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 Hébrides 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 (même 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 Nabokovís 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 même visage, les mêmes yeux creux et cernés de noir--un visage guetté 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 émigré 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."

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