(Conclusion. Continued from part 3.)
Nabokov gave dozens of interviews and expressed hundreds of opinions, even when they were not asked for (in his translations, for example). For the most part, this material is just as fictional as his novels.
Here he is in 1968, being interviewed by BBC-2: “My own life has been incomparably happier and healthier than that of Genghis Khan, who is said to have fathered the first Nabok, a petty Tatar prince in the twelfth century who married a Russian damsel in an era of intensely artistic Russian culture. As to the lives of my characters, not all are grotesque and not all are tragic: Fyodor in The Gift is blessed with a faithful love and an early recognition of his genius; John Shade in Pale Fire leads an intense inner existence, far removed from what you call a joke. You must be confusing me with Dostoevsky.” The first part of this is outright mockery of the audience, because набок or nabok simply means “to one side,” and is very unlikely (to put it mildly) to trace back to such an origin, and moreover, the Mongol invasion of Russia began in 1237, not the “twelfth century.” The rest is not much better: it is quite strange to use John Shade as an example of a non-tragic life when he was killed, and in any case his “inner existence” turned into self-satisfied complacency, settling on the certainty that his life will continue on with no disruptions, on the very day when it ended. Nor is Cherdyntsev’s genius a foregone conclusion at the moment when The Gift ends. In other words, no part of this answer has any meaning.
Here’s another one. In Nabokov’s afterword to Lolita, he famously wrote, “My private tragedy, which cannot, and indeed should not, be anybody’s concern [Then why write about it? -FL], is that I had to abandon my natural idiom, my untrammeled, rich, and infinitely docile Russian tongue for a second-rate brand of English[.]” (Lolita, 335) Nine years later, he translated the novel into Russian, together with the afterword, but added the following:
“Postscriptum to the Russian edition of Lolita,” 1965
The two versions of the afterword appear to be polar opposites in content, but they have the exact same tone — the melancholy of wisdom brought about by a “private tragedy” so profound as to be outside the reader’s grasp. For an American reader, the source of the mystique should be Nabokov’s Russian experience, which was “abandoned” in Lolita and yet, the reader is given to understand, somehow looms over it in some unknowable way. But a Russian reader is more familiar with that experience, and so the source has to be inverted — it is now the English text, to which the author (but really the reader) is unable to do justice. In other words, there is no real meaning in either version; they are both purely literary devices, and in fact Nabokov was still repeating the line “My private tragedy, which cannot, and indeed should not, be anybody’s concern” almost verbatim in a BBC interview in 1962. As he always told us, literature does not require any external purpose. But then, these particular literary works should be judged by purely aesthetic standards, and from that point of view they are simply unnecessary.
Nabokov answers questions only after having interpreted them in the narrowest possible way. In his introduction to the English translation of The Gift, he writes, “I had been living in Berlin since 1922, thus synchronously with the young man of the book; but neither this fact, nor my sharing some of his interests, such as literature and lepidoptera, should make one say ‘aha’ and identify the designer with the design. I am not, and never was, Fyodor Godunov-Cherdyntsev; my father is not the explorer of Central Asia that I still may become some day; I never wooed Zina Mertz, and never worried about the poet Koncheyev or any other writer.” (7) Even his most devoted admirers don’t take this at face value: as Nabokov scholar Alexander Dolinin said, “Of course he did not woo Zina Mertz, he wooed Vera Slonim instead.” More importantly, by making Cherdyntsev’s father into an explorer, Nabokov was not distancing himself from his character, but rather rewriting his own life, using the obvious autobiographical association of the novel to force a heroic cast of romantic adventure upon his own rather less glorious father. Literature gave him the power to correct the aesthetic defects of reality.
