When I was a boy in Geneva, sometime in the 1960s, a schoolmate of mine belonged to a society of junior lepidopterists. A couple of times a year, under the guidance of mature butterfly experts, he and his fellow enthusiasts went off to capture papillons in the alpine meadows above Montreux, at the opposite end of Lake Geneva. On one such expedition the guide was a stout, bald Russian gentleman in shorts and a parka who, despite being in his mid-60s, bounded ahead of the pack, brandishing his net and firing off exhortations and butterfly lore in accented but fluent English and French. When the hunt was over, he abruptly took his leave with a cheery “Au revoir, tout le monde.” His name I heard for the first time as, approximately, Monsieur Nabucco. He was, said my friend, one of the world’s leading experts on butterflies. He was also, he added in awe, the author of a really dirty book.
I was only about 13 at the time, and I’d never heard of Monsieur Nabucco, but I’d heard of his dirty book. It was called Lolita, and I knew where to find a copy. Such controversial books as made it across the threshold of our conservative expat Irish-American household were locked in my father’s desk, wherein I, having purloined the key, duly discovered Monsieur N.’s book, lumped in with John Cleland’s Fanny Hill and Frank Harris’s My Life and Loves and Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead. (The word Naked got the last locked up, but not, I think, actually read.) I set to promptly. But the disappointment! The fancy language! The lack of specifics! I soon returned it to the drawer. Lolita was too weird. But I liked the author’s real name: Vladimir Nabokov, a silvery name, sharp as a knife, sharp as—I would later discover—his peerless prose.
Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov, to give him his full patronymic due, died 30 years ago at age 78. Distilled to his essential selves he would be, in no particular order, a patrician, a husband and father, a lepidopterist, and one of the most surprising and subversive authors of the 20th century—also, one of the funniest. “Nabokov,” observes his biographer, Brian Boyd, “uses humor to undermine our attachment to the ready-made, to enlarge our sense of the possible, to whet our appetite for the surprise of life.”
His humor reflected his soul, for he occupies a rare position in the annals of literature—especially modern literature—as that oxymoronic creature, the happy writer. The torments and angst of a Kafka or a Dostoevsky were as alien to him as the politics of the day. He was happy mainly because he loved being Vladimir Nabokov and he knew that his genius demonstrated the near-infinite possibilities of language and life and art. He cared not a whit for the carping of critics and the sour grapes of lesser writers, and, 30 years after his death, his overall influence as a one-man mission civilisatrice is still growing. He remains the master of the art of beauty in exactitude. Unexpected yet precise words are connected in his writing like the fine, unbreakable links of a silver necklace. Lesser writers settle for second best; he never does. He finds the right word, however unexpected. Any sampling of his work shows this; take a random sentence from the beginning of the story “Cloud, Castle, Lake”:
The locomotive, working rapidly with its elbows, hurried through a pine forest, then—with relief— among fields.
Whenever I reread this story I share anew the hardworking locomotive’s unexpected relief. And in Speak, Memory, that glowing memoir, we find an echo of Shakespeare (except for the pure Nabokovian parenthesis):
How small the cosmos (a kangaroo’s pouch would hold it), how paltry and puny in comparison to human consciousness, to a single individual recollection, and its expression in words!
Or this, from the opening pages of The Gift (1963):
In the curds-and-whey sky opaline pits now and then formed where the blind sun circulated.
Opaline! The heart sings. And in the same opening pages Stendhal’s famous comment about the novel being a mirror carried along a highway is neatly subverted and made into art.
As he crossed toward the pharmacy at the corner he involuntarily turned his head because of a burst of light that had ricocheted from his temple, and saw, with that quick smile with which we greet a rainbow or a rose, a blindingly white parallelogram of sky being unloaded from the van—a dresser with mirror across which, as across a cinema screen, passed a flawlessly clear reflection of boughs sliding and swaying not arboreally, but with a human vacillation, produced by the nature of those who were carrying this sky, these boughs, this gliding façade.
