How have you fared in our game of Reading Roulette? If you haven’t been bested by Russia’s Queen of Horror or by the Boccaccio of the late Soviet Union, we challenge you to round three in our series of contemporary Russian literature.
This month we bring you Igor Sakhnovsky, a novelist with a fine sense of visual beauty, personal eccentricity, and curious ephemera. His forthcoming book, A Strong Sense of Saturday, is a collection of real stories told by unreliable narrators. The story below is the cautionary tale of a woman smitten with the embodiment of her own, learned biases. That the object of her enchantment is none other than Vera Nabokov, the wife and muse of Vladimir Nabokov, makes the tale doubly conflicted. Because, as Nabokov’s biographer, Stacy Schiff, once confessed of her subject: “the disavowals were the story. I had to look elsewhere for the truth.”
For any storyteller who ever believed that an invitation to “visit the author at home“ was a slam-dunk, read on. And don't miss our interview with Sakhnovsky that follows the story, in which we discuss Facebook photos, poetry, and the joy of travel.
Once again, TMN’s Reading Roulette is being sponsored by Powells.com. This Friday, we’ll randomly select two people from everyone who’s shared this article on Twitter by that point (and name-checked TMN and Powell’s) and award them a $25 Powell’s gift card.
A Family of Monsters (1961)
From Read Russia!: An Anthology of New Voices, published by Read Russia Inc. (New York: 2012). Used by permission. Translated by Hugh Aplin.
If anyone hasn’t yet given up wanting to learn what love is, I’ll tell you now. Love is a mafia-style pact: two against everyone else. It’s this little double fortress, the incestuous conspiracy of two bodies and souls against the rest of the world. Almost all other versions of amorous relationships are only attempts at imitation, surrogate alliances entered into to find salvation from solitude, to satisfy lust, cupidity, or some practical need. Well, or else because “it’s what people do.”
My name is Filippa Rolf. I was 36 that January when, perhaps too intrigued and excited by the coming meeting, I set off for the South of France, to Nice, for the sake of some genteel tea-drinking and a brief acquaintanceship with that strange couple, the Hog and his wife.
I’ll explain at once to avoid misunderstandings. It was I myself who mentally, not to his face, christened him the Hog. Then later on I called him that to his face too, but again mentally, to myself.
Some five years before, the Hog had published a sensational novel about the love of a certain degenerate for his underage stepdaughter, after which he had rapidly become a worldwide celebrity, a piquant delicacy for photojournalists and newsmen of various countries. The press now called him coquettishly “Mr. Baby.” The predictably infectious hullabaloo with its faint sticky smell of scandal had even rumbled as far as my own northern backwater.
I gathered an ephemeral little pile of newspaper cuttings which could only, at the very most, have served to flutter to the author by the postal route, gratify his vanity and soil his fingers with typographic lead. And this is what I did: found the address with no great effort and sent those good-for-nothing cuttings to the Hog, accompanied by a laconic letter from the person of a well-informed, interested female reader.
I wasn’t reckoning on a reply and was in no particular need of one.
It was at just that time that I had the bust-up with my crazy Hilda. She bombarded me with tearful epistles in the style of a jilted lover, and I replied: “Stop your womanish hysterics. Don’t behave as if you’re dealing with your latest stud.” At the same time I lazily put an end by letter to my arguments with her aristocratic Mummy, who had long regarded me as complete and utter vice, or else somebody’s grave medical error.
So that was the unattractive background against which the post suddenly presented me with an old-fashioned Christmas card bearing a French stamp and cursive, but legible handwriting. I started reading from the end: “...If you find yourself on the Riviera, we shall be pleased to have you visit us.”
Well, it wasn’t the Hog himself who had written, of course, it was his better half (I wonder what she looks like?): “My husband is sincerely grateful for the selection of publications about him...” The return address was number 57 on the Promenade des Anglais. Well I never, what a generous surprise.
