Endpapers from NABOKOV IN AMERICA by Katya Mezhibovskaya

Nabokov in America

by Robert Roper

Below you’ll find an excerpt from Robert Roper’s NABOKOV IN AMERICA, a unique portrait of Vladimir Nabokov told through the lens of the years he spent in a land that enchanted him, America.

The American escape began way, way back for Nabokov, but that does not mean it was inevitable; and at a dangerous moment the writer who was also a husband and a father nearly threw it all away. In 1936, while they were living in Berlin, Véra insisted that Vladimir get out of the city, away from the Nazis; the couple had been trying to put together an exit since at least 1930, failing mostly for financial reasons, but now she wanted him out and in the relative safety of France. She would remain behind with their two-year-old son, tying up loose ends.

Véra, if not the family’s principal breadwinner, then always essential to their survival, could no longer work. A job as translator for a Jewish-owned company making machinery had ended in spring ’35 when the German authorities expropriated the company and fired all its Jewish employees. Nabokov, writing at a great clip at the time — Glory, Camera Obscura, Despair, Invitation to a Beheading, and parts of The Gift were just some of his 1930s productions — was looking for a job of almost any kind in France or England. Nor was he “afraid of living in the American boondocks,” as he wrote to a professor acquaintance at Harvard. Not his Jewish wife but Vladimir himself was the one most under threat, the family believed: a man who meant the blackest of black evil to Nabokov, a Russian exile named Sergei Taboritsky — a fanatical Romanov partisan, Nazi stooge, and one of the two men who had attacked his father, V.D. Nabokov, fatally shooting him at a public meeting in 1922 — had been appointed to the agency that monitored Russian exiles in Berlin. Nabokov was not a politician-journalist like his father, but the family name and its liberal associations were enough to put him on a fatal list — so Véra believed.

As he had done the year before, Nabokov arranged to give readings in Brussels and Antwerp. Another event would follow in Paris, in early February, on the rue Las Cases; it would be a smash success, a joyous celebration — he had passionate fans in Paris, many of them women, some of whom delighted in quoting his poetry back to him. Though there were dissenting voices, V. Sirin — his nom de plume in the emigration (he was also known by his own name) — was acknowledged as a brilliant writer and possible heir to the tradition of Pushkin and Lermontov and Tolstoy and Chekhov. Those who dissented from this view included fellow writers, some of them his contemporaries, some his envious elders — for instance, Ivan Bunin, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in ’33, whose relations with the flash youngster were bantering but brittle, but in any case — to return to Paris early in ’37 was to be treated as a kind of hero, as the coming idol.

Between mid-January, when he left his wife, and the third week of May, when he reunited with her, Nabokov wrote her once a day, sometimes twice, without fail. His letters are immensely tender. “My darling, my joy,” he addresses her in February, after the Paris reading; and then in April,

My life, my love, it is twelve years today [since our wedding]. And on this very day Despair has been published, and The Gift appears in Annales Contemporaines. . . . The lunch at the villa of Henry Church (. . . an American millionaire with a splendid boil on his nape . . . with a literature-addicted wife of German extraction) turned out remarkably well. . . . I was much “feted” and was in great form. . . . I got on swimmingly with Joyce’s publisher Sylvia Beach, who might help considerably with the publication of Despair in case Gallimard and Albin Michel ne marcheront pas. . . . My darling, I love you. The story about my little one . . . is enchanting. [Dmitri had been trained to recite lines from Pushkin.] My love, my love, how long it’s been since you’ve stood before me. . . . I embrace you, my joy, my tired little thing.

