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Silvery light
Vladimir Nabokov's original life

Charles Kinbote
(Jeff Edmunds)

Jeff Edmunds - The founder ZEMBLA devoted Vladimir Nabokov about Zembla

Chapter One: On Visiting Nabokov's Tomb
Chapter Two: An Insipid Incipit
Chapter Three: Mashen'ka
Chapter Four: Night Roams the Fields
Chapter Five: Kafka
Chapter Six: This Hovering Honeyed Mist
Chapter Seven: King, Queen, Knave
Chapter Eight: Dying Is No Fun
Chapter Nine: Zashchita Luzhina
Chapter Ten: America

It is customary to preface a work of this kind with "Acknowledgments," the scholarly version of lèche-culisme (or back-slapping, for those readers of delicate sensibilities or who have no French), in which the author, feigning humility, lists the names of the people and institutions he has had occasion to consult, implying, or, more often, stating explicitly, that although all these fine folks were instrumental in establishing the book's final form, none of them can be held responsible for any of the lapses or idiocies to be found therein; for these the author alone must answer.

I have opted, against the protestations of my editor, to forego this tiresome ritual.

Every word, every thought, every mark of punctuation in this work is my own, except where stated otherwise according to the dictates of careful scholarship. Certainly the comments (solicited or not) of many persons have guided me in perfecting my book, but only insofar as they served as signposts of exactly the type of tired tripe I wished to avoid. The most common of these was a chilly "You can't do that," as if my book were violating some immemorial cosmic law. For all their carping about institutional constraints on the freedom of their thought and work, my fellow academicians (and even many of you, self-styled "Nabokovians") have revealed themselves to be virulently censorial when confronted by the weird fruit of my research.

Few things are more depressing to an intelligent person than the revelation that a whole league of supposedly enlightened literati is in fact a mob of petulant nitwits.

Chapter One

On Visiting Nabokov's Tomb


"Biography is a form of murder." -- J. Tenier

The cemetery of the Centre Funéraire St. Martin is bordered on three sides by a tall wrought-iron fence (whose black bars are spaced widely enough to permit the passage of a small child) and on the fourth by a pine and birch forest which extends over the summit of the hill and descends to meet the right bank of Lac Léman six and a half kilometers to the north. The gate stands (usually unlocked) across a pebbled footpath that begins at the stairhead of the uppermost of several contiguous flights (equal in breadth, unequal in height) of cement steps and serpentines across the face of the rise between and around sculptured evergreen shrubs and coppices of scrub pine. Beyond the gate the path forks and each tine wends its way amongst the headstones, the mausoleums, the bouquets of wilted flowers, the miniature red and white flags painted over otherwise unmarked plots. At night the white pebbles seem to irradiate a ghostly phosphorescence. Fireflies float and wink against the looming black backdrop of forest. A sole insomniac cricket emits a single chirp.

On the 21st of July, 1977, the sky was low and uniformly cloudy, but there was sufficient ambient moonlight for dim shadows to be cast, for the gold band of my signet ring to shine dully. Under my left arm I carried, wrapped in a canvas sack, a ghoul's tools: shovel, pickax, and crowbar. I stepped swiftly, silently. The air was crisp and noticeably cooler near the woods. Kneeling on the damp ground, I unrolled my tool sack and laid out my implements side by side. The plot I had chosen (based upon the answers to questions I had posed to a few of the Master's friends who did not know who I was and which I had located by means of certain complicated machinations involving counting paces and keeping the moon always behind me and above my left shoulder) abutted another, more recently filled--the grass sprouting from its low mound was sparser, longer, and lighter in hue than the surrounding lawn. As I stooped with the shovel I heard, and felt on my exposed nape, the fur-leathery flutter-flap of a veering bat, and I ducked. (For an adult I am uncommonly squeamish about some things: bats, oozy pond bottoms, finger wounds accidentally self-inflicted in the course of slicing bell peppers for a summer salad, and the objects of my first and fiercest phobia, ichneumon flies, those clumsy gargantuan pseudo-mosquitoes that manage somehow always to become trapped indoors, where they skitter soundlessly up white walls, down white walls, obliquely across white walls when no outlet up or down is to be found.)

The grave, as I had been told, was as yet unmarked. I began my excavation at the foot of the plot. The top layer of sod had to be dislodged more or less intact (cut into three or four rectangular parcels) to allow cosmestic resurfacing of the refilled hole. I laid the patches of greensward to the left of the plot, then removed the pick and the crowbar from the canvas sheet so that it could be spread out on the right.

The average casket is buried, if the diggers have dug by the book, beneath approximately eighty-four cubic feet, or nine and one third cubic yards, of earth. The more recent the inhumation, the looser the soil, the easier the dig. The one next door, for example, would have been a snap. Vladimir Nabokov had been buried for over a fortnight, and I expected the work to be tiring. But not, necessarily, unpleasant: imagine the musty odor of freshly dug soil, so pungent one can taste it on one's tongue; the repetitious dull metallic bite of a shovel's steel scoop into the tough ground and the simultaneous tingling in one's fingers; the scattered patter of dirt heaved from out of the deepening, darkening hole; the closeness of the grave's walls and the muffled quality of all sounds originating beyond the rectangular threshold, a box of sky. But the few night sounds (owl hoot, susurrous birch boughs, restless cricket's chirp) only infrequently punctured the taut membrane of silence.

The casket turned out to be inexplicably ornate, with an intricately carved moulding and a brass plate affixed to the lid engraved with the dearly departed's name in Roman script, which I tried to decipher in the dark with my fingerpads: V..A.....M.N..K. Close enough. Climbing out of the pit I laid down the shovel and sat cross-legged for a moment, breathing heavily and wiping the sweat from my forehead with the untucked tail of my shirt. I wanted to smoke but dared not, fearful that my cigarette's glowing eye would be spotted by the hoary, probably armed, groundskeeper. The cloud cover had begun to clear. The luminous demilune had risen above the treetops. A gentle breeze was blowing. I reflected on my monstrous thoroughness and laughed aloud, but without conviction. My throat closed like a pinched hose, the laugh was choked into a hiccup, the hiccup choked up as a cough. Or a Nabo-cough, as the Master might have punned! I covered my mouth and caught a palmful of warm phlegm which I smeared onto the wet turf beside my knee.

With the same hand I pushed the crowbar, a five-foot-long iron rod with one flattened end and a sturdy claw at the other, into the pit. It struck the casket cover, bounced once, and came to rest standing at a slant against the earthen wall with its claw end protruding six or seven inches above ground level. I slid in after it. With one boot planted over VN's breast and the other over his groin, and aiming for the brass latches along the casket's left side, I repeatedly lifted and let fall the flat end of the crowbar (much as a farmer driving in fence posts). Constructed to withstand the gradual ravages of seeping damp and various vermins' sedulous nibbling but not the simple implements of a vampire vandal impersonated by an overzealous biographer, the fancy hardware ceded after a minimum of blows. I lobbed the crow out of the hole and moved to straddle the casket by forcing a boot into the interstices separating dirt wall from coffin panel on each side of the box.

I tugged and tugged, and the lid burst open. There was a roar of many voices, as if of angels, in my ears.

But there was no Vladimir Vladimirovich.

Chapter Two

An Insipid Incipit


"Vypriast' pfunt shersti poleznee nezheli napisat' roman." - I.A. Balda

Vladimir Nabokov was born. This much, at least, I can deduce from the fact of his having lived. To say more so soon would be unnecessarily audacious, and to say less would be to say, almost, nothing. Unless, perhaps, I might emend my first choice thus: Vladimir Nabokov was. Voilà. I think it would be impossible to improve upon that.

If it were up to me rather than to my editor, this chapter, like a painter's preliminary sketch, would be a sort of ébauche, in broad washes of reddish brown and black, or mauve and ivory, of the tableau to follow. Think of the synopses at the head of each Canto in the Harvard Classics edition of Dante's Divine Comedy. Thus, we would have: Void -- Birth of Nabokov -- Infancy and boyhood in Russia -- School years -- First poems -- Expatriation -- Cambridge -- Berlin -- Friends and associates -- Early works -- Maturity -- Madness -- Death -- Etc., etc.... Such a format has the advantage of giving the reader, and, truth be told, the author, umbratic foreglimpses of what is to come. Its principal drawback is its implication that the life lived was lived simply and linearly with a sort of storybook neatness about the whole. But life is neither simple nor neat, and, moreover, Nabokov is an outstanding example of Robert Musil's personality ohne Eigenschaften. He was a remarkable man who lived an unremarkable life, but unremarkable only in the popularly understood sense of being unmarked by those melodramatic ups and downs, such as tempestuous affairs with perverse poodle-trimmers or repeated suicide attempts, of which the reading public (whatever that is) is so fond. Even his paraphilia, so pregnant with the possibility of melodrama, is ultimately dreary and bears none of the glamour we associate with say, Charles Dodgson or Vincent Van Gogh. I say at the outset: Vladimir Nabokov's life is not the stuff of film fantasies or pulp fiction. This book is a work of scholarship, and as such, is predicated not on the appeal of lurid speculation but on the primacy of truth.

It was in the spring of 1962 at the University of Old Ex, where I had just successfully defended my second doctoral dissertation (titled Quelques considérations sur l'histoire de l'histoire de la littérature), that professor of art Fritz Berthoud introduced me to Nabokov's work. I wanted to write a literary biography and was casting about for a subject. We had been discussing, between sips of the hot but weak coffee then available from a temperamental vending machine in the courtyard, the recent revelation that Najeb Anton Albina had extensively doctored his original negatives of the Dead Sea Scrolls before releasing them to the Israelis for publication. Sitting back in his armchair, Fritz was no more than a dark silhouette sharply outlined against the blaze of the May morning framed by the tall window, his face a patch of shadow from which a soft voice rose. Our discussion turned to the Macchiaoli, Fritz' specialty. I bemoaned, in passing, the early death of Giovanni Fortunari (1823-1856). The professor remained silent in what I took for mute approbation. The dust had settled, the only movement in the room was the slow swirl ceilingward of the steam from our coffees. (I mention, with no disrespect for my late teacher intended, though his rabid dislike for a certain kind of person was well-known, that I sometimes felt in his presence as if he thought of me, when he thought of me at all--which he was prone not to do, even when I was sitting in front of him--as little more than a garrulous nuisance.) Finally, when I had begun to suspect that he had dozed off as he often did in seminars, to the amusement of his students, and that a cascade of hot liquid over the waxed rim of the cup toward his unsuspecting crotch was imminent, he set the paper cup on his desk and swivelled such that all I could see was the black back of his desk chair and the crown of his head. The crown disappeared. I heard a filing cabinet drawer being pulled open, the shuffle of file folders, the rustle of plastic, more shuffling, the drawer rolling and then clicking shut. I plucked a small ball of gray fuzz from a crease in my black pants. The chair, like the false library wall in a Gothic romance novel, reswivelled to reveal the professor's dim self. Moving his coffee to one side, he laid in the center of the desktop a white plastic sack from which he removed a bundle that looked like a folded bedsheet. This he proceeded to deconstruct by unfolding and refolding, slowly, deliberately, with the elegant manipulations of a prestidigitator explaining a trick, until a stack of three small notebooks appeared. He switched on the desk lamp, and we both blinked, momentarily dazzled. Gingerly he separated the cahiers, each of which bore a yellow label on its cover with the name "V. Sirin" handwritten in Cyrillic script, and arranged them on the blotter facing me. I lowered my half-full cup to the floor and leaned forward.

