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Professor Nabokov

Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov was born on Shakespeare’s birthday in 1899, in St. Petersburg (now Leningrad). His family was both aristocratic and wealthy. The family name, indeed, may stem from the same Arabic root as the word nabob, having been brought into Russia by the fourteenth-century Tatar prince Nabok Murza. Since the eighteenth century the Nabokovs had enjoyed distinguished military and governmental careers. Our author’s grandfather, Dmitri Nikolaevich, was State Minister of Justice for the tsars Alexander II and Alexander III; his son, Vladimir Dmitrievich, forsook a certain future in court circles in order to join, as politician and journalist, the doomed fight for constitutional democracy in Russia. A courageous, combative liberal who was sent to prison for three months in 1908, he without misgiving maintained himself and his immediate family in what one biographer has called “a splendid and luxurious Russian version of Edwardian timelessness,”1 divided between the large townhouse built by his father in the fashionable Admiralteiskaya region of St. Petersburg, and the country estate, Vyra, brought by his wife to the marriage as part of her dowry.

Their first surviving child, Vladimir, received, in the testimony of his siblings, a uniquely generous portion of parental love and attention. He was precocious, spirited, at first sickly and then robust. A friend of the household remembered the young “Volodya” as “the slender, well-proportioned boy with the expressive, lively face and intelligent probing eyes which glittered with sparks of mockery.”

V. D. Nabokov was something of an Anglophile, and his children were tutored in English as well as French. His son, in Speak, Memory, claims, “I learned to read English before I could read Russian,” and remembers an early “sequence of English nurses and governesses,” as well as a procession of comfortable Anglo-Saxon artifacts: “All sorts of snug, mellow things came in a steady procession from the English Shop on Nevski Avenue: fruitcakes, smelling salts, playing cards, picture puzzles, striped blazers, talcum-white tennis balls.” Of the authors whom Nabokov later lectured upon at Cornell, Dickens was probably the first encountered. “My father was an expert on Dickens, and at one time read to us, children, aloud, chunks of Dickens, in English, of course,” Nabokov wrote to Edmund Wilson forty years after the event. “Perhaps his reading to us aloud, on rainy evenings in the country, Great Expectations…when I was a boy of twelve or thirteen, prevented me mentally from re-reading Dickens later on.”2 It was Wilson who directed his attention to Bleak House in 1950. Of his boyhood reading, Nabokov recalled to a Playboy interviewer, “Between the ages of ten and fifteen in St. Petersburg, I must have read more fiction and poetry—English, Russian, and French—than in any other five-year period of my life. I relished especially the works of Wells, Poe, Browning, Keats, Flaubert, Verlaine, Rimbaud, Chekhov, Tolstoy, and Alexander Blok. On another level, my heroes were the Scarlet Pimpernel, Phileas Fogg, and Sherlock Holmes.” This last level of reading may help to account for Nabokov’s surprising, though engaging, inclusion of such a piece of late-Victorian fog-swaddled Gothic as Stevenson’s tale of Jekyll and Hyde within the course of European classics he gave at Cornell.

A French governess, the stout, well-memorialized Mademoiselle, took up abode in the Nabokov household when young Vladimir was six, and though Madame Bovary is absent from the list of French novels which she so trippingly (“Her slender voice sped on and on, never weakening, without the slightest hitch or hesitation”) read aloud to her charges—“We got it all: Les Malheurs de Sophie, Le Tour du Monde en Quatre Vingts Jours, Le Petit Chose, Les Misérables, Le Comte de Monte Cristo, many others”—the book undoubtedly existed in the family library. After V.D. Nabokov’s senseless murder on a Berlin stage in 1922, “a fellow student of his, with whom he had gone for a bicycle trip in the Black Forest, sent my widowed mother the Madame Bovary volume which my father had had with him at the time and on the flyleaf of which he had written ‘The unsurpassed pearl of French literature’—a judgment that still holds.”

Elsewhere in Speak, Memory, Nabokov writes of his rapturous reading of the work of Mayne Reid, an Irish author of American Westerns, and states of a lorgnette held by one of Reid’s beleaguered heroines, “That lorgnette I found afterward in the hands of Madame Bovary, and later Anna Karenin had it, and then it passed into the possession of Chekhov’s Lady with the Lapdog and was lost by her on the pier at Yalta.” At what age he might have first perused Flaubert’s classic study of adultery, we can only guess a precocious one; he read War and Peace for the first time when he was eleven, “in Berlin, on a Turkish sofa, in our somberly rococo Privatstrasse flat giving on a dark, damp back garden with larches and gnomes that have remained in that book, like an old postcard, forever.”

At this same age of eleven Vladimir, having been tutored entirely at home, was enrolled in St. Petersburg’s relatively progressive Tenishev School, where he was accused by teachers “of not conforming to my surroundings; of ‘showing off’ (mainly by peppering my Russian papers with English and French terms, which came naturally to me); of refusing to touch the filthy wet towels in the washroom; of fighting with my knuckles instead of using the slaplike swing with the underside of the fist adopted by Russian scrappers.” Another alumnus of the Tenishev School, Osip Mandelstam, called the students there “little ascetics, monks in their own puerile monastery.” The study of Russian literature emphasized medieval Rus—the Byzantine influence, the ancient chronicles—and proceeded through study of Pushkin in depth to the works of Gogol, Lermontov, Fet, and Turgenev. Tolstoy and Dostoevsky were not in the syllabus.

