Pale Fire

Remembering Dmitri Nabokov, the Novelist’s Son and Literary Executor

A collection of Vladimir Nabokov's Selected Poems is being published this month. Brian Boyd, the author of the new book Why Lyrics Last, is best known as the world’s foremost expert on the great writer—his definitive two-volume biography was published in 1993. He remembers the novelist’s son, Dmitri, who died at the age of 77 in February, who was a bon vivant, car lover, and literary executor of his father’s legacy. Plus, Lila Azam Zanganeh on the nights she spent reading to Dmitri.

Wayatt Counts / AP Photo

Dmitri Nabokov liked many things, but few better than playing the host—a disposition he may have inherited from his father’s father, like his love of music, of telephones, and of cars, and another sharp contrast with his own father.

I first met Dmitri in December 1979. I’d just spent a month cataloging his father’s archives in Montreux for his mother, and was stopping in New York between flights, on my way to see my Canadian girlfriend for the first time in six months.

Meeting Véra Nabokov and then Elena Sikorski for the first time, I’d worn a suit my parents had bought to make me look less disreputable, in their eyes, than the orange or fading purple overalls that had become my second skin. I’d felt and no doubt looked awkward in that alien three-piece, and quickly reverted to, if not the overalls, then jeans, while I was working amid the dusty boxes in the library-cum-lumber-room across the corridor from Véra’s living room in the Montreux Palace Hotel. But visiting Dmitri for the first time, I thought I’d better tog up again.

I rang the doorbell on Dmitri’s apartment just off Central Park, in the East 70s, and there he was, beaming from on high, booming a deep welcome, crushing my hand with his mountain-climber’s grip—and in jeans and T-shirt, before me in my three-piece.

I told him I had something like three hours to spend with him before heading to the airport again. But despite my looking at my watch after a couple of hours, he wanted to keep asking questions of me, even more than I wanted to ask questions of him, and kept doing so as he cooked up a quick but toothsome pasta. I told him I’d miss my plane to Toronto, and my connection to Thunder Bay, but he still wanted to question and answer. I did miss my flights, but he called to arrange new ones—not dreaming that they cost a small fortune for someone who had been a student for 10 years, and had spent the first half of the year without an income, while travelling Nabokov trails in the U.S. Northeast, and was now just a postdoc.

Our matching passion for Nabokov and our otherwise mostly mismatching styles shaped our asymmetrical friendship. For much of the decade after 1979, I worked closely with Véra when in Europe. I would see Dmitri most often, when he visited his mother from Monza, in the corridor of the Montreux Palace. Near one end was his mother’s sitting room, and at the other, the elevator and the little former laundry cupboard I had transformed into the Nabokov archive room. The moment he emerged from his mother’s, “Hello, Brian” would rumble out like low thunder, while he strode at speed toward me and the elevator, as if he needed to gather momentum for take-off in his Ferrari waiting below.

Headlong haste and hesitation combined oddly in Dmitri. A speedster on the ski slopes, the racetrack and the highway, he could be slow and indecisive as a translator and elsewhere. While working on the biography in Montreux I would often have afternoon coffee with Véra, now quite deaf and rarely on speaking terms with her hearing aids. When Dmitri visited, he would act as a megaphone, relaying to his mother what her ears could not catch of my Kiwi accent. They would often be stumped by a few phrases in a translation, and we would discuss different possibilities, slowly, and reach tentative resolutions. But the next afternoon, and perhaps the next, we would return to the same cruxes, and often assay the same options. The pattern would continue, without Véra, when I stayed with Dmitri in later years.

Dmitri loved participating in interviews and documentaries, and again would bask in the role of generous host. I remember him taking Bronwen and me, and the filmmaker Chris Sykes and his cinematographer and sound recordist, to lunch at his favorite restaurant at Caux, on the slopes above Montreux. He seemed to feel the magnificent terrace 700 meters above Lake Geneva almost part of his demesne, and Helmut, the chef, both part of his staff and a personal friend (Helmut too was an ace skier). A devotee of gadgets and of telephone talk, he would swing his bricklike Motorola resonantly down on the table before he sat down, and a meal would rarely go by—certainly neither of the lunches he hosted for the film crew and us—without his being called by friends from around Europe or the Americas. He happily drove his blue Ferrari from Caux down the narrow cobble zigzags toward Montreux, again and again, until the documentary makers had just the shots they needed.

Just over a year before her death, Véra Nabokov had to move out of the Montreux Palace, and Dmitri advised her to buy an apartment 100 meters above the town, up on the slope toward Caux, with a view matching the one from the Montreux Palace suite, but loftier and more breathtakingly panoramic. After her death he inherited the apartment and made it his home, and his own. He set up his large-scale electric model train to snake through the living room and out into the garden, the freight carriages sometimes transporting a brandy bottle and glasses, and enjoyed his large-scale radio-controlled helicopter while he was also learning to fly a real helicopter. The smaller apartment next door was an extended archive room and guest suite. Another apartment above was for his Italian cook. Not quite “fifty servants, and no questions asked,” but again like his grandfather, and unlike his father, who preferred the Montreux Palace precisely because he need not employ his own staff, Dmitri liked an ample establishment.