This is what John Updike meant when he said that Nabokov wrote prose “the way it should be written, that is, ecstatically.”
* * *
Nabokov died at a clinic on Lake Geneva on July 2, 1977. At his side were VÃ(c)ra, his wife of 52 years, and their son Dmitri. He had been in Switzerland, ideal land of exile, for 17 years, and had been exiled from his native Russia for around 60. He had also lived in Germany, England, France, and the United States. By the time his American sojourn began in 1940, he, then 41 and unknown except in the small world of Russian émigrés, had written 18 novels in both Russian and English, influenced by writers as various as Flaubert, Austen, Joyce, and, especially, his compatriots Pushkin, Fet, Tolstoy, and Gogol (whose “Pandora’s Box of a mind” Nabokov praised, possibly thinking of his own, similar mind). He had also written numerous poems and short stories, some plays, a few essays, and much butterfly arcana; for he was nearly as dedicated to the science of studying and classifying butterflies as he was to writing.
Later, in Speak, Memory (1966), he explored the ties that bound his scientific and artistic selves: chess, butterflies, crossword puzzles, acrostics. He also analyzed, as a scientist might, all the permutations of nostalgia and homesickness. In so doing he exposed the novelistic themes that, he believed, were woven through his wandering life; for, in spite of himself, he acknowledged exile as the crucible of his art.
He once said that the most beautiful word in the Russian language was nostalghia, thinking perhaps not so much of the word itself as of the condition it evoked, the shimmering memory of his youth and the places and palaces he was forced to abandon when he was only 18: his statesman-journalist father’s estate at Vyra, 50 miles south of St. Petersburg; his uncle Ivan Rukavishnikov’s magnificent Rozhdestveno; and his own birthplace, the elegant hôtel particulier at 47 Bol’shaia Morskaia in St. Petersburg (now, in one of life’s clumsy ironies, the Nabokov Museum). The family was wealthy and prominent and included nobles and generals and government ministers. Even the family dachshund, Box II, was a kind of aristocrat, being descended from a pair of Anton Chekhov’s dogs.
Nabokov once said, guilelessly, “I probably had the happiest childhood imaginable.” Heresy for a modernist! Surely, childhood is a time of torment and misery? Well, Lenin and his comrades did their best to make it so. After the Russian Revolution a way of life disappeared forever into the mists of the mythical place Nabokov later, in Pale Fire (1962), rechristened Zembla, and which he evokes, with deep nostalghia, at the end of that splendid mock epic:
History permitting, I may sail back to my recovered kingdom, and with a great sob greet the gray coastline and the gleam of a roof in the rain . . .
Alas, history did not issue the permit.
* * *
Nabokov had idiosyncratic likes and dislikes. Some of them were perhaps a little too self-consciously subversive, in keeping with his artistic mission, but most of them were understandable in light of his centeredness in who he was and his distrust of artists who weren’t, who paraded their neuroses. Famously, too, he hated psychoanalysis and its chief exponent:
I reject completely the vulgar, shabby, fundamentally medieval world of Freud, with its crankish quest for sexual symbols . . . and its bitter little embryos, spying from their natural nooks, upon the love life of their parents.
When asked by an interviewer why he felt so strongly on the subject of Freud, he said, “I think he’s crude, I think he’s medieval, and I don’t want an elderly gentleman from Vienna with an umbrella inflicting his dreams upon me,” adding, for good measure, “I don’t have the dreams that he discusses in his books.”
