NABOKV-L post 0006126, Thu, 16 Aug 2001 09:22:33 -0700

The pink granite house where memory speaks (fwd)

Recent article to share with the Nabokov List.

The pink granite house where memory speaks

Thomas Swick

August 12, 2001

It felt strange, as I headed out of the courtyard and up the street, to be walking in the city of Vladimir Nabokov -- "the world's most gaunt and enigmatic" he called St. Petersburg -- but even odder was the suspicion that I had become a misplaced character from one of his novels.

Namely, Franz, who, in King, Queen, Knave, spends his first waking hours in Berlin in an exquisite blur having stepped on his glasses the night before. Mine were intact, but beaded with tightly bunched drops of drizzle, like miniature carbuncles, which, added to the wooziness of jet lag (my Lufthansa plane had splashed down only an hour or so earlier), left me feeling like a drunkard gazing through a crystal into a dream.

I was able to make out, underfoot, a rolling sea of black macadam (sidewalks of tar on Nevsky Prospekt!) and, up above, strung across the storied avenue, the melting Cyrillic of banal banners. "Plausible street corners" appeared, after long intervals, as did the more convincing bridges. I knew from maps that I had three to cross before I got anywhere near Vlad's old hood.

He left it, never to return, in 1917, several days into the Bolshevik Revolution ("The Soviet era was a dull week old"). In his brilliant memoir, Speak, Memory, there appears a black-and-white photograph, "taken in 1955 by an obliging American tourist," of the family house "of pink granite with frescoes and other Italianate ornaments, in St. Petersburg, now Leningrad, 47, Morskaya, now Hertzen Street."

I crossed a wet St. Isaac's Square, the cathedral a wavering vessel at the top, and found with double joy a resurrected Morskaya Street. A few doors down on the right dripped the leaves of the linden trees I knew from the photograph; by the entrance hung a plaque etched with a name I deciphered as Nabokov's. The museum, as I expected, was closed; it was enough, these first hours, to stand outside and squint.

Returning a few sunny days later, I admired the walnut ceiling in the empty dining room, examined a photo exhibit of the Nabokovs in Switzerland, and wandered through a few more furnitureless chambers. The bare-bones homage to one of history's most thematically complex, stylistically ornate, linguistically rich writers felt like a hoax. Leaving the museum, I hesitated at the foot of the marble staircase, before stealthily making my way to the top, the radiant beauty of the stained glass window taking my mind off the mundane trespassing.

It was on the second floor that the parents' bedrooms had been; now it housed the offices of the Nevsky Times. Barging into one, I asked if there was anyone who spoke English, and was told to have a seat. Five minutes later a short, energetic woman appeared and introduced herself as Alla Yunosheva, managing editor. She apologized for her English. She had not used it much, she said, since the year she had spent at the St. Petersburg Times in St. Petersburg, Fla.

Her Times was a little more than 10 years old, and it had been at 47 Morskaya an even shorter length of time. "It was a funeral office before," Alla said. (This after a life as the Danish mission and a school of architecture.) "There were maps of cemeteries on the wall."

She led me upstairs to Nabokov's bedroom, where the institutional lighting echoed, I imagined, the "sullen, harsh, jaundiced tinge" that made his eyes "smart" at 8 a.m. And the reporter tapping at her terminal in the corner was engaged in an updated, upright version of the budding writer's morning routine: "Leaning my singing ear on my hand and propping my elbow on the pillow, I would force myself to prepare ten pages of unfinished homework."

Back on the second floor we entered the mother's boudoir, similarly programmed, and stood at the oriel overlooking Morskaya. "This is where Nabokov saw his first dead person," Alla said, and immediately I remembered the passage from the memoir: "He was being carried away on a stretcher, and from one dangling leg an ill-shod comrade kept trying to pull off the boot..."

This afternoon the street was tranquil, washed in the undying light of the brief northern summer.

Travel Editor Thomas Swick's column appears every other Sunday. Call him at 954-356-4731; or e-mail him at Read more of his columns in the Internet Edition at

Copyright (c) 2001, South Florida Sun-Sentinel