/6: probably the cheap issue;
  • Issue c – Binding b (red) and unknown dust jacket at unknown price: probably the remaindered issue.

Since I have not examined or found solid citations for colonial or wrappers releases, I have not given them the status of separate issues.

I have ignored the advertising sets here. Though they can with confidence be chronologically organized, the binder could have grabbed whatever current or old ones he had at hand when binding them into any of the issues: Witness ad set a with its references to spring and summer 1935 bound into a book released in January 1936.

D. Barton Johnson speculates that the credited translator, Winifred Roy, is in fact, Winifred Ray. Johnson researches come up with no mention of Roy. but that “…Winifred Ray was active as a translator from German and French in the 1930s. At least one of her translations was published by John Long, making it not unlikely that Nabokov’s Laughter in the Dark was also Ray’s work. There is no evidence that Ray knew Russian, so if she was the translator, she must have worked from Doussia Ergaz’s French version (V. Nabokov-Sirine, Chambre obscure [Paris: Bernard Grasset, 1934]).” (See D. Barton Johnson’s “Sources of Nabokov’s Despair”, p. 15n, in Nabokov at Cornell, Gavriel Shapiro, ed., Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 2003.)

I would appreciate hearing from anyone with further information about the 1936 John Long Camera Obscura.

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I just noticed that my blog’s spam filter was overly aggressive on Robert Nelson’s recent comment on my Sebastian Knight draft pages and tried to trash it. Fortunately I was able to snatch it back and post it. But I may have missed other comments. Please let me know if the despammer did you wrong by sending an email to


The first edition of VN’s first novel in English, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, is a bibliographic hybrid in ways I wasn’t fully aware of in the 1980s when I was pulling my bibliography together. Published by New Directions in 1941, TRLoSK, I have determined, was issued in anywhere from five to eight possible combinations of bindings, labels, and dust jackets. (I say “five to eight” because there may be as many as three black swans in the forms of different binding/label/dust jacket combinations but which I haven’t yet found to exist.)

Publication Date

Before getting to those combinations, let’s look for a moment at the publication date.  A number of copies (I see three for sale right now on the internet; I have examined many others), all in the red, rough burlap cloth, have


stamped on the front free endpaper and always the one date of “DEC 12 1941” separately stamped on the underlining. (I can get very picky here. I’ve seen the date in two different stampings, one with the “12” in the same font as the “1941” and one with the “12” in a different font. All of the “DEC”’s and “1941”’s are the same. This implies that at least in some cases a single date consists of at least two separate physical stamping actions. But since it is not unusual for a review or pre-publication copy of a book to have been distributed in slightly or even subtly different forms, I’m going to ignore these differences here.)

The U.S. Copyright Office lists a publication date of 6 December 1941. Brian Boyd (Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years, p. 40) gives an 18 December date. (Boyd tells me that this is “less than robust”; it is the date of the novel’s first review, “by Nabokov’s friend Amy Kelly in the Wellesley College News”.) And one copy with the stamped publication date has, in addition, a handwritten “12/5/41”.

Of course, what really counts as a publication date is when the book is offered for sale before the public (as Carter points out in his clear-headed ABC for Book Collectors). I don’t yet know exactly when TRLoSK was placed on sale, probably sometime in the first half of December. Until I turn up clear evidence (ads, publisher’s records), I am going to stand consistent and stick with the date I used in my bibliography: 6 December 1941.

Bindings, Labels, and Dust Jackets

Back to bindings, labels, and dust jackets. They come in a triplet of pairs.

The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, short-line label

The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, rough cloth with short-line label

The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, long-line label

The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, smooth cloth with long-line label

BINDINGS: Rough cloth or smooth cloth. Well-known and very clear differences, here shown with labels and their measurements.

The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, short-line label

The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, detail of short-line (2.7 cm) label

The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, long-line label

The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, detail of long-line (3.0 cm) label

LABELS: Short line or long line. The two different front-cover labels are physically the same size, 6.1 X 5.8 cm. The leafy borders are also the same size, 5.0 X 4.5 cm. But the text lines are different lengths. One is about 2.7 cm. long, the other about 3.0 cm. In fact, a close examination shows that the fonts used on the two labels are slightly different. In particular, look at each “a”, “e”, “i”, “g”, “R”, and “s”.