I knew that this strange, very private couple was an attraction for very many people. And too many would have liked to be in my shoes: receiving such an invitation to penetrate this impregnable family fortress, to see it from within. However, I didn’t permit myself to show impatience and dialed their number only on the following day.
I was answered by a woman’s unexpectedly young voice: “When did you arrive? Yesterday?! But you’ve lost half a day! We expect you in an hour, then.”
Number 57 was two steps away from the Hotel Negresco and was a yellow, dilapidated villa of the Victorian age with large windows and a smart way out to the sea. So this was what our reclusive émigrés had chosen. A winter refuge on the Côte d’Azur.
I arrived at precisely four o’clock in the afternoon. The Hog himself opened the door to me. He looked exactly as I had imagined him: a little younger than his rightful 61; one was struck by his impeccable grooming, the perfect shaving of his cheeks, now beginning to sag, the mentorial shine of his receding hairline. His innate lordliness of manner and patrician fastidiousness he masked with a slightly forced, mischievous unconstraint, which might at any moment have been cast off without the least sympathy for his unfortunate, unpalatable vis-à-vis.
Leading me into the spacious drawing room and sitting me down in an armchair, he began to talk as though we were interlocutors who knew one another of old and were able to return at last to some briefly interrupted chitchat:
“There was something I wanted to ask you...”
The drawing room was sunny and cool.
“Would you like a drink? Now what was it I wanted to ask?...Oh, yes, by the way. Do you know the secret of blue wine? Where the blue color comes from, what the trick is?”
I hadn’t yet managed to find a single word in response, when directly in front of me, at a deceptively safe distance, rendered doubly by an antique mirror and the slanting rectangle of the winter sun, there appeared a very thin, tall woman of rare beauty. I even seemed to see in that first instant something like luminescence around her head. But after I had made out the dazzling streak of gray above the smooth girlish forehead, still the lighting effect wouldn’t disappear—this woman was all aglow. She said: “How are you?” and, stunned, I was able only to smile and nod.
With the appearance of his spouse, the Hog didn’t stop pestering me with questions.
So what do we know about blue wine?
Am I aware that his wife is Jewish?
Do I realize that all letters and numbers have a color?
Isn’t it true that “A” is radically black and shines like black lacquer?
It’s a pity you haven’t noticed how saddened I am by the poor girl’s difficult lot, aggravated by the criminal urges of the hero, an utterly immoral, decadent fellow who himself provided his own punishment.
Well, yes, now I have to prove that I’m not completely oligophrenic. For the Hog, these questions are probably like signal passwords, a sort of set of master keys to another person’s soul.
The wine is blue on account of juniper berries.
I didn’t know she’s Jewish, no. Is that categorically important?
And how can it be lacquer-black, if “A” is red like a fuchsia, fading into a shamed neon underside?
He arched his brows and did a little flattered coughing into his fist. It seemed as if I could relax for a little while. I had managed to get through the first round.
But it took some effort for me to restrain myself and not say: “Ah, what a splendid examination, in a moment I’m going to be sick! If you’re so fond of playing quiz games, why don’t you tell me, damn it, what flaming right you had to make a young girl act as a plaything for a lustful degenerate? It’s thanks to you, you know, that an entire army of such monsters now start salivating, unable to take their eyes off a child’s nakedness.”
More likely than not, the Hog would have become ennuied and tense and would have replied with multitoned juridical pathos: “It’s a pity you haven’t noticed how saddened I am by the poor girl’s difficult lot, aggravated by the criminal urges of the hero, an utterly immoral, decadent fellow who himself provided his own punishment.”
And after a genteel dialogue of this sort I would have been turned out with a fanfare.
Instead I asked: “What are you writing now?” and heard out an affected speech about prose being in great need of poetry, for which reason he had just begun composing a narrative poem (I don’t remember exactly, but I think the title “Pale Fire” was mentioned). And if I was going to be in Nice long enough (At least a fortnight? Splendid!) he would be able to read me something.
“There are some quite good bits in it. Aren’t there, Vera?”
Vera did not fail to confirm it.