That is also the purpose of his final novel in Russian, which is not The Gift, but rather Other Shores (better known in English as Speak, Memory — my page numbers are from the 1989 Vintage edition of this title), often mistakenly classified as an autobiography. When it comes to Nabokov, there is no difference between autobiography and fiction. The Gift is no more fictional than Other Shores, and the garish buffoonery of Pale Fire is itself a perspective on Nabokov’s own life. One can talk about oneself in ways other than direct description. It was not lost on Nabokov that his openly stated goal in Other Shores was hardly distinguishable from that of Charles Kinbote; in fact, I am certain that this was exactly where the idea of Pale Fire originated. In Chapter 13, he writes, “The story of my college years in England is really the story of my trying to become a Russian writer,” (261) but the Russian version uses the much more telling phrase, “the story of my trying to hold on to Russia.” He graduates from Cambridge “at the very moment that the careful reconstruction of my artificial but beautifully exact Russian world had been at last completed,” (270) to which the Russian text adds, “that is, I already knew that I had anchored it in my soul forever.” Thus, what Nabokov calls “Russia” is not a country or culture, but a certain artificial construction, custom-made to his aesthetic standards — in a word, Zembla — which belongs entirely to him, and which he is therefore not obligated to share with anyone, especially not living Russians who might mistakenly believe that they have any claim to it.
For a long time, this last point seriously bothered him. In the foreword to The Gift, he insists, “The old intellectuals are now dying out and have not found successors in the so-called Displaced Persons of the last two decades who have carried abroad the provincialism and Philistinism of their Soviet homeland.” (8) The same sentiment is echoed in the BBC interview, which took place around the same time:
the question was, “Would you ever go back to Russia?“
The problem, however, is that Americans are not impressed when immigrants loudly express hostility toward their old homelands. To Americans, such people are only good for cannon fodder. A neutral or mildly positive attitude toward “the old country,” expressed in the form of a few minor family traditions, is much more American, not to mention much healthier. All that Nabokov accomplished with these remarks was to make a fool of himself. On the other hand, reproaching the victims of a “police state” for their “provincialism,” of all things, is simply ugly — doubly so for the man who once defined art as “beauty plus pity.” As for the charge that they didn’t know his works, here is a samizdat typescript of Lolita:
Perhaps he caught word of it. By 1971 (interview with Bayerischer Rundfunk) he had had a change of heart: “I would like to say a lot about my heroic readers in Russia but am prevented from doing so — by many emotions besides a sense of responsibility with which I still cannot cope in any rational way.” Well, let no one say that 70 is too old to learn life lessons. But Other Shores was written long before then, and at that time, absolutely no riff-raff was to be allowed anywhere near these glittering peaks, mysterious passes, and picturesque slopes — neither provincial Russians nor plebeian Americans.
Nabokov’s earliest memory (Other Shores, 22-23)
The world of Other Shores consists mainly of beautiful, elegant, delicate objects: fine furniture, jewelry, tailored clothes, hand-crafted curios. When the author wishes to evoke human beings, his method is to accumulate objects that they were holding, wearing, reading, or using, e.g., “my father in his wind-rippled white summer suit,” (31) until the people themselves become almost unneeded, pushed out of focus by the grand display of the collection. Other Shores is a sequence of beautiful still-lifes. Here is Nabokov’s beloved mother: “Sometimes…from a secret compartment in the wall of her dressing room (and my birth room), she would produce a mass of jewelry for my bedtime amusement. I was very small then, and those flashing tiaras and chokers and rings seemed to me hardly inferior in mystery and enchantment to the illumination in the city during imperial fêtes, when, in the padded stillness of a frosty night, giant monograms, crowns, and other armorial designs, made of colored electric bulbs — sapphire, emerald, ruby — glowed with a kind of charmed constraint above snow-lined cornices on housefronts along residential streets.” (36) Playing tennis, she “put her little foot forward and bent her white-hatted head” (41) — the Russian version omits the hat, but adds a “piqué skirt.” This overabundance of objects creates the impression of limitless opulence, as if this were the life of some mythical king, in that distant northern land.
Now the Nabokov Museum in Rozhdestveno.
