Excerpted from Nabokov's Muse: A Sketch from Life
A rare humane feature -- benevolence (blagoraspolozhennost') -- which these days has gained almost a museum status, was exposed to me with gracious charm. Vera Nabokov's excellent tact and kindness helped me to overcome my youthful clumsiness.
But first there was the telephone call. I easily got the number from the Zurich telephone directory service, by dialing four fourths. After some doubts and uncertainties regarding the ethical appropriateness of the call, I pick up the receiver. A low voice answered. It was Vera Nabokov.
I introduced myself and in a few words outlined the aim of my call and the desired visit. "Only for half an hour and just for the atmosphere." It was not a visit for an interview or a business talk, it was not a pre-planned meeting, it was just an improvisation -- a live autograph for the memory.
The spirit of benevolence a priori I sensed right from the beginning. Vera Evseevna warned me that it would be a bit difficult to find them. They had recently moved to a new place because in their previous home in the Montreux Palace, renovation work was going on. She said that her son, Dmitri, could have met me, but unfortunately he was in the Alps with his car. She then spelled their address, wrote down my name, and set the time of the visit, asking beforehand if it would be convenient for me. The meeting was planned for the next day, Sunday, September 2, at 2:00 p.m.
To find the address was, indeed, not easily accomplished even armed with a map of the city, but virtually the first cabdriver I approached knew whom I was talking about. Montreux is a small city and following the style of small cities the lives of their famous residents are often an established topic of conversations. On the way there, he let me know that Madame Nabokov recently had an operation and hadn't gone out lately. In the flower shop near the railway station a lady composing a bouquet said that she of course knew the Nabokovs and that they recently moved, but where -- she had no idea. It seemed to me that the driver was informed about Vera's health better than about the road to her house, because he was not sure if he should turn right or left when the road ended. But he assured me, after looking at the map again, that the house was nearby.
The mailbox in front of the residence proved the conclusive evidence that finally I was at the right place. On its green little door it said -- NABOKOV.
It was exactly 2:00 p.m. and it was raining heavily.
The door was opened by the maid -- a brown haired woman in her mid thirties with a pleasant look. I gave my name and she recognized its French version, ushered me into a drawing room adroitly parked my umbrella.
"Madame Nabokov," she announced with the correct stress, and left.
Vera Evseevna was sitting on the broad light-colored couch. I approached her and presented the flowers.
"With admiration and gratitude," I said in Russian.
Time, however, occasionally gives to us lavish gifts: it immortalizes beauty. That was the case with Vera Nabokov -- she was still beautiful. Her serene look somehow immediately leveled any thoughts about age and years. She was dressed very elegantly in beige slacks and a grayish cardigan.
I must admit that her first phrase slightly shocked me.
"You know," said Vera Evseevna, "but, Vladimir Vladimirovich is already dead."
Oh, yes, I knew, of course, I knew. I knew practically all the streets where they lived in Berlin and then in Paris. Probably it was said to prevent any incongruous awkwardness that a complete stranger in such a situation could make.
After my short introduction I was given a classic dilemma -- tea or coffee, and then came the maid and with the perpetual companions of every hospitable house -- cookies, chocolates, and sugar, to which Vera Evseevna, with slight irony, proposed adding more.
"Have more, please. You have problems with sugar in Russia these days, haven't you? And please, don't be shy." Both were true.
The maid carefully placed the roses in a vase and put it on a small table nearby.
"Where is she from, do you think?" asked Vera Evseevna.
I said that I thought she was Spanish.
"No, Italian. Florinda is a very nice person."
We were sitting in a spacious and extremely bright dining room. To the left there was a large, about one-meter long photo portrait of Nabokov taken in the beginning of the 70's, by, if I'm not mistaken, Philippe Halsman. On a small table near me there was a pile of English books by Nabokov -- Transparent Things, Ada, Pnin, Nabokov's Dozen. To the right on the wall there was also quite large photograph of a motorboat gliding (according to the background) presumably on the Atlantic. Also I guessed that it was somewhere in the States because, as soon as the photograph became an object of my observation, Vera said that their son, Dmitri, graduated from Harvard University, and nowadays is mostly doing translations of Nabokov's books, and that he's finishing his own novel.
