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


Toward the Centre Funéraire, photo by Gennady Barabtarlo 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.


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