The king in question is not Nabokov himself, but his father. The author’s parents appear literally as supernatural beings, demigods, Tolkien’s Elves, the personification of all beauty and refinement in the universe: “At that instant, I became acutely aware that the twenty-seven-year-old being, in soft white and pink, holding my left hand, was my mother, and that the thirty-three-year-old being, in hard white and gold, holding my right hand, was my father.” As always, beautiful beings are accompanied by beautiful objects: “now my father’s attire, the resplendent uniform of the Horse Guards, with that smooth golden swell of cuirass burning upon his chest and back, came out like the sun[.]” (22) Nabokov Sr. appears only episodically in the book, but he is the true owner and ruler of this perfect world, with all those perfect objects that formed the backdrop for his son’s perfect childhood. Which is not to say that he has much power over it; Nabokov’s parents often resemble Turgenev’s melancholy gentry, presiding over a world of dreams, utterly ill-suited to any practical task. His mother’s view of life is, “To love with all one’s soul and leave the rest to fate, was the simple rule she heeded.” (40) His father is routinely cheated by his servants, but is simply too great-hearted to lower himself to the level of restoring order: “When confronted with stupendous and incomprehensible bills, or a sudden extinction of garden strawberries and hothouse peaches, my father, a jurist and a statesman, felt professionally vexed at not being able to cope with the economics of his own home; but every time a complicated case of larceny came to light, some legal doubt or scruple prevented him from doing anything about it… So, with one thing and another, my father preferred to leave the whole housekeeping situation in a state of precarious equilibrium (not devoid of a certain quiet humor)[.]” (46) Why this same man was convinced that he knew what was best for the country, the author does not tell us.
In fact, he refuses to ask. The world of Other Shores is obligated by its beauty to be morally good, and the embodiment of its goodness is Nabokov’s father, and he is going to serve in that capacity whether he likes it or not. In the 1971 interview, Nabokov declared, “My father Vladimir [Dmitrievich] Nabokov was a liberal statesman, member of the first Russian parliament, champion of justice and law in a difficult empire,” and it was in Other Shores (with a precursor in Chapter II of The Gift) that this clear, unequivocal moral image had been created and completed. Perhaps that, and not “Russia,” was the true object of “reconstruction” in the book; Zembla exists only because there has to be a Zembla before there can be a King Charles. Thus, something as mundane as sending young Vladimir to school acquires a moral dimension: “Belonging, as he did by choice, to the great classless intelligentsia of Russia, my father thought it right to have me attend a school that was distinguished by its democratic principles, its policy of nondiscrimination in matters of rank, race and creed, and its up-to-date educational methods.” (185) Literally on the same page, however, these egalitarian aspirations are made into a farce by Nabokov’s “driving to and from school in an automobile and not traveling by streetcar or horsecab as the other boys, good little democrats, did.” (185-186)
Nabokov adamantly insists on his father’s honour and integrity, the only time that this writer, who loathed any and all ideological declarations, especially in literature, ever saw fit to make a statement about anything. It is hard to believe that there is no Nabokovian irony in, “Unswervingly he conformed to his principles in private and public matters. At an official banquet in 1904 he refused to drink the Tsar’s health,” (175) but if there is, the reader is strictly forbidden to partake of it. Now a senior member of a revolutionary party, “In a committee room, next to the library, at a long baize-covered table (where those beautifully pointed pencils had been laid out), my father and his colleagues would gather to discuss some phase of their opposition to the Tsar.” But of course, such wild talk cannot go unpunished, and it is not long before the sinister forces of darkness gather to attack our hero. Nabokov indignantly tells us, “But one day, in the winter of 1911 I believe, the most powerful of the Rightist newspapers employed a shady journalist to concoct a scurrilous piece containing insinuations that my father could not let pass. Since the well-known rascality of the actual author of the article made him ‘non-duelable’…my father called out the somewhat less disreputable editor of the paper in which the article had appeared.” (188) There follows an account of Nabokov-père‘s extensive preparations for the duel, and Nabokov-fils‘ distress, as he imagines “the heavy black Browning my father kept in the upper right-hand drawer of his desk” (190) and reenacts various duels from literature in his imagination; all this is written in such a breathless, exciting tone that the reader might forget to ask why no duel ever occurs.
