Articles

In Search of Vladimir Nabokov in St. Petersburg, Russia

by Maria Kozyreva

I arrived in Saint Petersburg in the middle of September. I must admit that in autumn it is rather rainy there. However, when I bought tickets, I was sure that the weather would be great. I trusted my intuition and it didn’t fail me.

I looked up at the Triumphal Arc, one of the main symbols of the city, as if asking a blessing from it and opened my map. I was searching for Morskaya street, 47 where famed Russian author Vladimir Nabokov spent the first 18 years of his life. I was a bit surprised that Morskaya quay was situated not in the city center, but on Vasilievsky Island. Fortunately (or unfortunately) I was ambitious enough and obstacles like that did not frighten me. I got off at Primorskaya metro station and had spent at least 20 minutes walking when I had finally found Morskaya quay, 45. It was already 4.30 p.m. (the museum closes at 5 p.m.) when in vain I scanned my surroundings for house 47. I was in despair. There was no use to continue my searching as the museum would have been closed by the time I would finally reach it. I asked a sole passer-by for help and his answer came as a surprise to me:

“I have been living here for 35 years but have never seen a Nabokov museum there. Maybe it is situated on Bolshaya or Malaya Morskaya streets?”

I was sick and tired. I clearly remembered that Nabokov lived on Morskaya, 47. Nervously I opened my notebook and saw that . . . the Nabokov museum was situated on Morskaya BOLSHAYA street 47!

Well, you may think that my curious mistake was due to my absent-mindedness. Please, let me explain and try to justify myself.

In 1909 Morskaya Malaya street was named after famous Russian writer Gogol (in honor of his hundredth year anniversary). Since 1830 he lived in house 17. Since then Morskaya Bolshaya street has been called Morskaya street. However, in the mid-1990s officials didn’t pay attention to the fact that another great writer lived on the street they decided to rename.

So now, if you are in Saint Petersburg, please, keep in mind that the Nabokov museum is situated on Morskaya Bolshaya street, 47.

The next day I was more attentive and punctual and arrived there in time.

I entered the museum and looked around. In this house Nabokov was born and received excellent education from Russian teachers, and English and French gouvernesses.  I looked at the writer’s pince-nez and small cards where he wrote down his thoughts. At the full collection of his published works from the 1920s to 1930s and the first publication of King, Queen, Knave with the author’s autograph. I was especially amused by the collection of butterflies gathered by Nabokov who, as you know, contributed to entomology.

The writer left the house in 1917 and only in 1998 the unique museum of Nabokov opened its doors to the world. The property of his family and the house itself were nationalized when his family had to leave Russia for Europe. Few things remained untouched. Over the last few years, all the exhibits in the museum have been gathered and made possible by funding from grants.

It was very hard for the administration of the museum to recreate the atmosphere representative of Nabokov’s life. Even after many years spent abroad, Nabokov used to say that this house remained his “only home in the world.”

I went out of the museum and tried to imagine how a personal driver used to chauffeur an 11-year old Nabokov to Tenishevskaya academy where he had been studying for 7 years since 1911. I thought about his personality. What was he like? What were his relations with his classmates? Are there any allusions in his oeuvres?

Suddenly an episode from Nabokov’s The Defense came to mind.  When classmates mocked the main character Alexsandr Luzhin’s father, Luzhin chose the strategy of indifference by ignoring all insults and humiliations. What about a small Vladimir?

I compared the author to his main character. One time while at school, one of Nabokov’s friends distributed a magazine that contained an article which ridiculed his father. In distinction from Luzhin, Nabokov didn’t ignore the incident. He hit the insulter so severely that he broke the boy’s ankle.  Afterwards Nabokov forgot about the insult and repented. In comparison with the weak and ridiculous Luzhin, who was afraid of canon shots from Petropalovskaya Fortress, Nabokov learned boxing and savate (French boxing) and was capable of standing up for himself and his friends and relatives. Nevertheless, they are quite similar. Luzhin is a loner, strange and talented. He is not accepted by “others,” or by mainstream society, which explains his restraint and solitude. Maybe Luzhin’s loneliness was in Nabokov’s heart.

