A SUNDAY TRAIN from Zurich hits the national stereotypes on the nose. The Swiss conductors are grumpy, the cars are dirty and stuffy, and the passengers look as if they’d been lifted from a Dostoyevsky novel. All the way to Lausanne I observed a drunken gentleman and his tattered lady friend, both of whom spoke French with a drawly Geneva slowness, sip Belgian ale while furiously discussing actresses from glossy magazines. They were the spitting images of Katerina Ivanovna and Marmeladov from Crime and Punishment. My favorite Russian exile, the butterfly devotee who questioned genetic memory, called Dostoyevsky a “a genius of spiritual morbidity […] not a great writer in the sense Tolstoy, Pushkin and Chekhov are.”
Dozing off for about half an hour, I woke up with the thought that the Swiss landscape in the window resembled Amish Country in Pennsylvania, except that it lacked knolly meadows dotted with silos. An old farmhouse sailed by; mesh orange sacks with onions crowded the gate; Alpine foothills hung on the horizon like wooly berets. When the mountains spread across the whole skyline, my fellow traveler, a young Swiss Italian from Lugano, suddenly got a nosebleed. Pressing a handkerchief to his face with one hand, he gesticulated with the other, now turning to me, now to the landscape, while repeating in English: “How beautiful!”
Let me backtrack and explain: in December 2011, I had stopped in Switzerland on my way to Crimea, where I planned to research how the mass murder of Jews in November–December 1941 was carried out and how its aftermath was witnessed. Crimea was then still in Ukraine, and from Zurich, one flew to Kyiv and on to Simferopol. And so I got off in Zurich and took a train to Montreux in order to visit Dmitri Nabokov — the only son and heir of Vladimir Nabokov and Véra Nabokov (née Slonim). I wanted to interview Dmitri in connection with a book I have been writing for many years; in fact, the book has been writing itself and resisting closure. As I traveled to Montreux for a two-day visit, I read the Swiss landscape, regarded the other passengers, while also thinking of Crimea, where almost one hundred years earlier the young Vladimir Nabokov had said goodbye to Russia. In Lausanne, I switched to a local train that slides along Lac Léman past Vevey to Montreux, and then continues diagonally to Geneva.
It had been 10 years since my last visit to Montreux. Back then, in late November 2002, my wife and I arrived in a blizzard on the evening express from Milan. This time, the weather was exceptional: transparent, sunny, windless. On such days Vladimir Nabokov, who had returned to Europe on the wings of Lolita’s stardom and lived in Montreux from 1961 until his death in 1977, liked to stroll on the promenade with a notepad in hand and a bundle of newspapers folded under his arm like a thermometer of history. On my previous visit, the bronze monument to the writer who was tired of exilic fame still stood in the lobby of the Palace Hotel, where elderly Yugoslav porters remembered the real-life Nabokov — and for a good tip explained to visitors how to find the rooms on the top floor that V. and V. had once occupied. From that floor, at the sunset hour, figures of the past and future stand so clearly on life’s chessboard. Not much has changed in Montreux, except that they had given the facades a facelift, gilded the hotels’ cords and shoulder bands, and moved the bronze writer from the hotel lobby to the front lawn. The potbellied mandarin now spends his days outdoors, eyes downcast and turned away from his compatriots — Ella Fitzgerald, B. B. King, and Ray Charles.
