Nabokov and I

The Return

The German Embassy at the corner of an aristocratic boulevard looked out on the square so vast, one had to turn slowly 180 degrees to take it all in. Anchored at one extremity by the sprawling Italianate palace of the City Council the square was counterbalanced at the opposite end by the mighty golden helmet of the cathedral, and set on a hub at the center – a statue of the emperor with an impossibly thin waist riding an impossibly elegant horse rearing on the two hind legs with no other point of contact with the pedestal. The emperor, at one with his mount, seemed preparing to deliver a service ace to end all Wimbledons.  The rough-hewn Finnish granite columns of the Embassy contrasted with the polished ones of the cathedral. The Italian Embassy building stood next along the boulevard, needless to say, Italianate, followed by a rare in these parts one-story miniature palace. The latter belonged to the Polish Prince Oginski 200 years ago. The prince-composer assured his immortality by creating the melancholy “Farewell to Homeland” polonaise upon being forced to leave his motherland, then in agony of being quartered by the neighboring empires. His next door neighbor had to leave his vanished homeland as well and sing it from afar for the rest of his life. His former mansion had all the attributes obligatory for this city: Finnish granite, “Italianate ornaments” (in the refugee writer’s own words), and even elements of the budding at the time Art Nouveau style. Nothing revealed that these buildings used to be occupied by embassies or noblemen, except for the sign at the entrance to this last one, in the two favorite languages of its one time inhabitant, Russian and English: “Vladimir Nabokov Museum.”

The linden trees that did not exist in Nabokov’s time, but so irritatingly obscured for him the window of the room where he had been born, on a 1955 picture taken by a tourist, were gone now, a mere 50 years after the picture was made. Gone, too, was a lonely antique car by the curb, as well as a horse-driven cart in the middle of the street, both seen on that 1955 photograph included in his memoir Speak, Memory. Now, in 2004, they were replaced by an endless line of parked cars so typical of the new century. Even the street had changed its name from that in honor of a 19th century liberal thinker, co-opted as ideologically acceptable by the 20th century totalitarian regime, reverting to its old pre-revolutionary designation as Bolshaya Morskaya (Big Maritime), thus completing a full circle, along with the city itself.

I entered the mansion. The museum occupied only part of the first floor raised over the street level, the piano nobile of Nabokov’s memories.  Not much remained from the hereditary owners: mostly carved oak doors, and amazingly, oak ceilings to match. Elsewhere, predictable images on the walls and in glass-covered display cases: old floor plans, Lolita, butterflies. The last room in the enfilade was reserved for education. A few old women sitting in chairs scattered over a large hall were intently watching a video of another old woman talking about the house. Nabokov’s sister had returned in the 1950’s, 40 years after fleeing, to see the house and the city, unlike her brother who never did. I stood in the corner, holding back an urge to scream: “Turn around and look at me, I am back too! Not quite 40 years but longer than Ulysses and Rip Van Winkle. Ask me, if you want to know what it feels like!” A fancy of a Rip Van Winkle return apparently gripped Nabokov, too. He described such a time traveler in The Gift. This character left St. Petersburg in 1836 and sailed to Boston, of all places. After years of adventures in the New World he came back to the old one in 1858. Thanks to the absence of the Internet as an information source, this fellow was amply taken advantage of by his friends and relatives. For instance, when asked about Pushkin, they assured him that Pushkin’s new poem had just come out the other day, and indeed, pointed out the great poet to him at a theater performance. Needless to say, the real Pushkin was killed in a duel in 1837. My own images of return for the first ten years after departure came invariably in the form of a nightmare: I am back and cannot leave again for some unclear Kafkaesque reason. Maybe I am late for the plane, maybe something is wrong with my papers, maybe I just forgot the way to the airport, or even worse: I can go, but my son has to stay, and it’s impossible to wrest him away from his keepers. I was apparently not alone: Mikhail Baryshnikov’s film White Nights is his version of just such a dream. There is a World Wide Web now, but even that won’t make you fully prepared for a real-life comeback.