Being a Russian emigrant, Nabokov was not sure whether Russian readers understood him.  This did not help in building confidence as a writer. He was afraid to be banal and didn’t want “to write for a crowd.” His worst fear was to be cliche. Some experts think that he neglected Soviet readers and his literature. Moreover, he criticized the best Russian classic writers and poets like Dostoevsky, Gogol and Lermontov.  You see, in Nabokov’s historical motherland his success was rather faint. If you organize a public opinion poll in Russia and ask people to name five Russian classic or favorite writers, I doubt the majority of respondents would name Nabokov. I don’t even remember whether any of his oeuvres are included in an obligatory school program . . .

The sun was shining brightly. The sky was clear and joyful. I was walking down Neva Quay and thinking about Nabokov’s first novel Mashenka published in 1926 (in Russia Nabokov published his works under pseudonym “Vladimir Sirin”).  In English the novel was translated as Mary, but from my point of view, it is not an absolutely adequate translation. Mashenka sounds so tender and kind instead of cold and official Mary. A small Russian suffix “en’k” is full of love and tenderness. Anyway, it’s the question of linguistic differences between Russian and English. (Nabokov himself decided to translate the novel as Mary because “it seemed to match best the neutral simplicity of the Russian title name.”)

The main character Ganin affectionately names his beloved “Mashenka.” She was the adoration of his youth, “his Russia.”

It was not simply reminiscence but a life that was much more real, much more intense than the life lived by his shadow in Berlin. It was a marvelous romance that developed with genuine, tender care.

However, at the end of the book, when Mary is to arrive, it turns out that in reality he didn’t need her. It was only a delusion that he loved her. He preferred that she remained only in his dreams. Some critics say that Mashenka is a symbol of Russia. In that case, Russia for Nabokov was lost in the past and he didn’t yearn to return to a place that had already disappeared in his mind.

If we look at this novel from another angle, we would see that Mary is a prototype of his beloved Valentina Shulgina, his young love. When he wrote that “Mary lived at Caravannaya street,” he meant the house number 8. The balcony of that house, supported by columns, is a bit more elegant than the columns at Phurshtatskaya street, 48, where the real Valentina Shulgina lived.

It is known that Nabokov devoted all his novels in Russian to his wife Vera Slonim. Among many of his verses there is only one that he devoted to V. Sh. (Valentina Shulgina). In his dreams he imagined their rendezvous, their strolls along Millionnaya street and in Tavrichesky Garden. I couldn’t help visiting the places that were not only reflected in Nabokov’s oeuvres but were also a part of his life in Russia. In Tavrichesky Garden I was distracted by noisy gulls and ducks who struggled for a piece of bread in a picturesque lake. Such a severe, yet at the same time, funny struggle for survival. I was laughing and pointing at the birds so enthusiastically that a young man who was feeding them along with his wife and young daughter suddenly looked at me and said:

“Please take a piece of bread and feed them too!”

Ha-ha! I guess it was more amusing to look at me than at the birds. I turned around. Love, life and beauty were in the air. Can you imagine that almost 100 years ago Nabokov and his beloved Valentina were walking along these alleys, enjoying picturesque views of the lake and flying birds? Maybe they were also feeding ducks like me. We are all human.

Nabokov didn’t know his destiny was to become a famous writer, or that literary critics would debate over whether he should be in the American or Russian canon. What’s the use of disputes like that? He was the writer who contributed to the world literature, who wrote what pleased him and didn’t care about public opinion – his own was most important.

I wrote this article to share my ideas with you and by no means intended to impose my opinion. If you wish to form your own opinion toward Nabokov, to know more about his life in Russia, please do arrive in Saint Petersburg and feel the atmosphere where he spent his first years of life, and listen to the language that he had once written:

My private tragedy, which cannot, and indeed should not, be anybody’s concern, is that I had to abandon my natural idiom, my untrammeled, rich and infinitely docile Russian tongue for a second-rate brand of English, devoid of any of those apparatuses- the baffling mirror, the black velvet backdrop, the implied associations and traditions- which the native illusionist, frac-tails flying, can magically use to transcend the heritage in his own way.

(“On a Book Entitled Lolita” by V. Nabokov)