He also claimed to hate Dostoyevsky, “that melodramatic mystic,” although many of Nabokov’s early stories and novels, notably The Eye (1965) and Despair (1966), show the influence of Dostoyevsky’s anti-hero tales in their first-person narrators teetering on the edge of lunacy; still, he found no happiness in Fyodor, and he insisted that H.G. Wells (another writer with a scientist’s eye) was the better novelist. He loved Flaubert, whose complete works he had read in the original French by the time he was ten; but he despised Hugo, that master melancholic. He had a high regard for Dickens, the high-spirited Balzac of England, but not for Balzac, the splenetic French Dickens. One of his favorite contemporary writers was the impenetrable inventor of the “New Novel,” Alain Robbe-Grillet; among his least favorites, Hemingway and Faulkner.
Nabokov considered this last pair meretricious, and, with the fastidiousness of the true aristocrat of mind as well as of blood, he distrusted the showy and flashy, what the Russians call poshlost, meaning philistinism or kitsch. For this reason, he distrusted music, suspecting it of an innate tendency toward poshlost, and claimed to know little of it, but his language is more like music than that of any other modern writer I know, Joyce excepted. Gustav Mahler, another eternal exile comes to mind: the parodies of earlier forms, the intrusion of banal details, the slapstick passages, the aching beauty. I don’t whether Nabokov knew Mahler’s music, but the music he did admit to knowing—bits of Mozart, odds of Tchaikovsky, ends of Rachmaninov (who lent his wife and him 2,000 francs for their trans-Atlantic voyage in 1940)—he treated with the proper reverence he accorded to Art; and one reason he and Véra stayed on at the Palace Hotel in Montreux, apart from the loveliness of the place and having a hotel staff to wait on them hand and foot, was the easy accessibility from there of Geneva, Paris, and Milan, the three music centers where their son Dmitri was becoming an opera singer. (He debuted in the same La Bohème production in 1961 as one Luciano Pavarotti.)
Nabokov was an individualist, and it was this, not politics, that lay behind his hatred of Soviet communism and his disdain for its Western fellow travelers, and it no doubt also explains his dislike of psychoanalysis as just another kind of totalitarian mind control. Unsurprisingly, many of his critics preferred to overlook these distinctions and saw him as an old White Russian blowhard, a kind of Colonel Blimpov, whereas in fact he disdained all political affiliations and engagement. Art was his weapon, his happiness; mediocrity (poshlost) his target. He was wedded to the craft for its own sake, not to make noise as a propagandist or partisan of this or that. “Art,” he said, echoing James Thurber, “does not rush to the barricades.” And on the heights he occupied (how appropriate as a somewhat creaky metaphor were those Alps of his final exile!) he built the finest monument to Art in modern literature. It is an oeuvre that defines exile, modernism, aesthetics, and skill, and from which I have chosen to look briefly at three landmarks in his career: The Gift as his homage to his past and to Russian letters; Lolita (1955) as his primary contribution to the literature of America, his adopted country; and Speak, Memory as a glittering synthesis, rewritten twice, of a life twice started over.
* * *
Nabokov’s last book in what he called his “untrammelled, rich, and infinitely docile Russian tongue” was The Gift (1937–38), his homage to the world that was. It is an ambitious work about (and, in part, by) Fyodor Konstantinovich Godunov-Cherdyntsev, a young Russian émigré aristocrat in Berlin, all resemblances intentional. In its ambiguities, its poetry, its wordplay, and its structural originality, The Gift is a road map to the rest of Nabokov’s work. Its title is both the name of a book about a young émigré writer and the name of the book he wants to write, as well as a metaphor for Russian literature, that greatest of Russia’s gifts to the world. Nabokov sketches a synopsis in the author’s foreword:
The plot of Chapter One centers in Fyodor’s poems. Chapter Two is a surge toward Pushkin in Fyodor’s literary progress and contains his attempt to describe his father’s zoological explorations. Chapter Three shifts to Gogol ... Fyodor’s book on Chernyshevsky, a spiral within a sonnet, takes care of Chapter Four. The last chapter combines all the preceding themes and adumbrates the book Fyodor dreams of writing someday: The Gift.