Chapter Three


For three years the mental image of those cahiers laid edge to edge on Berthoud's desk blotter burned in my brain like a neon eidolon. Here was V. Sirin's first book of prose, in fair copy, before me. Curiously enough, one cannot read a book, one can only reread it, as the Master once wrote. And this I did, many times, savoring the turns of phrase and the shades of words, staunch in my belief that a careful rereader, forearmed with a knowledge of what is to come, is more apt to catch the glimpses of future greatness that the prose of a first novel allows.

After having considered and discarded one by one a series of clever but clumsy titles for this chapter I settled on the pedestrian choice above. Engaging in verbal legerdemain while speaking of Nabokov is a perilous and perhaps foolhardy undertaking, given his own multilingual mastery over words--one might compare it to beginning a talk on Nijinsky by stepping from behind the lectern to attempt a jeté or two.

While much, indeed too much, has been written about Nabokov's English novels, much less has been said about his earliest Russian fiction. It is to this I must now turn. My editor has chided me for diverging too frequently and too widely from my subject--but what is a life if not a series of diversions from some hidden, ineffable theme?

Mashen'ka opens with the tongue-twisting name and patronymic of the protagonist Ganin, Lev Glebovich, which, complains the character Alferov, "iazyk vyzvikhnut' mozhno" (7). Instantly we are made aware of the potential treachery of words. With Alferov's statement a few paragraphs later that "vsiakoe imia obiazyvaet," we are also reminded of their power. The first stylistic glimmer of the mature Nabokov, which comes after the brief dialogue between Ganin and Alferov of which chapter one wholly consists, is the sequence "i bubliki, i brilliantin i prosto brillianty" (17-18) a harbinger of such later alliterative lists as "the brook and the boughs and the beauty of the Beyond"1 and "glacial drifts, drumlins, and gremlins, and kremlins."2 In the sentence "Tak meshalis' v nem chustvo chesti i chustvo zhalosti, otumanivaia tvorcheskie podvigi, na vsiakii trud, i prinimaiushchagosia za etot trud zhadno, s okhotoi, s radostnym namereniem vse odolet' i vsego dostich'," (33) we are struck by the phrase's musicality and especially by the aptness of the final "dostich'"--chosen in preference to the alternative perfective form of dostigat', dostignut' (lined out in the fair copy), which would not have scanned. From the first it is apparent that the young Nabokov is a tireless seeker after the mot juste. Profoundly appreciative of Flaubert's Madame Bovary (of which he would say some thirty years later that "Stylistically it is prose doing what poetry is supposed to do"), a writer afflicted (or blessed) with audition coloreé and whose first published works, as I think I have said or should have said, were books of verse3, Nabokov by 1925, the year the composition of Mashen'ka commenced, had already begun his apprenticeship in the seemingly effortless blending of sound and sense.

Three years prior to the appearance of Mashen'ka, the then twenty-four-year-old Nabokov had published, also in Berlin, a Russian translation of Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland--the Master's first verifiable brush with an affliction prudish commentators have evaded. As you know, the backroom and darkroom antics of Alice's creator were more than slightly dodgey, son. As is pointed out in the publisher's note which prefaces the 1976 reprint of the original edition, Nabokov managed to render into Russian many of Carroll's puns and linguistic tricks; one of the examples cited is Nabokov's Chepupakha, "a conflation of cherepakha (tortoise) and chepukha (nonsense)" for Carroll's Mock Turtle. (Incidentally, the mot-valise nearly works in Zemblan too: karuglee + utsyonee gives the lilting karutsyonee.) The same ludic language finds its way into Mashen'ka. A neat (and equally beguiling) analog to "chepupakha" is Ganin's "printsitutka. Smes' institutki i printsessy." The mathematician Alferov, long-windedly reminiscing about his soon-to-have-arrived wife, says "Byvalo, govoril zhene: raz ia matematik, ty mat'-i-machekha." To which a bored Ganin replies "Odnim slovom, tsyfra i tsvetok" (28). This sort of wordplay, both amusing and densely meaningful, with its symbolic juxtapositioning of Alferov's figure to Mary's flower (the botanically-minded Nabokov would have known that the leaves of coltsfoot are heart-shaped) and the obvious near homophony of machekha and Mashen'ka, is a quintessentially Nabokovian exchange. Its descendant is the learned banter we will later witness between, for example, Humbert Humbert and Clare Quilty in Lolita.

Unlike the girl Lolita, who is palpably present from the first three syllables of Nabokov's most infamous book, we never meet the eponymous heroine of Mashen'ka. Or, it would be more accurate to say, we meet her only through the screens of other characters' words and remembrances: Alferov's, Ganin's. In addition to allowing Nabokov to dwell lovingly on the theme of memory (about which more below), the anticipated event of Mary's arrival neatly illustrates a certain blind Argentinian bibliophile's definition of the aesthetic phenomenon as "the imminence of a revelation which does not occur." Gogol's Revizor provides, of course, a precedent in Russian literature for this device, to which Nabokov will frequently return: in Podvig (in which "nothing much happens at the very end"4); in Dar (in which Fyodor's longed-for reunion with his missing father is never realized); in The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (in which the narrator is certain that his famous brother is privy to "some momentous truth he would impart to me before dying"5--but does not). Had Mashen'ka been written two decades later, in the language of Nabokov's third adopted home (after Cambridge and Berlin), its title might have been En attendant Marie.

Speak, Memory, Nabokov exhorts his most faithful muse in the title of his autobiography, first published in 1951. In Mashen'ka, when she is not in the limelight, Mnemosyne is never far off in the wings. The book's Pushkin epigraph "Vospomnia prezhnikh let romany, Vospomnia prezhniuiu liubov'" sets the stage.6 Indeed, the verb vspominat' appears in its various conjugations no less than eight times in the first two chapters alone. Mashen'ka is a celebration of memory in the same vein as Humbert Humbert's passionate evocation of his "poor doomed darling" and the nonagenarian Van Veen's monumental reconstruction of his and Ada's long life together. Memory is a theme Nabokov, exiled not only from his beloved Russia, but also, like each of us, from childhood's irrecuperable magic kingdom, will never abandon. O Exile!

The most important consequence of memory's power in Mashen'ka is Ganin's decision to leave the city without seeing again his first love. His detailed recollections, expanded and explored between the end of chapter two, when he learns the identity of Alferov's bride7, and the book's final paragraphs, gradually affirm the existence of a Mary wholly his own, an image with more substance in his own head and heart than the flesh-and-blood stranger, another man's wife, due to arrive Saturday next. In the end it is this mental simulacrum which gains ascendancy over dull reality, inevitably disappointing when compared with imagination's timeless, sparkling, infinitely plastic realm:

...eti chetyre dnia byli byt' mozhet schastliveishei poroi ego zhizni. No teper' on do kontsa ischerpal svoe vospominan'e, do kontsa nasytilsia im, i obraz Mashen'ki ostalsia vmeste s umiraiushchim starym poetom tam, v dome tenei, kotoryi sam uzhe stal' vospominaniem.

I krome etogo obraza, drugoi Mashen'ki net, i byt' ne mozhet. (168)

This realization of the primacy of art is not so different from Humbert's last lines:
I am thinking of aurochs and angels, the secret of durable pigments, Zemblan sonnets, the refuge of art. And this is the only immortality you and I may share, my Lolita. (311)
The two Marys, the real and the remembered, have counterparts in the two Ganins: the first a vigorous young man capable of walking on his hands, picking up a chair with his teeth, and snapping twine with a flex of his bicep8, the second, as his landlady observes, "vial i ugrium." In his loveless affair with Liudmila, the vital Ganin tries half-heartedly to maintain a semblance of romantic interest, but his listless other self is constantly foiling his efforts. He and Liudmila have just made love: "I Ganinu stanovilos' skuchno opiat, on shagal vdol komnaty ot okna k dveri i obratno, do slez pozevyval, i ona, nadevaia shliapu, iskosa v zerkalo nabliudala za nim" (22). It is significant that Liudmila watches Ganin in a mirror. The theme of doubles and reflections, a theme familiar to every reader of Nabokov's English work, is ubiquitous in Mashen'ka. A few pages after Ganin's surreptitious yawn, while watching a film he recognizes himself amidst a crowd of extras. To describe this otherworldly, cinematographic shade, Nabokov uses the term "dvoinik." In deference to the Master's professed dislike for him, I won't mention Dostoevsky.

Mashen'ka most unfortunate and tasteless double, inspired no doubt by the author's recent translation of Alice, are the powdered and mincing dancers Kolin and Gornotsvetov, a pair who, like Tweedle-Dum and Tweedle-Dee, until late in the books are distinguishable one from the other only by their names.

Multiple levels of narrative so-called reality have become a commonplace in what is blithely known in the inbred circles of academia as postmodernist fiction, but Nabokov's oeuvre was bristling with such structures decades before they achieved the status of an acceptable, in fact expected, technique: the biography within a book of Dar, or the startling (and at that time, revolutionary, in both senses of the term) ending of Bend Sinister, in which "comfortably Krug returns unto the bosom of his maker," to cite but two examples. In Mashen'ka there is a passage which can been seen as the prototype of these later interpenetrating strata of sense. As mentioned above, early in the novel Ganin goes to the cinema (and sits between cosy Klara and more-or-less tritely lascivious Liudmila--another reflective doubling). The film being shown is the story of an opera singer who, while playing before an elegant audience (in reality the crowd of seedy Russian extras amongst whom Ganin recognizes himself) the role of a murderess, suddenly recalls a death she herself unintentionally caused. She collapses, the audience mistakes her faint for the planned and exquisitely executed end of the act, and the theatre explodes in a thunderous ovation. Restated in terms of the several narrative levels we have Ganin (who, though it is obvious, I still point out is a character in a book: first level) watching a film (second level) about an opera (third level) in which the diva's genuine distress (fourth level) is mistaken by the audience for a part of the opera they came to see.9

This device is closely related to what André Gide has called the mise en abîme, the repetition with variations on ever smaller scales of certain incidents or images drawn from a text's principal level of action (if one can be said to exist), akin in form and function to a set of nested boxes, each one identical but for size to the one previous, within which it snugly fits.

Each of Nabokov's books is a tapestry of such rich and varied threads that each demands a reading at least as careful as its weaving. Mashen'ka, certainly the least discussed of Nabokov's novels, has sometimes, as is too often the case with artists' first efforts, been dismissed as juvenilia. Of course the motley butterfly, fluttering by to alight on a swaying clover stem, where it will pause, its wings slowly beating, arouses more dumb admiration in the layperson than does the slow, clumsy caterpillar or the pupa dormant in its cocoon, but the lepidopterist knows that some of the drabbest bugs produce the most spectacular adult specimens: Provencal Fritillaries, Corsican Swallowtails, Great-Banded Graylings, and even the exceedingly rare Plebejus (Lysandra) cormion Nabokov.



Page references to Mashen'ka appear in the body of the text between parentheses. The edition referenced is the first, Berlin: Slovo, 1926.

1. Look at the Harlequins! (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1974) p. 16.

2. Lolita (New York: Perigree Books, 1980), pp. 35-36.

3. While on the subject of verse I cannot resist pointing out that in Mashen'ka the elderly poet Podtiagin's wail, in bemoaning his disheartening attemps to obtain an exit visa from the Kafkaesque German bureaucracy, "papki, papki, bez kontsa!" echoes the line from Blok's "Dvenadtsat'": Ekh, ekh, bez kresta!"

4. See the author's foreword to the first English edition of Glory (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1971), p. xiv.

