Post by Alex Milman Post by David Tenner
From *Twentieth Century Russian Poetry: Silver and Steel: An
"When Bella Akhmadulina visited Nabokov in Switzerland not long before
his death, he told her: 'It's a pity I didn't stay in Russia, that I
left...' Nabokov's wife shook her head and replied: 'But they would
have surely rotted you away in the camps. Isn't that right, Bella?'
Suddenly Nabokov shook his head. 'Who knows, maybe I would have
survived even. But then later I would have become a totally different
writer and, perhaps, a much better one...'"
"Different", definitely. 'Lolita' would be impossible. Then, goes his
biography: having secretary of the Russian Provisional Government as a
father definitely was not the best recipe for survival. Of course, there
would be a chance involving public denouncing of his family and becoming
a loudmouthed "revolutionary writer" but that breed was always in danger
of barking too loudly and on a wrong tree. Being 18 in 1917, he was
neither famous (as some of the survivors) nor connected abroad (which
probably saved Korney Chukovsky) so he would have to make it on his own
(like Bulgakov who narrowly survived).
Another option would be to return as a famous writer but here, again,
was a risk: some of those did fantastically well like A. Tolstoy but
quite a few had been executed in 1937. To prosper within this scenario
he'd have to become a complete a-hole (like "Aleshka") AND/OR to have
valuable contacts abroad (as Erenburg).
In both cases subjects of his writings would be quite different and in
the 1st scenario the same goes for their quality.
He actually wrote a poem about his being executed in Russia, though he
warned against misinterpretations (in a characteristically Nabokovian
On certain nights as soon as I lie down
my bed starts drifting into Russia,
and presently I'm led to a ravine,
to a ravine led to be killed.
I wake--and in the darkness, from a chair
where watch and matches lie,
into my eyes, like a gun's steadfast muzzle,
the glowing dial stares.
With both hands shielding breast and neck--
now any instant it will blast!--
I dare not turn my gaze away
from that disk of dull fire.
The watch's ticking comes in contact
with frozen consciousness;
the fortunate protection
of my exile I repossess.
But how you would have wished, my heart,
that *thus* it all had really been:
Russia, the stars, the night of execution
and full of racemosas the ravine!
Translated by Vladimir Nabokov
Lines 17-20. Freudians have found here a 'death wish,' and Marxists, no
less grotesquely, 'the expiation of feudal guilt.' I can assure both
groups that the exclamation in this stanza is wholly rhetorical, a trick
of style, a deliberately planted surprise, not unlike underpromotion in a
chess problem. [V.N.]
'Racemosa' is the name I use for the Russian cheryomuba, the 'racemose
old-world bird cherry,' Padus racemosa Schneider (see my commentary to
Eugene Onegin, vol. 3, p. 11). [V.N.]
On the subject of emigration, btw, one thing that occurred to me: If
Gumilyov had emigrated, he might still be writing poems in the 1960's or
even the 1970's...