At least one teacher, Vladimir Gippius, “a first-rate though somewhat esoteric poet whom I greatly admired,” impressed himself forcibly on the young student; Nabokov at the age of sixteen published a collection of his own poems and Gippius “brought a copy with him to class and provoked the delirious hilarity of the majority of my classmates by applying his fiery sarcasm (he was a fierce man with red hair) to my most romantic lines.” Andrew Field proposes that “from Gippius…Nabokov learned a manner, a literary posture, which to a certain extent he has never abandoned…. It does not take a very gifted ear or imagination to hear the soft echoes of Gippius’s proprietorial devotion to literature and easy viciousness of judgment in much of what Nabokov has said and written about books and their authors.”

Nabokov’s secondary education ended as his world was collapsing. In 1919, his family became émigrés. “It was arranged that my brother and I would go up to Cambridge, on a scholarship awarded more in atonement for political tribulations than in acknowledgment of intellectual merit.” He studied Russian and French literature, much as at the Tenishev School, and played soccer, wrote poetry, romanced a number of young ladies, and never once visited the University Library. Among his desultory memories of his college years there is one of “P.M. storming into my room with a copy of Ulysses freshly smuggled from Paris.” In a Paris Review interview Nabokov names the classmate, Peter Mrosovsky, and admits that he did not read the book through until fifteen years later, when he “liked it enormously.”

In Paris in the mid-Thirties he and Joyce met a few times. Once Joyce attended a reading Nabokov gave. The Russian was pinch-hitting for a suddenly indisposed Hungarian novelist before a sparse and motley crowd: “A source of unforgettable consolation was the sight of Joyce sitting, arms folded and glasses glinting, in the midst of the Hungarian football team.” On another inauspicious occasion in 1938, they dined together with their mutual friends Paul and Lucie Léon; of their conversation Nabokov remembered nothing and his wife Véra recalled that “Joyce asked about the exact ingredients of myod, the Russian ‘mead,’ and everybody gave him a different answer.” Nabokov distrusted such social conjunctions of writers and in an earlier letter to Véra recounted a version of the legendary single, fruitless encounter between Joyce and Proust.

When did Nabokov first read Proust? The English novelist Henry Green in his memoir Pack My Bag wrote of Oxford in the early Twenties that “anyone who pretended to care about good writing and who knew French knew his Proust.” Cambridge was likely no different, though as a student there Nabokov was intent upon his own Russianness to an obsessive degree—“my fear of losing or corrupting, through alien influence, the only thing I had salvaged from Russia—her language—became positively morbid….” At any rate, by the time he granted his first published interview, in 1932, to a correspondent for a Riga newspaper, he can say, rejecting the suggestion of any German influence on his work during the Berlin years, “One might more properly speak about a French influence: I love Flaubert and Proust.”

Nabokov’s knowledge of German is a shadowy matter. “I speak and read German poorly,” he told the Riga interviewer. Thirty years later, talking in a filmed interview for the Bayerischer Rundfunk, he expanded upon the question: “Upon moving to Berlin I was beset by a panicky fear of somehow flawing my precious layer of Russian by learning to speak German fluently. The task of linguistic occlusion was made easier by the fact that I lived in a closed émigré circle of Russian friends and read exclusively Russian newspapers, magazines, and books. My only forays into the local language were the civilities exchanged with my successive landlords or landladies and the routine necessities of shopping: Ich möchte etwas Schinken. I now regret that I did so poorly; I regret it from a cultural point of view.”

Yet he had been acquainted with German entomological works since boyhood, and his first literary success was a translation, in the Crimea, of some Heine songs for a Russian concert singer. In later life, his wife knew German, and with her help he checked translations of his own works into that language and ventured to improve, in his lectures on “The Metamorphosis,” upon the English version by Willa and Edwin Muir. There is no reason to doubt his claim, in his introduction to the translation of his rather Kafkaesque novel Invitation to a Beheading, that at the time of its writing he had read no Kafka. In 1969 he told a BBC interviewer, “I do not know German and so could not read Kafka before the 1930s when his La métamorphose appeared in La nouvelle revue française“; two years later he told Bavarian Broadcasting, “I read Goethe and Kafka en regard as I also did Homer and Horace.” Whether it occurred in French or in ponied German, Nabokov’s first encounter with Kafka must postdate 1935, when Invitation to a Beheading was composed, “in one fortnight of wonderful excitement and sustained inspiration.”

  1. 1

    Andrew Field, Nabokov: His Life in Part (Viking Press, 1977). Disapproved of by its proud subject, this biography yet constitutes a creditable, if over-animated and indexless, replication of Nabokovian high spirits: astute, searching, amusing, and, for the time being, indispensable. The other principal biographical source is, of course, Nabokov’s grand memoir, Speak, Memory. See also his Strong Opinions (McGraw-Hill, 1973), his various introductions to the English translations of his Russian works, and the Winter 1970 issue of Triquarterly, No. 17, a special issue devoted to Nabokov on his seventieth birthday.

  2. 2

    The Nabokov-Wilson Letters, 1940-1971, edited by Simon Karlinsky (Harper & Row, 1979).

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