5. The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (New York: New Directions, 1959), p. 202.

6. For the lazy or dull among you who haven't bothered to learn the Master's mother tongue, I point out that in Russian (as in French), "roman" can signify both "romance" and "novel." For Nabokov, that most intertextual of intertextualists, Pushkin's verse would have had special resonance, as would the novel's subtitle, "roman" which could signify either "a novel" or "a romance." For the self-styled Nabokovians among you, un conseil--as Swiss border guards begin a polite warning to obtain a proper carte de séjour before tarrying too long in France--learn Russian. The conceit of explicating Nabokov without knowing Russian is tantamount to studying Van Gogh without knowing yellow, orange, and blue.

7. At least one careless commentator has suggested that Ganin's Mary and Alferov's are not the same person, that Ganin's entire reverie is the result of mistaken identity based on his brief viewing of a single snapshot. Nabokov has made this claim easy to refute. In chapter one, when the lights flicker back on in the stalled elevator, we learn that Alferov is an odd-looking character with a "zolotistaia borodka." In chapter thirteen, Ganin is going through Mashen'ka's old letters to him and comes across a passage in which she describes a party at which she meets an "ochen' smeshnoi gospodin s zheltoi borodkoi." This is of course her future husband.

8. Forerunner of Vasco da Gama!

9. The misunderstanding of people smug in the certainty of their own comprehension--a neat model for the world of literary criticism.

Chapter Four

Night Roams the Fields

I confess, I believe in ghosts. Whatever a persons creed, wheresoever one places ones faith, in river spirits, the Great Mother, a desert bush, crucified shepherds, or a bald and paunchy wise man sitting serenely under a Bo tree, an afterlife is humanly impossible to disbelieve. Even avowed atheists, I suspect, know, intuitively, implicitly, that there is something more. Whether or not there is Bog with a capital B, the possibility that human existence, with its stomach-sucking abyss of laughter and tears, tea leaves and tree bark, fleeting smiles and fleecy clouds, ineffable bliss and inconsolable despair, ends, once and for all, merely as a consequence of the sudden cessation of a small series of mechanical events (beating heart, expanding lungs) is purely and simply unthinkable--in the literal sense of that term.

As a late friend of mine liked to say when confronted by a particularly short-sighted variety of seize-the-day hedonist: Life is not a dress rehearsal, true; but neither is it the final act.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I have a confession to make: since beginning this book, I have been haunted. By this I do not mean obsessed by my subject, nor beguiled by a dim whiff of literary fame, nor even the victim of an id?e fixe. I mean haunted, from the Old Zemblan heimte: to bring home, pull, fetch, claim. Someone or something has been haunting me: dogging my mental steps, hiding my pencils and note cards, tapping a disembodied fingernail against my cabins windowpanes, whispering seductive doom between gusts of March wind and endeavoring in every conceivable way to coax me through the looking glass.

I think I know who it is.


A colleague to whom I had unbosomed myself the morning after a particularly bad night mentioned, later in the conversation and quite offhandedly, that he had a friend (lets call her LN) in Omaha who had recently consulted a psychic with the aim of contacting her spouse, who had died unexpectedly a few years prior. The psychic in question, a bony Asian lady with the odd name of Madame Fat, claimed to be a channeler, i.e. a medium skilled in acting as a conduit for disembodied spirits, including, of course, the dead, whom she referred to, in an amazingly opaque display of euphemism, as the others. My colleagues friend, a professor of French lit and until then a hardened skeptic in all matters paranormal, was severely shaken by the encounter and reported the creepy results of the consultation with Madame Fat to her friend: after sipping from a cup of tea that smelled of rose petals and sitting motionless, eyes closed, for several minutes in the striped twilight of her small parlor darkened by drawn bamboo blinds, Madame Fat hopped suddenly off her chair as if kicked by an invisible foot, sat immediately back down, and opened her eyes wide. Her small, painted mouth opened wide too, but no sound came out. Then, after another moment of strained immobility, in a voice which LN described as unmistakably that of her husband, though filtered through female vocal chords, the following statement was uttered:

Your red silk scarf is behind the couch.

L., overcome with emotion and simultaneously bewildered by the matter-of-fact message, could only stare and swallow hard. When she was able to speak, she asked:


Again the same voice, the same nonchalant, if slightly wistful, tone:

Your red silk scarf is behind the couch.

Here my colleague looked at his watch and, seeing that he was late for a meeting or class, or pretending to be late for a meeting or class, rushed the rest of the story. It seems that the night before his friends husband had been killed while riding his bike to work, she and he had returned home late from a some social function or other and, somewhat tipsy and aroused by their mutual fruitless flirting at the party, had made love right there in the living room, on the couch I mean. The following morning L. had been awakened by the sound of the telephone ringing: a call from the campus police, informing her of her husbands accident. In the ensuing flurry of panic and pain, the mad dash to the hospital wearing a raincoat over disheveled pajamas, the stunned realization of death, the funeral and its concomitant and oddly intrusive social obligations, the great bleak expanse of heartbreak and loss, somehow during these black months, her red silk scarf, the one she had worn to the party and which her husband had, with mock impetuosity, torn from around her neck just before the two of them collapsed half-undressed onto the couch, had disappeared. She had not given the scarf any thought until several months later, when she realized it was lost and, almost simultaneously, that she had been wearing it on her husbands last night alive. Since then she had come to associate the scarf with her husband, and the loss of it with the loss of the man she loved. She subconsciously assigned a mystical significance to its disappearance.

Anyway, upon returning home from Madame Fats, she had immediately looked behind the couch and discovered the scarf, dusty but otherwise unchanged. Now what do you make of that? Pretty weird if you ask me. And with that, unmindful of my questions, my colleague hurried away to his hypothetical engagement.

Chapter Five


What, the bemused reader may ask, does any of this have to do with Sirin? Patience, dear friends: there is method to my madness.

Kafka. During the final years of his life, Franz Kafka spent time in several spas and sanatoria, among them Kiesling on the Black Sea coast, fifteen kilometers south of Sochi. It was here, on the white sand beach, that Nabokov met the dying writer. According to our hero, he had travelled by train to Kiesling to visit a friend, referred to only as "M." in his diary. (Jean-Jacques Molard, a casual acquaintance of Nabokov's since 1922 when they met at Cambridge, believes M. to have been Maria Ostrowsky, the adopted daughter of a Galician timber merchant, about whom we will hear more later.) The time was mid-June. Kafka, as was his custom, spent the morning reclining on a chaise longue on the spa's veranda overlooking the sea. Nabokov, sketching fat figures in the margins of his notebook while relaxing on the beach, had stuffed the end of a Gauloise cigarette into his mouth when he realized he had left his matches at the Pension des H?brides five hundred meters away. Sitting up as a prelude to borrowing what he needed, the young writer noticed the older writer, whose six-foot frame, by this time, weighed less than nine stone, all in black, surveying the strand from his chair. Nabokov stood, folded closed his notebook, and plodded off, minus his espadrilles, toward the invalid. He asked for a match first in French, which elicited only a questioning stare, then in Russian (m?me jeu), finally in German, to which the elegant consumptive replied "Schade, Mein Herr, Ich rauche nicht." Nabokov went back to his blanket and gave up on the cigarette. Waves soughed against the damp and spongy shingle, gulls mewed and dived for small fry or the scraps of someone's lunch, a bald man with a mandarin moustache strolled slowly by, accompanied by an olive-skinned lady, the two exchanging phrases in some unknown tongue (Georgian? Armenian? Greek?).

Nabokov reports that later in the week, after his friend's departure for France, he spoke often to the thin man on the veranda, discussing his malady and the sundry ineffectual "cures" the specialists were forcing him to endure. He refused Nabokovs requests to allow a sketched portrait, pleading aversion to the making of images on religious grounds. At the time, of course, Nabokov had no idea with whom he was conversing. It was not until a decade later, with the publication in 1933 of Alexandre Vialette's translation of Der Prozess, that Kafka's name and work became known outside German-speaking Europe. Shown a late photo of Kafka some years later, Nabokov described, with an eerie shock of recognition, "le m?me visage, les m?mes yeux creux et cern?s de noir--un visage guett? par la mort."

There are friends of Nabokov, Molard among them, who insist the story of the sea-side conversations with Kafka is a fabrication. Others, while remaining skeptical and admitting its implausibility, accept that it could have happened as reported. We know that Nabokov was travelling during the spring and summer of 1923, but his exact itinerary remains a mystery, the detailed but fuzzy investigations of previous biographers notwithstanding: he might have visited Kiesling or Wiener Wald or even Prague. Alas, like so many anecdotes told of Nabokov's life, this one remained apocryphal until I came upon the following passage in his journal dated 13 juillet 1923 (copy of the original manuscript generously supplied by a dear friend employed at the Library of Congress; translation from Russian mine):

On Sunday K. explained to me a story he had written years ago about a man who wakes up to find himself transformed into a giant insect. He seemed much amused by this and began coughing so strenuously that I feared the effort would be too much for his wasted frame. I asked him about how he came to have this idea. He responded immediately, swallowing hard between phrases, but still very cheerful, that inspiration had visited him in the form of a dream, a dream of excrement and flies. "To be a fly," he mused. Then why not a fly in the story, I asked. "Too free," he returned. "They can fly away. My Gregor cannot. He is trapped inside with his family, a family too appalled by his transformation to love him." Here he grew thoughtful. "A sad story, and very funny. And what of your work?"

I talked about my poems, about books and the price of apartments in Paris, about Fontainebleau, about eurythmics, and about ?migr? existence in Berlin. He listened to everything I said raptly, as if memorizing each word as it was spoken. The last words he said to me today: "Art is difficult. I am tired. I should return to my room. Dora arrives tomorrow."

The exhausted but excited writer was wheeled back to his room. He asked to be positioned beside the table at the window. Having brooded for a long while over an empty page of his diary, he reached for a pen, dipped the nib in the inkwell, and slowly traced out a single sentence:

"Wer sucht, findet nicht."

Chapter Six

This Hovering Honeyed Mist

I trust the reader has enjoyed our little digression. Now we must return to Madame Fat, with whom I was put in contact by the same colleague who had so inconsiderately run off in the middle of his story. The next day I told him that my aunt had recently died, that we had never been close, that there was residual ill will between us over a trifling incident involving her adolescent grandson, my nephew, many years ago, and that I sorely wished to contact her. He looked at me strangely, suspecting, I think, a joke, but surrendered the name of his friend in Omaha without asking any questions. Discretion is a rare thing indeed.

I called the professor of French, who confirmed the red scarf story and enthusiatically provided Madame Fats address. She had moved to Lincoln, whither I betook myself the following morning by car. (For those readers keen on fatidic dates, I note that this was the 2nd of July.) Nowadays I drive a powerful white Volvo station wagon, and the trip from Cedarn to Lincoln, pleasantly free from state troopers and jack-knifed semis, was effected beneath cloudless skies in under five hours.

In keeping with her name, and contrary to the description I had received of her as frailly skeletal, Madame Fat was fat. When she answered her door, this fact created a burst of cognitive dissonance that momentarily struck me dumb: I would have had no problem referring to a bony Asian lady as Madame Fat to her face, but calling a fat woman Fat strayed well beyond the bounds of my personal sense of decorum. I quickly began considering a series of alternative pronunciations, Faht, Fate, Fuht, when she beamed at me and said:

You Doktah Keenbote! Come een, come een, welcome! Her speech was a weird blend of lazy American vowels and razor-sharp es that made the skin of her ample amber-colored face assume a series of bizarre distortions.

I guessed that this had to be she and settled, sounding like some inept grandee, for plain Madame. She ushered me unceremoniously into her parlor, identical to her Omaha one, to judge by the bamboo blinds and corny Oriental fixtures.