The mix of endearments, of droll descriptors (“boil on his nape”), of crowing over literary advances, is very Nabokov. Perhaps needless to say, he was having an affair. Véra could sense it; then some busybody sent her a letter revealing the identity of the home wrecker, one Irina Guadanini, a Russian divorcée who worked as a dog groomer. Guadanini was one of those women who could recite Sirin by the foot or the yard. Nabokov denied all — as the envied new writer, he was the subject of malicious gossip on all sides, he maintained. His daily letters to his wife did not cease, nor did they become any less tender; they were a pack of lies

A Jewish woman with a two-year-old, near-penniless in Hitler’s Berlin: surely Véra’s situation was desperate, in the year when the Buchenwald concentration camp opened near Weimar, in the year of the Entartete Kunst, the “Degenerate Art” show that featured many Jews, yet Véra did not hasten to join her husband in the South of France, as he urged her to. Instead she concocted a journey in the wrong direction, eastward to Prague, where Nabokov’s mother lived on a small pension. Madame Nabokov had never seen her grandson, and this might be her last chance.

In fulfilling this pressing duty to her mother-in-law, Véra tormented her errant husband, who was already half-mad with guilt. He was unwilling to give up the affair, though, to abandon La Guadanini, a witty woman who, to judge by a story she published twenty-five years later, was in the grip of the most transporting love of her life. Vladimir developed psoriasis — it had troubled him before at times of intolerable stress. In the end he took the train to Prague. He saw his mother for the last time; she saw her grandson for the first and last time. The crisis in the marriage did not abate for months. Only in mid-July, when they were in Cannes, temporarily beyond the reach of the Nazis, did Nabokov fully confess his infidelity, thus allowing the catastrophe to proceed toward a climax. (He continued to write to Guadanini, who showed up one day at the beach, begging him to come away with her; he painfully, reluctantly spurned her.)

He had been a lothario before his marriage — this Véra knew. There had been twenty-eight youthful seductions, and in the early years of the marriage he continued to prowl, almost certainly without telling his wife. (“Berlin is very fine right now,” he wrote a friend in ’34, “thanks to the spring, which is particularly juicy . . . and I, like a dog, am driven wild by all sorts of . . . scents.”) Here the rampant philandering stopped, however. The Guadanini affair was too punishing, too savage. His proud and fascinating wife, she whose depths of cleverness and devotion are but suggested by the way she fought back, drawing the frazzled fool of a husband away from liberty in Western Europe, in a geographical direction that flirted with disaster: this was not a wife to abandon, though she might appear wan and worn after ten years on small allowance, after having given birth and having lost a second child (probably) the year before the crisis. Though Véra’s biographer, Schiff, says that “the last dalliance was not that with Irina Guadanini in 1937 any more than the last cigarette was that of 1945,” when Nabokov gave up smoking four or five packs per day, this was categorically not a marriage that would ever again be about infidelity.

FRANCE WAS NOT GERMANY, luckily. But France in the late thirties was less than hospitable to someone like Nabokov. Despite being treated like an idol and despite his literary connections, he was unable to work legally, nor did he possess a French carte d’identité until August ’38. They avoided Paris, where people gossiped and where Guadanini resided. He gave a reading in the city in late ’38, but for the most part the couple lived in semi-isolation on the Côte d’Azur, in those days a warm alternative to Paris and a place where artists and writers could live on a shoestring. Nabokov wrote and wrote. To say that he escaped the crisis of his marriage and the anguish of putting it back together by diving into work is to overlook his prodigious habit before the crisis; nor did Véra, in the worst passage of her life, fail to complete a translation of Invitation to a Beheading, Nabokov’s dreamlike novel of oppression and imprisonment, to show an agent in New York.

In ’34, a different literary agent, in London, had sold British rights to two other novels, Camera Obscura and Despair.* The English translation of Camera appalled Nabokov; it was “loose, shapeless, sloppy,” “full of hackneyed expressions meant to tone down . . . the tricky passages,” he wrote the publisher, Hutchinson, but, eager to have a book in the bookstores, he let it stand. Three years later, when American rights to Camera were sold by the New York agent Altagracia de Jannelli, Nabokov undertook to retranslate it himself, in the process rewriting much of it and giving it a title he thought would appeal to Americans: Laughter in the Dark. He was less than fully confident of his English at this point — his arrangement with Hutchinson required them to examine his work, remove any howlers.