Nabokov’s dazzling writing studiously avoids the bizarre contradiction at the heart of the matter, namely that a “democratic” and “classless” politician, who “disdainfully rejected all those ranks that had so abundantly suited his ancestors” (Russian text of Other Shores), immediately remembers his class as soon as someone insults him in print. The challenge is not only a matter of satisfaction, because the offender belongs to a lower class and thus is “non-duelable.” The emphasis on this point makes it a matter of class — true satisfaction may only be gained from a social equal. The fact that all this happened in 1911, and not in the time of Pushkin or Turgenev, further strengthens the impression of fanfaronade; if Nabokov Sr. was truly serious about all this, one can only conclude that he was extremely, unhealthily conscious of his own social status, and that these considerations overrode all of his “principles.” It never once occurred to him to think about what consequences his own political program could have for himself and his own family.
A boater hat is the best accessory for a revolution.
It did, however, occur to his son, as evidenced by the immense effort he makes to ignore the issue. I very much doubt that he had any sympathy for his father’s political views; after all, Vasiliev and the other liberals satirized in The Gift belong to the same crop of irresponsible fools. Perhaps he did it in memory of “the tender friendship underlying my respect for my father; the charm of our perfect accord; the Wimbledon matches we followed in the London papers; the chess problems we solved; the Pushkin iambics that rolled off his tongue so triumphantly whenever I mentioned some minor poet of the day.” (191) Perhaps it was out of some sense of filial loyalty, or just out of pure stubbornness. But, intentionally or not, the English version of Other Shores fit very well into the pestilential Western caricature of the brave liberal, unfairly victimized by “the most powerful [What does that even mean? -FL] of the Rightist newspapers,” allegedly risking his life to speak out against the reactionary monarch. In that phrase, unfortunately, Nabokov crossed the line between mere partiality and dishonesty: the newspaper in question was The New Times, and its “somewhat less disreputable” editor Alexei Suvorin was over 75 at the time (he died in 1912) while Nabokov’s father was just over 40. Suvorin was personally acquainted and corresponded with virtually every significant cultural figure of his day, and published work by Rozanov and Chekhov; The New Times was shut down by the Bolsheviks the day after they seized power, and its leading columnist Mikhail Menshikov was executed without trial in 1918. Ironically, Nabokov is following Lenin in his description, which in the English version makes The New Times and Suvorin into sinister anonyms (in the Russian text, he at least refers to them by name).
This is the other contradiction in all of his commentary on this time period: he abhors Lenin’s “regime of bloodshed, concentration camps, and hostages” but shares Lenin’s scorn for the few lost souls who opposed the Revolution. To justify this, he has to make a distinction between “good” and “bad” revolutionaries; in his words, “At the time many believed one could fight Lenin’s gang and save the achievements of the [February] Revolution,” (241) which in the Russian text is rendered more theatrically as “democracy still believed that it was possible to prevent Bolshevist dictatorship.” However, in the Constituent Assembly to which Nabokov Sr. was elected (as his son proudly reports), a plurality of seats belonged to the Socialist Revolutionary Party, a terrorist organization that had made its name by murdering officials, ministers and even members of the royal family. It was certainly convenient for its members, scattered across Europe in subsequent decades, to blame Lenin for all the “bloodshed” in Russian political life, but without them, Lenin would never have been possible. Even if Nabokov’s father had a “better” program (earning a whole 4.7% of seats in the Assembly) than Lenin, it was people like him who opened the door for Lenin, who all but handed absolute power to him through their sheer ineptitude. And even if they hadn’t, the life of noble idleness extolled in Other Shores would still have come to an end.