Seet, seet she said, patting the back of a cane chair, beside the small round table, that looked much too weak to support my considerable bulk. I sat down hestitantly to a chorus of crackling. The sun had set an hour ago and the apartment was dim, lit only by a few flickering candles and an elaborate lamp of red lacquered wood and translucent paper hanging above the table. A moth was bouncing off the smoky ceiling around it in inverted parabolas, like a small resilient object caught in the gravity of some upside-down dimension interpenetrating our own.

Madame Fat sat down opposite me, her chair protesting even more loudly than had mine. Smiling placidly, she placed her plump hands, ringless fingers stumpily outstretched, flat on the table and asked Who you want? You want Seereen? She made the name sound like a prescription drug. I nodded. We begeen.

As we sat for some time in silence, I became increasingly aware of my own breathing and a peculiar smell, a blend of spices and molten wax. I had automatically shut my eyes, presuming this was de rigueur for such procedures, and the darkness, I admit somewhat sheepishly, was beginning to spook me.

A chair, hers or mine, creaked.

Now, there are many of you, no doubt, who, based solely on the scurrilous rot circulated by envious colleagues, believe me to be, if not mad, then at least a fool. I assure you I am neither. It is especially important, esteemed and skeptical readers, that you give me, as the expression goes, the benefit of the doubt, if only for the nonce, for the remainder of this all-important chapter. Please pay attention, and I implore you to suspend judgment until you have read everything, everything.

Suddenly there was a noise which began as a soft tremulous murmur, like the blurry sound of a rotary fan beginning to whirr in another part of the house. Initially I mistook it for the moth fluttering against the ceiling above us, but it was not this. Or rather, it was this and more. As I strove to regain my aural bearings, my eyes still shut and my arms laid tensely on the table before me, a second sound began to swell in chorus with the first, akin to it and yet more human, remote and yet seemingly nearby, a susurrous sound like someone sighing in his sleep. This graded into an audible Ahhh and Madame Fat spoke:


I didnt know if interrupting was wise. I waited.

Yes? This was Madame Fat speaking again, but the voice was decidely unlike her normal tone. How does one address a ghost? Sir? Master? Mister? Your Excellency? I completely lost my composure and began to stammer.

Uh uh ah, Ive come to ask a few questions, please, sir, if I may. My voice sounded unusually husky. I cleared my throat. My eyes began to twitch and water.

A pause. The tremulous whirr continued.


I swallowed what little spit I had and gulped a mouthful of spiced air.

Can you tell me what its like, the other side. Said matter-of-factly, no question mark, no rising voice at the end of the phrase. For reasons unknown I was now speaking extremely slowly and meticulously articulating each syllable, the way one asks a native for directions in a foreign city: Can ... you ... tell ... me....

Almost before I had finished my phrase the voice rang out musically, exultantly:

Smert' mne kazhetsia ne groznoiu zagadkoi, --
--a etim reiushchim tumanom medovym.

This was definitely not Madame Fat. I longed to open my eyes but dared not. The sudden stream of Russian combined with my temporarily unsighted state disoriented me, and it took me a moment to comprehend what I had just heard. The words were familiar, but I could neither place them nor grasp their full import. In Zemblan I would have described myself as forbl?ffet or even lyudatuprusket, but neither of these conveys the depth and breadth of my amazement with the same cheek-wobbling thunder as does that fine English word of uncertain origin: flabbergasted.

The droning silence had returned. I waited, my heart racing. A cold tap on the back of my tensed hand nearly elicited a howl of abject terror until I realized that it was not a spirits touch but that I was weeping icy tears. Madame Fat was silent too, and I wondered whether she had been swept away into some nether realm. The moth, which had fallen silent or whose futile flutterings I had been distracted from hearing during the recent exchange, grew restless and noisy once more, its wings buzzing resonantly against the taut paper of the lantern above my head.

I waited, silently, every nerve rubbed raw and ravenous for sensation, for what seemed a lifetime. Nothing.

When I could bear the suspense no longer, I spoke once more. My voice was thin:

Is there anyone there?

No reply. I waited.

With no warning Madame Fat, her own voice returned, sang out laconically:

OK, we done. You pay now.

My eyes popped open, smarting from the tears. I blinked. My amazement graded instantaneously into panic.

But were not finished! I have more to ask! This is outrageous!

Madame Fat had already risen and was busying herself with a small porcelaine teapot on the counter beside where she had been sitting.

Nex time, nex time, she said distractedly. You pay now.

In agony, but quickly convinced by Madame Fat's stonily impassive face that further pleading would be in vain, I sat back in my chair, exasperated. After a moment of recovery, I reached into my left breast pocket and withdrew my check book and pen. I leaned forward, uncapped the pen, and just as I began to make out the check, something small and soft fell onto my sleeve and tumbled from there onto the table top: the moth. I paused to look. It lay on its back, its furry feet flimmering frantically, soundlessly, in the air above it. Then the wings took up the rapid rhythm and thrummed against the wood. Somehow it managed to right itself. Its streamlined body was brownish-pink, its hind wings short and spotted with twin blue ocelli. I cannot be sure, but its eyes seemed to glow like two miniature coals.

While I slowly finished the check, Madame Fat surprised me by swiftly scooping up the dazed creature and carrying it to the open window, where she released it, extending her short arm into the blue night and coaxing the insect, in a language I didnt know, to take flight.

Too manee bugs, she said as she returned.

Shaken, I handed her the check and left.

Chapter Seven

King, Queen, Knave


"Kollektsiia duratskikh fizionomii i zamuchennykh veshchei." (Korol', dama, valet, 242)1

Rather than dwell on the unpleasant and, truth be told, unforeseen afteraffects of my visit to Madame Fat and the mysterious events pursuant thereto, I shall now discuss matters more literary, less metaphysical, partly in the interest of the maintenance of my own mental equilibrium, partly in response to what an impartial observer would certainly characterize as the overly vociferous behest of my good, but sometimes impatient, editor, who enjoined me, in a fax sent to the seedy but comfortable hotel in Villefranche-sur-Mer where I was recovering from recent scholarly labors, to "get on with it." (Incidentally, the sea softly plashing against the sandy edge of this charming townlet is, at noon, a deep azure hue, recalling a certain lake in my homeland, a distant northern land. And at night, I have noticed on my insomniac rambles, the moon casts slivers of silvery light upon the ink-black waters. Do remind me to say more of this later.)

The original contract for this book (signed three years ago with a then noticeably more solicitous publisher whose name I am legally bound not to mention) stipulated that the text be comprised not only of biography proper (of which the reader has already enjoyed, I trust, a taste) but also of criticism of each of Nabokov's books. In lieu of any sensible reason not to proceed in any but a chronological, or pseudo-chronological, fashion, I turn now to Korol', dama, valet,2 a novel quite different from Mashen'ka, strangely lacking in luster, which a 28-year-old Sirin began in July of 1927 and a 29-year-old Sirin completed in June of the following year, not very far from here, I'm told.

The plot, though banal, perhaps bears repeating. A brooding, not unattractive boy named Frants arrives in a large German city--manifestly Berlin though unnamed in the book--with the hope that his maternal uncle, a wealthy speculator and businessman who owns, among other things, a large department store, will assist him in making his fortune. Dreyer's callous wife, Marta, manages to seduce and ensnare the poor lad and subsequently convince him that the sole obstacle to their conjoined and connubial bliss is her husband and that he, the husband, should be done away with as quickly as possible. Much of the book revolves around their miserable affair and the plan to kill Dreyer. It is a pity that Sirin chose to have Frants copulate with puffy, toad-like Marta,3 rather than explore a more manly, and more salubrious, relationship with the older, wiser, kinder Dreyer. The increasingly half-hearted couplings of the two 'lovers' are the book's worst passages, with elaboratedly contrived metaphorical orgasms,4 barely bearable, liable to make readers like myself fidget uncomfortably in their chairs.

This being Sirin's weakest book, it might be useful to point out those passages wherein a glimmer of better things can be glimpsed rather than attempt to explicate a narrative technique that is transparently jejune. There are fore-echoes of nearly all the later novels in Korol', dama, valet and at least a few after-echoes of Mashen'ka. What I propose to do is simply to list them, more or less in the order that they appear, with as little superfluous commentary as coherence will allow. I have often felt that modern literary criticism, especially the 'scholarly' kind, suffers from a surfeit of 'interpretation' at the expense of simple facts.

As many authors have noted, keys, both actual and metaphorical, play a predominant role in Nabokov's greatest Russian novel Dar (1938).5 The key theme, with an admixture of the so-called 'anticipatory memory' for which Nabokov would be so well-known, is neatly foreshadowed in Chapter 2 of Korol', dama, valet:

"Pozzhe, mnogo mesiatsev spustia, staraias' vosstanovit' etot den', ona vsego iasnee vspominala imenno dver' i kliuch, kak budto prostoi dvernoi kliuch byl kak raz kliuch k etomu dniu" (139).
another girl in a red dressAnd later:
"Opiat' chto-to sluchilos' s etim kliuchom,--schert' ego poberi. [...] I vot etot kliuch--tozhe mudrit..." (188).
The key, multiplied, returns a final time in chapter 10 in a daydream of Frants's: "Emu pomereshchilos' kak-to, chto v moloden'koi devushke s podprygivaiushchei grud'iu, v krasnom plat'e, kotoraia pobezhala cherez ulitsu so sviazkoi kliuchei v ruke, on uznal dochku shveitsara" (238). (I should point out that this hypnopompic image seems to be a foreglimpse of a painting by the fake baron Balthasar de Klossowski, known as Balthus, who lived, and lives, not far from the elderly Nabokov above the shores of Lac Léman. The painting is titled La rue [1933] and depicts a surreal street scene featuring all sorts of somnabulistic oddballs, in the midst of which a young girl in a red dress runs, or rather does not run, for she is being restrained by a sinister figure who could easily pass for a youthful Volodya Nabokov:

The Balthus figureVladimir Nabokov at 19  )

This series, I think everyone will agree, is a clumsy first draft of the subtle 'key' motif in Dar, in which, as here, a simple latchkey is one of the story's most important recurring devices. By the way, in another fleeting, and inexplicable, art historical reference, Sirin has Frants, in chapter 12, "V ochkakh, v pestrom khalate [...] smutno pokhodil na iapontsa"--a probable reference to a well-known sea-side photograph of the Japanese painter Foujita, who by then had settled in France.


On the next page there is a metaphor that prefigures Zashchita Luzhina, in which chess overlays and overwhelms the life of Grandmaster Luzhin.6 Again it is Marta to whom the passage refers:

"Chut' li ne v pervyi raz ona chuvstvovala nechto, ne predvidennoe eiu, ne vkhodiashchee zakonnym kvardatom v parketnyi uzor obychnoi zhizni" (139-140).
As the reader will recall, Luzhin's life, or rather his death, at the end of Zashchita Luzhina, is laid out below him in a pattern of squares: "Tam shlo kakoe-to toroplivoe podgotovlenie: sobiralis', vyravnivalis' otrazheniia okon, vsia bezdna raspadalas' na blednye i temnye kvadraty" (lage page of ZL). The chess theme briefly reappears in chapter 11 of KDV as a numb Frants stares out his window on the eve of his (and Marta's and Dreyer's) departure for the seashore; he looks at a "dal'nii balkon, gde gorit lampa pod krasnym abazhurom i, sklonias' nad osveshchennym stolom, dvoe igraiut v shakhmaty" (252).

