Vladimir Nabokov was eighteen when the Bolshevik Revolution of October 1917 made his wealthy family’s continued residence in Petrograd (as St. Petersburg was renamed at the start of World War I) impossible. They fled first to the Crimea and then, in 1919, to London. The following year they settled in Berlin, where in 1922 Nabokov’s father was assassinated, more by accident than design, by extreme right-wing Russian monarchists: they were attempting to kill another Russian émigré politician, Paul Milyukov. V.D. Nabokov bravely seized and disarmed one of the gunmen, and pinned him down, but was then shot three times by the second.
In a poem called “Easter” published just a few weeks after this disaster, the twenty-two-year-old Nabokov interprets the arrival of spring as portending some kind of resurrection of his father: “Rise again,” each “golden thaw-drop” seems to sing, “blossom”; “you are in this refrain,/you’re in this splendor, you’re alive!…” Some forty years later he would allude to the ghastly manner of his father’s demise in a more characteristically Nabokovian way: the day on which Pale Fire’s John Shade is killed by mistake in another botched assassination attempt is July 21, Nabokov senior’s birthday.
V.D. Nabokov was not the only member of the family to fall victim to the chaos of the times. Vladimir’s brother Sergey Nabokov was one year younger than him, but of a very different temperament; shy, stuttering, gay, musically gifted, a Catholic convert, Sergey spent much of his exile in Paris, where he got to know Diaghilev, Jean Cocteau, Gertrude Stein, and Pavel Tchelitchew, with whom he shared an apartment for a while. His long-term partner was a wealthy Austrian called Hermann Thieme. While the rise of the Nazis drove Vladimir, whose wife Véra was Jewish, to embark for America with their young son Dimitri in May 1940, shortly before the fall of Paris, Sergey and Hermann Thieme responded, somewhat bizarrely, by moving east to Berlin. There they were arrested for homosexual offenses; Hermann was freed but forced to join the German army in Africa, while Sergey spent five months in jail. On his release he moved to Prague, where he set about openly denouncing the Nazis and Hitler; he was soon informed upon, arrested again, and in the spring of 1944 dispatched to Neuengamme concentration camp, on the outskirts of Hamburg. He did well there, in that he lasted ten months, whereas the average life expectancy was twelve weeks. Sergey was forty-four when he died, the age of Pale Fire’s Charles Kinbote, another awkward homosexual exile, who is also hounded and harried, or so he’d have us believe, by a ruthless totalitarian regime that has come violently to power.
Why, Andrea Pitzer asks in her provocatively titled The Secret History of Vladimir Nabokov, did the great novelist allude only in such oblique, ludic terms both…
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