Nabokov As Mounted Specimen; A Centennial Celebration Encases the Writer’s Life

The New York Times, Arts, April 1999

Nabokov As Mounted Specimen; A Centennial Celebration Encases the Writer’s Life
By Sarah Boxer

The novelist, lepidopterist, translator and teacher known as V N, V. Sirin, Vasily Shishkov, Vivian Dark bloom and Vladimir Nabokov would have turned 100 this Friday. The birthday party has begun without him. If he had scripted it himself, he could not have produced a better nightmare.

In his memoir, ”Speak, Memory,” Nabokov writes about ”a young chronophobiac who experienced something like panic” when he watched a home movie taken weeks before he was born. ”He saw a world that was practically unchanged — the same house, the same people — and then realized that he did not exist there at all and that nobody mourned his absence. He caught a glimpse of his mother waving from an upstairs window, and that unfamiliar gesture disturbed him, as if it were some mysterious farewell. But what particularly frightened him was the sight of a brand-new baby carriage standing there on the porch, with the smug, encroaching air of a coffin.”

If a prenatal home movie could cause such panic, think what a post-mortem birthday party could do.

Nabokov-the-ghost would see that everything had changed. His mother would not be waving, but his son, Dmitri, would be there, a large and tragic version of himself. Then Nabokov would see his biographer, his wife’s biographer, his English translator, the lawyer for his estate, the merchant selling off his library piece by piece. This time it would not be a mysterious farewell but an uncanny hello from the appreciative ghouls holding the bits of his life.

Vladimir (rhymes with redeemer) Nabokov (rhymes with the gawk of) was born on April 23, 1899, in St. Petersburg, Russia. Last week the Nabokov centennial celebration began in New York with a Town Hall symposium sponsored by PEN American Center, The New Yorker and Vintage Books. Martin Amis (novelist), Alfred Appel (friend and interpreter), Brian Boyd (biographer), Richard Ford (novelist), Elizabeth Hardwick (critic), Dmitri Nabokov (son), Joyce Carol Oates (novelist), David Remnick (journalist), Michael Scammell (translator) and Stacy Schiff (biographer) all came to pay their respects.

This week the celebration continues. The New York Public Library is exhibiting Nabokov’s manuscripts alongside his black-rimmed glasses, butterfly net and worn-down pencils. Glenn Horowitz Bookseller Inc. in Manhattan is showing off and selling off Nabokov’s library, including the dedication copies he inscribed to Vera, his wife, with fanciful, colorful hand-drawn butterflies. Ms. Schiff’s biography ”Vera” is coming out, with the details of a Nabokov affair with a poodle groomer. And Nabokov’s memoir, which he originally wrote in English as ”Conclusive Evidence,” then translated into Russian, then retranslated into English as ”Speak, Memory,” is being issued yet again, with Nabokov’s review of it installed as a 16th chapter.

Maybe V N would recognize the world he left in 1977, maybe not. Dmitri Nabokov, once a fast-living opera singer and race-car driver, now chastened by a near-death experience after a fiery crash and the death of his mother in 1991, has decided to devote himself to literature. He is revising his own novel about parallel lives, which has a love scene told in mathematical formulas. With his lawyer, he is fighting the American and British publication of ”Lo’s Diary,” a new novel by an Italian writer, Pia Pera, about Humbert and Lolita told from Lolita’s perspective. And he is thinking of finishing his father’s half-done novel, ”The Original of Laura,” which Nabokov asked his family to destroy.

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