In the eyes of historians, this chocolate-box town on Lac Léman represents the signing of the Montreux Convention of 1936 through which Soviet Russia, Turkey, Bulgaria, and other nations sought to regulate the status of Black Sea straits. To most of its visitors Montreux is, above all, a place of music and musicians — jazz, blues, and classic rock. A monumental Freddie Mercury stands on the lakefront, posing as a tap dancer and greeting the tourists. But for me, Montreux has always been Nabokov’s town, or, to be precise, the town of the Nabokov triad — Vladimir, Véra, and Dmitri …
Two hours remained until my appointed meeting with Dmitri. I Skyped with my wife and daughters, rested a bit in my room, changed clothes. From a café on the promenade, I watched the seething crowd, then felt an urge to join the Sunday flâneurs. Before Christmas, locals flock to Montreux from the nearby towns to soak in the festive atmosphere and do their holiday shopping. On the lawn, pressed between the promenade and Montreux’s main thoroughfare, there was a display of sculptures made from evergreen shrubs. A whole menagerie — hares, ponies, and other wondrous creatures. Nabokov would have been able to make them out from his windows in the Palace Hotel. All sorts of locally produced foods and souvenirs (beer mugs, leather accessories, knitted hats) were boisterously sold in covered stalls. As purple dusk descended on the lake, I wondered if Nabokov observed from his hotel apartment the famous casino fire in December 1971 of which Deep Purple sang.
On the afternoon of December 11, 2011, I arrived at Dmitri Nabokov’s home. This was at his new apartment on the first floor of a modern building in the Chernex area of Montreux, not far from the old apartment on Chemin de la Caudraz, which had originally been intended for Véra Nabokov and became Dmitri’s place. I hadn’t seen him for a decade. We had been corresponding, exchanging birthday and holiday greetings, discussing archival matters. The last time I had seen him at the old apartment, he had treated me to an abundant Italian lunch served with good red wine and followed by dolci and Dmitri’s favorite pear grappa. He was already wheelchair-bound but spoke with great passion of his motorboat in West Palm Beach and of getting back to driving his Ferrari. Before Dmitri’s illness, a helicopter used to pick him up in ski gear and transport him to the slopes. Memory’s train took me back to the 1990s when Dmitri sang from Boris Godunov at a festival and stood outside his father’s old Cornell office dressed in a T-shirt with the words POLITICALLY INCORRECT across his athletic chest …
I walked around Dmitri Nabokov’s new abode. It was a Martian edifice built from what looked like cold shiny silver. The list of residents, posted next to the intercom in the foyer, included Russian names. One last name hinted at the author of “Lady with a Lapdog,” from whom Vladimir Nabokov learned the art of capturing the fragility of love against the backdrop of bourgeois prosperity. Dmitri’s aide opened the door. A slender woman of about 50 dressed in black and wearing anxiety on her face, she showed me to the “salon” and said that the “monsieur” would join me shortly. I examined a glass cabinet loaded with Ferrari models and race prizes. A helicopter had landed on top of the cabinet, and a speedboat sat on top of the buffet. I saw two photographs on the wall above the sofa. One was of Dmitri Nabokov’s parents, suntanned, boundlessly happy; the year was 1966, the peak of the writer’s fame and acclaim. The other photo was from Véra Nabokov’s Nansen refugee passport. A double picture, to be precise. Next to Véra’s own refined face was the face of a handsome boy holding a stuffed animal — one could only see the sharp ears, the top of the muzzle, and the black bead of the creature’s left eye. In May 1940, as the German troops were advancing toward Paris, Vladimir Nabokov and his Jewish wife and son sailed to New York from France on the SS Champlain, which had been chartered by the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society to carry wartime refugees to safety. What awaited Véra and Dmitri in France had Vladimir not rescued them? Vel’ d’Hiv and deportations, survival in Vichy France and more roundups and deportations? One can understand why Nabokov called the wartime American years his happiest even as the enemy stood at his homeland’s gates and European Jewry was being decimated …
I heard screeching and rumbling, and Dmitri Nabokov rode into the living room. Even in his wheelchair he looked like a giant. Clad in a pale pink polo shirt and shorts, he towered over the household items, books, and electric piano. I kissed his yellow-saffron cheek, then removed a present from my backpack — a black scarf with red and gray stripes. Dmitri pressed the scarf to his neck, then said in his aristocratically accented and just slightly affected Russian: “It’s hard to select what a person needs.” It took me a while to set up my iPad, which had to be propped up with a dozen heavy dictionaries. Finally Dmitri emerged on the screen. I pressed “record” and we started our working interview.
