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 Kufürstendamm 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 émigré 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 émigré 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.

Notes

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.


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