Nabokov scholar Gennady Alexandrovich (“Gene”) Barabtarlo died on February 24, aged 70.
Even before the publication of his book Phantom of Fact: A Guide to Nabokov’s Pnin (Ardis, 1989)—still the go-to source for what for many is their favorite Nabokov novel, Nabokovians knew Gene, from 1982, for his contributions to The Vladimir Nabokov Research Newsletter (before it became The Nabokovian). He contributed to The Nabokovian in many ways, through notes, through the indexes he volunteered to prepare for the first 30 and then the first 50 issues, and as editor of the Annotations and Queries section from 1994 to 2001.
I learned of him even earlier: the first time I heard his name and praises was from the lips of Véra Nabokov and Nabokov's sister, Elena Sikorski. He became firm friends with both and also with Dmitri Nabokov. He was the ultimate Nabokov loyalist. For years after each of the three Nabokovs he knew in person had died, he would remind me, year after year, of the day each had died. He was a natural choice to invite to serve on the Vladimir Nabokov Literary Foundation. There, as everywhere else, he served with rigor, incisive insightfulness, attention to detail and logic, and firm forthrightness.
He was not at the first few (and far between) Nabokov conferences, so I did not meet him until 1987, when he welcomed me into his home in Columbia, Missouri, where he taught at the University of Missouri for 32 years until becoming a Professor Emeritus upon his retirement in 2017, shortly after his diagnosis with pancreatic cancer. His home, with his wife Alla and daughter Maria, was a little patch of Russian warmth in the Midwest, like his Nabokov class, which he also invited me to attend. When I completed my biography of Nabokov in 1989, I sent the typescript to Gene, and to six other leading Nabokovians, and was not surprised to find his responses both the most stringent and exacting, as well as the fullest and most helpful. He sent me that year his book on Pnin, the color charts on p. 308 colored in (in crayon) by Masha.
We saw each other most often at Nabokov conferences, where his elegant presentations, assured opinions, crisp tones, and decorous geniality were always welcome, and in New York, working side by side in the Berg Collection at the New York Public Library or in the Vladimir Nabokov Literary Foundation. But we kept in touch all the time, reading each other’s contributions to the Nabokovian or Nabokv-L or via email. He opposed the publication of The Original of Laura, but when Dmitri Nabokov decided to publish it, Dmitri, knowing the sumptuousness and fastidiousness of Gene’s style in English and Russian, asked him to translate it into Russian. It was the right choice: Gene’s translation occupied the top two spots in the Russian bestseller lists, for the regular and the limited editions, a sales success that far surpassed anything in English or any other languages.
Like Dmitri, I knew we could rely on Gene. When Olga Voronina and I translated and edited Nabokov’s Letters to Véra, we wanted to provide the solutions to the many riddles and puzzles Nabokov sent his wife to engage her mind during a spell of depression at a sanatorium. Véra was often stumped, Olga perhaps at least as often, and I almost invariably. But Gene’s command of detail, his love of games (he is a chess master), and his passion for words, led to his patient and inspired solving of the puzzles, crosswords, logogriphs, and more. The thirty-page section on these puzzles (which he did not even mention in his bibliography, although it was largely his work) came with his characteristically rich and memorable introduction.
More recently, Anastasia Tolstoy and I, in the course of editing Think, Write, Speak: Uncollected Essays, Reviews, Interviews and Letters to the Editor (to publish in Fall 2019), were trying to translate some unbelievably bad Soviet prose fiction, gleefully quoted by Nabokov in the course of his 1926 talk “A Few Words on the Wretchedness of Soviet Fiction and an Attempt to Determine its Cause.” The mix of Soviet jargon, provincialisms, and jaw-dropping literary incompetence made some of the examples a nightmare to translate. I knew Gene was ailing, but was able to pick out for him just the most impossibly recalcitrant patches, which he artfully disentangled so that the artlessness of the originals showed forth.
Over the years, Gene’s passion for detail and for problem-solving allowed him to crack problems that I am not sure anyone else would have solved: the riddling Mali è trano t’amesti! in Invitation to a Beheading, for instance, which he brilliantly decoded in his next solo book, Aerial View: On Nabokov’s Art and Metaphysics (Berlin: Peter Lang, 1993), as “smert’ mila—èto taina (death is sweet—it’s a secret" (with huge implications for Nabokov’s thought), or another puzzle that proved essential for my own book on Nabokov’s Pale Fire.
At the same time as he scrutinized detail, as in his priceless annotations to Pnin, Gennady Barabtarlo liked the big picture, the deep picture, the aerial view. He followed the theme of Nabokov’s metaphysics throughout his prolific commentaries, not least in the hefty (466pp) Sochinenie Nabokova (Nabokov’s Composition), published in 2011 by Ivan Limbakh, then Russia’s best literary publisher, and short-listed for the Andrey Bely Prize.
He translated all of Nabokov’s stories and a number of his novels into Russian. He edited Nabokov’s dream-diaries, in Insomniac Dreams (2018), and translated it into Russian, with Alla, in his last year. He had already had another long book on Nabokov mapped out before his illness robbed him of the chance of completing it.
Gene’s strong Orthodox faith supported him through the suffering of his last years. He took with him the thought that “smert mila—èto taina.”
For the family’s obituary notice, see here.
For The Nabokovian’s brief summary of his work, see here. A search for his name on The Nabokovian website today produced 399 results. Ada Veen says of her best Scrabble find: “Yes, that one coup has earned me nearly 400. Too bad—ne dotyanula (didn’t quite make it.)” With this In Memoriam and others, Gene, that extraordinary player of verbal games, will make it.