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I Will Sing When You’re All Dead

Professional opera singer, mountain climber, race car driver, and Vladimir Nabokov’s best translator and collaborator, Dmitri Nabokov has led an impassioned life.

PHOTOGRAPH BY ROGER G. ERICKSON

DIES IRAE

Dmitri Nabokov: professional operatic basso (emeritus), mountain climber, semi-professional racecar driver, offshore speedboat pilot, Vladimir Nabokov’s best translator and collaborator. Dmitri: himself an author, and sometime blogger. Dmitri Vladimirovich Nabokov: son of Vladimir (rhymes with “redeemer”). He shares Google space with a professional hockey player of the same name. (Are these two perhaps one and the same? Dmitri the Polymath Puckmaster?)

This Dmitri Nabokov, then 46, destroyed his “rare fiberglass Ferrari 308 GTB designed for competition” in a fiery crash near Chexbres, on the autoroute between Montreux and Lausanne, at 1045 hours, September 26, 1980, on the Chexbres Autoroute.1 He suffered third-degree burns over 40 percent of his body, and fractured his neck.

Medics brought Dmitri to a Lausanne burn unit, where he died 12 days later—albeit only briefly:

“[I am] enticed by a bright light at the far end of the classic tunnel, but restrain myself at the last instant when I think of those who care for me and of important things I must still do.”2
 

Eschatology

That terrible morning in late September wasn’t the first time Dmitri cheated death. In some respects, he’s narrowly avoided death his entire life. Consider this:

Dmitri was born in Berlin on May 10, 1934, home to Hitler’s putsch and the Brownshirt Bureaucracy. Although Vladimir, his father, was famously Russian, Vera (Dmitri’s mother), was Jewish-Russian, which made her and her son potential Nazi targets.

The Nabokovs fled Germany and its pack of jaundiced Nazi curs for Paris in late 1937; they fled France for America in May of 1940. The transatlantic liner they sailed on was sunk by German U-boats on its subsequent (and final) westward voyage. Incidentally, the Germans invaded Paris less than one month after the Nabokovs were safely in America. Nice try, Nazis, but no dice.
 

More Death Avoided

Dmitri fell 30 feet and landed on his back in a boulder field while climbing the west face of the Middle Teton in July 1952. He walked away basically unharmed. His first guardian angel reportedly handed in her resignation on the same day.

What stylish drifters—polylingual ex-pat novelist and amanuensis, and their death-defying son!In December of that same year, while asleep in Camp 2 (15,600 ft.), just below the snowline on Mount Orizaba, Mexico, Dmitri narrowly missed becoming the epicenter of a 10-foot crater made when a meteor, hurtled from God only knows which distant solar system, struck during the night. Can one verify these things? In Our Private Lives,3a Dmitri claims to have been “awakened by a massive whoosh passing over” his tent, and to have first discovered the crater in the morning. The suspicious may seek to further cast doubt on Dmitri’s claim by citing the paucity of “killed by meteor” stories. True enough, but remember this: The meteor-flattened don’t tell tales.

During the banquet scene in a Puerto Rico performance of Don Giovanni, an errant backstage technician opened a trapdoor when he shouldn’t have, and Dmitri, singing, stepped backwards into the yawning abyss, saved at the last second by one Fernando Corena, the famous basso buffo (who made his professional debut in 1947 as Varlaam, the vagrant, in Boris Godunov).3b

Fate: Zero. Dmitri: Five (at least).

It’s true: We all may be avoiding death each day until that one time we don’t, but none of us live in the interstice with quite the same style as Dmitri.
 

Aurorae

Let’s return to the beginning. Dmitri remembers his childhood in Berlin as “…a cocoon of love, even-tempered optimism, and sundry amusements.” His favorite toys from the time were two automobiles and a truck (a blombabakht, per his childhood lexicon), and one can presumably add to that list the stuffed bunny whose ears appear at the top of Dmitri’s passport photo in Speak, Memory.4 Dmitri’s parents spoke mostly Russian in the home, which further insulated him from all things ambiently German.

The Nabokovs were an itinerant family by circumstance, not caprice. By 1941, little Dmitri had lived at more than 20 addresses in various cities in Germany, France, and America. “It was a real drifter’s life,” Dmitri remembered, in Stacy Schiff’s Vera.

According to Vera Nabokov, a barber once asked 7-year-old Dmitri where he lived. “I don’t have a home,” said the boy. “Where do you live then?” asked the barber.

“In little houses by the road.”

But what stylish drifters—polylingual ex-pat novelist and amanuensis, and their death-defying son!
 

The End as a Kind of Beginning

Dmitri was accepted to Harvard in 1951 and graduated in 1955. (By way of contrast, Stephen James Joyce, grandson of, attended Harvard from 1950 until 1958, graduating, Tommy-Boy-like,5 in eight years with a four-year degree, cum nil, one supposes.)