The novel includes several coarse gibes at sexuality à la Freud, whom we now know Nabokov was much too hard on, beginning with the phallic train entering the vaginal station tube, Marta and her "mokryi zontik," and the "korichnevataia roza," a phrase that turns up 27 years later in the Master's most famous book as "brown rose," an inept euphemism for a young girl's genitalia rather than as a mock Freudian image, which has apparently appeared here under the author's pen without his being aware of it. There is also Frants' holey sock, through which his "bol'shoi palets" (174) sticks, a protruding phallus that thematically recalls the hole in the boy Ganin's sock in chapter 8 of Mashen'ka, though in this latter case the hole is on the ankle rather than the toe ("on ... zametil nekstati, chto chernyi shelkovyi nosok porvalsia na shchikolotke" [74]). By the way, 59 pages later, Marta darns that sock (236). I hope the reader is enjoying this tabulation of minutiae.

In chapter 3, a distant relative of Pnin's squirrel turns up in the form of Dreyer's odd gift to him wife: "belku, ot kotoroi durno pakhlo" (p. 155). Why the squirrel should stink I do not know. Zemblan squirrels are fastidious creatures, popular pets, especially among the young, and, compared to dogs, rabbits and sables, relatively inodorous.

In chapter 4, we are treated to the first of many references by the beardless author to shaving (in the form of a "do losku vybrityi molodoi chelovek" [163]), which seems to have been a fixation of his. For example, only a page later we learn that Frants "ezhednevno brilsia, unichtozhaia ne tol'ko tverdyi temnyi volos na shchekakh i na shee, no i legkii pukh na skulakh" (164). Later Dreyer imagines going to the gallows on the morning of one's execution "posle osnovatel'nogo brit'ia" (241) (a scene which foreshadows, we note en passant, the ending of Priglashenie na kazn'). While we are on the topic of grooming, it should be said that the "mel'chaishie ugri, druzhno zhivshie po bokam nosa, bliz uglovatykh ego nozdrei" (164) are but early avatars of the blackheads spotting the wings of Paduk's fattish nose in Bend Sinister. (For more on The Toad, see footnote 3.) While we are on the topic of tyrants, it is interesting to note that innocuous Frants, whom Nabokov would transform 40 years later into a blandly cruel proto-Nazi, already in 1928 or 1929 sports the forelock of our century's most infamous dictator: "odna korichnevaia priad' imela obyknovenie otkleivat'sia i spadat' emu na visok, do samoi brovi" (164).

By the time he composed Zashchita Luzhina just a year later, Sirin had become much more adept at slyly planting clues in such a way that their relevance was neither immediately obvious to all but the most forgetful reader nor so obscure as to amount to private jokes. But in Korol', dama, valet such things are clumsily handled. When the inventor tells Dreyer he is staying at the hotel Video (170), the author makes us privy to absentminded Dreyer's unsuccessful groping after a memory of that name, which of course tips us off, if we have somehow managed to forget the name of Frants' hotel revealed three chapters, or 43 pages earlier, that there is some connection to be made. Même jeu for the noseless, monkey-faced man, whom Frants encounters in chapter 1 and much later, I don't recall precisely where, is prompted by the author to theatrically recall when another face jars his dim recollection. Much more successful, and more characteristic of the mature Nabokov, is the mechanism in chapter V by which Dreyer's memory is nudged into recalling the inventor and his automatons: "on zametil iz okna gospodina, tochno na sharnirakh, melkimi shazhkami perekhodivshego ulitsu,--i srazu, pochemu-to [and this 'pochemu-to' is the signal for us to seek a connection], vspomnil razgovor s mileishim izobretatelem" (180). In later works, there will be fewer and fewer pochemu-to's, and it will be up to the reader to mentally collect and connect the dots with which Nabokov spots his texts.

The beguiling "printsitutki"of Mashen'ka's chapter 5 returns in the more prosaic form "prostitutsiia" in KDV's chapter VIII, again linked in Frants' mind, as it had been in Ganin's, with a schoolboy memory: "Frants pochemu-to vspominal, kak v shkol'nye gody taikom chital v takom zhe slovare stat'iu o prostitutsii" (215). (The young, hopelessly heterosexual Sirin seems to have taken a keen interest in whores.)

The first mention of cocaine of which I am aware in Sirin's work also appears in chapter 8 (p. 216). As readers aware of recent controveries can attest, cocaine is mentioned time and again in Sirin's novels and short stories. His Roman s kokainom, often misattributed to the pseudonymous Mikhail Ageev, represents the apex of our hero's obsession with that drug.

Both a French Slavist and a young American scholar have noted that references to the number three and triple repetitions abound in KDV. (I am uncertain of their relevance, other than as an echo of the novel's tripartite title.) A hastily compiled catalog gives:

Frants's initial stay in third class on the train to Berlin (121); the three parts of the mystery play stage set (121); the "tri dyrki" of a sleeping Frants's countenance ("dve blestiashchikh,--stekla ochkov, i odna chernaia -- rot" [123]); Marta's "treugol'nik lba" as seen by Dreyer in a mirror (137); frequent occurences of three-word sentences or parallel constructions ("Khorosho, prostorno, prokhladno" [141], "on pochustvoval u sebia v golove vse miachi, vse miachiki, vse miachishki" [163]--which is itself an echo of the series in chapter 2 of Mashen'ka "i bubliki, i brilliantin i prosto brillianty" [M, 40] "Ona rassprashivala ego o detstve, o materi, o rodnom ego gorodke" [165-166], "Draier zapolnial vsiu spal'niu, ves' dom, ves' mir" [236], "Voda. Iasnost'. Schast'e." [244], "Vse krugom zhurchalo, shelestelo, dyshalo" [245], "Eti rasfufyrennye rebiatishki teper' kuptsy, inzhenery, chinovniki..." [255], ona chuvstvovala i pokoi, i osvobozhdenie, i blagodarnost'" [277], "V dushe byla pustota, glukhota, pokornost'" [278]); simple repetitions of the same word or words (Dreyer's insistance to Frants that he call him "diadia, diadia, diadia" [134], his statement to the chauffeur:"Trakh, trakh i eshche raz trakh" [161], "vse ravno--segodnia, segodnia, segodnia" [167], "Sleduiushchii raz, vot klianus', klianus'... matushkoi klianus'..." [172], "IA schitaiu pro sebia, schitaiu... schitaiu..." [177], "na beluiu, beluiu, nesterpimo beluiu skatert'" [194], "Osmotren. Osmotren. Osmotren." [228], "Net, net, net" [229], "Chisti zuby nashei pastoi, ulybat'sia budesh' chasto. Chisti zuby nashei pastoi. Chisti zuby--" [237]);
Where all this leaves us, and the reader, I'm not sure. To my mind the most successful passage in the book occurs near the end, in chapter 11: "Oslepitel'no gorela na solntse serebrianaia sakharnitsa. Potom ona medlenno potukhla. Vspykhnula snova" (244). This is quintessential Nabokov. On the other hand, Erika's criticism of Dreyer might well be applied to the author, whose cruel streak is well-known: "Chuvstvitel'nost' egoista,--govorila kogda-to Erika: -- ty mozhesh' ne zametit' chto mne grustno, ty mozhesh' obidet', unizit',-- a vot tebia trogaiut pustiaki..." (256). Details are fine, but it is the incomparably more sublime issue of the human experience that should suffuse all art. I am saddened that Sirin chose not to explore more fully the regal theme hinted at in the title of his work (see footnote 2).

One final testenbörder, as we say in Zemblan. In an obvious nod to the first sign of trouble for Josef K. in Kafka's Der Prozess, published just a few years before KDV ("Die Köchin der Frau Grubach, seiner Zimmervermierterin, die ihm jeden Tag gegen acht Uhr früh das Frühstück brachte, kam diesmal nicht. Das war noch niemals geschehen.") Frants wonders, near the end of chapter 11, "Pochemu emu ne dali segodnia kofe?" (253-254). Why indeed. For more on Nabokov and that other Franz, see my chapter 5.


1. All references are to Vladimir Nabokov, Korol', dama, valet, in Sobranie sochinenii v chetyrekh tomakh (Moskva: Izd-vo "Pravda," 1990), t. 1; hereafter KDV.

2. That the Russian title is an anagram of "Look at Valdemar," a veiled reference to Valdemar the Vague (1803-1867, reigned 1815-1863), a wise but weak king who died in exile, should not be overlooked. Valdemar, whose name is a Zemblan variant of the more common Slavic "Vladimir," came to power as a diffident boy of twelve in the early years of the nineteenth century. Harrassed by his ambitious mother, Queen Sidra of Bey, who wanted her son to be a fearless warrior king in the tradition of her own father, Thorlak the Third, and caressed by his regent, the Archduke Hingold iz Octane, who was less concerned with the fate of the kinglet's kingdom than with his own fleeting pleasure and prestige, Valdemar somehow managed to avoid all the paths his several mentors had striven to lay out before him and became, much to everyone's surprise, a virile, athletic, erudite, good-natured, and amusing monarch, much loved by his people but unfortunately given to reverie to such an extent that his daydreamy distraction was totally incompatible with overseeing the affairs of a small, but sometimes complicated, state. Eventually ousted by members of a clandestine group of fed-up nobles, Valdemar fled to Paris, where he died, heirless, in 1867.

3. Marta is described as "pokhozhaia na bol'shuiu beluiu zhabu" on. p. 369. This is the second toad to appear in Sirin's prose. The first appears early in chapter 2 of Mashen'ka, in the form of an inkwell on the late Herr Dorn's oak writing desk, a "dubovaia gromada s zheleznoi chernil'nitsei v vide zhaby." These are the first in a series of innocuous forerunners to The Toad, the tyrant Paduk of Bend Sinister, q.v.

4. See especially p. 236 and Frants' miserable nocturnal emission on p. 160.

5. See, for example, D. Barton Johnson's "The Key to Nabokov's Gift" in Canadian-American Slavic Studies (Vancouver, British Columbia), 16, 1982, pp. 190-206. (I have not met Professor Johnson, but I'm told he resembles, uncannily, Chekhov.)

6. Here I cannot resist quoting Schopenhauer citing Aristotle as quoted by Seneca: "Nullum magnum ingenium sine mixtura dementiae fuit" (From De tranquilitate animi, I think.)

Chapter Eight

Dying Is No Fun

In hindsight the Master's relatively eventful life reads like a novel written by an author so swept away by creative enthusiasm that he keeps forgetting to reread what he has already written but so attuned to a particular frequency of inspiration that revision and successive drafts are superfluous: the tale can be extruded in a single, extremely long, growing ever longer, parti-colored stream, like the endless rope of silk handkerchiefs a conjuror extracts with mock amazement from his black satin sleeve, or, for that matter, from the mouth of a compliant, if somewhat sheepish, volunteer. But Nabokov's death still comes as an unpleasant shock, an absurdly anomalous element at the end of the series, as if the final section of the streamer were not one last, particularly colorful piece of silk, but a live worm, a rotting plum, or some other equally strange bit of inexplicable detritus.

Thank you, Madam, you may return to your seat.

That Nabokov did not die of natural causes is only now beginning to be publicly acknowledged. His "mysterious" death, variously attributed to a fall, a viral infection, pneumonia, or mundane cardiac arrest, is now known to have been caused, or at least hastened along, by a special, nearly untraceable poison whose unpronounceable name I will not reveal here for fear that some unbalanced individual bearing a grudge against a family member, former love, noisy neighbor, or Department Head1 might seek it out. The substance is readily available. It is odorless, flavorless, and difficult to detect unless a thorough autopsy is performed by an experienced medical examiner soon after the victim's death. Nabokov, who had been in and out of hospitals for the two years preceding his passing, was known to be in ill health. No foul play was suspected and so no autopsy was performed. The body, I learned too late to spare me the fruitless nocturnal foray recounted in my Chapter One, was cremated only days after its owner had, so to speak, vacated the premises. Alas, no forensic evidence of the crime remains.