I then thought: “If you’re the Hog’s wife, then that’s your fate—to spend your whole life confirming and admiring.” However, I underestimated her. Simply, I hadn’t yet realized who it was I had met that day.
I once read something written by a clever Englishman: “The one way of getting to know someone is to fall hopelessly in love with them.” That is precisely how it was soon to be with me.
They complained to me confidingly that the cook had fallen ill, so they needed to think where to go for dinner, and on that would depend what could be worn.
I really wanted to say something sarcastic about those unfortunate people whose plans for life and outward appearance depend on the health of their cook. But I said, “It’s a shame I’m not able to invite you anywhere at the moment.”
Vera replied at once, “Oh, don’t worry! It’s for such situations we have a man.”
This was a powerful statement and I liked the way it was put: not them together, not a pair of conspiratorial spouses plus a guest, invited out of charity, but she and I, two women, plus a man, useful in some situations.
The man was sent to dress for a restaurant and then returned in a dark suit and bright yellow shoes, but on hearing just one indignant cry: “Volodya!” (with an imperious emphasis on the letter “l”—”Vollodya”), he dragged himself back again to change into black ones.
Vera enfolded herself in a fur wrap which really suited her, and which would have looked even better had it not been for the explanatory comment: “It was a gift from my husband.”
The restaurant at the Hotel Negresco seemed to me indecently pompous, as did the hotel itself. Over dinner the Hog grew very cheerful. He evidently already accepted me fully as one of his own, if he considered it necessary to inform me, for example, that he hated any seafood other than fish. Who in the world has any interest in that, damn it! Then he began reminiscing emotionally about how, when still a very little boy, at the age of five or six, he used to run around this hotel, beneath the light dome and cut-glass chandelier in the lobby, over its marble and carpets. Vera listened patiently through to the end of this memoir and then articulated very clearly: “Vollodya. Unfortunately. As far as I’m aware. When you were a little boy, the Hotel Negresco did not exist. It appeared somewhat later.”
For those words I was ready to smother her with kisses.
We returned to their temporary home, to the yellow villa, where in the evening light the anonymous portraits in heavy, dull frames and the furniture laying claim to cohabitation with one of the kings Louis had a particularly hopeless air.
I hinted a couple of times that I was ready to take my leave, but my host and hostess were not even considering showing me out, and were for some reason acutely interested in everything concerning me and my future. Am I intending, say, to keep on living in Sweden, or would I like a change of country? If I’m serious about writing and publishing poetry, isn’t it worth my while moving to America? There are far more readers there, and so greater prospects for writers too. It all sounded naïve somehow; I kept quiet and politely drank the lemon tea that Vera brewed. They both got carried away with the idea of my crossing the ocean to go to Harvard or Columbia University. They were ready to write a reference there and then and to make representations on my behalf.
It was past midnight when my new protectors roused themselves and rushed to see me home in spite of my objection: “I’m already old enough to get there by myself.”
“It doesn’t matter how old you are,” said Vera. “The important thing is how old you now look.”
As we walked through the nocturnal streets, they continued to educate and edify me. The next day, in their view, I ought to choose a nearer and better hotel. This hotel, for instance, The Marina—it’s simply wonderful! “Vera, how can you be so certain, have you stayed here?” “No, we haven’t. But look for yourself, the little palm trees arranged at the entrance, they’re simply little darlings!” Had it been anyone else in her place, I would at once have ridiculed both those darling palms and the sugary girlish rapture.
But her smile was so dazzling, and such was the way she gazed into my eyes that I felt only joy within me.
There seemed to be no topic that the spouses could not have discussed with all thoroughness in my presence. Imagine, Stanley Kubrick, when he was filming the bedroom scene with Humbert and Charlotte, had completely disregarded Volodya’s screenplay. Dreadful! His son, Dmitry, is complaining from Milan that he has a sore throat and can’t sing. It’s not clear when the cook will be better. That really is dreadful. The Promenade des Anglais has been modernized to the point where it is utterly ugly. That’s a nightmare too. Incidentally, we’re so fond of those nice Alfa Romeo cars, why not call them Alfa Romeo and Juliets? And can you imagine, Volodya never did learn to drive.