Commencement Day posed for Dmitri a familiar quandary: What then to commence? Vladimir and Vera knew firsthand about an artist’s hand-to-mouth existence, and so they pushed Dmitri to consider a career in law. Dmitri’s paternal grandfather, Vladimir Dmitrievich, had been a prominent jurist in pre-Revolutionary Russia, and Secretary to the Provisional Government until the Bolshevik Revolution of October/November 1917. It was no surprise, therefore, that Dmitri earned acceptance to Harvard Law School.

But a parental mouth or two may have hung slack when Dmitri opted instead for a career in opera.
 

Aria

Dmitri entered the Longy School of Music concomitantly with his father’s rise to international fame and fortune on the late-1950s winds of Hurricane Lolita. In December 1959, Dmitri moved to Italy, and by 1960 had settled in Milan and was studying with a renowned voice instructor. In the midst of this, while he apprenticed on obscure stages in small Italian towns, Dmitri managed to fit in (and win!) the odd semi-professional car race or few.6

In 1961, Dmitri took first prize at the Reggio Emilia International Opera Competition, basso division, the same contest where a soon-no-longer-to-be-obscure (and now late) Luciano Pavarotti took first among tenors. The prize winners, Dmitri and Luciano, were given their respective debuts in a performance of La Boheme at the Reggio Emilia opera house, and even if Dmitri didn’t later accomplish Pavarotti-caliber fame as an opera singer, he achieved a certain local notoriety (the Italian press termed him “Lolito”). He even realized a few dreams along the way: in Duluth, Minn., in 1975 he performed in Verdi’s Requiem, his all-time favorite piece of music; and in August 1967 he fulfilled one of his opera fantasies by singing the Death of Boris before a packed and jubilant crowd. He performed the Death of Boris again in 1987, but this time before an audience in Milan, and in conjunction with the presentation of his Italian translation of The Enchanter (the novel which Vladimir claimed in the afterword to Lolita to have destroyed shortly before WWII, and which he hadn’t, and which Russian short story Dmitri translated first into English and published in 1986).
 

The Son Also Rises

Dmitri’s opera career effectively ended in the September 1980 Ferrari crash, which began our account. He ultimately spent over 42 weeks in intensive care and rehab (in the same hospital complex where his father had died three years earlier), and endured six skin grafts before he emerged triumphant from his own private Pentecost, much as the resonant basso rises gloriously from the sturm und drang of Verdi’s Requiem’s “Dies Irae;” Dmitri the Phoenix (and local table tennis champ), a man with a new life and new priorities: “I [decided] that I can make my best contribution by dedicating myself to writing, both my father’s and my own.”7

True to his word, Dmitri has since translated a truly heroic number of his father’s Russian short stories and poems into English and many of his father’s novels and stories into Italian. No less an authority than Vladimir himself described Dmitri as a “marvelously congenial translator.” There are good reasons for Dmitri’s translating success.

When Dale Peck, in 2004, called for “the excision from the canon, or at least the demotion in status, of most of Joyce, [and] half of Faulkner and Nabokov,” Dmitri replied by saying, “There will always be the pecked and the peckers.”Michael Scammell, in a recent interview (pdf), compared translating prose to interpreting music. The original score—i.e., what was in the composer’s head—is equated here with the author’s original text; the translator then is more or less equivalent to the virtuoso. The artistic and musical sensitivities, the fine mind, the keen ear—these certainly help; and yet the man Dmitri is translating is also his father, and as Dmitri said in a recent interview, “I have been accustomed since childhood to reading my father’s books with a flow of receptivity.“8 This is the ultimate fantasy for a devoted reader: the idea of the book’s author like a personal “shoulder angel” with information instead of temptations. This was Dmitri’s status quo.

With the passing of his father in 1977 and his mother in 1991, Dmitri became, synecdochically and legally, the Nabokov Trust,9 the entity that controls the licensing and publication of his father’s works. Dmitri is a staunch defender of Vladimir’s legacy, but he is not humorless. When Dale Peck, in 2004, called for “the excision from the canon, or at least the demotion in status, of most of Joyce, [and] half of Faulkner and Nabokov,” Dmitri replied by saying, “There will always be the pecked and the peckers.” One gets the sense, however, that Dmitri is addressing a larger audience than just Peck.

And this much is certain: at least one missing voice is Dmitri’s own. He said, recently, “I completed a kind of novel some years ago. Some people I respect spoke well of it, but something was wrong. Having toyed with it this way and that, I remain incompletely satisfied. Since I think there was good stuff in it, I may yet rework it.”10 I can’t imagine how hard it would be for Dmitri to objectively assess his own work given his near total immersion in his father’s oeuvre, which let’s face it, is a rather high literary bar to clear; still, what I’ve read of Dmitri’s writing makes me hope that the “incompletely satisfied” of his auto-assessment someday inflates its terminal period into this conjunctive addendum: “but I’m still going to submit that thing for publication.”

There is also the matter of Vladimir Nabokov’s unfinished 18th novel, The Original of Laura, “the most concentrated distillation of [my father’s] creativity[,] [his] most brilliant novel,”11 which unfinished manuscript presently resides in a mystery Swiss vault, and which should have been burned upon Vladimir’s death in 1977 except that, well, Vera couldn’t bring herself to do it, and thus passed on her incendiary quandary to Dmitri when she passed in 1991.