So the book is actually two books in one. Moving from fiction to more or less fact, chapter four, the “spiral within a sonnet,” is an entirely different narrative from the enveloping novel. It is Fyodor’s biography of a 19th-century Russian social thinker called Nikolai Chernyshevsky, a historical figure (1828–1889) exiled to Siberia for 20 years by the tsar for his radical social-philosophy novel What To Do? Chernyshevsky helped establish materialism as the official ideology of Russia’s revolutionary leftists: Bukhanin, Plekhanov, and, especially, Lenin (who also wrote a pamphlet titled What To Do?) were in his debt. I hardly need add that Chernyshevsky et al. constitute a herd of Nabokov’s bÃ(tm)tes noires and are, in consequence, vigorously lampooned in The Gift. Yet, from Fyodor/Nabokov’s angle, Chernyshevsky is oddly sympathetic: humorless to the core, but endearing in his obstinacy and earnestness, and full of naive faith in his mission. In one scene, as he is reading Das Kapital on a riverbank, he tears out each page he finishes reading, makes a paper boat of it, and sets this ramshackle fleet of S.S. Karl Marxes sailing into the void, a metaphor of Russia like Gogol’s in Dead Souls of Russia as a troika rushing toward an unknown future. Indeed, Chernyshevsky has much in him of Chichikov, the errant, corrupt hero of Gogol’s masterpiece. Both are materialistic, moody, and sentimental; both, therefore, embody poshlost; both are (very Russian) pilgrims to everywhere and nowhere. The Gift is, in this sense, an indictment of everything wayward and ignoble about the old Russia that the new Soviet Russia inherited and enlarged.
But Nabokov’s (and Fyodor’s) portrait of Chernyshevsky is not only that of a Soviet commissar avant la lettre; in him there are echoes and premonitions of other characters from the Nabokovian canon. He is a pre-Pnin, the exiled Russian grammarian in Nabokov’s delightful tragicomedy of the same name. There is in him, too, a dash of that dotty romantic exiled king of Zembla, Charles Kinbote, from the great mock epic Pale Fire. And Chernyshevsky’s ponderous emotionalism suggests Krug, the tragic, bulky hero of Bend Sinister (1947). It is a portrait that resists finding its subject sympathetic, and, in failing, succeeds, both on Fyodor’s terms and on Fyodor’s creator’s. It’s all pure Gogol . . . or should I say mock-Tolstoy? Both; for, like all his best work, The Gift is parody. “[Nabokov] used parody as a springboard for leaping into the highest region of serious emotion,” Brian Boyd has remarked. Nabokov himself, rejecting the label “satirist,” said, “Satire is a lesson, parody is a game.” It was a game he loved playing. The Gift is a parody not only of Nabokov’s old Russian masters such as Gogol and Tolstoy, but also of lesser-known provincials such as the poet Fet and the novelists Saltykov-Schchedrin (The Golovlovs), and Goncharov (Oblomov). Its poetry (Fyodor’s) is sub-Fet, as Fet’s was sub-Pushkin, but both honor the great national poet. In terms of Russian literature, the gang’s all there. But there is no malice in any of this; one of Nabokov’s greatest accomplishments as a writer is the way he respectfully parodies the great traditions that inspire him. In The Gift he even ushers his own father onstage, while archly distancing himself from the effect: “Only the background of the novel can be said to contain some biographical touches,” he says, stiffly. But the character of Konstantin Kirillovich, Fyodor’s father, butterfly hunter and “leading entomological explorer of the age,” Nabokov’s first scientist-artist hybrid, is clearly a vehicle for the author’s own theory about the artistry of the natural world (how, in such things as butterflies, Nature produces her own “art”); and equally clearly, it is an affectionate nod to the author’s dashing father Vladimir Dimitrievich Nabokov, man of letters, action, politics, and butterflies.