Defending the Russian community that he had previously ridiculed in The Gift, Nabokov writes, “they were rebels as most major Russian writers had been ever since Russian literature had existed, and true to this insurgent condition which their sense of justice and liberty craved for as strongly as it had done under the oppression of the Tsars,” (282) a sentiment that Vasiliev might have agreed to print, except that it does not appear in the Russian text. But just a short while earlier, arguing with a disinterested upper-class British acquaintance, the author insists, “Under the Tsars…despite the fundamentally inept and ferocious character of their rule, a freedom-loving Russian had had incomparably more means of expressing himself, and used to run incomparably less risk in doing so, than under Lenin.” (263-264) The only logical way to reconcile these seemingly contradictory statements is to conclude that the Tsars were in fact the guarantors of freedom of expression rather than its oppressors, and that Lenin appeared as soon as “this insurgent condition” had been left to its own devices. Interestingly, the phrase about “the fundamentally inept and ferocious character” of the Tsars does not appear in the Russian text either — one can only suppose that its inclusion in the English version was just as deliberate as the glaring omission of any mention of widespread political terrorism during the last 10-20 years of the monarchy. Instead, Nabokov’s circuitous explanation for all the violence and barbarism in the world is that they are caused by “a kind of family circle…linking representatives of all nations, jolly empire-builders in their jungle clearings, French policemen, the unmentionable German product, the good old churchgoing Russian or Polish pogromschik, the lean American lyncher, the man with the bad teeth who squirts antiminority stories in the bar or the lavatory, and, at another point of the same subhuman circle, those ruthless, paste-faced automatons in opulent John Held trousers and high-shouldered jackets[.]” (264-265) Everyone is responsible, including bad fashion, with the sole exception of his jovial, witty, elegant, aristocratic, idiot father.
Far left: Nabokov Sr., not looking confident.
As you can see, Nabokov had plenty to expiate in Pale Fire. But he held on to his core belief in defiance of its futility. In a 1970 interview with Maariv, he said, “Art is exile… Rootlessness is less important than a confirmed refugee’s capacity to branch and blossom in a complete — and very pleasant — void.” In various ways, his books try very hard to prove that “blossoming in a void” is possible, that the mind can flourish by itself, independently of culture, history, and language (“I do not think in any language,” Nabokov claimed in the same interview), or at least in a dominant position with respect to these things. Aesthetically perfect writing dictates the terms of reality — the horrific failure of Nabokov’s father is rewritten and turned into glorious, honorable sacrifice, in a world that is better than the real one and therefore truer. The last line of Speak, Memory refers to “something…that the finder cannot unsee once it has been seen,” (310) which becomes, in the Russian text, “what has once been seen can never be returned to chaos.” In other words, Cherdyntsev doesn’t even need to become a writer; artistic “sight” already has a form of creation contained in itself.
But Nabokov died. And even before then, his individual world withered away beneath a great dead mass of puns, self-references, self-parodies, and petty literary complaints. Even in Other Shores, fifteen whole years of life in Berlin are swept into a single chapter, which still required padding in the form of a discourse on chess problems. The final chapter ends in 1940, when “one last little garden surrounded us, as you and I, and our child, by now six, between us, walked through it on our way to the docks, where, behind the buildings facing us, the liner Champlain was waiting to take us to New York.” (309) That was the “last” garden — after that, nothing worth writing about ever happened. The more “complete” and “pleasant” the “void” became, the less room for life there was in it, and the best work that ever came out of it was an evocation of events that happened 30-40 years in the past.
It is in the world of culture, history, and language that Nabokov still lives. He thought (or wanted to think) that he had no readers in Russia, but in fact that is now the only place where he can still be read as a living voice, and not as grist for the mill of academic careers and ideology. The critical debate over which culture he belonged to expired from natural causes. Readers in the Soviet Union and contemporary Russia saw in Other Shores precisely the image of the golden age, enlightened antiquity, endless summer — “the day would take hours to fade” (81) or, in the Russian text, “the days of June required an eternity to fade away” — that Nabokov wished with such obstinacy to will into existence. Nabokov’s father, in these readers’ eyes, turned into Tsar Nicholas II himself; thus, they finally completed Nabokov’s impossible task for him by substituting a true king in place of his foppish, boater-hatted King Charles. Other Shores did far more to resurrect historical Russia as an idea than all of Solzhenitsyn’s political writing put together.
The white lacery of berimed avenues, the glacial haze.
