Saturday, March 3, 2012

The Son Also Sets: Dmitri Nabokov, 1934-2012

I was saddened last week by the passing of Vladimir Nabokov’s son Dmitri at the age of 77. He was VN’s only child. He never married and left no immediate survivors.

(You’ll note that the following contains little criticism of the deceased. Since Andrew Breibart’s sudden death this week, between the wailing and popping champagne corks, there’s been another of those dreary Online Kerfuffles, this time about when or ever it’s appropriate to attack a Recently Dead Person.

In weary anticipation, I will stipulate that Dmitri Nabokov did not walk upon the waters. I refrain from mocking his shade because (a, his shortcomings are not the point of this piece; and b), when I gaze through the windows of my glass house, there, barely reflected in the dusty panes, is my own snobbish mug staring back in innocent surprise, my throwing arm at full cock.)

Dmitri Nabokov was more than a great writer’s son: Starting in the late 1950s, with Invitation to a Beheading, he became a translator of many of his father’s Russian novels and stories into English, most of which hadn’t been translated up to that time. If you know VN’s work, you know what an exacting writer he was, and his ideals became finely ingrained into his son’s translating work.

Dmitri had enough confidence to continue translating his father’s work even after VN’s passing in 1977. I recently read one of his solo efforts, The Enchanter , and, from what my poor sight could glean, he didn’t fumble a line. Even though the novellas is a minor work, the buoyant prose of this slim precursor to Lolita—poised and stirring between delight and queasy horror--is like nothing else I’ve read.

Still, without the old man by his side—tender and patient by most accounts—it’s easy to wonder if translating his father’s work alone was a fraught adventure, more perilous than of the mountains Dmitri Nabokov climbed in his off time.

After I heard of Nabokov’s passing, I purchased a pictorial biography of VN at Walden Pond Books, here in Oakland. There, on page 107, is a photo of Dmitri towering over his father and his mother, the amazing Vera, in full costume for the role of Raimondo in the opera Lucia di Lammermoor.  They seem every inch the family, a tight, fiercely supportive unit, extremely protective of each other (as many who tried to breach their carefully built castle walls learned; Vera was the chief and most vigilant guard). They’d been through a lot together.

Like his father, Dmitri was beloved by both his parents (“a cocoon of love” as he once described it). He shared their peripatetic life and decades of privation from his birth in 1934. In some of the photos from the 1930s, the parents look a little underfed while Dmitri looks reasonably nourished.  

He traveled with them in their flight from Berlin, then through Paris and on to America and more years of hardship as his father struggled to find footing in wild and wooly America, where, in between and during butterfly trips and teaching, he composed his masterpieces Pnin, Lolita, and Pale Fire before moving to The Palace Hotel in Montreaux, Switzerland, where VN lived the rest of his life.

The Nabokovs seemed to be always on the move, as though, after being driven from their wonderland in Old Russia, no place could ever be like that first home. VN chose a hotel to settle in, I’ve read, because there, life’s everyday needs could be easily met while he took care of his essential work. Maybe it also refracted a sense that it was unwise to become attached to a place. Never know when history will crudely storm through, bellowing for blood and attention.

I’m struck, in my slow walk through VN’s work, how little I sense the privation the Nabokovs experienced; how its author’s joy in being alive remains bright, as though suffering were simply a brute distraction, or a minor side effect of happiness. What privation that’s portrayed in his work is moral and spiritual, seen through the isolation of Hermann Hermann (Despair) and Humbert Humbert (Lolita). Though the most passionate of individualists, VN seemed also aware of individualism’s dangers.

Dmitri Nabokov led his own active and interesting life. In between translating work, he was also a professional opera singer and race car driver. Both these careers crashed to halt after a near-fatal racing accident in 1982. His mountain climbs also nearly took him over the precipice a couple times. Closely bound with his father’s work as he was, he still lived his own eventful life and seemed more than happy. He even had a page on Blogger (which now stands empty, as eerie as a room where a corpse has just been surreptitiously removed, perhaps through an invisible door).

I followed with sympathy the debate over whether or not he should publish the very early draft of what would have pupated into The Original of Laura.  (VN willed that the manuscript be burned after his death, but neither widow nor son could bring themselves to strike the match).

I couldn’t blame him for his reluctance and thought he should publish. Even so, I winced when I saw the darkly bloated Knopf edition and read the withering reviews, which misrepresented the novel as a finished work. Anyone unacquainted with Nabokov might be tricked into thinking they would behold a full and free butterfly, not the outlined creature barely formed in its pupa. A sensible approach would have had the book fluttering by in a modest small press edition, quietly released for the nets of scholars and Nabokov Nerds.

Dmitri Nabokov was the keeper of his father’s bright fire. Now that’s he’s gone, I sense a vacuum forming. No doubt arrangements for an able executor were in place, but Dmitri, in the prickly tradition of familial executors, was more than protector of his father’s legacy. He was its last living face and link to a vanishing world.

I’m anxious that, once again, something essential to us is fading behind as we barrel on into the future. As life races faster, to numbing speeds that feel like death approaching, so does our art, especially our fiction.

I’ll miss a reassuring face to tend those fragrant winding garden paths planted by Vladimir Nabokov, meant to be savored and pored over, to be walked through, once, twice and looked at closely, ever more closely, before the light dims.

Copyright 2012

(photo by author)

Thomas Burchfield has recently completed his 1920s gangster thriller Butchertown. He can be friended on Facebook, followed on Twitter, and read at Goodreads. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.


Anonymous said...

VN wrote from the mind, rather than the heart, and his writing has been criticized for playing games at a distance. Burchfield closes that distance by this heartfelt look at a close-knit family and genealogical dead end.

Thomas Burchfield said...

Thanks for that! Every once in awhile, though, I catch VN writing from the heart. For example, in "Bend Sinister," the novel about life in a totalitarian society, the chapters about Krug's relationship with his late wife amd son are very touching and emotional; the chapter where Krug is arrested is especially fraught with emotion.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this...

Thomas Burchfield said...

You're welcome!

Anonymous said...

For a guy like VN, I don't think the mind and the heart are as different as you could make them out to be. He wrote from a place that not many people are willing enough to understand.

Thomas Burchfield said...

Thanks. I had to re-read this piece (I wrote it some years ago and now think I laid the style on a bit thick). I agree that VN's head and heart were often bound more closely together than we might think.

To your comment that he wrote from a different place than most people are willing to comprehend, I would agree. For example, I've just finished reading the section on SPEAK MEMORY in Brian Boyd's terrific bio of VN. I think I'm pretty smart, but even I was challenged by Boyd's analysis of VN's outlook on memory and time.