Russian émigré life comes back to life with a greater, more poignant accuracy in The Gift than in any other novel of Nabokov’s, and Fyodor himself grows up before our very eyes, changing from self-indulgent idler to man of letters with a novelistic, or Nabokovian, eye for the telling, ludicrous detail.
He met an elderly, morbidly embittered St. Petersburg writer who wore an overcoat in summer to hide the shabbiness of his suit, a dreadfully skinny man with bulging dark brown eyes, wrinkles of fastidious distaste around his apish mouth, and one long, curved hair growing out of a big black pore on his broad nose . . .
Like all writers, Fyodor is fascinated despite himself by such grotesque details; but like all good writers, including his creator, he has compassion to match his perspicacity. Indeed, in the course of the novel Fyodor’s feelings for others, notably his fiancée, Zina, deepen and mature. There is a tenderness in his courtship of Zina that is strikingly more innocent than the sardonic, jittery (parody) love affairs elsewhere in Nabokov’s work, perhaps because it was firmly based on Nabokov’s courtship of his own wife, VÃ(c)ra, as so much else in the novel is firmly based on those Ã(c)migrÃ(c) years in Berlin; for, regardless of the author’s bristling disclaimers, The Gift should be regarded as Nabokov’s most autobiographical novel. Although it clearly owes a debt to Mary (1926, 1970), his charming, heartbreaking first-love first novel, the latter is really no more than a Gift dress rehearsal, minus the stage décor, half the characters, and an act or two. The Gift is complete. It boasts that combination of daring and nonchalance that characterizes the best of the Ã(c)migrÃ(c) modernists—Kundera, for example, in our time; Kafka and Joyce in theirs. It is an artistic triumph and a technical tour de force. Not only did Nabokov have to create Fyodor’s poetry (good) and prose (very good); he also had to come up with the Chernyshevsky biography (prodigious), which required, he said, much “monstrously difficult” research. And it all comes together magnificently. It is a farewell to his vanished homeland, a homage to its language and literature, and a celebration of art, the greatest gift of all.
* * *
Not until 1963 was an English translation of The Gift published, followed by English versions of Invitation to a Beheading (1959), The Defense (1964), and, in 1966, Despair, all blasts from that Berlin Ã(c)migrÃ(c) past. None of these English versions would have ever seen the light of day had it not been for the success of Lolita, which released Nabokov from the bonds of teaching (at Cornell) and made him a rich man. Lolita’s origins can be found in a 1939 novella called The Enchanter that Nabokov wrote in Russian and never published. The themes are similar, but The Enchanter is the chrysalis, Lolita the butterfly. Simply put, it is the autobiographical narrative of a pedophile named Humbert Humbert who marries a woman in order to seduce her 12-year-old stepdaughter, and who, after the accidental death of his wife and a cross-country road trip with the girl, is locked up for the murder of his rival for Lolita’s affectionsÂ. But this is the score without the music, and what music! The novel’s very beginning reminds, or instructs, us of Nabokov’s origins as a poet:
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. She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms, she was always Lolita.
The sexy trisyllable is the nickname of Dolores Haze, a 12-year-old girl—or “nymphet,” to use Nabokov’s now debased coinage—of stereotypical Americanness, 1950s-style (blue jeans, chewing gum, milkshakes). She is the main object of the obsessive love of her stepfather and seducer, Humbert, who is alternately charming and tyrannical; indeed, Martin Amis interprets the novel as an allegory of Soviet-style tyranny, told from the point of view of the tyrant. “All of Nabokov’s books are about tyranny,” Amis says, “Perhaps Lolita most of all.” It’s an interesting point, but Nabokov’s books are “about” everything else, too: love, memory, life. And Amis’s analysis overlooks the crucial role that parody plays in this novel, as it does in all of Nabokov’s work. Like The Gift, Lolita has many targets in its sights, being at once a parody of classic romances of the doomed-love type once so popular in the salons of tsarist Russia (a certain Anna K. comes to mind); of the traditional bildungsroman of Stendhal and Tolstoy; of the medieval pilgrimage tale; and, last but not least, of the Oedipal theory expounded by that elderly Viennese gentleman with whom Nabokov enjoyed fencing. Many literal-minded readers and critics, having missed the parody, miss the point. “Had I not written Lolita, readers would not have started finding nymphets in my other works and in their own households,” said Nabokov. Lolita’s “innocence” certainly seems less sui generis than the calculated decadence of Humbert, who is a parody figure of everything corrupt and decaying about the Old World as seen by the New.