The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, dust jacket, front, “Nabokov” variant

The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, dust jacket, front, “Nabokov” variant

The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, dust jacket, front, “Nabokoff” variant

The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, dust jacket, front, “Nabokoff” variant

DUST JACKETS: “Nabokov” spelling or “Nabokoff” spelling. One variant dust jacket has the author’s name spelled “Nabokov” throughout, his first name spelled “Vladimir” at the top of the front flap, and the small heading “Other New Directions Books” on the back flap. The other variant has “Nabokoff” throughout, his first name misspelled “Valdimir” on the front flap, and the small heading on the back flap is “NEW DIRECTIONS FICTION”.

We know from the publisher’s records that New Directions printed 1500 copies of TRLoSK in 1941, but bound only 749 for distribution at that time. The balance of the printing was put into a warehouse and only bound and issued for sale in 1945. That is why all binding variations of TRLoSK are exactly the same internally with VN’s name spelled “Nabokov” on the title page. All evidence points to the first issue being bound in the rough red cloth and the second being in the smooth red cloth.

I have found so far that all paper labels spell the author as “Nabokov”. But the short-line labels appear only on the first issue. A mixture of labels with the two different line lengths appears indiscriminately on the second issue. In addition, I have found that the initial binding in the rough cloth is always wrapped with a “Nabokov” dust jacket. But only in the second binding in smooth cloth does the spelling “Nabokoff” appear on some dust jackets.

What does this mean? The fact that Nabokov’s name is often spelled in English with an “ff” before the 1940s (on the 1936 John Long Camera Obscura and the 1937 John Long  Despair as “Nabokoff-Sirin”, on the 1938 Bobbs-Merrill Laughter in the Dark) and consistently with a “v” beginning sometime in the 1940s implies that the first designed and printed dust jacket was probably the one with the “ff” and the misspelled first name on the front flap. But the first issued dust jacket was the one with the “v”. Did the publisher first have the “ff” jacket printed, pick up on the mistake, put it aside, redesign and print the “v” jacket, and use it for the first issue? And then during the second issue four years later, did the publisher instruct the binder to use the “ff” and the “v” jackets indiscriminately? That’s one possibility.

In summary, these are the observed combinations:

  • Rough cloth, short-line labels, “Nabokov” author, ( with a stamped publication date on some copies).
  • Smooth cloth, short-line labels, “Nabokov” author.
  • Smooth cloth, short-line labels, “Nabokoff” author.
  • Smooth cloth, long-line labels, “Nabokov” author.
  • Smooth cloth, long-line labels, “Nabokoff” author.

These are the priorities of issuance:

  • Rough cloth over smooth.
  • Short-line labels over long.
  • “Nabokov” over “Nabokoff”.

And these are the conclusions:

  • Original printing: 1500 copies printed by the Walpole Printing Office, Mount Vernon, NY in November 1941.
  • First issue: December 1941.
    • Binding: 749 copies in red, rough burlap cloth.
    • Labels on cover and spine: short-line.
    • Dust jacket: author’s name spelled “Nabokov”.
    • (Publication date stamp on a small number of review copies.)
  • Second issue: April 1945. Binding: 751 copies in smooth red cloth.
    • First variant –
      • Labels on cover and spine: short-line.
      • Dust jacket: author’s name spelled “Nabokov”.
    • Second variant –
      • Labels on cover and spine: short-line.
      • Dust jacket: author’s name spelled “Nabokoff” (and the author’s first name on the front flap spelled “Valdimir”).
    • Third variant –
      • Labels on cover and spine: long-line.
      • Dust jacket: author’s name spelled “Nabokov”.
    • Fourth variant –
      • Labels on cover and spine: long-line.
      • Dust jacket: author’s name spelled “Nabokoff” (and the author’s first name on the front flap spelled “Valdimir”).

Copies of TRLoSK in both bindings are relatively easy to come by. But copies with either dust jacket are much harder to find and dearer to buy.