* Camera Obscura (1933) is a brisk, noir story that plays with cinematic tropes, and Despair (1934) is a concoction of other cinematic and Dostoevskian elements, about a double and a lunatic “perfect crime.”

French, Swedish, Czech, and German translations also were in the works. Translations for sale in English-speaking countries were most important, considering the size of the market. Sirin’s books had no existence inside the Soviet Union; the home of his natural readership of millions, where he might have written in his native idiom and had fewer headaches about translation, while dwelling in splendor as the crown prince of the tradition that meant everything to him, the Pushkinian tradition in Russian verse and prose — that homeland of his literary heart was tragically lost to him. It was lost to everybody else, too, of course. There was no “Russia” anymore in which he might have dwelt in safety and joy, and the boldest writers of his generation who had stayed behind were on their way to hurried procedures conducted in the basements of prisons — writers such as Isaac Babel, author of Red Cavalry, arrested in ’39 and shot in ’40, and Osip Mandelstam, arrested in ’38 and dead by that December. Mandelstam’s famous poem “Epigram Against Stalin,” which compares Stalin’s fingers to worms and his mustache to a cock- roach, begins with the phrase “We live without feeling the country beneath our feet,” and surely one thing the poet meant by that line was the lostness of Russia to a generation.

To be busy translating one’s own novels for sale in America was not the worst fate to befall a Russian writer in the thirties. Largely ignorant of American literature, perhaps disdainful of the very concept, Nabokov had a considerable acquaintance with British and Irish literature, Shakespeare and R. L. Stevenson and Joyce being especial favorites. His mother had read him English fairy tales when he was small, and his grip on the language was precocious. As an older boy he was carried away by the books of Mayne Reid, an Irishman who fought in the Mexican- American War and later wrote American Westerns such as The Scalp Hunters, The Rifle Rangers, The Death Shot, and The Headless Horseman: A Strange Tale of Texas. Nabokov claimed that Reid, prolific potboiler maker, had given him a vision of the great open range and the vaulting western sky. Here is Reid describing a burned-over prairie in The Headless Horseman (1866):

Far as the eye can reach the country is of one uniform colour — black as Erebus. There is nothing green — not a blade of grass — not a reed nor weed!
It is after the summer solstice. The ripened culms of the gramineae, and the stalks of the prairie flowers, have alike crumbled into dust under the devastating breath of fire.
In front — on the right and left — to the utmost verge of vision extends the scene of desolation. Over it the cerulean sky is changed to a darker blue; the sun, though clear of clouds, seems to scowl rather than shine — as if reciprocating the frown of the earth.

Ignoring the antique poetic touches, we can, indeed, see this — and the rollicking Reid is one of those writers who tell us just what their leveled eyes tell them. On the next page,

The landscape . . . has assumed a change; though not for the better. It is still sable as ever, to the verge of the horizon. But the surface is no longer a plain: it rolls . . . not entirely treeless — though nothing that may be termed a tree is in sight. There have been [trees], before the fire — algarobias, mesquites, and other of the acacia family — standing solitary, or in copses. Their light pinnate foliage has disappeared like flax before the flame.

In the 1966 edition of Speak, Memory, his autobiography, Nabokov says of The Headless Horseman, “It has its points.” The mix of realistic evidence plain to the eye with scientific-sounding precision — terms such as culm and pinnate and algarobia, all used correctly — gives satisfaction to a certain sort of boy reader, or to any sort of reader, for that matter. A few pages on, a figure appears out of the burned plain:

Poised . . . upon the crest of the ridge, horse and man presented a picture. . . .
A steed, such as might have been ridden by an Arab sheik — blood-bay in colour . . . with limbs clean as culms [those culms again!] of cane, and hips of elliptical outline, continued into a magnificent tail sweeping rearward . . . on his back a rider . . . of noble form and features; habited in the picturesque costume of a Mexican ranchero — spencer jacket of velveteen — calzoneros laced along the seams — calzoncillos of snow-white lawn . . . around the waist a scarf of scarlet crape; and on his head a hat of black glaze, banded with gold bullion.