[I was] born in 1910, in Paris. My father was a gentle, easy-going person . . . a Swiss citizen, of mixed French and Austrian descent, with a dash of the Danube in his veins. I am going to pass around in a minute some lovely, glossy-blue picture-postcards. He owned a luxurious hotel on the Riviera.
A Swiss citizen . . . that dash of the Danube . . . those “lovely, glossy-blue picture-postcards”! That Rivieran hotel! That eye for the minute detail! Details that render everyday boringness, ironically, beautiful; or do I mean ironically beautiful? “This capacity,” Nabokov said, marveling (not for the only time) at himself, “to wonder at trifles—no matter the imminent peril—these asides of the spirit, these footnotes in the volume of life are the highest form of consciousness.”
When Lolita was finally published in the United States, in 1958—after a ludicrous half-life under the louche imprint of the Olympic Press in Paris—most American reviewers, blind to the uniqueness of Nabokov’s vision, called him, in essence, a nasty old pervert, thereby guaranteeing the novel’s success. “Lolita is a demonstration of the artistic pitfall that awaits a novelist who invades the clinical field of the case history,” lectured Orville Prescott in The New York Times. “To describe such a perversion with the pervert’s enthusiasm without being disgusting is impossible.” This was a typical reading, and the most superficial one imaginable. The mot juste is perversity, not perversion, and the perversity of human nature—and of Nature—was the focus of this writer’s scientist’s eye. In any case, Lolita is no more perverse than Nabokov’s other books, including the seven originally written in Russian, of which Despair, The Eye, Invitation to a Beheading, and Laughter in the Dark, written in the Berlin of late Weimar and early Hitler, feature voyeurism, murder, adultery, and sadism, all parading across a surreal canvas. Invitation to a Beheading, for instance, features a man with the neoclassical name of Cincinnatus who is locked up for some kind of political heresy in a damp fortress with trompe l’oeil windows and strict rules against politically incorrect dreams. It’s a De Chirico or Magritte painting in words, with a sense of brownshirted doom about to goose-step onstage. (Here, Amis’s tyranny subtext is the narrative.) Kafka haunts this early work; he does a shadow dance with the likes of Robert Louis Stevenson, Andrei Bely, and Fritz Lang. Indeed, as in The Gift, diverse influences are there for everybody to pounce on. The critic Barbara Eckstein has even suggested that Lolita is “a burlesque of [Henry James’s] What Maisie Knew.” Both novels books may have nymphet heroines, but Maisie is only one among many proto-nymphets in literature, as Humbert reminds us: Romeo’s Juliet, Dante’s Beatrice, Petrarch’s Laura, Poe’s Annabel Lee (an acknowledged influence)—nymphets all, sisters of those whom Humbert has corrupted, but not without an almost redemptive pang.
A propos: I have often wondered what became of those nymphets later? In this wrought-iron world of criss-cross and effect, could it be that the hidden throb I stole from them did not affect their future?
