Montreux r esident Dm itri Nabok ov’s decis ion to pub lish ...
Nabokov on the balcony of his Montreux hotel retreat
© Horst Tappe Foundation
Nabokov’s last novel recalls Montreux legacy
by Marianne Burkhardt
Montreux - July 16, 2009 | 10:05
Montreux resident Dmitri Nabokov’s decision to publish his father Vladimir’s final, unfinished novel - despite the author’s instructions to destroy it - is causing a splash now that Playboy magazine has acquired rights to publish an excerpt. The Russian-American author likely wrote the work in the Vaud lakeside town where he spent the last 16 years of his life in a luxury hotel and where visitors can book a suite – costing almost 2,000 francs a night - containing a table where the writer wielded a leaky pen.
Russian-born novelist Vladimir Nabokov left the manuscript of his final, incomplete novel, written on index cards, in a safe-deposit box in a Swiss bank with instructions for it to be destroyed.
Now it is about to be published.
Since the author’s death in 1977, his son Dmitri Nabokov, has struggled between filial duty and his reluctance to shred the manuscript. The work, entitled The Original of Laura, was probably written in Montreux, where the author spent the last 16 years of his life.
Dmitri Nabokov, who continues to live in the Swiss town, is convalescing from an illness and could not be reached for comment. But he reportedly wanted to see the work published because he liked it and he believes readers and literary scholars will appreciate it too.
The family wrestled with the decision for years but it became Dmitri’s dilemma alone after his mother died in 1991. Now, in what some are calling the literary event of the year, the book is to be released by Knopf in November, a week after a 5,000-word excerpt appears in Playboy magazine.
No figures have been disclosed for the publishing rights. But Playboy's literary editor, Amy Grace Lloyd, told the New York Observer: "We've never paid this much for a book excerpt before, ever."
All this has put a spotlight on the place where the Russian-American novelist spent the last part of his life. Following the success of his controversial and acclaimed novel Lolita, Nabokov and his wife Véra moved into a sixth-floor suite of the Cygne wing of the Montreux Palace Hotel in 1961.
“Nabokov first came here with the intention of finding a place to buy,” said Gisèle Sommer, the hotel’s public relations coordinator. “He and his wife ended up staying and became part of the hotel’s life.”
According to Sommer, Nabokov liked to play chess with Véra on the balcony of his suite. He regularly received visitors in the hotel’s Salon de Musique and drank aperitifs at its Rose d’Or bar. Both places still exist.
Montreux’s archivist, the historian Evelyne Lüthi-Graf, told Swisster: “He came to Montreux because he wanted to be left in peace after Lolita.”
She said Nabokov’s rented hotel suite was not expensive at the time and “using the hotel’s services was practical because it meant he didn’t have to employ his own staff”.
The Cygne wing was transformed after the writer’s death, but the Montreux Palace, now part of the Fairmont chain, offers clients a Nabokov Suite, consisting of a bedroom, living-room and balcony. An overnight stay costs 1,969 francs.
“The suite contains photos of Nabokov and some of his furniture – such as the bed, bedside table and writing desk,” said Sommer.
These furnishings were bought by Lüthi-Graf on behalf of the municipality of Montreux, when the contents of the renovated wing were auctioned off by the hotel’s former manager.
“I knew Nabokov’s hotel writing desk was among the auction pieces, but there were several and I didn’t know which one was his,” said Lüthi-Graf. When she called Dmitri Nabokov, he had no difficulty in identifying his father’s desk among the hotel’s other fake Henry IIs.
“Nabokov had a leaky pen and Dmitri recognised a big ink stain in the left-hand drawer,” Lüthi-Graf said.
According to Sommer, the hotel receives regular booking requests for the Nabokov Suite but the recent revival of interest in the writer has not yet prompted a surge in bookings.
“I think we’ll have more enquiries when the book is published at the end of the year,” she said. The hotel’s lakeside gardens house one of the world’s three sculptural tributes to Nabokov.
The life-sized bronze was a gift from the mayor of Moscow in 1999 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the writer’s birth. A bas relief is on show at the Nabokov Museum, located in the writer’s former home in Saint Petersburg.
More discreetly, a bronze bust, executed by Bernard Bavaud for a Nabokov exhibition in Munich, is now sitting in the sculptor’s Montreux workshop.
It was based on family photos but is so life-like that, when Lüthi-Graf and Dmitri Nabokov visited the clay sculpture that preceded the plaster and bronze versions, Dmitri started commenting on it in Russian without realising he was doing so.
“In fact, what he was saying was: ‘Oh yes - that really is my father!’” said Lüthi-Graf, remembering Dmitri’s surprise at his unconscious lapse into Russian.
Nabokov was also immortalised by the German photographer Horst Tappe, who lived in Montreux at the same time. Tappe became famous for his black and white photos of celebrities who holidayed or lived in the area.
A travelling exhibition of the photographer’s work, to be mounted by the Horst Tappe Foundation in 2011, will include photos of Nabokov.
Sarah Benoit, who co-created the foundation last year, said Tappe’s archives, stored in Montreux, include thirty rolls of film of Nabokov portraits.
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