Vladimir Nabokov

Nabokov, Dmitri

Nabokov, Dmitri (1934-2012), the only child and heir of Vladimir and Véra Nabokov, opera basso profundo, racing car driver, Ferrari collector, playboy, and mountain climber, was the major translator and editor of his father’s work and defender of his reputation. He was active as a translator of his father’s work into English, first under VN’s supervision, then Véra’s, and then on his own or with the help of Nabokovian friends, and later translated some of his father’s work into Italian. He was a very loving, much-loved, and difficult son.

          After Dmitri had graduated from Harvard, VN in 1955 proposed him as translator of Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time, in an edition with VN’s own introduction, but he and Véra had to do much of the work for their procrastination-prone son. After Lolita made VN famous enough for his Russian novels—all still untranslated except Laughter in the Dark and Despair—to be eagerly republished in English, VN secured Dmitri as the translator first of Invitation to a Beheading (1959, “in collaboration with the author”) and then The Gift (1963). Dmitri did complete the former, but translated only Chapter 1 of The Gift, which Michael Scammell took over (and received the sole credit for the translation “with the collaboration of the author”). Working always with his father, until 1976, Dmitri would leave the translation open, frequently offering several alternative words rather than selecting one, and ample space of his father to rephrase and reorder. He went on to translate The Eye (1965), King, Queen, Knave (1968) and Glory (1971), the play The Waltz Invention (translated 1964, published 1966) and the Russian stories, starting with “The Visit to the Museum” (1963), “Lik” (1964) and “An Affair of Honour” (1966), collected with “The Vane Sisters” in Nabokov’s Quartet (1966), and almost all the Russian stories in A Russian Beauty and Other Stories (1973), Tyrants Destroyed (1975) and Details of a Sunset  (1976), and the stories VN did not collect, plus a few later discovered, in Stories of Vladimir Nabokov (1995, with cumulative late-discovered additions in later editions, “Easter Rain,” in 2002, “The Word,” in 2006, and “Natasha” in 2008). Prior to being collected in book form almost all the translated stories were published in magazines, especially The New Yorker and Playboy. Dmitri also translated the novella The Enchanter (1986), the plays in The Man from the USSR and Other Plays (1984), the appendix to The Gift (re-dubbed “Father’s Butterflies”) for Nabokov’s Butterflies (1999), and many of the Russian poems VN had not translated himself in Poems and Problems (1970). Although Dmitri particularly liked translating his father’s verse, and would have liked to translate the whole of VN’s selected Russian poems, Stikhi (1979), his declining health in the 2000s did not allow him to translate more than 28 of the remaining Russian poems (including Nabokov's second-longest poem, after "Pale Fire," “The University Poem”), many of which also appeared in magazine form before being collected in Selected Poems (Collected Poems in the UK, 2012). He also translated, from the French, the essay “Pushkin, or the Real and the Plausible” (1988).

            He translated Transparent Things into Italian (1975), and helped retranslate Lolita, in a version that won an Italian translation prize.

            After a major crash in one of his Ferraris in 1982, which burned him severely and broke his neck, Dmitri lowered the curtain on his career as an opera singer and stopped racing cars, dedicating the rest of his life to his father’s work. He became the major editor and introducer of his father’s unpublished or uncollected work, including Selected Letters 1940-1977 (edited with Matthew J. Bruccoli, 1989), and the aforementioned The Man from the USSR and Other Plays (1984), The Enchanter (1985 in the French version translated from his English, 1986), Stories of Vladimir Nabokov (1995), and, most controversially, the unfinished novel The Original of Laura (2009), which VN had asked to be destroyed if left unfinished. He had always drawn to his parents’ attention errors and misprints in published VN texts, and assiduously collected their, his own, and other Nabokovians’ errors for the corrected Vintage editions, first launched in 1989.

            Since the early 1960s he had lived in Monza, Italy (close to La Scala in Milan, and even closer to Monza’s car-racing track). In 1988, when his mother had to move out of the Montreux Palace Hotel for renovations of the wing where she had lived, he persuaded her to buy an apartment above Montreux, which he inherited after her death in 1991. He also maintained a home in West Palm Beach, Florida. He inherited the Nabokov archive, selling the bulk of the manuscripts to the New York Public Library in 1991. He also sold the copies his father had inscribed and illustrated for his mother and him, which his father had drawn partly as a future legacy for Dmitri. After his death, much of his own archive in Florida was given by the Vladimir Nabokov Literary Foundation, which took over the estate, to the Houghton Rare Book and Manuscript Library in his alma mater, Harvard University. Other family memorabilia have been given by the Foundation to the Institute of Russian Literature and Art (Pushkin House) in St. Petersburg. The family collection of Nabokov editions is still being disposed of.

            Even before his mother’s death, Dmitri took an active role in commemorating and honouring his father, rather twitchily, haughtily, and sometimes contemptuously defending what he saw as attacks on Nabokov’s reputation or infringement on his rights. In a style that was elevated and arch like his father’s, but without his father’s supple relaxation into the everyday, he recalled his father in the fine memoir “On Revisiting Father’s Room” (1979, in Peter Quennell, ed., Vladimir Nabokov: A Tribute), and defended and extolled him in introductions, letters to the editor, and elsewhere, including his active monitoring of and occasional participation in Nabokv-L, the Nabokov listserv, in the 1990s and 2000s. He participated in Nabokov conferences, including the 1983 Cornell conference (where he sang) and the 1998 Cornell conference (where he took the role of his father in the dramatization Dear Bunny, Dear Volodya, a role he had played in other American cities) and in post-Soviet Russia. He enjoyed being interviewed for Nabokov documentaries, and generously made material (information, manuscripts, photographs, videos) available to researchers, journalists, and filmmakers. He also enjoyed having an active consulting role in the Adrian Lyne film remake of Lolita (1998). He was a generous host to the Nabokovians he counted among his friends.

          For more, see Wikipedia, and obituaries by Daniel E. Slotnik (New York Times, 25 February 2012), The Washington Post, 25 February 2012Brian Boyd (Guardian, 27 February 2012) and  and memoirs by Stephen Jan Parker, Gennady Barabtarlo, Brian Boyd, Ariane Csonka Comstock, Gavriel Shapiro and Nikki Smith (The Nabokovian, 68, 3-33). Chiara Montini has a forthcoming book on Dmitri’s role as translator and heir, Il clan Nabokov: Quando l’erede è il traduttore (The Nabokov clan: When the heir is the translator). No doubt someone will write a colorful biography of Dmitri.