“How should we do it, in Russian or English?” I asked.
“As you like,” Dmitri replied, using the familiar ty pronoun. “In Italian, in French…”
We spoke for over two hours, mainly about his parents and their marriage, about his mother’s Jewishness, his childhood and religious upbringing, the peripeties of émigré living, and the flight from Europe. Then we turned to his wartime and postwar American childhood. A half-Jewish boy who looked more and more Semitic to a keen phenotypist, Dmitri got more than a taste, and not only at St. Mark’s School, of Anglo-Saxon upper-class prejudice. He recalled how in the 1940s and early ’50s while planning cross-country trips, he and his parents encountered coded messages: “Especially in the New Yorker there were ads by more or less pretentious […] hotels […] we were always both annoyed and amused by an ad that would say ‘churches nearby,’ that was a classic phrase.” We kept circling back to his parents’ marriage and his mother’s Jewish background. Dmitri spoke adoringly of his mother’s deep knowledge of things Jewish, “even though she was never a professional Jew.” Toward the end of my visit, as we transitioned to lighter topics and superbly fresh pastries, Dmitri reflected on his operatic career (he had debuted in La bohème at La Scala with Pavarotti) and of the art of translation (L’Incantatore, his Italian translation of his father’s The Enchanter, had just received a prize).
The following morning, in a kind of trance, I walked several kilometers along the lake’s shore, as if proving to myself that Nabokov père was right, that memory was indestructible, and that space always vanquished time. It was cloudy, drizzly, dank — a typical December day in Montreux. From time to time, through the cloak of rain and fog, I could make out yachts in blue coverlets. Hooded fishermen shivered and puffed on their cigarettes. I saw the Byronic Chillon Castle, in which the Russian mind refuses to drop the “l.” A public bus took me to the center of Montreux, and thence, led by memory’s navigator, I walked to my destination. A mosaic staircase led up to an observation point and the entrance to Cimetière de Clarens. I placed stones on the grave of the writer and his wife and contemplated the subject of my next conversation with their son. “Next time, I’ll bring the girls,” I was thinking. By then they’ll be teenagers and perhaps will have even read my favorite Nabokov novels, Glory and Pnin. Only some of the details of the cityscape will have changed. But the lake — the lake that so soothes the eye — will remain, as will the promenade where Tolstoy, Tchaikovsky, and Stravinsky strolled, and the contours of the mountains, kneeling on the lake’s surface …
Dmitri Nabokov died on February 22, 2012. I learned of his passing from Facebook, and at first I thought it was some crude mystification. I sat and stared at the laptop’s screen, peering at the photographs I had taken just two months earlier in which he looked so intellectually alive, and so much like both of his parents — both Russian and Jewish. Nature didn’t skip the proverbial generation, and Dmitri Nabokov inherited plenty of gifts from his remarkable parents. As I recalled Dmitri’s aristocratic face, I sought to make out a stamp of death. Instead I saw the lake on a rainy day — a sunken rowboat, a love letter tossed on the steps of the embankment, a mournful swan. Two months later, an American colleague sent me a new photograph of the Nabokov family grave.
All three of them now rest together in Montreux, not far from the graves of Sydney Chaplin and his wife Henriette and Oskar Kokoschka and his wife Olga. On the matzeva’s grayish-purple granite, below the names of Vladimir and Véra Nabokov, a stonecutter had incised, for eternity, the name of their devoted son Dmitri, opera singer, car racer, and literary translator.
Maxim D. Shrayer is the author of Waiting for America: A Story of Emigration and the editor of Voices of Jewish-Russian Literature. His book A Russian Immigrant: Three Novellas is forthcoming. Shrayer teaches literature and Jewish studies at Boston College. Follow him at @MaximDShrayer.