NABOKV-L post 0003106, Wed, 13 May 1998 08:54:33 -0700

From: Donald Harington <>
Scripps Howard News Service
Release date:05-14-98
The Guardian

MONTREUX, Switzerland - Dmitri Nabokov, only son of the great writer
Vladimir, tells this story about his father's enduring fascination:
One day he went with a friend to lay some flowers on his parents' grave, at
Clarens cemetery in Montreux. ``This little Russian man appeared, with
mystical eyes looking up, always up, and he said, 'I can tell you about this
tomb. It belongs to a great Russian writer.' At first I played dumb. Then I
started to enlighten him. Finally, I said, 'Look, do you know who you're
talking to?' He didn't bat an eyelid. He looked even further skyward and said,
'I can still tell you: your father had his own agenda...'''
Nabokov is news at the moment. Adrian Lyne's controversial film of his book
``Lolita'' has seen to that. But even before, this sort of episode had made it
all but impossible for his son to step back from his legacy.
Twenty-one years after Vladimir's death, Dmitri lives in an apartment in the
flower-strewn hills above Montreux, a beautiful town on the shores of Lake
Geneva. Dominating the living room is a large portrait of his father, looking
big-brained and serious. Smaller photos are scattered around the flat. From
the balcony, Dmitri looks down on the Palace Hotel, where his father spent the
last 15 years of his life.
The aristocrat son of a liberal politician, Vladimir Nabokov fled his native
Russia with his parents in 1919, in the middle of the civil war. He lived a
semi-nomadic life in Germany, France and America before settling in Montreux
in 1961, and the Palace was his first real home for more than 40 years.
Much to Dmitri's delight, the rooms where his father used to write and watch
the changing colors of the lake have been restored and renamed ``l'Etage
Nabokov'' - the Nabokov Floor. The town is already preparing to celebrate the
centenary of his birth next year. ``There's such pride that he lived here,''
he says. ``They've read him, they love him.''
The apartment is not just Dmitri's home. In 1990, 13 years after Vladimir's
death, Dmitri's mother had to move out of the Palace because of renovation
work, and this is where Vera Nabokov lived until she passed away the year
after. Now it's the center of the Nabokov heritage industry.
Here, helped by two secretaries in the adjoining flat - one Russian, one Swiss
- Dmitri keeps an eye on the translations, the adaptations, the anthologies of
his father's work. Here he writes the introductions, the prefaces. Here he
feeds the official line to the newsletters and the e-mail lists. Among those
who have to deal with the Nabokov estate, he is known for his, shall we say,
rigorous approach to his duties. Some days, he says, he works for 20 hours.
Dmitri is 64. In his time he's worked as a racing driver and an opera singer.
But he's been involved in the family business for some 50 years, first under
Vladimir, then in tandem with Vera and for the past seven years on his own.
``My father started giving me his books when I was 14,'' he says. ``He
considered me adult enough. The first book he gave me was 'Bend Sinister,'
which is a strong book. (It features a child's murder.) It could give you
nightmares. After that, I got every book that he wrote. Then I started getting
them in typescript or in proofs. Then he began asking me, 'If there's anything
you see that you would like to ask or suggest, say it' ... Then it turned into
a collaboration, especially when I started translating his work.''
In 1955, when Dmitri was 21 and fresh out of Harvard, his father sent him the
book that was to make him infamous. ``I swear,'' Dmitri says, ``I read
'Lolita' without once stopping and thinking, 'This is going to be a scandal,
this is a crime, this is God knows what.' It didn't enter my head. I loved
Then the fuss began.
It's never entirely died down. Lolita's ``succes de scandale'' eclipsed not
just Nabokov's poetry but also other great novels such as ``Pale Fire,''
``Ada'' and ``Pnin.'' How, people still ask, could anyone write so
convincingly about a grown man's lust for a 12-year-old girl without drawing
on his own feelings?
``I remember I was in Cincinnati,'' Dmitri recalls, ``and a blue-haired lady,
somewhat in her cups, walked up to me and asked, 'How does it feel to have a
dirty old man as a father?' Just recently, another woman said to me, 'I hope
he's written better things than that.' It turned out she'd never even read the
book. And this sweet, lovely girl in Palm Beach said, 'J'ai lu Lolita. Ca me
surprend que ton pere a ecrit une chose comme ca' 1/8''I read Lolita. I'm
surprised your father wrote a thing like that'').''