But the path of infamy that leads, like an infernal connect-the-dots, across the maps of Germany, France, and America, thence back to a hillside high above Gstaad and to a palatial hotel in Montreux, ultimately to a dreary clinic in Lausanne, can be traced--and will be traced, gentle reader--from dot to dot, and eventually revealed in its entirety, like a fancy and seemingly meaningless figure traced on foolscap with lemon juice and an old quill, invisible to the naked eye but clearly visible once the paper has been gently warmed over an electric lamp or candle, a fatidic pattern that the finder cannot unsee once it has been seen.

* * *

As every reader knows, Nabokov's father was killed on the evening of March 28, 1922, supposedly while attempting to foil an assassination attempt on Russian statesman and historian Pavel Nikolaevich Milyukov, who was addressing a crowd of Russian (and at least two Zemblan) expatriates at the Berlin Philharmonia Hall. The story that has been circulated until now, chiefly by historians parroting earlier spurious reports, is that Milyukov, as the leader of the Constitutional Democratic Party--the so-called "Kadets," the Russian counterpart of our blander and more fun-loving Karlists--was the target of the attempt, orchestrated by "monarchist extremists"2 and that Vladimir Dmitrievich Nabokov, also present on the platform, was mortally wounded while trying to restrain the gunman and wrestle him to the floor. So much for the historical gloss inflicted upon the tragic event.

In actuality, the gunman, a Russian who had registered at a cheap hotel just off the Kuf?rstendamm under the oddly Anglo name "Bob White," had planned his coup perfectly. His handlers, two faceless apparatchiki from Semipalatinsk, had carefully coached him. (I have all this from a fabulously decrepit ?migr? still living, precariously, in a rustic villa in southern France.) They, the handlers, knew that the elder Nabokov, renowned for his bravery and sense of honor, on seeing the raised weapon, would not hesitate in defending his colleague Milyukov, who, as the person addressing the crowd, would be mistaken for the true target of the assassination attempt. White, a crack shot, had no problem "missing" the supposed target and in so doing hitting Nabokov, who was immediately beside the man it would be assumed the shot had been fired at. Nabokov died shortly afterwards. The terrible tragedy of his premature death at the age of 53 would haunt his son's fiction over the next half century. But is the killing in and of itself enough to explain the younger Nabokov's obsession with death, murder, and mistaken identity? The answer, I maintain, is no. Tragedy is undoubtedly a powerful motive force for art, but it alone cannot account for the depth and consistency--one is tempted to write obsessiveness--with which the Master returned to the same fundamental, and fundamentally unsettling, themes.

Nabokov knew, just as surely as he knew his father's murder was no accidental killing, that he too was being shadowed. He was followed unthreateningly at first, as little more than an exercise in surveillance, by forces who felt they had little to fear from a young fop and aesthete--the antithesis of his politically active father. But as Sirin's fame as a writer grew, and as he became ever more outspoken in his criticism of the moronically brutal regime ravaging his homeland, the forces of darkness concluded that it would be best to eliminate the irritant. Sirin, always an intuitive man, sensed his life was in danger. To complicate matters, he was now married, and had a young child, and the bravado of a young unattached artist was no longer an admissible option. His wife Véra's Jewish heritage and the rising tide of anti-Semitism in Weimar Germany have provided a convenient excuse to Nabokov's biographers to explain away his long series of migrations and peregrinations, beginning with the move from Berlin to Paris in 1939 and culminating in his settling in Montreux in 1960 after twenty years in the United States. But the real reason for his restlessness lies elsewhere.

It can now be revealed that the person calling himself "Robert White"3 was a member of a shadowy cabal dedicated to "A United, Democratic, Socialist Russia," and, incidentally, the elimination of critics of the Leninist/Stalinist state or of the Tsar, or of both, I don't remember which. The young writer Sirin had initially attracted the group's attention only insofar as he was the son of a prominent political figure who had become an adversary of absolutist rule, be it Bolshevist, Tsarist, Ekwilist or plain Ist. His early works were innocuous enough, from an ideological perspective; if he shared the average displaced Russian intellectual's disgust with the new regime, he was no more vociferous about it than the average ?migr? residing in Riga, Paris, or Berlin. His first three novels were about 1) adolescent love, 2) adultery, and 3) chess, hardly themes to trouble a society of assassins. But as Sirin became increasingly contemptuous, in print, of tyranny, the secret society, officially nameless but to which we shall refer here, for convenience's sake, as The Shades, marked him out for what was euphemistically known as "removal." Whether Sirin knew of their intent through rumor (which seems unlikely, given The Shades' mania for secrecy) or through some inspired shiver of near-prescience will remain forever unknown. What is known is that he did sense the danger and made arrangements to flee to Paris before his pursuers could catch up with him and end his life. The bomb, not dropped by a German plane, as some accounts have it, but planted in the damp cellar of his rue Boileau apartment by two Shadean agents (one of whom is alive and well, living in New York), exploded only hours after Nabokov and his family had moved out, whom the reader is now free to momentarily imagine happily, if somewhat harriedly, en route to Cherbourg.

* * *

Once the Nabokovs arrived in the United States, the pressure seems to have lessened, although even here, in this placid nation of Aprils, Arizona, and majestic purple mountains, there were several attempts on Vladimir's life, each of which was thank God inept and unsuccessful. The first of these was a poisoning viciously perpetrated on Pushkin's birthday, June 6, 1944, which failed when an acutely ill VN, then studying the genitalia of Malaysian lepidoptera at the Museum of Comparative Zoology in Cambridge, Massachusetts, stepped outside the building to vomit profusely--thereby expelling the poison, a mixture of strychnine and tannin, from his aching stomach. A second close call occurred several years later, while he was teaching at Cornell University, when a junior member of the Shades who had stumbled onto a store of radioactive material stored in a lab in New Mexico, managed to briefly expose Nabokov to the waste, causing mild radiation poisoning dismissed by an ignorant physician as "sun stroke." (The agent later died of skin cancer in Pascagoula, Mississippi.)

With the publication of Lolita in 1955 (in Paris) and 1958 (in America), Nabokov was able to retire from college teaching--that thankless, ill-paid vocation, mired in humorlessness, sycophancy, petty politics, and pedantic petulance--and return to Europe, this time to Switzerland, which for centuries had been a safe haven for refugees, exiles, and expatriates of every ilk. Thus transplanted, our hero was quite secure behind that verdant and pacific country's lofty Alpine walls.

Or so he thought.


1. No, certainly not you, dear M.

2. Why is it, Dear Reader, that good citizens loyal to royalty must be branded extremists? Not all monarchs are bad, and history is rife with benevolent kings and mild queens!

3. Whose actual name--or at least the name on the Polish passport found on his person at the moment of his arrest--was Aleksey Ivanovich Belovskii. The other names, the names in the press I mean, were planted by other agents, other agents.

Chapter Nine

Zashchita Luzhina
"Remember, dear, that the greatest menace to happy domestic life is CHESS." --Shakhmatnaia goriachka1
Zashchita Luzhina [literally, Luzhin's Defense] was written in 1929 while the Master and his wife were vacationing and hunting butterflies in the Pyren?es Orientales and published serially, first in Rul' (one chapter), then in Sovremennye zapiski, nos. 40-42, and finally in book form later that same year by Slovo in Berlin. An English version, translated by the author in collaboration with Michael Scammell, was published in 1964 by Putnam as The Defenestration. This edition is true to the original with the exception of two references to Zembla that the author, or the translator, or an unnamed editor, or an inattentive typesetter, chose to remove, or happened to remove inadvertantly, from Chapters Two and Five.

Zashchita Luzhina is a book about chess, "a game of skill played by two persons, each having sixteen pieces to move in different ways, on a board divided into 64 squares, alternately light and dark." (I owe this pithy definition to Webster.) If the reader does not know, or has forgotten, the rules to the game, he or she is invited to consult one of the many pamphlets devoted to chess that must surely exist in every language written and read in the civilized world. The word chess derives from Middle English ches or chesse, thence from Old French eschec (francophones will hear here an echo of the French word for failure, a not irrelevant observation for the case under discussion), or echac,2 thence from Persian shah, a king, the most important piece in the game. Luzhin, the eponymous hero, is our king:

i osobenno otchetlivo vspominalos' emu, kak eshche sovsem malen'kim, igraia sam s soboi, on vse kutalsia v tigrovyi pled, odinoko izobrazhaia korolia--vsego priiatnei bylo izobrazhat' korolia (p. 38, 4).3

He remembered especially the time when he was quite small, playing all alone, and wrapping himself up in the tiger rug, to represent, rather forlornly, a king (p. 70, 4).

(Indeed. A young and pretty princelet, I too played at being king. Note the tiger rug, which will reappear later as a "belaia medvezh'ia shkura, raskinuv lapy, slovno letia v blestiashchuiu propast' pola" (p. 68, 8) ["a white bearskin with spread paws ... as if flying in the shiny abyss of the floor" (p. 119, 8)], an image which links, alas, the raiments of royalty with a flying leap into the void.)

Even as a young child, then, our lonely king has his mantle, but it is not until he reaches seedy manhood that he receives a crown, and, simultaneously, a queen:

I ko vsemu etomu teper' pribavilas' dymchataia nevesta, i venets, kotoryi vzdragival v vozdukhe, nad samoi golovoi, i mog togo i gliadi upast. On ostorozhno kosilsia na nego, i emu pokazalos' raza dva, chto ch'ia-to nezrimaia ruka, derzhavshaia venets, peredaet ego drugoi tozhe nezrimoi ruke (p. 104, 11).

And to all this was added a veiled bride, and a crown that trembled in the air over his very head and looked as if it might fall at any minute [again the theme of falling, and again a reference to the heartrending precariousness of kingship]. He squinted at it cautiously and it seemed to him once or twice that the invisible hand of someone holding the crown passed it to another, also invisible, hand (p. 179, 11).

A commentator particularly prone to spook-spotting in Nabokov's novels and seemingly unwilling to grant any measure of genuine genius to mere mortals like me and you, dear reader, maintains that the two guiding forces in little and later big Luzhin's life are the watchful spirits of his deceased maternal grandfather and father. If we accept this commentator's premise, and I don't think we should, it pleases me to think that the unseen hands hovering over our king's head at his coronation belong to the two late gentlemen in question.

The same commentator further suggests that Luzhin's father, who passes away in Chapter Five, is responsible, posthumously and spiritistically speaking, for the appearance of the anonymous girl who later becomes Luzhin's bride. This, he says, explains the "unexpected move" the author claims in his English foreword to have made in Chapter Four, and the achronological arrangement of Chapters Four, Five, and Six:

The entire sequence of moves in these three central chapters reminds one--or should remind one--of a certain type of chess problem where the point is not merely the finding of a mate in so many moves, but what is termed 'retrograde analysis,' the solver being required to prove from a back-cast study of the diagram position that Black's last move could not have been castling or must have been the capture of a white Pawn en passant (p. 10).4
Meddling by benevolent spirits is a delightful if somewhat maudlin explanation for the sequence of moves in question, but there is ample evidence that Luzhin's and the nameless girl's paths came very close to crossing, as if unseen forces were unsuccessfully at work, well before Luzhin senior's death. This has all been said before, but let us review the evidence summarily here before moving on to more interesting matters.