I had cataloged the Nabokov archive partly for Véra to consult, partly so that a prospective purchaser would know what was there. No serious buyer emerged until the Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature at the New York Public Library signalled its readiness to acquire the papers, by now mostly in the basement under Dmitri’s apartment. Dmitri again showed his indecision, caught between eagerness to sell and reluctance to let the papers go, especially since he feared—this was the height of Russian publishing piracy—that Russian scholars or scoundrels might copy and print the materials. The New York Public Library brought me over from Auckland to Montreux in July 1992 to help persuade Dmitri to relinquish the papers, and I was able to break the impasse by proposing that Russian-language materials could be out of bounds, without special permission, so long as he still had grounds to fear piracy.

Dmitri’s love of phone calls—and the further-flung, the better—was another mismatch with my near phone-aversiveness, and even more with the time difference between Montreux and Auckland. Especially in the early years after his mother’s death, Dmitri would occasionally ring, usually at about 4 a.m. our time, to seek advice on some problem: translation, editing, locating a manuscript (for his own reference, and for publishing projects, he had kept photocopies of what the Berg had taken), responding to a publisher or to another affront to the Nabokov name. I would tell him what time it was, but he’d be so eager to talk, and I’d be so wide awake by then, that I’d agree to continue, and try to instil in him again, before saying goodbye, a consciousness of the time difference.

The next time, he would not remember, just as he would not remember that when he gave his time and generously opened his memory and his photo and video collections to those who came to interview him for documentaries about his father, they would always leave the thousands of photographs in chaos. He would still say yes, next time, to the next documentary crew—and perhaps still make the same complaint to me in a new middle-of-the-night call.

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Some of the most memorable meals I have ever had have been with Dmitri. He enjoyed the fact that I, unlike practically everyone else he hosted, could eat and drink as much as he: it gave him additional license to enjoy all he wanted. We had three heaped helpings of superb pasta, hardly the lightest of foods, at an Italian restaurant on Montreux’s Place du Marché, where again he treated the cook as an old friend and a faithful servant. When Bronwen and I came to stay with him over Christmas and New Year 1994, he had his cook serve up such rich fare that Bronwen fell ill from the intake. Perhaps it was two nights before Bronwen succumbed when Dmitri informed us, looking at his then inamorata, that they were going to announce their engagement in Russia, where they had been imminently invited. The next day I arrived with a bottle of champagne to celebrate the news—and Dmitri looked a little bewildered.

Was it that night, when Dmitri, getting no response from his cook after the first course at dinner, despite his penetrating bass, and realizing she was not in the kitchen or within earshot, dashed from the table as if to her defense? A few minutes later he descended from her apartment, slammed a gun down on the dinner table—he had feared she was being abducted, but she was merely having a row with her ex-husband—with its barrel pointing straight at Bronwen. Bronwen, who had never seen a real gun, let alone had one pointed at her, immediately blanched, and I asked Dmitri would he mind not pointing it at my wife. He was surprised: after all, the safety catch, he assured us, was on.

Two years later the Library of America launched its editions of Nabokov’s English-language novels and Speak, Memory with a reading of Lolita from start to finish, from Humbert’s famous first “Lolita” to his last, in a gallery in New York’s SoHo. Dmitri was to begin the 11-hour reading. Its complex schedule meant it had to start strictly on time. Knowing that Dmitri’s penchant for speed did not equate to punctuality, the organizers had arranged for a limousine to bring him from his hotel well in advance. Somehow, between leaving his hotel room and reaching the curb, Dmitri managed not to find the limousine driver, and despite frantic calls between SoHo and the Pierre, Dmitri could not be located. Stanley Crouch had to begin, reciting the first chapter from memory. Dmitri eventually arrived late in the first hour.

These were the years when he was at his fiercest as keeper of the flame of his father’s reputation. Before he read out the earlyish substitute passage he had chosen from Lolita, he pulled out a prepared text to extol the Library of America project and to denounce would-be dousers and stealers of the flame. After another hour of readings, I left for lunch with Dmitri and our friends, his agent, Nikki Smith, and her husband Peter Skolnik, an intellectual-property lawyer especially invaluable to Dmitri in those years of Russian publishing recklessness. I was onto my third beer—was I keeping up with Dmitri this time, or was it just that the beer was so good?—when one of the organizers came rushing in to tell me I was on soon. I had thought my passage still more than an hour away; I have never popped up from a table so fast. As it happened, I did have most of an hour before my turn, but I think those beers added an extra relish of sinister glee to the passage I had chosen, the bedroom scene in the Enchanted Hunters Hotel.