This is the novel’s dashing hero, Maurice Gerald (“Sir Maurice Gerald,” Nabokov adds in Speak, Memory, “as his thrilled bride was to discover at the end of the book”). Reid’s work — seventy-five novels, plus reportage — reveals an enduring concern for matters of costumery. His heroes are rough and ready, yet in their way also comme il faut, and dangerously attractive to women:

Through the curtains of the travelling carriage he was regarded with glances that spoke of a singular sentiment. For the first time in her life, Louise Poindexter looked upon . . . a man of heroic mould. Proud might he have been, could he have guessed the interest which his presence was exciting in the breast of the young Creole.

Nabokov notes that he and an older cousin, Yuri Rausch von Traubenberg, acted out whole scenes from Reid, perfecting the insouciant gestures, and while an effort to find the Nabokovian high style prefigured in this boy’s own adventure prose may be going too far — is certainly going too far — there are points in common. Fascination with North American geography, with the wide-openness, an invitation to adventure; scientific nomenclature; exotic sensuality; the kind of writerly precision that notes that a cerulean sky looks darker directly overhead. “The edition I had,” Nabokov writes, “remains in the stacks of my memory as a puffy book bound in red cloth.” It was a British or an American edition; the important thing was that it was the “unabridged original,” not the “translated and simplified” Russian version that Yuri and other Russian children had to read because their English wasn’t up to the original. The frontispiece of a prairie “has been so long exposed to the blaze of my imagination that it is now completely bleached,” Nabokov adds, then observes, “but miraculously replaced by the real thing . . . by the view from a ranch you [Véra] and I rented [in 1953] . . . a cactus-and-yucca waste whence came . . . the plaintive call of a quail — Gambel’s Quail, I believe.”

NABOKOV’S AMERCAN AGENT WORKED HARD for him — admirably hard. Altagracia de Jannelli’s letters show her leaving no door unknocked-upon with Sirin’s unconventional early novels, shaped in the smithy-soul of an author then much under the influence of Joyce and Proust. In August ’36, she writes,

Please find enclosed a couple of letters concerning your books. This, of course, always means nothing, because there is the right person somewhere and sometime that will take it:
August 4, 1936 “Houghton Mifflin Company regret to report their decision not to make a publishing offer for the accompanying manuscript.”
August 12, 1936 “Thank you for sending us the novel LA COURSE DU FOU [The Defense], which is very interesting, but not for us. We would appre- ciate your calling for it at your earliest convenience.”

She forwards another note that December:

We feel that the enormous effort of establishing the name of Nabokoff-Sirin in America would be so great as to militate against the commercial chances of his novel, KONIG DAME BUBE [King, Queen, Knave]. It is for this reason that we cannot under- take publication of a book that has many obvious qualities.

The novels, several, existed only in Russian; this complicated the approach to American publishers, who resented the cost of hiring foreign-language readers, but even without that, V. Sirin — or, as he saw no reason not to call himself now, Nabokoff, and soon Nabokov — was a tough sell, someone who wrote purposely against the market trend, it often seemed, offering demented or deluded protagonists who gave a reader scant opportunity for a warm glow of identification. Nabokov, like Joyce before him, was engaged in the high-modernist counterattack against the middlebrow novel, the work of cozy expectations, orderly progression of plot, and moral insight. All his life he would rail against readers who looked for a representation of “social problems” in his books; he was in a real lather about it, as can be seen in this note to Vladislav Khodasevich, a fellow poet:

[Writers should] occupy themselves only with their own meaning- less, innocent, intoxicating business and justify only in passing all that in reality does not even need justification: the strangeness of such an existence, the discomfort, the solitude . . . and a certain quiet inner gaiety. For that reason I find unbearable any talk — intelligent or not, it’s all the same to me — about “the modern era,” “inquietude,” “religious renaissance,” or any sentence at all with the word “postwar.”