The perversity of Lolita is human nature manipulated by a great artist playing God for the purpose of inspiring pity and admiration, which is what great artists do. Lolita, like all of Nabokov’s works, is art first, story second. Humbert’s villainy is secondary to his emblematic significance. Like all of Nabokov’s characters, from cool, murderous Hermann in Despair (1934, Berlin) to lecherous, incestuous Van Veen in Ada (1969, Montreux), Humbert is a phantasm, an almost-character, a Nabokovian version of Tristram Shandy. “Imagine me,” Humbert implores the reader. “I shall not exist if you do not imagine me; try to discern the doe in me, trembling in the forest of my own iniquity.” But he represents indecency, lechery, and cruelty. His creator shows him no mercy. Vlad, the impaler of a thousand butterflies, could with equanimity do likewise with such a character—“my characters are galley slaves,” he once said—as he had done before, with Hermann, the antihero of Despair, who murders a tramp he wrong-headedly believes is his own double. Of the two villains, Hermann and Humbert, Nabokov said:
Hermann and Humbert are alike only in the sense that two dragons painted by the same artist at different periods of his life resemble each other. Both are neurotic scoundrels, yet there is a green lane in Paradise where Humbert is permitted to wander at dusk once a year; but Hell shall never parole Hermann.
Frankly, I’d cancel Humbert’s parole, too.
* * *
The first version of Nabokov’s memoir was published in the United States as Conclusive Evidence in 1951. Subsequent revisions included a title change (from such ungainly efforts as Speak, Mnemosyne and Other Shores), and, riding on Lolita’s success, the final version came out in 1966 under a new, more appropriately artistic title for a grand, evocative work that is, first and last, a work of art. Nabokov’s memoir lacks the self-insight (and self-absorption) of Tolstoy’s, or the self-aggrandizement of Cellini’s, or the navel-gazing of Rousseau’s; but because it is the memoir of Vladimir Nabokov and none other, Speak, Memory combines a timekeeper’s awareness of time’s flight with a mystic’s sense of timelessness, and does with the poignant longing of a serenade by Dvorak, or Jacques Tati’s M. Hulot on holiday. It is a triumph of that artistic imagination of which Sean O Faolain said, “[It is] the imagination so intense that it creates a new reality, that it makes things happen.” Actually, what Nabokov’s imagination does here is to recreate an old reality. The first 12 chapters of the book are reminiscences of childhood, containing passages of transcendent vividness, as if we had been given a skeleton key to his past. Here, for instance, morning breaks at Vyra, c. 1909:
On a summer morning, in the legendary Russia of my boyhood, my first glance upon awakening was for the chink between the white inner shutters. If it disclosed a watery pallor, one had better not open them at all, and so be spared the sight of a sullen day sitting for its picture in a puddle. . . . But if the chink was a long glint of dewy brilliancy, then I made haste to have the window yield its treasure. With one blow, the room would be cleft into light and shade. The foliage of birches moving in the sun had the translucent green tone of grapes, and in contrast to this there was the dark velvet of fir trees against a blue of extraordinary intensity . . .
His family’s prosperity endowed young Vladimir’s Russian childhood with blissful ease. As noted elsewhere, it was a time he recalled as being one of pure happiness, and no wonder. There was elegance at home and abroad. Fond memories of the family’s frequent excursions to such posh watering holes as Biarritz, Menton, and Wiesbaden recur throughout the book. Much of the detail focuses on the series of governesses who accompanied the family on these transcontinental trips, notably the Swiss governess Cécile Miauton, “Mademoiselle” of whom Nabokov had in 1936 sketched a fictionalized portrait, “Mademoiselle O.,” for Mesures, a Parisian review. Mademoiselle, when she first arrived at Vyra, berated the backwardness of the Russians and bewailed the isolation of “le steppe,” as she called the place; but when Vladimir visited her many years later at her home in Lausanne, all she can talk about is the glory of Russia and how happy she had been there. The circumstances of her existence hardly matter; permanent melancholy is Mademoiselle’s natural habitat, whether in Russia or Switzerland. “One is always at home in one’s past,” observes Nabokov, who happily takes up residence in his.
Those governess-chaperoned transcontinental trips were undertaken aboard the luxurious trains of the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits. No writer has ever captured so well the details of European train travel of the past, from the daytime landscapes to nocturnal wayside stations.
