The era of the brilliant Nabokovs is over. Dmitri died 22 February 2012. He was my age, born in Berlin in 1934 half a year before me. One day when I asked his father about his taste in music, he said he had none; all the musical talents went to his son, Dmitri. The father was very proud of his son and justifiably so. He was an accomplished operatic basso and sang on stage with Pavarotti and in opera houses all over Europe. After a near fatal racing car accident, he gave up singing and fast cars and became his dad’s translator and later executor of his estate.
We lost his mother, Vera Slonin Nabokov in 1991. While I never spoke with her, I saw her sitting on stage far right with Vladimir (Professor Nabokov) at the podium three days a week lecturing on “Masters of European Fiction.” The main lecture room in Goldwin-Smith Hall on the Cornell University Arts quadrangle was then a big space. My memory of sixty years ago says he filled it with about three hundred people. I am sure that every one of those people in their own way mourned his death in 1977.
After a lecture one day we met in the hallway and I mentioned his phrase, “the beauty of science and the precision of poetry.” His response was, “You must be a scientist. I am a lepidopterist. What are you?” My only response was that I was studying physics. Later, the following year in the class, “Russian Literature” I got to know him a little bit better. However, we, the class, never knew that he had just released for publication, Lolita in 1955. That would have certainly changed the conversation at my fraternity house when he came to dinner from his apartment across the street on University Avenue.
When I start thinking about Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov, many stories come quickly to mind: He taught us to properly pronounce his name, Vla di’ mir Na bo’ kov. At a party one night I pronounced his name properly and a lady tried to correct me. I said I was right, she said how do you know, and I said he told me. Scholarship 1, Social grace 0.
He called Freud the “Viennese Witch Doctor.” He said that Dostoyevsky wrote trash. He loved Tolstoy, Pushkin, Gogol, and Lermontov. He said, “read with your spinal column.” He said class attendance was optional. He had done his research over twenty years in the greatest libraries of Europe and America. If we could duplicate that, we should just show up for the final exam.
At a restaurant in Booth Bay Harbor I met a pretty, young waitress from Russia. I asked her if Russians still read Nabokov. Oh yes, was her enthusiastic reply. “I’m doing my masters thesis on his work.” A sharing of stories followed. He lives.