"Vera Evseevna, was Vladimir Vladimirovich sure that his books would receive such a wide response in Russia?"
"Well, in fact, Nabokov wasn't interested in the question of glory, and it didn't trouble him in the least. He had no doubts that Russian readers finally would get access to his books, but the question of the quality of the editions should come first. And after all, you know, Nabokov's role as a foreman of perestroika -- it's really charming."
I allowed myself to loosely quote from The Gift where Zina Mertz says to Feyodor that one day, Russia will long for him and his books. And truly, this has been proven completely these days. And Nabokov now, among the Russian emigre writers, has become the most widely read author in Russia, although, no doubt, the parallels between Nabokov and the main character from The Gift should not be directly or indirectly aligned. I kept talking about the tremendous depth of Nabokov's books and about his enchanting literary voice and the phenomenal clarity of their forms. Also about how, for me, it was so dear the joy of endless discoveries and the miraculous beauty in his books, and also the merry mysteries in the world around, because Nabokov helped me to view and recognize the world with a new quality. I must confess that I talked too much. My monologue probably was a bit pathetic, spiced with trite generalities. But I'm mentioning these comments today because afterwards, Vera made the most treasured complement I ever could hope to hear.
"Well, you should have known Vladimir Vladimirovich personally. You, it seems to me, feel the true sense of his books."
I doubted very much if it was worth writing about this very personally delicate moment of the meeting, but I do so because it is quite important to me to show an example of the true generosity of Vera Evsneevna, and her openness. So I'm saying here, of course, not about myself, but about her.
Then Vera suggested that I go to look at the garden, but she herself remained seated on the couch. Passing through the drawing room, on a small shelf near the wall, I noticed a photo portrait of Vladimir Dmitrievich, the writer's father. I believe that it was the same picture of his father that can be seen in the well-known photograph of Nabokov sitting at a desk writing his third novel, The Defense.
The view from the garden was picturesque -- the azure of lake Geneva, the pale gray of the mountains' profiles, the neat vineyards. Nabokov's house stands a few miles from the center of the city on the slope of a small hill, and all of Montreux can rest in the palm of a hand. Quite distinctly recognizable was the Grand Hotel Montreux and its neighbor, the Montreux Palace, where the writer had been living for fifteen years, now dressed in an aquamarine shroud because of the renovation.
Then followed a light trip to the European period of Nabokov's life and she passed the names of Khodasevich, Berberova, Fondaminsky, "and what a nice person Fondaminsky was," repeated Vera Evseevna several times. "Well, and later in America, life became a bit easier."
She continues, "But you know, I first came to Montreux in 1911, and strangely, there have been only a few changes since then."
I asked, "Are you planning to write some sort of a memoir? -- Your life is extremely interesting for many people."
"Oh no, I have forgotten a lot, and besides, it's not a matter of priority for me. By the way, which city do you prefer? -- Moscow or St. Petersburg?" asked Vera.
"Of course, St. Petersburg," I answered, and easily read agreement in her look.
"What do you think, it seems we've dealt with all the subjects for today," she suggested, giving me a hint that it was the end of the visit.
"May I visit you again?" I asked. "And may I write about this meeting? -- Of course, sending the final draft to you if necessary?"
"Write, write! And yes, come again," she smiled.
"Vera Evseevna, finally, just a very small trifle. May I take this chocolate for a memory?"
"Oh, of course, take it. But it won't survive. It will melt on the way."
"No, it won't! I know a very good method of transportation." The chocolate didn't melt, and still lives in a small tin box for French prunes.
It was 5:20. "The rain has flown." It had become a very bright and sunny afternoon.
The original Russian version of this essay was published in Novyi Zhurnal.