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.


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