The most persistently occurring near-link between Luzhin and his future bride is of course the geography teacher at Luzhin's school, who first appears, or rather, fails to appear, in Chapter Three: "Kak-to, cherez neskol'ko dnei, mezhdu pervym i tret'im urokom okazalos' pustoe mesto: prostudilsia uchitel' geografii" (24, 3) ["A week or so later, an empty gap occurred between the first and third lesson: the geography teacher had caught a cold" (47, 3)]. A few pages later Luzhin resolves to skip school, and on his way to his aunt's house to play chess, inopportunely crosses paths with the same teacher: "Po doroge emu popalsia kak paz uchitel' geografii, kotoryi, smorkaias' i kharkaia na khodu, ogromnymi shagami, s portfelem pod myshkoi, nessia po napravleniiu k shkole" (p. 26, 3) ["On the way he happened to run into the geography teacher, who with enormous strides, a briefcase under his arm, was rushing in the direction of school, blowing his nose and expectorating phlegm as he went" (p. 50, 3)]. In Chapter Four we learn via a later reminiscing Luzhin that he had once beaten the geography teacher at chess: "gde tikho, v ugolku, pochti nezametno dlia tovarishchei, on obrygal uchitelia geografii, izvestnogo liubitelia" (p. 37, 4) ["where in a corner, almost unnoticed by his schoolfellows, he had quiety beaten the geography teacher, a well-known amateur" (pp. 68-69, 4)], an incident recalled a page later ("uchitel' geografii, ostolbenevshii ot poluchennogo mata" [p. 38, 4]; "the geography teacher, petrified with the suddenness of the mate" (71, 4)]). Much later, in Chapter Twelve, to highlight the teacher's importance as a clue to the novel's structure, Luzhin's former classmate Petrishchev reminds us once again of the man: "Pomnite, pomnish', Luzhin, Valentin Ivanycha? Kak on s kartoi mira uraganom vletal v klass?" (p. 116, 12). No doubt because only the most careful reader will remember who Valentin Ivanych is, Nabokov makes the reference more explicit in the English version: "'Do you remember our geographer, Luzhin?" (p. 198, 12).5

The link, of course, is that this same geography teacher, Valentin Ivanych, is an instructor at the girls' school attended by Luzhin's bride-to-be. This we learn in Chapter Six as the future Mrs. Luzhin reminisces about her school days: "... i byl nekii uchitel' geografii, predpodavshii takzhe v muzhskom uchilishche" (p. 49, 6) ["and the geography teacher--who also taught in a boys' school" (p. 88, 6)]; there follows a list of traits (tuberculosis, tousled hair) that mark this geographer as being the very same Valentin Ivanych known to Luzhin and passed by him on that fateful day. To emphasize the potential imminence of an early meeting between Luzhin and his future bride, one page later Nabokov mentions offhandly that the crippled Party buffoon who visits the girls school speaks at length not only about the lectures in sociology he would be giving, but "o skorom sliianii s muzhskoi shkoloi" (p. 50, 6) ["about an imminent merger with a boys' school" (p. 89, 6)]. A further, albeit tenuous, link between the geographer and Luzhin's wife is that the latter owns a copy of Kak sdelatsia iugom by the Swami Abedananda.6 Could this book possibly have been given to her by the geographer, who, we are told, was once the guest of the Dalai Lama?

The second prominent link between the two parties is the quiet classmate of Luzhin's who later loses an arm in the civil war and receives the St. George Cross for a dangerous reconnaissance. We first meet him in Chapter Two, the "edinstvennyi tikhonia v klasse," and then we are suddenly transported forward in time, to the twenties of the present century,7 to witness this same boy, now a war hero, trying to recall his former classmate Luzhin's face, where he is again described as "tikhonia" (a quiet person). The link to Mrs. Luzhin occurs in Chapter Six, where we learn that this same person was an intimate friend, perhaps even the romantic interest, of Luzhin's bride: the memory of a famous writer once glimpsed from a dacha in Finland "ostal'sia strannym obrazom riadom s russkim ofitserom, vposledstvii poteriavshim ruku v Krymu,--tishaishim, zastenchivym chelovekom, s kotorym ona letom igrala v tennis, zimoi begala na lyzhakh" (p. 50, 6) ["he remained in some strange manner beside the Russian officer who subsequently lost an arm in the Crimea during the civil war--a most shy and retiring boy with whom she used to play tennis in summer and ski in winter" (p. 90, 6)]. There are other links I haven't the time to tabulate here, but these should be sufficient to convince even the most skeptical reader that something was conspiring to bring Luzhin and his future wife together long before Luzhin senior passed away.

Let us return, finally, to the statement Nabokov makes in his English preface, and note that what we are seeking, and expected to work backwards from, is a mate, and this is precisely what Luzhin finds, in both senses of the word--a double entendre that Nabokov certainly intended.

Compiling these dry tidbits is exhausting business and I'm glad for the opportunity to move on to the gist of this chapter.

* * *

Laboriously tracking this or that minor character or theme can be a bracing game or a good academic exercise for students who lack the critical skills to appreciate literature's true depth, but, ultimately, real scholars are called upon to evaluate and then communicate as lucidly as possible the elusive links between life and art. Where did the young Sirin, a passable player and sometime composer of chess probems, find inspiration for his work? Commentators have claimed a whole list of chess masters as models for Luzhin, from the brilliant Pole Akiba Rubinstein (1882-1961) to the gifted if erratic Aleksandr Aleksandrovich Alekhin (1892-1946, who challenged Cuban Grandmaster Jos? Raul Capablanca for his title in 1927, just two years prior to the composition of Zashchita Luzhina), to Zemblan prodigy and grandmaster Lukacs Freivalds (b. 1905), to the eventually paranoid American Paul Morphy (d. 1884), to the German champion Bardeleben who committed suicide in 1924 by leaping from a window just like our poor Alexandr Ivanovich.8 These are all beguiling possibilities, some more beguiling than others, but my intent is not to track down models but to find the source of the book itself. What could possibly have motivated Nabokov to write a novel in which the protagonist goes chess mad?

To answer this question we must begin by taking two steps backwards, to 1925, and the composition of Mashen'ka (v. supra, Chapter Three). In the second chapter of that novel, the nameless narrator, whom we can accept--as we usually can in cases of first-person narrators summarily shielded from their creator's persona by a series of weak devices and translucent or transparent masks--as being more or less equivalent to the author, notes of Ganin that "Nothing was beneath his dignity; more than once he had even sold his shadow, as many of us have. In other words he went out to the suburbs to work as a movie extra on a set, in a fairground barn, where light seethed with a mystical hiss from the huge facets of lamps that were aimed, like cannon, at a crowd of extras, lit to a deathly brightness" (Mary, p. 9).

Nabokov's other biographer confirms that the young writer did indeed work as a film extra in the outskirts of Berlin sometime in the springs and summers of 1924 and 1925. And it is here, after we wander somewhat farther afield, into the history of Soviet film, that our detour will begin to bear fruit.

Vsevolod Illarionovich Pudovkin, although subsequently a puppet of his Bolshevik handlers, was a skilled director whose work was well-known to the Berlin rabble, then very much enamoured of moving pictures, as it was of almost everything new and frivolous. In 1924, Pudovkin orchestrated the formation of a joint German-Russian production and distribution company known as Derufa (from DEutscheRUssische Film Allianz), later Derussa. Though short-lived--the firm folded in 1929--Derufa was responsible for a number of highly successful films, including a whimsical short feature directed by Pudovkin entitled Shakhmatnaia goriachka (Chess Fever), sequences of which were filmed, according to film historian Kersten Schumacher, in a renovated barn outside Charlottenberg, a suburb or Berlin.

Chess Fever is the tale--intended to be amusing but which I found to be only marginally so--of a young suitor so obsessed by chess that he all but forgets about his fiancee, a rather horsey looking lady played by Anna Zemstov (whom the apparently none-too-choosey Pudovkin was to marry shortly after the film was made). The hero plays chess constantly, on checked tablecloths, on the floor at his lover's feet on a checked handkerchief, and mentally as he distractedly walks the snowy streets of what is supposed to be Moscow, nervously fingering a pocket-sized handbook of chess. His mania is shared by a number of the city's inhabitants, including a policeman about to chide a citizen for some minor pedestrian infraction, a plasterer of handbills, and two pharmacists, all of whom are shown engrossed in chess when they should be policing, or plastering, or pharming.

The 'production designer'--I have this term from a former colleague in the theatre department of the college where I worked until unfairly dismissed by a jealous and vindictive dean--of the film took great fun in embedding the decor with chessboard motifs, which are ubiquitous, appearing not only where one might reasonably expect them, but also almost everywhere else: as the pattern of the hero's socks and sweater, on a tablecloth, in the icing of a cake, in the arrangement of dark and light objects in a storefront window, and even, as shown below, and akin to the patterns that grow to gradually overcome Luzhin's chess-obsessed mind, the black and white squares of a courtyard's flagstones. (Note the hero's harried look, and his shadow--compare the image of Luzhin at the end of Chapter Seven, in which his shadow falls upon the floor within "an enormous square of moonlight" [p. 117, 7].)

from Shakhmatnaia goriachka
from Shakhmatnaia goriachka

Sirin, his thin face and high forehead heavily waxed, his dark brows further darkened with greasepaint, appears briefly as an extra in an early scene in which a chess tournament is depicted. Shots of various competitors--among them recognizable masters such as Capablanca--are intercut with shots of the wildly enthusiastic audience, in the midst of which can be seen, over-emoting with classic silent-era film hyberbole of gesture and gaze, the hero, and very high up and to the left, nearly at the edge of the frame, an anomalously indifferent-looking Sirin, staring straight ahead as if posing for a portrait, seemingly unmoved by the rapturous ooh-ing and aah-ing and sleeve-tugging and pointing going on all around him.

Not only was Shakhmatnaia goriachka the point de d?part for Zashchita Luzhina, but the novel's late subplot--the prodigal Valentinov's intention to cast Luzhin in a chess film--is derived directly from the cameo in the film of Capablanca, who plays himself and saves the lovers' romance by nearly running off with the fiancee (an implausible eventuality, to say the least, given the contrast of the Grandmaster's soft features and mild ways with the financee's rather repellent, big-boned femininity).

