A literary gift, like the gift of life, is given from above. Gennady Barabtarlo, who has just completed his life journey, was deeply appreciative of both – and of the One who sent them. He dedicated himself to Russian literature, especially to its two summits, Pushkin and Nabokov, in full awareness of the responsibility this commitment entailed. For him, language and letters were the vital force that kept the Russian mind and spirit alive. Nourishing and cherishing them is what he did best, as a critic, translator, writer and poet, and what he taught others to do as a university professor, public speaker and trustee of the Vladimir Nabokov Literary Foundation. Every word he wrote had weight and made an impact. His Russian was probably the last instance of pure and untainted pre-revolutionary vernacular spoken in public and written according to the orthographic rules of that day. No one will be able to do it with such elegance and perseverance, with such bitter and proud understanding what it means to defend the linguistic, artistic, and civic credo of the generation Nabokov belonged to.
An émigré by choice, Dr. Barabtarlo accomplished this duty by remaining Russian to the core, from his impeccable literary style to his Christian Orthodox faith and from his Old World, aristocratic graciousness of manner to his belief that in his every book, essay, letter, or talk, there shouldn’t be anything extraneous, flippant, or accidental. His love for Nabokov originated in his reverence for the writer’s linguistic and artistic courage: here was the author who had never given up his family’s intellectual sensibility, his milieu’s allegiance to purity and precision of speech, and his generation’s sense of cultural mission in exile. Dr. Barabtarlo first read and rendered Nabokov’s works into Russian in 1970s Moscow, when employed as a curator at the Pushkin Museum: an act of disobedience that could have cost the translator his freedom. But as happened to Nabokovians before and after, the world opened up for him instead.
He left the USSR not only to write a dissertation and then a book on Pnin, but also to collaborate with Véra Nabokov on the translation of the novel, to discuss with Elena Sikorski her brother’s oeuvre, to consult with Dmitri Nabokov and help him in his preparation of father’s manuscripts for publication. Whether reassembling The Original of Laura one puzzling card sequence after another or uncovering disregarded treasures in archives in Montreux, New York, and Washington, D.C., he was always on the lookout for riddles to solve, inconsistencies to eradicate, doors to open. His Insomniac Dreams (2018) is one of such entryways. An impeccably published exploration of Nabokov’s “dream diary,” it reveals new truths not only about the fine imaginative threads that connect one Nabokov novel or short story to another, but also about the writer’s life-long experimentation with Time, “whose ultimate goal was,” Dr. Barabtarlo wrote, “if not to grasp then at least to touch the enigma of mortality – a highly pleasurable means to a wittingly unattainable end.”
This is a metaphysical statement, of course, but it is also a statement that owes its particular power and poignancy to the destiny of the man who delivered it. Following Nabokov, Dr. Barabtarlo escaped the confining time-space of Soviet Russia for another, less restrictive, more congenial and inspiring realm where writing about one’s contemplation of life beyond death was not a crime. Following Nabokov, he developed a system of thought that relied on metaphysics – Nabokov’s as well as his own – as a theme, a method, and a solution to mind’s inability to grapple with the body’s impermanence in this world. Now that we have lost him, I allow myself the reassuring thought that he might have died fearing death less than most of us do. “Consciousness without Time (the future of the immortal soul)” is what Nabokov considered a possibility, on the page, but also beyond its “skyline.” How apt it is that Gennady Barabtarlo’s last book is a study in this idea’s genesis as well as its application.
One of many memories I have of him seems fitting to share now, à propos of one page’s end and the beginning of another – as well as what we manage to notice on any page. In July of 2011, Dr. Barabtarlo invited our entire family to Montreux. While my five-year-old son and his father were riding a boat across Lake Geneva and taking turns on the merry-go-round by Chillon Castle, he and I went to have lunch with Dmitri Nabokov, whom I had not seen since the Nabokov Centennial events in St. Petersburg, and then to visit the two graves at the Clarens cemetery – a short walk along immaculately maintained alleyways. The graveyard was deserted. Upon approaching the writer’s tombstone, however, we discovered a peculiar trove of devotional offerings from Russian tourists scattered on its polished surface: soaked notes with verses copied in bleeding ink, coins and banknotes, plastic butterflies, and those dreadful artificial roses that parody lovely flora, rather than pay homage to anyone by alluding to them. I took a pail and began to clean up. My companion, however, remained pensive and aloof. When the operation was over, he remarked that the presence of verses, flowers, and foreign currency was “very appropriate, very appropriate, indeed.”
Dr. Barabtarlo had an amazing voice: deep, calm, confident, with a glimmer of irony, and, lately, a shadow of sadness. He never lied, to conceal a fact or simply to flatter, but last time we spoke on the phone, two weeks ago, his voice did trick me. I thought there was still plenty of time for more conversations, while the truth was, the time had run out. Like Sineusov, I do not know how to communicate with the otherworld. But if we take Nabokov at his word, and “the disintegration of the body” is, indeed, “the liberation of the soul from the eye-sockets of flesh and our transformation into one complete and free eye, which can simultaneously see in all directions,” there is not much that I can or should do. Gennady Alexandrovich, you were a true scholar, true believer and a very true friend. May your soul rest in peace.
Olga Voronina, Bard College