Perhaps this was all blurted out sincerely, straight from the heart, I don’t know. But the impression never left me that it was a pose, coordinated playing to the audience—that is, to me.
Running ahead, I confess that from a certain moment onwards, everything that Vera thinks or says behind my back becomes of deadly importance to me. This is the only explanation for the fact that one fine evening I opened and read a letter which was not intended for me.
No, I didn’t steal anything, everything came about much easier. After the three of us had taken our latest stroll together, Vera had a sudden thought—she hadn’t found time to post the letters, including some urgent ones, and so I myself made the offer: Let me post them on the way back. She was so grateful that she twice called me “dear.”
If “dear” it is, then so be it, I shan’t object. I found in my hands three letters for publishers and one personal one, addressed, as I later realized, to a female relative. It was this fourth letter that I arrested for a short time, keeping it with me for the evening.
...This is what I learnt about myself.
A Swedish beauty from a good family, but who lost her father early and broke off relations with her mother. To all appearances, brilliantly clever, a poetess, speaks almost a dozen languages. Not indifferent, moreover, to women, a lesbian with a perfectly “Dostoevskyan” temperament. Moreover, so full of inner tension, electrically charged to such a degree that sometimes it’s simply impossible to stand beside her. A masculine mindset, and perhaps too manly in appearance, but it suits her. Volodya likes her too.
I shan’t be overmodest, the opening and inspection of the letter wasn’t my only crime during this fortnight. My next heroic villainy was paying a call at the most untimely moment, without prior agreement and without ringing. I already knew that in the mornings, before breakfast, the Hog usually writes, while Vera titivates herself. The best way of taking them unawares with bare, defenseless faces, is to come calling at the crack of dawn.
I didn’t rule out the possibility that I wouldn’t even be let into the house that morning and would then fall into disgrace for good. But the Hog heard out my quick-fire apologies in silence, measured me with a sort of forensic medical gaze that went right through me, and, before going back to his priceless manuscripts, led me as far as an armchair in the drawing room, evidently sure that I would wait there patiently for my host and hostess to condescend to me.
She didn’t get even a little angry. Didn’t move away when, mentally begging her forgiveness for being rude, I laid the palm of my hand on her hip, a hot, slim bone beneath her black dress.
Instead, on being left alone, I delved deep into the interior’s nooks and crannies that were not intended for guests. And yes, I went the right way. Almost at once, a door opened in front of me and in dazzling proximity, nose to nose, Vera cried: “Volodya, who is it?” A bouquet of apologies was already to hand, and the jointly and hastily overcome awkwardness was eclipsed in a moment by what I had taken the risk to see. Not like the lady of the house, caught by her guest in a negligee, was she embarrassed, but like a young girl by chance laid bare before an admirer to whom she is not indifferent. And there was one detail there that aroused quiet fury in me and, it could be said, caused some slight damage to my mind. This may make some people laugh, but what I mean is the short, colored silk knickers, glimpsed fleetingly beneath her unfastened dressing gown. Little girls are dressed in such things, or else infantile spinsters, but they are quite definitely not the underwear for a lady.
In short, I was no longer in any more doubt about their so-called marriage. He’d arranged things pretty well, I kept telling myself, created a surrogate Lolita out of his wife and turned a beautiful grown woman into a submissive travesty.
And that’s what I would have thought, that I had managed to penetrate the shameful family secret of the inventor and trainer of nymphets, had it not been for the incident at the cinema—I shall talk about that later.
Vera never ceased to amaze me. There was a conversation about her having to go to Milan in March to attend her son’s performance. But she was worried because for the flight to Milan, from there to Mantua, then back to Milan and Nice, no less than three days would be required:
“I just can’t leave Volodya alone for so long!”
