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SPOTLIGHT: Sweeping Culture Daily

Alfred Hitchcock and Vladimir Nabokov Were Pen Pals

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By Bryan Hood | Back before Snapchat, text messaging, and email, people often communicated by way of these things called letters. What you would do is take a piece of paper, write or type a message to whomever you wanted to receive it — be they a family member, crush, or someone they just thought was cool — stuff it in an envelope, and drop it off in a mail box or at the local post office. A few days later, and they’d receive it, and if they so pleased, reply to you in kind. Two people who participated in this increasingly rare medium of communication, two of the 20th century’s master storytellers: famed director Alfred Hitchcock and beloved author Vladimir Nabokov. And thanks to the American Reader, we now get a chance to read what the two were writing about.

The two, who were admirers of one another, something which should come as a shock to no one who’s experienced either of their work, had been in touch before, including talking on the phone about the possibility of collaborating shortly before Hitchcock sent the first letter in November of 1964. The director ran two ideas by the Russian-born writer — one about a defector’s wife which would provide him the chance “to indulge in the customary Hitchcock suspense,” and another about a girl who returns home to her family after growing up in a convent, only to find that they are a gang of crooks. He also closed out with a complimentary explanation why he’d like to work with the author:

“As I indicated to you on the telephone, screenplay writers are not the type of people to take such ideas as these and develop them into responsible story material. They are usually people who adapt other people’s work. That is why I am by-passing them and coming direct to you—a story-teller.”

Nabokov replied to the filmmaker just over a week later, saying that while he was intrigued by both ideas, only the second matched his skills, but even then, only if he was allowed complete freedom. He also jotted down two ideas of his own, one of which we think sounds phenomenal:

“A girl, a rising star of not quite the first magnitude, is courted by a budding astronaut. She is slightly condescending to him; has an affair with him but may have other lovers, or lover, at the same time. One day he is sent on the first expedition to a distant star; goes there and makes a successful return. Their positions have now changed. He is the most famous man in the country while her starrise has come to a stop at a moderate level. She is only too glad to have him now, but soon she realizes that he is not the same as he was before his flight. She cannot make out what the change is. Time goes, and she becomes concerned, then frightened, then panicky. I have more than one interesting denouement for this plot.”

The other, going off of Hitchcock’s first pitch, involves a defector too, only this one’s going east to west, and trying to break through the Iron Curtain. Maybe most noteworthy about this letter though, is that it explains why the two mutual admirers never teamed up. Nabakov writes, that while he wanted to work with the director, he wouldn’t be able to dedicate any time to the screenplay until the next summer, as he was involved in finishing up a handful of projects during at that time. As I’m sure is probably clear, Hitchcock unfortunately needed to get started on the project before that, and the dream storytelling collaboration was over before it really started.

Perchance to dream.

Image: “Hitchcock” Trailer/Fox Searchlight Pictures

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