An Old Magician Named Nabokov Writes and Lives in Splendid Exile

The Montreux Palace Hotel was built in an age when it was thought that things would last. It is on the very shores of Switzerland’s Lake Geneva, its balconies and iron railings look across the water, its yellow-ocher awnings are a touch of color in the winter light. It is like a great sanitarium or museum. There are Bechstein pianos in the public rooms, a private silver collection, a Salon de Bridge. This is the hotel where the novelist Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov and his wife, Véra, live. They have been here for 14 years. One imagines his large and brooding reflection in the polished glass of bookcases near the reception desk where there are bound volumes of the Illustrated London News from the year 1849 to 1887, copies of Great Expectations, The Chess Games of Greco and a book called Things Past, by the Duchess of Sermoneta.

Though old, the hotel is marvelously kept up and, in certain portions, even modernized. Its business now is mainly conventions and, in the summer, tours, but there is still a thin migration of old clients, ancient couples and remnants of families who ask for certain rooms when they come and sometimes certain maids. For Nabokov, a man who rode as a child on the great European express trains, who had private tutors, estates, and inherited millions which disappeared in the Russian revolution, this is a return to his sources. It is a place to retire to, with Visconti’s Mahler and the long-dead figures of La Belle Epoque, Edward VII, d’Annunzio, the munitions kings, where all stroll by the lake and play miniature golf, home at last.

Nabokov, the Wizard of Montreux, the Russian émigré whom critics have called “our only living genius” and “the greatest living American novelist,” submits unwillingly to interviews. He prefers to conduct such exchanges on paper, writing and rewriting the answers “and some of the questions,” as he wryly says. From time to time, though, there is a visitor. “My husband does not ad lib,” Mrs. Nabokov warns on the telephone. She is his companion, guardian and acolyte. “He is very busy,” she adds.

His newest book, Tyrants Destroyed, has just been published, a collection of 13 stories. All but one were written in Russian between 1924 and 1939 and have been translated by Nabokov and his son, Dmitri. It is the penultimate work from a famous writer who seems busy bricking up any remaining chinks in the wall of his reputation. These recent books are not cornerstones, but they are, as always, beautifully written and call for frequent trips to the dictionary.

Nabokov deals in painterly colors, in marvelous details and tones. “…the last time I went swimming,” he writes in one story, “was not at Hungerburg but in the river Luga. Muzhiks came running out of the water, frog-legged, hands crossed over their private parts: pudor agrestis. Their teeth chattered as they pulled on their shirts over their wet bodies. Nice to go bathing in the river toward evening, especially under a warm rain that makes silent circles, each spreading and encroaching upon the next…” He is a visual, sensual writer calling forever upon the past.

Whereas American entertainers such as Truman Capote or Gore Vidal, taking advantage of their fluency and known charm, appear freely on television and give us a more or less close look at the splendors of literary life, Nabokov is a more elusive figure. It is not that he is less attractive, and his English is impeccable. But he is aloof by nature, a compulsive revisionist, and he feels for some reason insecure with nothing between himself and an audience except unrehearsed speech. When he gave his lectures on modern fiction at Cornell, he read them from cards typed by his wife. “My husband,” Véra Nabokov finally agrees, “will meet you at 4 o’clock in the green room next to the bar.”

The great chandeliers hang silent. The tables in the vast dining room overlooking the lake are spread with white cloth and silver as if for dinners before the war. At a little after 4, into the green room with the slow walk of aged people, the Nabokovs come. He wears a navy blue cardigan, a blue-checked shirt, gray slacks and a tie. His shoes have crepe soles. He is balding, with a fringe of gray hair. His hazel-green eyes are watering, oysterous, as he says. He is 75, born on the same day as Shakespeare, April 23. He is at the end of a great career, a career half-carved out of a language not his own. Only Conrad comes to mind as someone comparable (although Beckett, going the other way, has chosen to write in French), but Conrad, a native Pole, was a duffer in English compared to Nabokov’s prodigious command of an adopted tongue.

Véra has blue eyes and a birdlike profile. Her hair is completely white. They are soon to celebrate a wedding anniversary, “our golden,” Nabokov says. They met in Berlin and married there in 1925, but they might as easily have met in Leningrad. “We went to the same dancing class, didn’t we?” he asks. It has not been an unhappy marriage then? “That is the understatement of the century,” Nabokov smiles.

He is currently at work on the French translation of his novel Ada, which was published in 1969. It is the memoir of a philosopher, Van Veen, who fell in love when he was 14 with his cousin, Ada, then 12, who turns out to be his sister, and on and off their lives are entwined into old age, until he is 97 and she 95. “My fattest and most complex book,” he says. It is also his preferred masterpiece, although the public still chooses Lolita. This translation has already taken five years. Véra says that her husband is going over it line by line. “You see some terrible booboos,” he moans. Nabokov knows French and German perfectly and, with his revisions, is content about the translations in these languages. His son, Dmitri, was unfortunately too busy to check the Italian edition; the horrors of the Turkish and Japanese Nabokov does not like to imagine.

