Sometime around 1950 I came across his name, which I first mispronounced, to myself and aloud, with the accent on Nab. It was a professor’s name or a musician’s, and in fact he was a professor at the time, at Cornell. I’d only a glimpse of what he could do, a published chapter of what was finally Speak, Memory, his partial autobiography. That one glimpse was enough.
I love to write about Nabokov and also to think about him. I love his attitude that he is incomparable, his lofty judgments and general scorn of other writers—not all of them, of course. His first American publisher, James Laughlin of New Directions, described Nabokov as a doll, but in a very severe, uppercrust way, Laughlin said, wanting no nincompoops for friends.
He was upper crust, from a wealthy and distinguished St. Petersburg family with a large country estate, Vyra, where Nabokov spent part of an idyllic boyhood, secure and well loved, in the early years of a century that was to become catastrophic. He might have gone on to spend an elegantly civilized life writing poems and avidly hunting butterflies—the life in eternity I hope he is having now—in a reformed and democratic Russia where his father could very well have been minister of justice, but all of that disappeared in the savage fighting and then murderous tyranny that followed the Bolshevik revolution of 1917. The family lost everything and fled the country. Nabokov never saw his homeland again.
Like the sun rising in some distant place, slowly, among clouds that hold back its brilliance, was how he came to be known in the English-speaking world. His first novels were written in Russian, in Berlin, and had only the relatively small audience of Russian émigrés there in the twenties and thirties. One of his contemporaries, the writer Nina Berberova, also in exile, placed an early laurel on his brow. “A tremendous, mature, sophisticated modern writer was before me,” she wrote, “a great Russian writer, like a phoenix, was born from the ashes of revolution and exile. Our existence from now on acquired a meaning. All my generation were justified. We were saved.”
I used the word glimpse, but it was not like something you see briefly and remember, the girl in the white dress alone on the steps of a farmhouse far from the road. Written pages are something that can be returned to, reclaimed, and when they are marvelous never lose their power. One of the astonishing things about Nabokov’s is how uncondescending they are, rich, exciting, beautiful, haughty. He was a self-taught butterfly expert—he grandly called hunting butterflies the noblest sport in the world and one of the two most intense pleasures known to man, the second being writing—and a genius. After I met him—I’ll come to that—I made it a point to talk to people who had known him, for the most part at Cornell, where he taught from 1948 to 1959.
“What did you talk about?” I asked a man who had shared an office with him.
He couldn’t remember. “He liked to talk about time,” he finally said.
“Time?” I thought of his lifelong preoccupation with memory, things lost but still present. “In what way?”
“In the morning he’d look at his watch and say, ‘I make it out to be 8:15; what do you have?’ ”
But this gives the wrong idea, though he was witty. He loved language; he could voyage in it in ways you would not think possible. His wit was nimble. He liked to call Doubleday “Dayday” and wrote ironically of his “gay tussles with publishers.” One snowy evening he arrived for dinner at the house of a fellow professor he knew slightly and was chirpingly asked by the wife, “Did you come in your troika, Mr. Nabokov?”
“No, in my Buicka,” he replied.
He never earned much from his writing until Lolita, that darkly glittering comedy, as one critic described it, in 1956. From then on the money started pouring in. He and his wife, Véra, had never even owned a house. They had no TV and seldom went to movies. In Paris, before coming to the States in 1940, three of them, including their son, Dmitri, had lived in a single room, and Nabokov wrote in the bathroom using the bidet as a desk. Suddenly everything changed; although, as he remarked, it should have happened 30 years earlier. By 1958, Lolita had become Hurricane Lolita. He had worked on the novel for years, at least five, amid “monstrous misgivings,” as he wrote to his editor at The New Yorker, and with “diabolical labors.”
I read Lolita when it was first published, in Paris, by the Olympia Press. I already knew his work but had no idea what he looked like. It turned out that he looked a lot like my father, who had been born the year before him, in 1898: the same diminishing amount of hair, the same general apportionment of features, nose, mouth, and chin, and the same weight of them, so to speak.
When I met him, it was in Montreux, Switzerland, where he and his wife had settled in 1960, after 20 years in America. It was more or less part of an interview. Nabokov had three inflexible rules for interviews. 1) All questions had to be submitted in writing. 2) Answers would be given in writing. 3) The result had to be published verbatim.
“My husband does not ad-lib,” Véra Nabokov warned.
I had submitted questions but had not received answers, and it was on this uncertain basis that he agreed to talk. It was mainly, I said, to be able to give readers a firsthand impression of him. He was probably not enchanted by the idea.
We met in the bar of the hotel, the Montreux Palace, an unlively place with waiters in white jackets standing silently in a nearly empty dining room. The Nabokovs had an apartment upstairs. They came into the bar together. He was taller than I expected; he had been a good tennis player at one time and had even taught tennis. His eyes were watery. He seemed patient and easy to talk to. The waiter brought drinks. We chatted. Montreux seemed to be a very quiet place, I said; were there any other writers here? He did not associate with writers, he said.
“With whom do you associate, then?” I asked.
“Bankers,” he said succinctly.
I asked him if there were any American writers he admired. He answered with a name I didn’t then know, Edmund White, and added the title of a book that for some reason I felt he was inventing (he had a playful air): Forgetting Elena. For a moment I thought that it might be an anagram of something I was expected to know. He had said, after all, that he had introduced kidding into Montreux. We talked for the better part of an hour. It was Sunday evening and probably duller than usual in town.
“Would you care for another julep?” he asked amiably.
I had been taking no notes and was afraid that if we had another drink (we were drinking scotch), I would begin to forget things he had said.
This was two or three years before his death, in 1977. Like certain cathedrals or even cities, he seems greater to me now, at an unbridgeable distance, than he did at the time. Then he seemed simply human and nothing like my father.
That was more than 30 years ago, and perhaps the nostalgia is also for those days that were, to some extent, my own, before the great tide of popular culture swelled to dimensions that have obliterated almost all else. I see him standing in that tide virtually ignoring it, though his trousers are darkened halfway to the knee. The Nobel committee had picked others. His early novels were little read. The monumental project of his translating Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, which took ten years—translating is not the right word; Nabokov had come to the conclusion that any attempt to translate poetry was fraudulent and totally inadequate, and believed only in an absolutely literal rendition—has been generally condemned. But his own books, three or four of them at a minimum, are invincible. He remains one of the heroic figures of his time.