Pictures on the walls showed other parts of the house suggesting that much of the beautiful and historic still remained. Having paid 100 rubles for the privilege of snapping photos of carved and plastered surfaces, I went back to the main staircase. A wide flight of stairs with an oak handrail, undoubtedly the one little Vladimir used for fast sliding descents, opened up invitingly. I raised my foot, to make the first step up. “Stop, man, where are you going?  It’s forbidden to go upstairs!” – rose a cry from a dark corner by the museum entrance door. A featureless female Cerberus typical of the Soviet times sitting at a non-descript desk reined me in. “But why is it forbidden?” I tried to argue. “How can you even ask such a question? Forbidden means forbidden!” she yelled, overcome with indignation at such insolent stupidity. Now it was my turn to blow up, something I had resisted from the moment I had stepped off the plane to start this surreal whirl in the past. “I have come back after 25 years of absence, and nothing, but nothing has changed! It’s the same ‘forbidden – no questions asked’ as before,” I raised my voice uncharacteristically. Her reaction surprised me. “Yes, it has changed,” she suddenly said sounding offended. “No it hasn’t – Yes, it has,” we continued the back and forth for a while. “I want to take pictures of Nabokov’s sights,” I interjected. “You have to pay for taking pictures,” she cut me off triumphantly. “I just paid 100 rubles for exactly that.” She was taken aback for a moment, but quickly recovered: “You need a guide to go there.” “Where can I get one?” “Go back to the museum and ask,” she mumbled in a deflated voice, unaccustomed to non-Russian persistence in someone who might pass for a Russian. She was right: something had changed, at least up to a point. The girl at the museum box-office, who took my 100 rubles for the photo privileges just five minutes earlier, agreed to be my chaperone at once. As we passed the guardian’s desk heading to the stairs, I could hear residual grumbling puffs as if from a hot samovar splashing water, powerless now to stop me thanks to my new official protection.

The staircase was magnificent. Cast-iron railings with elegant ornaments capped with smooth oak, powder-blue walls accented with white trim, a molded ceiling proudly supporting a bronze and crystal chandelier, and finally stained-glass windows suitable for a brand-name European cathedral, but depicting a cheerful flower arrangement. I knew that one of the rooms on the second floor had a special meaning for Nabokov’s childhood. From an oriel in his mother’s boudoir he would watch snowflakes reluctantly float down and imagined himself drifting up as if the “jutting enclosure” was a balloon. A day in late May in St. Petersburg, although quite cold, failed to produce snow swirls for my easy reverie, hence I was prepared to imagine the snowflakes. The rest I wanted to see. Yet this was beyond the powers of even my blonde Virgil. “You know,” she said apologetically, “there is a newspaper publishing office on this floor. The newspaper will give up the ghost pretty soon, I am sure, but the editor in chief’s office is in that same room with a view, and he is enjoying it while it lasts. I can’t take you there.”

I walked out on the street. The young Nabokov’s daily morning thrill was the discovery of which delivery vehicle and chauffeur, Volkov on a gray Benz or Pirogov on a black Wolseley, would be designated to take him to school. Here, his memories turned to heavy snowfalls and the relative ease with which they could be navigated in St. Petersburg, compared, again, to Boston. He attributed St. Petersburg’s advantage to the geometry of its streets and the physics of the snow clouds. He claimed it never took him more than 15 minutes to get to his progressive private school across the street from my wife’s childhood communal flat, the school so famous, that he was not even the undisputed most illustrious alumnus, contending for this honor with Osip Mandelstam, who graduated ten years earlier. He described this drive in great detail, past the embassies, across the square and beyond. I can’t verify his snow theory: I never rode to school in a car, much less a Benz, and I do not often drive into Boston in a blizzard, preferring to stay in my rural suburb, but had I lived in his mansion, it would have also taken me 15 minutes to get to my high school – located in Raskolnikov’s backyard – on foot.

I traversed the square, turned right into Malaya Morskaya (Little Maritime), crossed it a block short of the palace of the Queen of Spades. The flat I rented was next door to a building where Pushkin used to drop by to see his younger friend Gogol. This street, too, had a different name for the duration of the Soviet epoch, Gogol’s, but now regained its old name that the two classics would have recognized. I turned the key, and as a ray of light cut through the dark lobby, felt a brief commotion by my feet. A grey cat scurried to hide under an old desk somebody had thrown away, on a rag put there by a kind soul. Like many in his country he still had to depend on occasional handouts for survival.