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by Carlin Romano
JULY 2, 2007 TAGS:
St. Petersburg, Russia -- Shortly after Lolita made him a best-selling author in 1958, the acclaimed Russian-American novelist Vladimir Nabokov, his works long banned by the Soviets, wrote a poem in Russian. Nabokov ended it with a prediction that Russia would one day honor him, regardless of his scandalous English-language success d'estime.
Thirty-five years after the great emigre writer's death in Lausanne, Switzerland, on July 2, 1977, his prophecy resonates here in his hometown, filling the grand bourgeois mansion at Bolshaya Morskaya 47 in which he was born and spent his childhood and adolescence. The building now houses the Vladimir Nabokov Memorial Museum, a nearly 15-year-old institution, supported by private donors, that operates outside the largesse and control of Russia's government-museum establishment.
On the enormous old wooden desk in a former living room of the wealthy Nabokov family, the white "Guest Book" lies open to all who'd like to add a few lines. The entries testify to the passion and respect that Nabokov, who never returned to Russia after the Bolshevik Revolution, still stirs.
In French, Spanish, German, English, Czech, Italian, Japanese and, most frequently, in Russian, visitors leave their thoughts.
"Long live Nabokov!,' one signer exclaims. "He would unfortunately be shocked to find that Russians are still under the government's thumb to be told what to watch, think and read."
Several offer aphoristic declarations, such as "Great art knows no boundaries." Most offer more conventional thanks: "Wonderful to see the childhood source of some of this great master's writing."
On almost every page, one finds drawings of butterflies, some spectacularly precise -- an homage to the novelist/lepidopterist who once wrote to his friend Alfred Appel that researching butterflies was "even more pleasurable than the study and practice of literature."
In April of 2007, the museum put on a conference that included an unveiling of the first statue to Nabokov anywhere in Russia, more than an oversight in a nation that commemorates elite writers with the commitment America reserves for movie stars. A small bust, with a quotation from his poetry, now sits in the garden of the literature faculty at St. Petersburg State University, the elite school young Vladimir would have attended if the world had not interfered.
Born to enormous privilege and wealth in April 1899 -- grandson of a Tsarist Minister of Justice, son of a prominent liberal politician, spoiled nephew of an uncle with a 2,000-acre estate that he briefly inherited -- Nabokov grew up in Bolshaya Morskaya 47 with three siblings as if it were a magic kingdom. He recalled it in such books as The Defense, Speak, Memory and Ada: the pleasures of reading in his father's 11,000 volume library, of absorbing a sophisticated education from his English and French governesses (Nabokov could read English before Russian), of experiencing grand artistic guests of his parents such as the great singer Feodor Chialpin, pianist and conductor Serge Koussevitsky, and English writer H.G. Wells. He later described himself as "a perfectly normal tri-lingual child," albeit one chauffeured to school in a Rolls Royce.
At 17, Nabokov self-published his first collection of poems, and hoped to follow quickly with a second. But the family fled Petersburg and the Bolshevik Revolution for the Crimea in November 1917, aware that Nabokov's father, V.D. Nabokov, faced possible death as a leading member of the provisional, post-Tsarist democratic government the Communists ousted. "Everything that could be removed was removed," says museum director Tatiana Ponomareva of the mansion. The only piece of original furniture the museum possesses and exhibits is the tiny needlework table of Nabokov's mother, Elena.
From 1917 on, Vladimir Nabokov lived life in exile, his initial years supported by the pearls his mother managed to sneak out of the country. He studied at Cambridge University in England from 1919 till 1922, then moved to join members of his family in Berlin, at that point the major center of the Russian diaspora.
More tragedy followed. Nabokov's father, who'd become editor of the Russian-language paper Rul' (which means "The Rudder" in English), was assassinated in Berlin in 1922. Nabokov stayed, and in 1925 married his future lifelong supporter, Vera Slonim, the half-Jewish daughter of a wealthy Petersburg merchant. Aesthetically minded, largely apolitical and fiercely devoted to writing, Nabokov supported himself with literary jobs as well as coaching of tennis and boxing. He began to make a lustrous name for himself as a fiction writer under the nom de plume, Sirin.
In 1934, Vera gave birth to the couple's only son, Dmitri. Then, in 1937, as Hitler consolidated power and Vera lost her job because of her Jewish lineage, the Nabokovs moved to Paris. In Paris he would write The Gift and The Real Life of Sebastian Knight. Nabokov, once again a step ahead of disaster but virtually penniless, then fled France in 1940 for the United States on the last passenger liner to leave France before the Germans took Paris.
Nabokov's American employment veered in an almost entirely academic direction. He taught creative writing briefly at Stanford (1941), became a U.S. citizen in 1945, then won two long-term spots: teaching Russian language and literature at Wellesley (1943-48), and a professorship of Russian literature at Cornell (1948-59). While in the States, he also served as a part-time lepidopterist at Harvard's Museum of Comparative Zoology.
Although Nabokov always professed to like America, the runaway commercial success of Lolita allowed him to move back to Europe, to the Montreux Palace Hotel in Switzerland, where he lived till he died.
Nowadays, Nabokov's divided life plays out at the museum. Visitors walk slowly past display cases of his pinned butterflies (some originally from Harvard's collection and labeled in his own handwriting), his butterfly net, glasses and pencils (donated by son Dmitri).
The Soviets banned his writings from the beginning of his career until 1986. And 30 years ago his death drew scant notice here. But once his Russian novels began appearing in the 1980s, Ponomareva says, "the Russian public realized that there was another classic in Russia that they didn't know of.
"Nabokov is now very popular in Russia and very widely read," she adds. "And what's reassuring is that it's young people who read him a lot."
A few years ago, Ponomareva feared that the St. Petersburg city government might evict the museum for late payment of rent, a problem since alleviated by a private fund-raising campaign. So the reverent and butterfly-artists keep coming, keep writing "Das ist gut!" or "Bravo!" in the guest book, keep protecting the flame of literary independence that was Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov.
Carlin Romano, literary critic of The Philadelphia Inquirer and Critic-at-Large of The Chronicle of Higher Education, served as a Fulbright professor of philosophy at St. Petersburg State University in 2002-2003.
First and Last photos by Charlie Whitfeld.
Carlin Romano is the Critic-at-Large of The Chronicle of Higher Education.
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