* * *

An acquaintance of mine, with whom I occasionally play chess, or rather used to play chess before adopting the nomadic and solitary existence I now lead, claims that Zashchita Luzhina is patterned after a game of chess, and that the game can be precisely summarized as follows:

1. d2-d4 d7-d5 2. c2-c4 e7-e6 3. Nb1-c3 d5xc4 4. Ng1-f3 a7-a6 5. a2-a4 c7-c5 6. e2-e3 Ng8-f6 7. Bf1xc4 Nb8-c6 8. O-O Qd8-c7 9. Qd1-e2 Bf8-e7 10. Bc1-d2 O-O 11. Ra1-c1 Rf8-d8 12. Bc4-d3 c5xd4 13. e3xd4 Bc8-d7 14. Nc3-e4 Ra8-c8 15. Nf3-e5 Bd7-e8 16. Ne4xf6 Be7xf6 17. Bd2-c3 Nc6xd4 18. Qe2-e4 Nd4-f5 19. g2-g4 Bf6xe5 20. Qe4xe5 Rd8xd3 21. Qe5xc7 Rc8xc7 22. g4xf5 e6xf5 23. a4-a5 f7-f6 24. Rf1-d1 Rc7-d7 25. Rd1xd3 Rd7xd3 26. Rc1-e1 Be8-c6 27. Re1-e3 Rd3-d1 28. Re3-e1 Rd1-d7 29. f2-f4 Kg8-f7 30. Kg1-f2 Bc6-e4 31. Re1-e2 g7-g5 32. Re2-d2 Be4-d5 33. Kf2-g3 Kf7-e6 34. Rd2-e2 Bd5-e4 35. Re2-d2 Rd7-g7 36. f4xg5 Rg7xg5 37. Kg3-f4 Rg5-g4 38. Kf4-e3 Rg4-h4 39. Rd2-f2 Be4-d5 40. Bc3-d4 Rh4-e4 41. Ke3-d3 Bd5-c6 42. b2-b4 Bc6-b5 43. Kd3-c3 f5-f4 44. Bd4-c5 Ke6-f5 45. Kc3-d2 h7-h5 46. Kd2-c3 Bb5-e2 47. Rf2-g2 f4-f3 48. Rg2-g7 Be2-b5 49. Rg7-g3 Re4-c4 50. Kc3-d2 Kf5-e4 51. Bc5-b6 Rc4xb4 52. Rg3-h3 Rb4-b2 53. Kd2-c3 f3-f2 54. Rh3-e3 Ke4-f4 55. Re3-e6 Kf4-f5
I hope I have accurately transcribed his barely legible napkin scribble. In support of his argument, which I concede I do not fully grasp, he points out that the fourth move is made by a Knight--Nabokov's khod konem in Chapter Four, and that White, after a long sequence of desperate moves, finally loses, mated by Black's rook, or 'tower'--presumably the tower out of which our dear big unfortunate Luzhin, like "a white bearskin with spread paws," ultimately leaps.9


1. In English, Chess Fever (1926), a film by Vsevolod Illarionovich Pudovkin (1893-1953); for more on Sirin's involvement with the film and its influence on the genesis of Zashchita Luzhina, v. infra, or rather, since this is a footnote, supra.

2. Compare Russian shakh, Zemblan skakk. Even the most erudite Shakespeare scholars seem to willfully overlook the etymology of their man's name: in Zemblan, a chessplayer is a skakspiller. De Vere's nom de plume has nothing to do with spears or the shaking thereof.

3. All Russian citations are from Zashchita Luzhina in Sobranie sochinenii v chetyrekh tomakh (Moskva: Izd-vo Pravda, 1990), t. 2. All English citations from The Defenestration (New York: Putnam, c1964, reprinted 1980). In both instances, page and chapter numbers follow the citations.

4. Note that this is a restatement, by his creator, of the problem Luzhin poses for himself at the end of chapter 12: "...i postepenno emu stalo kazat'sia, chto kombinatsiia eshche slozhnee, chem on dumal sperva .. chto nuzhno iskat' glubzhe, vernut'sia nazad, pereigrat' vse khody zhizni ot bolezni do bala" (p. 118, 12).

5. The proper name Valentin Ivanovich is excised from the English version, perhaps, as one commentator has speculated, because it created an undesirable resonance with the name Valentinov, Luzhin's opportunistic 'agent.'

6. Abedananda, Swami. Kak sdelatsia iugom, tr. from the English (Berlin: Izd-vo O. Diakova, 19--?). The title, rendered literally into English, would be How Yoga Is Done. (Not many people know that yoga, generally attributed to the emaciated but uniformly cheerful fakirs of the Indian subcontinent, actually owes several of its trickier moves to a variety of Zemblan calisthenics known colloquially as frickenbender.)

7. Such narrative movements forward and backward in time, inexplicable and clumsily handled in ZL, will later become a hallmark of the Master's mature style.

8. The model for Turati, Luzhin's formidable Italian opponent at the time of his first mental collapse, has proven equally difficult to identify. Some have seen an echo in his name of the Neo-Romantic master Richard Reti (1889-1929) who has the distinction, if that's the right word, of having died in 1929, the year ZL was composed. My guess is that Nabokov borrowed the name from Emilio Turati, whose article "Faunula Valderiensis nell'alta Valle del Gesso (Alpi Marittime)" appeared in the Bullettino delle Societ? Entomologica Italiana a few years prior to ZL's appearance. Nabokov was in Pyrenees to hunt butterflies and certainly knew the entomologist Turati's article on the fauna of the Maritime Alps--one of his, VN's, favorite hunting grounds for those bugs.

9. I have made it my custom, or perhaps I haven't yet but should have, of pointing out particularly fine passages in each book discussed. Zashchita Luzhina has many gems, but the sentence I find most lovely is near the end of Chapter Eight, "Proplyl blednyi ogon' i rassypalsia s pechal'nym shelestom," a line I find inexplicably moving.

Chapter Ten


America, I recall with fondness my first landing on your shores, despite the atrocious weather and the surly customs official who wanted to search the small velvet purse I had secreted on my person, discovered during a summary patdown after I had been unable to respond satisfactorily to questions simple for a private citizen but p?nibles, as the French say, for an exiled king. My attempts to stoop, and to scrape, and my hastily concocted disguise (Zemblan-born French scholar)--tweedy jacket with worn leather patches on the elbows, hand-carved pipe stuffed with lavender-scented tobacco--were apparently unsuccessful in completely masking the sheen of royalty I was accustomed to exuding.

Yes, they found the jewels, but that is a tale for another time. I was met at the station by an envoy, if that's not too grand a word, from the university, whom I did not immediately recognize despite the rectangle of cardstock he held chest-high with my adopted moniker carefully lettered on it. He was so young I looked right past him, toward an elderly gentleman in a dark uniform who corresponded to the mental image of natty chauffeur I had formed during the crossing. When I accosted him with a question and a questioning expression, he shook his head and stared past me, as if I weren't there. I gathered from his stony rebuff that I was only one in a series of persons to have mistaken him for their driver.

Looking around, I spotted the person I had previously missed, and marveled at my having missed not only my new name, prominently displayed, but at my having failed to notice and acknowledge such an attractive youth. The blond lock covering his forehead almost obscured his electric blue eyes. He wore a very long, very shaggy overcoat of sorts, unbuttoned, and a crisp light blue oxford shirt, the tails of which were tucked into incongruously soiled dungarees. Grease from the machine shop? Dirt from a good-natured game of Fuss in the yard? I introduced myself by pointing mutely at the sign, then at my own breast. "Doctor Kinbot?" he asked, uncertain. I smiled. "Kinbote," good sir, "the o is long, like das Boot in German, or, or the French ?ter." He apologized as I clasped his hand, which was warm and wet (from holding the sign? from nervousness over the prospect of meeting an arriving dignitary?), and pumped it several times ? l'am?ricaine, as my English tutor, publicly contemptuous but secretly envious of everything American, had shown me four decades ago.

In the car, a plumpish but sleek gray thing with lots of chrome and lots of room in the boot for my luggage, young Jack Wilson chatted affably, and now less nervously, about the college and about the town, which was situated at the southern tip of one of the state's deepest and largest lakes and widely regarded as "quaint." The college he spoke glowingly of, interlarding his comments with phrases and words I had never heard before, but whose tenor I took, from context, to be favorable. The streets were curvilinear, snow-covered, and steep.

"I think you'll really like it, professor. The office said you were Scandinavian. Is that right?" (looking askance at me while simultaneously keeping a wary eye on the winding road). "It's very cold here in the winter and there's lots of snow. If you like to ski or skate, this is the spot. The lake doesn't freeze, it's too deep, but there are lots of others nearby that do."

"Zemblan, actually. We are often mistaken for Danes, but the pedigree is quite different. Tell me, Jack, what are you studying?"

"Me, oh, biology."

"Is it true that professor Nabokov is teaching Russian here."

"Professor Book-Off? I don't know. I'm studying German myself. It's more or less required for my major. Russian's a different department. What does he look like? I may have seen him around campus."

"Shorter than I, less stout, no beard, balding."

Hmm was the sole response. Chapped lips slightly parted, he leaned into a turn.

Having negotiated a labyrinth of narrow campus streets, flanked by quickly moving, irregularly spaced, bundled-up denizens of the cold, amongst which I noted an inordinate number of long red scarves, we traveled westward, towards the low sun, like a bulb viewed through cream-colored silk, across a bridge spanning an impressive abyss. The streets became ever more sinuous, then suddenly and inexplicably straightened out.

"Welcome to Cayuga Heights, professor. Dr. Maypole's place, the house you're renting, is just up the street on the left. Great view. You can see the lake, now that the trees are bare. Will you be walking to campus or driving."

"Walking, for the nonce. I have no car, although the good doctor may have left one behind for my use."

We pulled into a down-sloping drive sheltered and shaded by trees ("crabapples," I later learned) whose low overhanging boughs were laden with snow. "On verra, on verra," I mused in French, apropos of the car, I think, or something else that had just crossed my mind, distracted by the newness of the place, by the sting of the cold as I stepped out of the automobile, by the proximity of such a pleasant guide. Strapping Jack deftly hoisted my bag from the boot and transported it gracefully across a treacherously slick walk (recently shoveled but refrozen since) to the front door. A key was produced and inserted.

I was unpleasantly surprised by the coolness of the inside air. "No heat?" I asked, but Jack was already outside, stamping his feet, glancing at his wrist and simultaneously gesturing toward the car. "I have to get back. I've got a class that starts in ten minutes."

"Won't you come in for a hot drink before you go? Cocoa, or sweet tea, or coffee with rum?"

"No thanks Professor, I really do have to get back. Enjoy the house. I think you have the number at the office to call if you run into any problems. See you!" He half-waved (forearm perpendicular to torso) and walked back to the automobile, still puffing white smoke from its gently thrumming tailpipe. The door opened, then slammed shut, and the great gray beast, its black tires spitting chips of ice against the lowered garage door, lumbered backwards up the slope. As the chassis reached the crest of the hill, Jack spun around to face front, smiled, and raised the fingers of his right hand in the sketch of a wave. The engine roared and the automobile moved forward, whence we had come.

I dumbly waved back and watched the car accelerate out of sight.

* * *

Zemblans are known for their imperviousness to cold, and I am a big, well-padded Zemblan, but, as comfortable and at ease as I am in a wintry landscape or brisk ski lodge, I have no tolerance for chilly homes. The fireplace, an impressive stone affair with a marble mantelpiece, was logless, and no logs were to be found either in the garage or the yard, where there was, however, an elaborate residence for the doctor's (absent, on vacation?) dog, which I was tempted (sorely tempted, a novelist would say) to demolish for tinder. Instead I returned inside and, after a prolonged search that included both the freezing attic and the damp freezing basement, discovered beside the pantry door in a secluded corner a small circular plastic dial that apparently controlled the furnace. Its tiny red bar was aligned with 55, the lowest setting, momentarily misinterpreted by European me as signifying fifty-five degrees Centigrade, an impossible inferno. Realizing my error, I rotated the knurled disc and was immediately rewarded with a rumble from below. A cobweb, gauzy with dust, shuddered in the grate above the door and began to flutter in the invisible stream of warm air now softly wafting from the duct. A pleasant mustiness, recalling the smell of subterranean passageways linking the palace I knew in my boyhood to the Royal Theatre five hundred meters away, now pervaded the room.

There may be time later for a fuller description of my plush if somewhat lugubrious lodgings. For now the reader need know only that the house was much too big for a lone professor and that the cat I had been told I would be responsible for was nowhere to be seen, although I did spot several signs of recent feline inhabitation, including a foul-smelling box that I transferred to an unused lumber room off the back porch.

Other tales of settling in must be postponed until a later chapter. For the sake of my impatient and I think overly topical editor we must now turn to another of the Master's creations, a curious bagatelle that eerily embodies a theme that has haunted me nearly since my birth.

Copyright HTML Gatchina3000, 2004.