Thursday, April 22, 2010

Nabokov and Lenin

Two Vladimirs

My old (since 1917) quarrel with the Soviet dictatorship is wholly unrelated to any question of property. My contempt for the émigré who “hates the Reds” because they “stole” his money and land is complete. The nostalgia I have been cherishing all these years is a hypertrophied sense of lost childhood, not sorrow for lost banknotes…:
- Vladimir Nabokov, Speak Memory

Vladimir Nabokov was born on this day in 1899, and Vladimir Lenin was born on this day in 1870. Historically speaking, the two cross paths in St. Petersburg in 1917: as Lenin returned from exile after the first Bolshevik uprising forced the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II, the Nabokovs, as one of those very wealthy and privileged families which the revolutionaries had in their sights, were packing to leave the city and the country. Lenin’s “April Theses” advocated the confiscation of all landed estates, the land to be transformed into model farms run by the local Soviets of Agricultural Labourers’ and Peasants’ Deputies. Among the estates that the Nabokovs gave up is one where the author had spent much time growing up, and that he had inherited (along with two million dollars) from his Uncle Ruka just the previous year — two thousand acres on the Oredezh River, with a mansion (photo below) designed by Rastelli, architect of the Tsar’s Winter Palace.

Critics call Vladimir Nabokov a cosmopolitan writer, while he himself used to say “My head speaks English, my heart speaks Russian and my ear speaks French”. One way or another, his creation is a world-wide heritage. The best part of Nabokov’s writing career geographically indeed belonged to the United States and Western Europe, but it started and was formed in Saint-Petersburg and its essential inspiration had always been his nostalgia for the city of his youth. In Speak, Memory, ranked #8 on Modern Library’s list of Top 100 Non-Fiction books, Nabokov fondly describes the estate where he grew up and vividly recalls his time there: “With a sharp and merry blast from the whistle that was part of my first sailor suit, my childhood calls me back….” But he also addresses a warning to “the particular idiot who, because he lost a fortune in some crash, thinks he understands me”:

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