When I came to see them one day in a depressed mood and was unable to conceal it (I had been unsettled by a strident, hysterical letter from Hilda), Vera asked not a single superfluous question, but brought an apple from the kitchen, peeled it, and offered me half. She enquired periodically if everything at my hotel was comfortable and whether any of my things needed ironing.
The day I turned up without warning at an impermissibly early hour they behaved more coldly, with more reserve than usual, but then everything seemed to brighten up somewhat. The Hog was sent some galley proofs for authorial correction, he sniffed at the freshly printed sheets with pleasure, squinted in my direction in a jocular, sly way and offered them to me for a sniff. I thought: and when he gets hold of one of his own books that has just come out, I expect he not only sniffs it, but tries it for flavor too. Maybe these rituals are what the chief pleasure of his writing amounts to?
To be entirely frank, once I had deemed that a child’s short knickers on a grown woman were a sufficiently expressive piece of evidence, there arose in me a demand for revenge. It seemed then that I might even kill him, if only I were to see Vera’s consent, or at least a hint of it.
Once and once only were we alone together—we simply ran away for a short while to take a stroll, and now I understand that that hour and a half was the happiest of my life. We sat for a long time on a bench looking at the Baie des Anges, which sparkled in the sun enough to make your eyes hurt. It was there that I asked my cruel question. I drew a lot of air into my lungs and asked: Should there suddenly be such a misfortune as your husband dying, leaving you alone, what would happen the day after the funeral? How would you carry on living?
She was silent for a whole minute, then said:
“I wouldn’t. I’d hire an aeroplane and crash it.”
“Oh, come on.”
She replied very gently:
“We can do without the cynicism.”
And she didn’t get even a little angry. Didn’t move away when, mentally begging her forgiveness for being rude, I laid the palm of my hand on her hip, a hot, slim bone beneath her black dress. Bore the intimate, demanding touch. Even if unreserved indifference toward me was hidden behind it, her natural tenderness proved stronger.
Beside me, away from the Hog, she wasn’t the 58-year-old spouse of the elderly novelist, spoilt by fame, but an utterly independent, wondrous being, much younger and gentler than I.
Why have I mentioned age?
Ever since I was a child, looking at people older than me I have almost mechanically thought: This person has less time left to live than me. He (or she) will die sooner, whereas I shall still be alive. And it was only such a thought about Vera that for the first time elicited in me genuine, unbearable pain.
But together they looked now the solid married couple, now the ideally coordinated pair of accomplices. In the middle of the most innocent conversation they would suddenly couple, like butterflies that make use of every convenient bush, and separate so quickly that it was impossible to spot a thing.
I inquired in what year they had become man and wife. The Hog replied in a lighthearted tone that it had happened in about the same year that I was born. At that point I thought with malicious glee that such remoteness guaranteed at the very least the absence of reciprocal passion and freshness of feelings. But just two days later they would prove to me with ease, without even wishing it themselves, how silly I was.
Two days later they came up with the idea of going to the cinema.
We sat as follows: she to the right, he to the left, I in the middle. When a newsreel about bullfighting began flickering on the screen, Vera thrust two fingers into her mouth like a hooligan and tried to whistle, but didn’t manage it. She then took her fingers out of her mouth and said loudly, for the whole audience to hear: “Why do they have to show this filth?”
Then the film started—I don’t remember what it was. I had been wrong to sit between them, it was a mistake. With the same degree of success might I have used my body to close a circuit of exposed, high-voltage wires. I got electric shocks from both sides, I was shivered and shaken like a crow hit by gunshot or a ripped ragdoll. But the two of them existed happily in their usual regime. Vera took a sweet from her bag and proffered it in the darkness to her husband, all but touching my knees. He took the sweet, but didn’t remove his hand. And neither did she.
It’s unlikely they noticed I was looking down, not at the screen. Most probably they weren’t disturbed by this at all. They were disturbed by something else completely. The precise name for what they were doing in the gloom by means of their hands I don’t know. If copulation by hand is possible in nature, then this was it: soundless, frenzied sex. Moreover, the side which had offered the sweet was by no means inertly passive.