What's he supposed to do, he asks. Slug them? (What Dmitri does, it's safe to
bet, is trot out the same remarks his father used: this is art, don't confuse
the depiction of bad acts with their endorsement, yadda-yadda-yadda. This,
after all, is what he says when interviewed. It's impressively principled, but
a little hair-shirt.
If he wanted to make things easy on himself, he could point out that the
charge most frequently laid against the book - that it depicts a pedophile in
a positive light - is just plain wrong. Humbert Humbert may get all the good
lines, but he still comes across as an arrogant, selfish abuser, all his
professions of love for Lolita undercut by his lust for other nymphets. But I
One of the things that has kept Dmitri busy in recent years is Lyne's film of
``Lolita,'' less a remake of Stanley Kubrick's 1962 version (a distinctly
loose interpretation that Dmitri is surprisingly charitable about) than a
return to the basics of Nabokov's book. Lyne's film, Dmitri says, is
``wonderful'' - not surprisingly, perhaps, given that he had a say in both
scriptwriter and script. ``Every time I see it, I like it better - whatever
language I've seen it in, and I've seen it in English, in French, in Italian
and in Russian.''
He's also had his work cut out tackling unofficial translations of his
father's works, particularly Russian bootlegs, many of which date back to
Soviet days. ``In some cases,'' he says incredulously, ``they would
unknowingly translate back into Russian things that had first been written in
Russian and then translated into English - poems, for instance.''
The collapse of the Soviet system has only encouraged get-rich-quick literary
pirates, and Dmitri says he's done his best to stop them. ``I'm happy to say
that if I go down in history for one thing in Russia, it'll be the revision of
the copyright and authors' rights system. It's certainly not all my doing, but
at last they realize that an author does not get the regular pay check and
perks of a manager but still has to be paid - as does his estate.''
That's not all that's been happening in Russia. Nabokov may have been an
exile, ``but they love him there, and he's an institution.'' Out of the blue,
a local official near St. Petersburg recently offered to return at least part
of the family's ancestral estates, which were confiscated after the Bolsheviks
came to power. With luck, it should all go through in time for the centenary
celebrations next year.
``It's generated headlines and given the worldwide media orgasms of enthusiasm
because I'm the first one who gets stuff back from the Communists,'' Dmitri
says. ``The Italians love this sort of thing: 'Una grande famiglia ritorna in
Russia' (''A great family returns to Russia''). They don't realize that the
'grande famiglia' has a crew of one. Other Nabokovs will come. I'll throw a
big feast like Boris Godunov.''
Listening to this sort of stuff, it's easy to lose patience with Dmitri
Nabokov. He's courteous, a good host, yet slips into portentousness at the
drop of a top hat, puffing himself up as he talks about the family's Russian
roots or his personal influence. But this seems to stem less from pride in
himself than from an absolute belief in his father and what he bequeathed. I
matter, he seems to say, but only as his representative. Imagine growing up as
the son of Dickens, or Dostoevsky.
Michael Wood, author of a book on Nabokov called ``The Magician's Doubts,''
describes Vladimir, Vera and Dmitri as ``an almost tribal family. They didn't
really connect with anyone.'' The flip side of that was an enviable closeness.
Now, Dmitri says: ``My parents, in a sense, are immortal to me. When I'm
translating or making a decision of any kind in any field, it's almost as if
they are looking over my shoulder. I can almost imagine their reactions and
their suggestions. It's like a presence. And it's a source of joy.''
Should we envy Dmitri Nabokov or pity him? Has his background been a blessing
or a curse? Look around that flat in Montreux, and you see endless reminders
of Dmitri's playboy lifestyle: red Ferraris on the sofa cushions, model cars
and speedboats to remind him of the real ones he's raced. He's been a
mountaineer, an opera singer. He still flies helicopters, skis at Zermatt.
Before the age of AIDS, he says, he had lots of ``nice girlfriends'' and made
the most of his youth.
All those fantasies fulfilled - but there he is, living in the family home,
minding the family business.
(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.)