Brian Boyd writes:

A quick question:


Does anyone know how the literary scholar Semyon Afanasievich Vengerov died? In Ada, I.38 (p. 259 in the first, Vintage and AdaOnline editions), Nabokov writes:


Van remembered that his tutor’s great friend, the learned but prudish Semyon Afanasievich Vengerov, then a young associate professor but already a celebrated Pushkinist (1855-1954), used to say that the only vulgar passage in his author’s work was the cannibal joy of young gourmets tearing “plump and live” oysters out of their “cloisters” in an unfinished canto of Eugene Onegin.


Vengerov was real, but died not in 1954 but in 1920. Note Vengerov as “a celebrated Pushkinist.” I currently plan to gloss this thus (though there is much more that could be said, for instance about his famous Pushkin seminar):


“Pushkinist”: Vengerov edited the first three volumes of the journal Pushkinist, published in Petrograd from 1914; its final volume, edited in 1923 by Nikolay Vasilievich Yakovlev (a friend of VN’s in the mid and late 1920s), was dedicated to Vengerov’s memory.


I suspect a pointed irony in the Antiterran extension of his life, beyond his 65 years on Earth, to a year short of a century and a year after Stalin’s death. I suspect this especially as the only sentence mentioning him comes between two sentences referring first to mass persecution (linking the persecution of the Old Believers with, as I read it, the tens of thousands who died in Stalin’s White Sea-Baltic Canal project in 1931-33, “on the banks of the Great Lake of Slaves”) and then to Stalin as the “Crimean Khan” praised by Churchill as “A Great and Good Man.”  I suspect also that Nabokov heard from Yakovlev—who certainly supplied Nabokov with other information the writer cherished and used, and who as an émigré founded an anti-Bolshevik organization Nabokov joined—something about Vengerov’s death that made Nabokov give him that almost improbably long life, outliving Stalin. Of course Stalin himself was not in power at the time of Vengerov’s death.

Susan Elizabeth Sweeney
Co-Editor, NABOKV-L
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