Strictly, I could say nothing about what I saw except for one thing: these people who had lived together, almost unparted, for 30-odd years, were no less crazy about one another than the utterly enamored adolescents hiding in the cinema for the sake of bare, blind touching and the furtive friction of bodies.
After the film the Hog’s mood was fabulous, but this didn’t prevent him engaging in the oral genocide of his fellow-writers at the restaurant table. He started with the worthless Hemingway, who was apparently an unsuccessful substitute for Mayne Reid, in that Mayne Reid had, after all, written noticeably better. Camus’s and Sartre’s lack of talent is so obvious, it could stimulate gastric spasms. Stendahl and Thomas Mann would do perfectly as powerful sleeping tablets. Voltaire is to be thanked at least for having written at no great length. In for it most of all was Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago, lyrical slush with helpless ambition on an epoch-making scale.
I forgot to ask what all these authors had done to upset him so.
In general, the Hog could have passed for an inveterate modernist, had he not sometimes looked infernally conservative. When the conversation incidentally turned to the Earth’s artificial satellites and Soviet successes in space, he declared that it was all political propaganda, soap bubbles for fanatics and fools. On the other hand, he was prepared to talk for hours about some Belgian maniac, about anomalous displacements in time and the mysterious disappearances of marine vessels.
In the evening I returned to the room I was renting, collapsed onto the bed and, I’m ashamed to admit it, cried almost through until morning.
Since we’re on the subject, I said to myself, if your love is unreciprocated, forbidden, unprintable, wrong, that doesn’t necessarily mean it doesn’t exist!
In essence, I was simply mourning the meager remains of my illusions. They had been insignificantly few as it was, you could have counted them on the fingers of one hand. But they were to come out into the light for some time yet, like foolish newborn grass from under a paving stone.
For example, when I had already moved to the United States and my homeless Hilda had joined me there, and we had decided to live together in Cambridge as a family, I deemed it necessary to write to Vera about it. The reply was the most merciless dressing-down. She condemned me, don’t you know, unreservedly. Because my relationship with Hilda was indecent and unwise. And Volodya held exactly the same point of view.
How I rejoiced that day: She’s jealous! Of course she is. And she refers to Volodya’s opinion only to conceal how hurt she is personally. I replied: “Any director could only dream of an actress like you!” Vera kept her mouth shut, bit her tongue. But I would have done better had I not then rejoiced, but rather learnt something from my red-eyed grief.
I left Nice on Friday, the 27th of January. Immediately before my departure the Hog had such a fit of generosity that he gave me, all at once, several signed copies of his own editions, even though usually, according to Vera, he doesn’t inscribe books to anyone.
Quite soon, incidentally, I stopped mentally calling him the Hog. And not just because for those two weeks he was graciously gallant and good to me, and a little later put his signature to letters of recommendation to Harvard and Cornell. Any other woman in my place would have regarded that as a favor, as a great kindness. But I was quite unable to cope with the conjecture that they wanted to get rid of me, and for that reason were sending me a long way away, into secure exile, to the back of beyond.
What else? I asked permission to write a candid short story about our acquaintanceship, about the two of them. I was given their magnanimous consent, accompanied by sterile smiles.
For all my readiness for uneven trench warfare and duels, I forced myself to address both spouses with equal friendliness, by their first names. But later, when conflict burst out like a ripe furuncle, and relations became inflamed to the extent of legal intervention, I would be very distinctly warned that no one had allowed me to refer to them so informally, in a manner acceptable between close friends.
That story about our January meeting I wrote very slowly, with the most desperate scrupulousness I was capable of, as though trying to engrave on a crunchy crust of ice the only words that came to me in my sleep or in my solitary vigils over a sheet of paper covered in crossings-out. In six years I wrote six different versions, not daring to forget that the main characters would be the first to receive and read it all.