Jannelli, who recognized his talent and also a certain commercial promise — but who would be gone, dead at an early age, before the changes of sensibility that allowed him to write books she might have made real money with — submitted one of his novels to more than sixty publishing houses and periodicals. A partial list of outlets contacted, from the collection of rejection notes at the Library of Congress: Houghton Mifflin, Henry Holt, Liveright, Robert M. McBride, Lippincott, Longmans, Green & Co., Chas. Scribner’s Sons, Knopf, Random House, Macmillan, Simon and Schuster, MGM, the New York Times, the John Day Co., Little, Brown, the Phoenix Press, Frederick A. Stokes Co., Esquire, The Saturday Evening Post, G. P. Putnam’s Sons, Reynal and Hitchcock, Dodd, Mead & Co., Harcourt, Brace & Co., H.
C. Kinsey & Co., the Atlantic Monthly, D. Appleton-Century Co., Blue Ribbon Books, Liberty magazine, Doubleday, Doran & Co., and Life.

The sale of Laughter in the Dark (1941) to Bobbs-Merrill, the school- book publisher, was anomalous. But Laughter had benefited from two translations by that point, the second Nabokov’s careful own, in which he intuited as best he could American readers’ desires, changing German names (Magda to Margot, Anneliese to Elisabeth, etc.) and sharpening the novel’s theme of cinematic clichés that are colonizing people’s brains. A wealthy businessman becomes obsessed with an usherette in a movie house; the usherette is young and beautiful and cruel. She wants to become a movie star. Cinematic tropes abound, and the businessman loses all — more than all — as he becomes the poodle of the young beauty and her cynical, diabolical boyfriend. German expressionist lighting effects — film noir avant la lettre — give the story a black-and-white mood, and the cruelty is played mostly for wincing laughs, always at the expense of the poor besotted businessman:

As a child [the boyfriend] had poured oil over live mice, set fire to them and watched them dart about for a few seconds like flaming meteors. And it is best not to inquire into the things he did to cats. Then, in riper years . . . he tried in more subtle ways to satiate his curiosity, for it was not anything morbid with a medical name — oh, not at all — just cold, wide-eyed curiosity, just the marginal notes supplied by life to his art. It amused him immensely to see life made to look silly, as it slid helplessly into caricature.

When at last it appeared, Laughter sank; Bobbs-Merrill recorded anemic sales, and the house declined to exercise options on other Sirin works. Even so, the book is a triumph, if a minor novel: suspenseful, strange in a fresh way, briskly dismaying. The style of its humor of cruelty was possibly a little ahead of its time; it resembles the black-comedic mode announced to the world in the third section — the Jason section — of The Sound and the Fury (“April Sixth, 1928”), a novel that we can be fairly sure Nabokov had not read by the thirties and would possibly never read, Faulkner being one of the American writers he most relentlessly ridiculed. He had hoped to catch the eye of movie producers with Laughter, and though no film was made in the thirties, in ’69 Tony Richardson’s adaptation, starring Nicol Williamson and Anna Karina, appeared, to small acclaim.

Brian Boyd, Nabokov’s biographer, presents Altagracia de Jannelli as a figure largely of fun, quoting a letter of Nabokov’s in which he describes her as his “literary (or rather, anti-literary) agent — a short, fearsome, bandy-legged woman, her hair dyed an indecent red.” The line on Jannelli is that she was a philistine who plied the refined artist with absurd requests for readable books “with attractive heroes and moral landscapes.” Yet their exchanges touched on matters of real concern to Nabokov, in his European impoverishment. Just what was the tenor of literary life in the United States? What could he realistically expect over there? Jannelli lectured him on matters with a special meaning for her; in ’38, before they met and after he had been calling her Mr. de Jannelli for years, she wrote,

No, the “Mr.” didn’t bother me at all, for the good reason that all people who haven’t seen me address me in this way . . . Europeans, not knowing the capacity of our American women, think that any big job must be done by a man. The women here do big things. . . . They are the pal and equal, and they often stand together in a front against men, whom they feel (perhaps like Strindberg) is the enemy.

