In a poem called “Easter” published just a few weeks after this disaster, the twenty-two-year-old Nabokov interprets the arrival of spring as portending some kind of resurrection of his father: “Rise again,” each “golden thaw-drop” seems to sing, “blossom”; “you are in this refrain,/you’re in this splendor, you’re alive!…” Some forty years later he would allude to the ghastly manner of his father’s demise in a more characteristically Nabokovian way: the day on which Pale Fire’s John Shade is killed by mistake in another botched assassination attempt is July 21, Nabokov senior’s birthday.
V.D. Nabokov was not the only member of the family to fall victim to the chaos of the times. Vladimir’s brother Sergey Nabokov was one year younger than him, but of a very different temperament; shy, stuttering, gay, musically gifted, a Catholic convert, Sergey spent much of his exile in Paris, where he got to know Diaghilev, Jean Cocteau, Gertrude Stein, and Pavel Tchelitchew, with whom he shared an apartment for a while. His long-term partner was a wealthy Austrian called Hermann Thieme. While the rise of the Nazis drove Vladimir, whose wife Véra was Jewish, to embark for America with their young son Dimitri in May 1940, shortly before the fall of Paris, Sergey and Hermann Thieme responded, somewhat bizarrely, by moving east to Berlin. There they were arrested for homosexual offenses; Hermann was freed but forced to join the German army in Africa, while Sergey spent five months in jail. On his release he moved to Prague, where he set about openly denouncing the Nazis and Hitler; he was soon informed upon, arrested again, and in the spring of 1944 dispatched to Neuengamme concentration camp, on the outskirts of Hamburg. He did well there, in that he lasted ten months, whereas the average life expectancy was twelve weeks. Sergey was forty-four when he died, the age of Pale Fire’s Charles Kinbote, another awkward homosexual exile, who is also hounded and harried, or so he’d have us believe, by a ruthless totalitarian regime that has come violently to power.
Why, Andrea Pitzer asks in her provocatively titled The Secret History of Vladimir Nabokov, did the great novelist allude only in such oblique, ludic terms both to his own personal losses and to the historical cataclysms that caused them? Cataclysms that also meant that he could never return to a country he missed acutely, and forced upon him a precarious émigré life in England, Germany, Czechoslovakia, France, and then America, where at last he struck gold with Lolita, so much gold indeed that he was able to spend the last fifteen years of his life in the luxurious Montreux Palace Hotel in Switzerland.
There are numerous ways of approaching this question. The most reassuring response might pivot around Nabokov’s famous definition of his art in his afterword to the all-conquering Lolita, which has steadily sold at the average rate of a million copies a year, and is surely the most indisputably canonical novel in English of the postwar era:
For me a work of fiction exists only insofar as it affords me what I shall bluntly call aesthetic bliss, that is a sense of being somehow, somewhere, connected with other states of being where art (curiosity, tenderness, kindness, ecstasy) is the norm. There are not many such books. All the rest is either topical trash or what some call the Literature of Ideas, which very often is topical trash….Any attempt to write directly about political events or the “sweep of history,” to borrow a phrase from the jacket copy of any number of blockbuster epics, will be mired in the cliché and sentiment that Nabokov deplored in novels such as Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago (one of his many bêtes noires); the artist’s truest and most valuable way of resisting totalitarian modes of thought is to assert his or her independence as thoroughly and, in Nabokov’s case, as spectacularly as possible. He conceived of writing as a chess match with a razor-keen opponent always looking to predict his next move, and joy and triumph lay in outwitting that reader’s assumptions, and thereby stimulating “curiosity, tenderness, kindness, ecstasy.”