A sad observation about the nature of things: they all have the capacity to deteriorate. The most essential deteriorate quicker than the rest. What a degree of deterioration did our precious relations have to reach for Vera to respond to the second version of my story with a request for two small amendments, but to the sixth with a haughty notification that: “My husband is too busy and in no position to keep an eye on all the alterations to your text...”
Every new success for Volodya and any complimentary mention of his name in the press aroused in me now a quiet, embittered jealousy. (Perhaps that’s how the first signs of madness manifest themselves?) But at the same time I felt resolved to go for the jugular of anyone who might casually, in passing, criticize Volodya or his books.
I know he gives many people the impression that he is a cold, high-society snob. I don’t want to try and change anyone’s mind. But before me I can visualize Vera, choking with laughter, acting out unforgettable meetings with Hollywood’s elite. Volodya chuckles along at it in embarrassment.
They are invited to a cocktail party at the house of some powerful producer, where present among the guests is John Wayne, the king of the western, a stern, muscular cowboy: at the time, his promotional portraits, on horseback and with a Winchester, were resplendent on placards half the height of a skyscraper all across America.
Polite Volodya can think of nothing better than to go up to Wayne and enquire: “And what do you do?” The star of the screen replies humbly: “Why, I’m in the movies.”
At another Hollywood reception Volodya meets a nice-looking brunette with a suspiciously familiar face. Here too he tries with all his might to behave in a polite way befitting high society: “You’re not French, are you, by any chance?” The brunette looks at him with round eyes and says: “As it happens, I’m Gina Lollobrigida.”
April 1963 hit me with such a cruel nervous derangement, that the possibility of taking final leave of absolutely everyone and everything at a stroke, including myself and my own life, seemed to me the sweetest prospect.
When Marilyn Monroe invited these strange spouses to continue the party at her house, they immediately looked at the clock: “Oh, sorry, it’s already quite late, it’s time we went!” Such high-society ways.
Despite the distance the equal of the ocean (or maybe thanks to such distance), naked words finally came through in my letters to Vera—I no longer concealed my feelings. And every time she contrived to seem not to notice those confessions. In reply she stuffed me with routine information about anything and everything. Volodya’s efforts on the tennis court. A hired Peugeot with a mechanical gearbox. Hotel apartments in Switzerland’s Montreux. The satin gleam of Lake Geneva. Even a little flock of sparrows which, emboldened after being fed, are darting about right at Vera’s feet—a detail sufficient to make me myself suddenly feel like a tamed sparrow, grown utterly impertinent.
April 1963 hit me with such a cruel nervous derangement, that the possibility of taking final leave of absolutely everyone and everything at a stroke, including myself and my own life, seemed to me the sweetest prospect. I preferred that Vera learn of my death not from third parties, but from me myself.
And so I wrote to her:
“Farewell! You are the only one I have loved in all my life.”
Let someone try and guess what her answer was.
Any versions? Suggestions?
Her answer was nothing.
We’ll take the figure of aposiopesis to be the loudest one of all.
We shall meet twice more, three years after the wintry Riviera: first, they’ll drop into Cambridge, then I’ll find myself back in Europe, and both meetings will be disfigured by a tone of obligation, like surgical procedures that can’t be avoided.
In December 1964 they were still discussing Swedish translations of Volodya’s novels with me and they unexpectedly bought me an overcoat—a present that resembled a settling of debts, or else a final “farewell.”
And then in 1969 this family of monsters set the law firm of Paul, Weiss on me.
No, their aim wasn’t to have me condemned or put away in the lock-up. Their aim was a different one—to have me stop writing to them. They were protecting their flaming privacy, don’t you know, that same fortress-cot, sweaty kennel, little bedroom, cradle for bedsores. The alcove for a child’s knickers. Who from? From me?!
No, I won’t conceal it, by that time I had already swum far beyond the buoys. Oh, it was a gorgeous state! I allowed myself to send 20 or 30 things a month—postcards, letters, telegrams, and super-urgent mental dispatches. No longer did anything keep me from leaping out of bed in the middle of the night and, barely able to check my trembling, filling six sheets of paper in describing for my silly Vera the scene of bliss of which she didn’t even risk dreaming! Ah-ah, it’s too late now? Then why don’t the three of us go to bed together? Come on, be honest, Vera, whose palm feels nicer to your hip? Speak up, whose is it?
