Dear Members of the List:
Please find below a message from Don Stanley.
Long ago I was the associate editor of a city monthly called Vancouver magazine. We devised a recurring two-page profile format: big picture of the subject facing a series of one- or two-line factoids; sequenced, I like to think, artfully.
Recently I resurrected the format and profiled Nabokov for my own amusement.
It then occurred to me that members of The List might also find it diverting.
The sources range in scale from big scholarly biographies to some fragments from the fading memory of a Vancouver telephone interviewer. The profile is blissfully free of citations; Google is no doubt familiar with most of them. Once in a while the line is blurred between paraphrase and quotation, sacrificing pinpoint accuracy for euphonious rhythm; the exact opposite of Nabokov’s methodology in translating Pushkin, I suppose.
There may be a trick or two; the way he practiced at the art of deception is so darn catchy.
I can’t reproduce the layout, and as for the picture I suggest imagining your own favorite, as Tristram Shandy said about his mistress. Maybe Nabokov in full combat mode on the paperback cover of Field’s His Life in Art or the pastel on the back dustjacket of Glory, looking as gaunt as his contemporary Prokofiev.
When Dmitri kissed his still-warm forehead, his father’s tears welled up. “A certain butterfly was already on the wing; and his eyes told me he no longer hoped that he would live to pursue it again."
He began his 1944 Gogol profile at the wrong end, a grotesque deathbed scene involving an incompetent physician torturing his patient with a nest of satiated bloody leeches quick to realize their unbelievable luck. He refers to the good doctor with four different appellations to indicate the name wasn’t worth spelling correctly.
His paternal grandfather was State Minister of Justice under a pair of all-powerful Czars, the first relatively progressive, the second relatively not.
He was a math prodigy, but around seven years old delirium from a nearly fatal fling with pneumonia burned the numbers right out of his brain.
He saw V as rose-quartz, N as oatmeal greyish-yellow. The sound of a letter triggers a color: Synethesia. Nabokov had it. So did his mother Elena, so did his wife Vera, so did his son Dmitri. Different colors, mind you.
The family’s St Petersburg townhouse featured 50 servants and its own large library, complete with generic shy librarian. He was a multimillionaire teenager, with an inherited 2000 acre estate.
Came the revolution.
His father, being chancellor to the liberal Provisional Government, found himself dangerously unpopular. To escape Civil War Russia, barely, the family steamed out of Sebastopol harbor on the seedy Nadezhda. He played chess on the deck with his father, somewhat distracted by the Bolsheviks’ strafing machine guns. One of the knights had lost its head.
In March 28, 1922, in Berlin exile, at a political meeting, the speaker approached by an assassin, his courageous father helped pin the murderer to the floor, like a butterfly specimen. A surprise second assassin shot his father three fatal times.
Without money, without prospects, but with a vulnerable Jewish wife, he escaped from Paris via St. Nazaire to America, once again on a ship, the Champlain. The Germans entered Paris within a month; sinking the Champlain took them a little longer (at anchor, air-laid bomb).
No amateur chess player, he was invited to join America’s national team.
No weekend butterfly collector, in the forebodingly named Strong Opinions he reported that named after him were several butterflies. And a moth.
His supersized son Dmitri (6’5) was famously brave. “Do you climb?” he said to me, meaning mountains, some of which became the graves of his fellow Harvard mountaineers. The morning of September 26, 1980, on the highway between Montreux and Lausanne, he totalled his fifth or so Ferrari, a souped-up fiberglass 308 GTB. After 12 excruciating days in a Lausanne burn ward, he died, temporarily. He was enticed by the bright light at the terminus of the familiar tunnel, but then turned his back on beckoning death when he thought “of those who care for me and of important things I must still do."
Incredibly enough, Dmitri returned to racing in a Ferrari of a somewhat deeper blue. Still more incredibly, he may or may not have worked for the CIA, debriefing Russians who had crawled under Churchill’s Iron Curtain. He never told his father.
Who drove a car twice. In Russia in 1915, courtesy of an inattentive chauffeur, he put the family limousine in the ditch. In America 35 years later, briefly entrusted with the wheel, he almost crashed into the only other car occupying a spacious parking lot. Consequently Vera chauffeured his summertime butterfly expeditions. Better than 150,000 miles.
He loathed a lot of very good writers. Not disliked, not didn’t care for: Loathed. Loathed with an oddly ethical overlay. That fraud, that fake, Toilets, T.S. Eliot. Faulkner, Conrad, Hemingway: Bulls, Bells, Balls. And don’t get him started on rival Pushkin translators. Bracing fun to read at first, but a bitter aftertaste.
He dealt in details. He felt the word Reality should never appear in public without quotation marks. He said General Ideas are worn passports allowing their bearers short cuts from one area of ignorance to another. “The larger the issue the less it interests me.” Thus if a student at Cornell, one of 400 attending his Masterpieces of European Fiction (MWF,12), your “Metamorphosis” exam would be something like “Describe the furnishings and layout of the Samsa living quarters.” Woe betide the student who confused Kafka’s monstrous domed beetle (A+) with a monstrous cockroach (Fail; Expulsion).
To help American students approximate his name, nah-BOK-off, he composed
The querulous gawk of
A heron at night
But as he said himself, Nabokov is unpronounceable.
He was half an inch short of six feet, lovely hazel eyes, thighs of a soccer player because his favorite butterflies lurked at high altitudes. Maybe 140 pounds in 1920s Berlin. Romantically handsome, supremely confident, purposefully flirtatious. Catnip to the girls.
Of his sentences on occasion he the syntax almost awkwardly adjusts in order triumphantly to pounce on a strong and powerful noun!
In his 1928 Russian novel King, Queen, Knave, he brought Vera along for a tour of inspection. The wretched lead character Franz had noticed them enviously before, like a subtle leitmotiv: the butterfly net, the loud foreign language, the girl in a blue dress dancing with a remarkably handsome man in an old-fashioned dinner jacket. “The girl had a delicately painted mouth and tender gray-blue eyes, and her fiancé or husband, slender, elegantly balding, contemptuous of everything on earth except her, was looking at her with pride.”
He nevertheless avoided metafictional excess, aleatory techniques, rebellious characters like the ones running John Fowles’ asylum in The French Lieutenant’s Woman. My characters, he said, are galley slaves.
He wrote the greatest parenthesis in English literature. Lolita’s Humbert Humbert: “My photogenic mother died in a freak accident (picnic, lightning) …”
A Fort Worth, Texas rock band calls itself Picnic Lightning.
Like suffering Cincinnatus in the 200-page nightmare Invitation to a Beheading, he had intimations of another world, a parallel world perhaps, or maybe just this one constructed with more attention to detail.
He died of lungs that refused to clear, a heart that lost the beat. The immediate cause, Dmitri said on the phone, was “perfectly banal.” In his touching if grouchy “On Revisiting Father’s Room,” he wrote that a maid simultaneously left open a draughty door and a window. An incautious, sneezing maid.
He died July 2, 1977 at 6:50pm, which would put it around 11 hours later than Gogol 125 years before.
In the summer of ‘77 I was a guest of the Vancouver General Hospital. A visitor brought the news, which I remember taking personally: If a man that gifted is allowed to die, what chance for the rest of us?
At Rougemont, near Gstaad, he had told Dmitri “in one of those rare moments when father and son discuss such matters, that he had accomplished what he wished in life and art, and was a truly happy man."
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.
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