The most farcical of all the meals I shared with Dmitri I can date to April 24, 1999, the day after his father’s 100 birthday. I had spent the birthday itself in St. Petersburg and at Vyra, after Nabokov centenary and Pushkin bicentenary celebrations in St. Petersburg and Moscow all week, and I wanted to report to Dmitri about Russia, St. Petersburg, Vyra, the Nabokov celebrations and the Nabokov Museum, which I had visited for the first time. Gavriel Shapiro was also staying with Dmitri, and as it was a Saturday the cook had gone out for the night, leaving ravioli ready by the stovetop. For years Dmitri’s appetite for life had been making him larger, and he was hot in almost any conditions, often leaving doors and windows in his apartment ajar even in winter, and wearing short sleeves and shorts, or less, whenever he could. He was utterly unselfconscious about his body, including the burn scars on his left hand, head, and back from his near-fatal 1982 accident in one of his Ferraris, and about his new girth, and with only two men for company, he happily pottered around the place in no more than his underpants. We sat and talked about the centenary celebrations, I showed the photos I had taken and the posters I had brought, and we discussed translations for Nabokov’s Butterflies. We carried on drinking and talking until at about 10 p.m. we realized we should have some dinner, and moved out to the kitchen to get it ready. Somehow despite Florinda’s preparations, and with nothing more complicated than ravioli as the centerpiece, and with someone who had mastered Italian food decades ago uncertainly at the helm, we managed to turn the preparations into an ordeal worthy of the Three Stooges, even if our timing was not quite so sharp.

This millennium I have seen less of Dmitri, working as I have mostly on literature and evolution, and trying not to work on Nabokov. For much of the last decade he was wheelchairbound, plagued by diabetes and the resultant leg infections, and by polymyalgic neuropathy. The heavy doses of morphine he was on for the polymyalgia almost killed him in 2002. I saw him shortly after, recovering at a clinic, and read on his laptop a first fragment of his splendidly eloquent and elegant memoir. I urged him to continue, to give it priority, but as far as I know he was able to write little more. His eyes, long troublesome, were making work still more difficult.

After every visit in these years I left Montreux thinking I might never see Dmitri again. Then next time he would still be there, a little less mobile, but as gracious and hospitable as ever, letting me work at his computer whenever he left it, letting me roam for what I needed in the archives at any hour of day or night. He put at my disposal, and Olga Voronina’s, the letters from his father to his mother, which Véra had never let me read. (She had kept them in her bedroom, and only after knowing me for five years did she succumb to my repeated requests to have access to them, albeit indirectly, as with a hoarse cough she read the letters aloud, omitting the endearments and more, into my tape-recorder.)

Because of his health, especially his eyesight, Dmitri by now found it hard to undertake sustained projects, but he still enjoyed translating his father’s poems, each its own tough nut to chew on. He hoped to translate all the verse in Stikhi (1979), and although his strength ran out before he could do so, he did translate his father’s longest Russian poem, “A University Poem,” finding a flexibility, in an intermittent rhyme scheme of his own devising, that makes this perhaps his finest achievement as a translator.

One of the last times I shared the same sonic space as Dmitri was during a 2008 radio interview for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Book Show, along with Ron Rosenbaum and Leland de la Durantaye. Dmitri had been thinking for years of publishing The Original of Laura. In 2001 he had the index cards transcribed and sent the typescript to trusted friends like Stephen Parker and myself. The more I reread it, the less I felt my earlier recoil from the text that Véra had allowed me to read once, in her Montreux Palace sitting room. I now regretted my advice to her and Dmitri, the next time he had come to Montreux, that they should destroy it. Ron Rosenbaum read a 2007 article by Leland de la Durantaye that he took as a new sign Dmitri might soon burn the manuscript, and appealed to Dmitri through his Slate column not to do so. Dmitri enjoyed, if not the dilemma itself, then the attention the dilemma aroused, and his own power of decision, and the opportunity for Nabokovian mystification. On the ABC Book Show he told us, tongue half in cheek, that he had a visitation or vision of his father approving his publishing the book.

The last time Bronwen and I stayed with Dmitri was in February 2011. Judging by reports of those who visited him later, we arrived at a bad moment. He was still determined to play the host, but Parkinson’s had added to his other troubles and he was locked into a particularly severe attack. We had drinks before dinner, but he could barely speak. That night or perhaps the next—he was much better by then, if still in a sad plight—I asked him, trying to match his perpetual optimism (he would still tell visitors he hoped to drive once more), did he have other Nabokovian projects lined up? “Death,” he answered. He waited for, and savoured, our look of horrified concern. Then, after a pause, enjoying the joke, he explained: “I want to translate Smert [Death],” his dulled eyes still twinkling back and forth from Bronwen to me. All remained intact: the intelligence, the wit, the pleasure of an audience and the pleasure of a host offering what he could to his guests, even this brief glimpse of a free self trapped in a failing body.