A change in the speed of the train sometimes interrupted the current of my sleep. Slow lights were stalking by; each, in passing, investigated the same chink, and then a luminous compass measured the shadows. Presently, the train stopped with a long-drawn Westinghousian sigh. . . . Like moons around Jupiter, pale moths revolved about a lone lamp. A dismembered newspaper stirred on a bench. Somewhere on the train one could hear muffled voices, somebody’s comfortable cough. There was nothing particularly interesting in the portion of station platform before me, and still I could not tear myself away from it until it departed of its own accord.
Nabokov displays a near-photographic memory for certain past events—a selective one, naturally, as age and time’s passage dictate, but as the above passages show, his memories of actual incidents are subordinated to the emotion that informs them, to the brightly colored images they engender in his mind, and to the sudden upwelling of joy these emotions and images can cause.
The remainder of Speak, Memory recounts Nabokov’s languid student days at Cambridge, his father’s accidental assassination in Berlin in 1922 (accidental because Nabokov Sr. interposed himself between assassin and intended target), and his marriage to Véra Slonim, to whom he lovingly dedicated all his books, and to whom Speak, Memory is supposedly addressed, epistolary style; indeed, the occasional intrusion of comments and observations addressed to “you” is a mildly discordant note in this otherwise harmonious work. He wryly chronicles the emergence in Berlin and Paris of a gifted stylist named Sirin, a.k.a. Vladimir Nabokov: “Among the young writers produced in exile he turned out to be the only major one,” he avers, modestly. We follow his story up to May 1940, when, as in 1917, he and his family fled history’s hurricane. Vladimir, VÃ(c)ra and young Dmitri embarked for America on the liner Champlain, hurrying up the gangway in St. Nazaire with the Nazis at their heels and war engulfing Europe; but what Nabokov recalls most clearly from that harried departure is a visual puzzle assembled from the disparate details of a backward glance.
There, in front of us, where a broken row of houses stood between us and the harbor, and where the eye encountered all sorts of stratagems, such as pale-blue and pink underwear cakewalking on a clothesline, or a lady’s bicycle and a striped cat oddly sharing a rudimentary balcony of cast iron, it was most satisfying to make out among the jumbled angles of roofs and walls, a splendid ship’s funnel, showing from behind the clothesline as something in a scrambled picture—Find What the Sailor Has Hidden—that the finder cannot unsee once it has been seen.
Genius, transcendent, makes a game of life’s transience. It was such games-playing, and the sense it gave him of God the games-player, that made Nabokov the fundamentally happy man he was, as if he, supreme games-player in literature, had worked out the rules of the secret game of the world.
But in the end, Vladimir Vladimirovich was happiest in the world of his own genius, gazing outward across Lake Geneva to the Alps, and inward upon mirror landscapes beyond our imagining, but which, we can be sure, were spread out beneath a Russian sky of long ago.
I recall one particular sunset. It lent an ember to my bicycle bell. Overhead, above the black music of telegraph wires, a number of long, dark-violet clouds lined with flamingo pink hung motionless in a fan-shaped arrangement; the whole thing was like some prodigious ovation in terms of color and form. It was dying, however, and everything else was darkening, too; but just above the horizon, in a lucid, turquoise space, beneath a black stratus, the eye found a vista that . . . occupied a very small sector of the enormous sky and had the peculiar neatness of something seen through the wrong end of a telescope. There it lay in wait, a family of serene clouds in miniature, an accumulation of brilliant convolutions, anachronistic in their creaminess and extremely remote; remote but perfect in every detail; fantastically reduced but faultlessly shaped; my marvelous tomorrow ready to be delivered to me.
If only all our tomorrows were so marvelous.
Roger Boylan is the author of Killoyle: An Irish Farce, The Great Pint-Pulling Olympiad: A Mostly Irish Farce, and Killoyle Wine and Cheese.