No, the “Mr.” didn’t bother me at all, for the good reason that all people who haven’t seen me address me in this way . . . Europeans, not knowing the capacity of our American women, think that any big job must be done by a man. The women here do big things. . . . They are the pal and equal, and they often stand together in a front against men, whom they feel (perhaps like Strindberg) is the enemy.

She boosted America as a place where serious business was to be done; somewhat defensively, she presented herself as immensely well connected, scoffing at the suggestion of Nicolas Nabokov, Vladimir’s younger cousin, who had been living in New York since ’33, that there was something wrong in the way she had gone about a submission:

To make you happy, I got in touch with Viking, and found out that your cousin is again wrong in dates, since they tell me that Harold Ginsburg will only be back by middle of September. . . . The editor to whom I spoke is going on his vacation, hence I do not think that I shall send a copy . . . until I can get in touch with Ginsburg himself. Meantime . . . “Despair” will go to a firm where the heads are very good friends of mine, although, to be sure, they do not buy books for my personality but because they think they can make money on them.

Nabokov had no mentor in matters Americo-literary at this point. He was the refined artist, yes, but why not listen as the amusing Jannelli ran down her version of things? He must have been unnerved by the figure of sixty rejections: rejection is the plight of the writer, but Nabokov wasn’t used to it. In his Berlin days, his stories and poems had found immediate publication in Rul’ (“The Rudder”), a newspaper cum literary review cofounded by his father, and other publishers and editors had also hastened to bring out whatever he wrote. Sixty rejections. The fear, even for someone as sublimely confident as Nabokov, must have been that the most original things about him as an artist would damn him in America: his formal audacity, his psychological hard edge, his determination “never, never, never [to] write novels solving ‘modern problems’ or picturing ‘the world unrest.’ ”

BEFORE HE BEGAN TO CALL HER Mrs. de Jannelli, Nabokov wrote her in a mode that he almost never employed with mere agents. “Many thanks for your nice long letter of October 12th,” he begins.

I quite understand what you have to say about “old-fashioned themes.” . . . I am afraid that the “ultra-modernistic” fad is in its turn a little passé in Europe! That sort of thing was much discussed in Russia just before the revolution . . . depicting the kind of “amoral” life on which you comment in such a delightful way. It may be curious, but what charms me personally about American civilisation is exactly that old-world touch, that old-fashioned some- thing which clings to it despite the hard glitter, and hectic night- life, and up-to-date bathrooms. . . . When I come across “daring” articles in your reviews — there was one about condoms in the last Mercury — I seem to hear your brilliant moderns applauding themselves for being such brave naughty boys.

America would not be avant-garde — anyway, he hoped it would not. He himself was not an avant-garde writer; he was an innovative writer, something different, with stylistic tricks and formal novelties up his sleeve, and he needed a stolid backdrop sometimes for his tricks to come off. We see him in this note imagining America as an air-conditioned phantasmagoria only thinly built atop an “old-fashioned something,” an Amérique profonde of conservative or even reactionary temper. Yet America would not be just the lowbrow purlieu depicted in H. L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan’s American Mercury, especially in the magazine’s satirical “Americana” section. “Buster Brown has grown up,” Nabokov says to Jannelli, a little hopefully, and though “beauti- fully young and naïf,” it “has a magnificent intellectual future, far beyond its wildest dreams, perhaps.”

This was an excerpt from Nabokov in America: On the road to Lolita by Rober Robert — Now available wherever books are sold

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iBooks | Indiebound | Powell’s

Robert Roper’s journalism appears in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, Outside, and other publications. He won the 2002 Boardman-Tasker Prize for his book, Fatal Mountaineer, and his most recent book, Now the Drum of War, was an Editor’s Choice pick in the New York Times Book Review. He has also published several novels. He teaches at Johns Hopkins University.

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