Those guys from Paul, Weiss are really bright, of course.
After their intervention and the strict ban on correspondence I started sending two letters a day.
But, Vera. If you value above all else an enclosed private life, then why the fuck did you let tin-eyed attorneys into our poor secret?
You’re 23 years older and will die much sooner than me.*
When you’re gone, who among the living will remember how your radiance eclipsed the brilliance of Nice and the Baie des Anges, spread wide open before us? Maybe my senseless, forbidden fate will serve at least to do that. After all, every one of us has been a child, and every one, absolutely every one is doomed. And so has the right to keep waiting—to keep living to win at least somebody’s pity and love.
*Author's note: Filippa Rolf will die in 1978 of acute kidney cancer. Vera Nabokova will outlive her by 13 years.
Elizabeth Kiem: What is the backstory to this piece?
Igor Sakhnovsky: This is the true documented story of a young woman, Filippa Rolf, who, in 1961, managed to find her way into the Nabokov’s family “fortress,” which was impassable to all and locked with ten different locks.
You know, when Nabokov was a banned, unpublished author in Russia, language students were accustomed to hearing the following accusations against the writer: chilliness, snobbery, ambivalence towards people, etc. Two years ago I was asked by the Paris magazine Revue des Deux Mondes to write a short essay about Nabokov’s final book, The Original of Laura. As I read the reviews by contemporary Russian critics, do you know what terms I discovered? “Chilliness,” “snobbery,” “ambivalence to people.” Plus “nymphomania” (ie. pedophilia – a subject in style these days for some reason). So I found myself needing to write an essay titled “A Defense of Laura.” The story “Family of Monsters” is in its own right, a defense of the Nabokovs. I employed Filippa Rolf’s hostile viewpoint. Her initial reaction towards the Nabokovs was close to hatred. That Rolf was also passionately in love with Vera Nabokov I first just suspected; later I found documentary evidence.
EK: I adore this story because I often find myself making overtures to people I think will be interesting subjects of a story, only to discover that it is their reception of would-be storytellers that is the story itself. Do you prefer an unreliable, self-interested narrator when you write?
IS: This story is part of a new book, A Strong Sense of Saturday, which contains eight very frank stories told in the first person by real, unimagined people—three women and five men. Aside from their sometimes shocking, funny, or sad confesions, I am interested in the personal viewpoints or "optics" of these storytellers, which inevitably hold aberrations, personal distortions, and additions.
EK: You’ve said that the only thing worth time and money is to travel. Which version of travel would you prefer to undertake: that of Cook and Magellan, whose diaries you have read, or that of Filippa Roth, who is ostensibly also on a voyage of discovery, but of a human kind? Or would you rather just see the ruins, visit a museum, and have a great meal?
IS: When I was asked as a kid what I want to be when I grow up, I answered Odysseus. That type of travel does not rule out human discovery, exploration of ruins, nor exotic cuisine.
EK: I sneaked a peak at your Facebook page. It seems that you have as much passion for illustration and classy women as for travel?
IS: Perhaps my Facebook page allows me to take a break from words and quench my thirst for imagery. Hence the predominance of pictures—old paintings and photos.
EK: What can you tell us about literary Ekaterinburg and how it differs from Moscow or Petersburg?
IS: There are interesting, strong writers in Ekaterinburg, but I wouldn’t want to categorize their specifics. A writer is a solitary creature, engaged in his solitary, imaginary, private business. It makes no difference where he lives–in Ekaterinburg, Moscow, or New York. When writers flock together for some common goal I begin to have doubts: is there a real writer in the herd?
EK: Do you still write poetry? Will Russia produce another Silver Age of poetry?
IS: I haven’t written poetry in a long time. Predicting a Silver Age, I think, is impossible.