But Other Shores also has a dual existence in English, perhaps uniquely in all literature (the Russian translation of Lolita is obviously secondary to the original, which is not the case with Speak, Memory). What is there in this book for English-speaking readers, who are uninterested in Nabokov’s collection of antiques? Well, this may sound a bit frivolous, but there is the story of Nabokov’s teenage romance, an expected Hollywood angle in a story about youth, but rendered in striking art-house cinematography, as our young lovers wander around a dreamlike, austere St. Petersburg in winter: “We walked under the white lacery of berimed avenues in public parks. We huddled together on cold benches — after having removed first their tidy cover of snow, then our snow-incrusted mittens. We haunted museums. They were drowsy and deserted on weekday mornings, and very warm, in contrast to the glacial haze and its red sun that, like a flushed moon, hung in the eastern windows.” (235) With no outward change in Nabokov’s calm, contemplative tone, the setting undergoes wild transformations, as if physical reality could be reshaped by the merest thought: “When museums and movie houses failed us and the night was young, we were reduced to exploring the wilderness of the world’s most gaunt and enigmatic city. Solitary street lamps were metamorphosed into sea creatures with prismatic spines by the icy moisture on our eyelashes. As we crossed the vast squares, various architectural phantoms arose with silent suddenness right before us.” (237) Even after their parting, in 1918, shortly before the last ships leave Crimea, Tamara continues to write to Vladimir; what the English version reticently calls a distant but wonderfully clear antiphonal response” (249) becomes, in the Russian text, “the intonation was exceptionally pure and, in a mysterious way, transformed her thoughts into a singular music.” Surely not only artists have memories of some brief moment where life appeared to fall into place and attain some profoundly satisfying harmony. Such a memory does not even need to be accurate — one can construct it retroactively. It hardly matters whether Tamara really existed.
Speaking more broadly, Nabokov’s idea of perpetually self-contained, artistically fulfilling “exile” was futile from the beginning. But such an idea could only have grown out of a greater sense of futility. He writes, “Russian children of my generation passed through a period of genius, as if destiny were loyally trying what it could for them by giving them more than their share, in view of the cataclysm that was to remove completely the world they had known.” (25) It seems to me, however, that it is the experience of loss that puts a cast of “genius” on what has been lost. The deep feeling at the heart of Other Shores is not regret for the past — the author takes too many liberties with the past to plausibly care about how things really were — but a kind of otherworldly anticipation, “not of the grand homecoming that will never take place, but of its constant dream in my long years of exile.” (97) This is the pure idea of homecoming, divested of any material form: a homecoming to nowhere, with no home. The kind of “exile” for which this can be the “dream” is an exile from objective reality itself. In fact, to Nabokov, objective existence was a matter of doubt — in the foreword to Speak, Memory, he explains the preliminary title of the work (Conclusive Evidence) as “conclusive evidence of my having existed.” (11) The same theme is reflected in the opening line, “The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.” (19)
The totality of loss creates a strong sense of the quivering slightness of existence — if anything can be arbitrarily obliterated at any time, one has to wonder if it was ever there to begin with. In that sense, loss does not make one a genius, but there is something of genius in it. The individual mind has the most self-awareness when it feels that it is about to be erased. Contemporary readers may find that condition to be uncomfortably familiar. In that sense, Nabokov, like Rachmaninov, is speaking from our future. And what ultimately emerges from Other Shores is neither impotent reminiscence nor candy-coated fantasy, but a sober, authoritative effort to win existence back from “chaos.” Yes, strictly speaking, the result is not “real,” but I am hardly in a position to point that out, having no guarantee of my own continued reality. If anything, the world of Other Shores is more tangible than my own life.
2020 omnibus edition of The Gift and Other Shores.
In my mind this is the definitive image of Nabokov. The designer probably just intended to signify Nabokov’s “nostalgia” by showing his face together with a typical Russian winter scene (which actually held little aesthetic appeal for Nabokov himself). But, evidently, even commercial publishers are capable of moments of insight. Nabokov looks strangely grave, more pained and serious than in his usual grimacing photo shoots. The scene is treated with a sepia effect to make it look like an old photograph, but it could just as well have been (and probably was) taken in recent years. Nabokov’s visage floats ethereally over it, his tense stare fades into its calmness. The author has, in some sense, become less real than his creation, which no longer needs him.
Life turned out to be little more than a bad novel, with an unconvincing and unlikable protagonist, full of hackneyed plot devices and wooden dialogue. But, mercifully, it disappeared into oblivion, just as bad literature is forgotten by the audience. The fictional world is free to gleam with all the colors of life.