He regards himself as an American novelist, and from the comfort of Switzerland professes great love and nostalgia for the United States, where he spent 18 years, from 1940 to 1958. He prizes his U.S. passport, but here he remains, in the artistic vaults where rest such other international treasures as Chaplin and, when he was alive, Noel Coward, not to mention lesser pieces of bric-a-brac. He sips a gin and tonic. “It’s only an accident that we’re here,” he explains. His wife had been here in 1914 with her family, and when the two of them passed through in 1961, she said, why not stay for a while? They have been here ever since. “I introduced kidding into Montreux,” he says.

Novelists, like dictators, have long reigns. It is remarkable to think of Nabokov’s first book, a collection of love poems, appearing in his native Russia in 1914. Soon after, he and his family were forced to flee as a result of the Bolshevik uprising and the civil war. He took a degree at Cambridge and then settled in the émigré colony in Berlin. He wrote nine novels in Russian, beginning with Mary, in 1926, and including Glory, The Defense, and Laughter in the Dark. He had a certain reputation and a fully developed gift when he left for America in 1940 to lecture at Stanford. The war burst behind him.

Though his first novel written in English, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, in 1941, went almost unnoticed, and his next, Bend Sinister, made minor ripples, the stunning Speak, Memory, an autobiography of his lost youth, attracted respectful attention. It was during the last part of 10 years at Cornell that he cruised the American West during the summers in a 1952 Buick, looking for butterflies, his wife driving and Nabokov beside her making notes as they journeyed through Wyoming, Utah, Arizona, the motels, the drugstores, the small towns. The result was Lolita, which at first was rejected everywhere, like many classics, and had to be published by the Olympia Press in Paris (Nabokov later quarreled with and abandoned his publisher, Maurice Girodias). A tremendous success and later a film directed by Stanley Kubrick, the book made the writer famous. Nabokov coquettishly demurs. “I am not a famous writer,” he says, “Lolita was a famous little girl. You know what it is to be a famous writer in Montreux? An American woman comes up on the street and cries out, ‘Mr. Malamud! I’d know you anywhere.’ ”

He is a man of celebrated prejudices. He abhors student activists, hippies, confessions, heart-to-heart talks. He never gives autographs. On his list of detested writers are some of the most brilliant who have ever lived: Cervantes, Dostoevsky, Faulkner and Henry James. His opinions are probably the most conservative, among important writers, of any since Evelyn Waugh’s. “You will die in dreadful pain and complete isolation,” his fellow exile, the Nobel Prize winner Ivan Bunin, told him. Far from pain these days and beyond isolation, Nabokov is frequently mentioned for that same award. “After all, you’re the secret pride of Russia,” he has written of someone unmistakably like himself. He is far from being cold or uncaring. Outraged at the arrest last year of the writer Maramzin, he sent this as yet unpublished cable to the Soviet writers’ union: “Am appalled to learn that yet another writer martyred just for being a writer. Maramzin’s immediate release indispensable to prevent an atrocious new crime.” The answer was silence.

Last year Nabokov published Look at the Harlequins!, his 37th book. It is the chronicle of a Russian émigré writer named Vadim Vadimych whose life, though he had four devastating wives, has many aspects that fascinate by their clear similarity to the life of Vladimir Vladimirovich. The typical Nabokovian fare is here in abundance, clever games of words, sly jokes, lofty knowledge, all as written by a “scornful and austere author, whose homework in Paris had never received its due.” It is probably one of the final steps toward a goal that so many lesser writers have striven to achieve: Nabokov has joined the current of history not by rushing to take part in political actions or appearing in the news but by quietly working for decades, a lifetime, until his voice seems as loud as the detested Stalin’s, almost as loud as the lies. Deprived of his own land, of his language, he has conquered something greater. As his aunt in Harlequins! told young Vadim, “Play! Invent the world! Invent reality!” Nabokov has done that. He has won.

“I get up at 6 o’clock,” he says. He dabs at his eyes. “I work until 9. Then we have breakfast together. Then I take a bath. Perhaps an hour’s work afterward. A walk, and then a delicious siesta for about two-and-a-half hours. And then three hours of work in the afternoon. In the summer we hunt butterflies.” They have a cook who comes to their apartment, or Véra does the cooking. “We do not attach too much importance to food or wine.” His favorite dish is bacon and eggs. They see no movies. They own no TV.

They have very few friends in Montreux, he admits. They prefer it that way. They never entertain. He doesn’t need friends who read books; rather, he likes bright people, “people who understand jokes.” Véra doesn’t laugh, he says resignedly. “She is married to one of the great clowns of all time, but she never laughs.”

The light is fading, there is no one else in the room or the room beyond. The hotel has many mirrors, some of them on doors, so it is like a house of illusion, part vision, part reflection, and rich with dreams.

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