Rumors swirled that the manuscript (actually a collection of 138 index cards, Vladimir’s preferred method of pre-PC cut-and-paste composition) would either be burned or else donated to a private institution, its access limited to only to scholars. Ron Rosenbaum learned about the manuscript's fate in 2005, and begged Dmitri not to burn it. Nothing happened. Then, sometime in late 2007, it was noised about that an important TOol decision would be announced soon. At which point, Ron Rosenbaum, and others, kind of flipped out earlier this year. And then Dmitri got coy: maybe I’ll burn it; then again maybe I won’t.

Ultimately, though, on April 22, 2008, and with a flourish, Dmitri announced to Suellen Stringer-Hye that he was actually going to publish TOoL. “I never really intended to burn it,” he added.

(Quick PS: Rosenbaum changed his mind yet again and is now advocating putting TOoL to the flame. “Burn it, Dmitri! Burn it!” My guess is that Ron Rosenbaum’s cartoon shoulder-angels are schizophrenic and drunk on coffee.)

The arguments for publishing Nabokov’s TOoL despite its author’s deathbed instructions to the contrary, rage across the internet. My contribution is a little snippet from Vladimir Nabokov’s famous lecture on Kafka’s Metamorphosis. Here, Nabokov cites Max Brod’s refusal to heed Kafka’s deathbed edict to burn all his writings, including both secreted and published documents, among which were the two novels we now know so well: The Trial and The Castle. “Fortunately,” said Nabokov, “Brod did not comply with his friend’s wish.” This statement may also serve as a singular example of a father’s pre-posthumous approval of his son’s recent decision to contradict that father’s deathbed wishes.

About which: When a man dies, all that remains is his image in the memories of his loved ones, the story of his life. When the man who dies is an author, however, there is in addition to his life’s story, a kind of amber preservation of his imaginative essence, his living oeuvre, his mind. This is something vital and real. It has the power to catalyze imaginations: to live. The intersections of an author’s life story with his works of imagination form a tessellated pattern whose shape reveals something wholly unique: the meaning of that life. Vladimir described this as, “a certain intricate watermark whose unique design becomes visible when the lamp of art is made to shine through life’s foolscap.”12

Let’s turn on that lamp.
 

Requiem

Dmitri and his mother were at the hospital bedside when Nabokov died, on July 2, 1977 (at 6:50 p.m.), when “the powerful heart that had endured strain after strain stilled with an abrupt threefold moan….” That quote is from “Revisiting Father’s Room,” written about two years after Vladimir’s death, and one year before Dmitri’s fiery crash.

When Dmitri returned (in prose) to his father’s deathbed, in his Our Private Lives account, he brought an important new perspective to bear:

I have returned from Munich in time to be with Father when he dies. He expires with a triple moan of descending pitch, just like Boris Christoff on his Boris recording. The echo is so strong that I imagine for an instant that it is indeed all staged, that he will soon speak again.

The “triple moan of descending pitch” becomes here a kind of performance, art. Art, good art, can act as a palliative; it can transform sadness and pain into something like comfort. In turning his private tragedy into a kind of play, it seems to me that Dmitri is making good on his father’s legacy of imaginative inspiration. But there is something more profound at play here. What follows is my best attempt to sound that depth.

Let’s start with the players. Boris Christoff was a renowned basso. The aria “Death of Boris” is from Mussorgsky’s opera Boris Godunov, itself a musical iteration of Alexander Pushkin’s drama Boris Godunov, which contains the song, “Farewell, my son, I am dying.” Alexander Pushkin, the Russian Shakespeare, is best known for Eugene Onegin (you’ve seen the New Yorker Breguet ads, you’ve seen Pushkin’s proud gaze), the novel in verse that Vladimr translated and for which he provided the definitive commentary. Vladimir saw himself as one of the heirs to Pushkin’s literary lineage. But who is Boris Godunov?

Here, in exactly 200 words, is the quick and dirty synopsis:

You’ve heard of Ivan the Terrible? (Cue the ominous tympanic thumping of Verdi’s “Dies Irae.”) Ivan died in 1584 without producing a viable heir to the throne; thus a governing regency was appointed, of which Boris Godunov, a boyar, was a member. One of the “unviable but possible” future heirs to the throne was Dmitri Ivanovich (Son of Ivan), age three. When Little Dmitri died at age 10—the official verdict said he cut his own throat (!) during an epileptic seizure—many suspected the foul and fishy hand of Boris, though his guilt was never proven. Boris seized power in 1598, which is to say that he was unanimously appointed Tsar by the National Assembly but could be said to have “seized” power because Boris seems to have been the kind of person who forcibly took even those things that were willingly given.

Here’s where things get interesting: in 1604 a pretender to the throne appeared “claiming to be Tsarevich Dmitri, but believed to be in reality one Grigory Otrpyev” (Thanks, Wikipedia!), a local monk. This Dmitri the Pretender put together a campaign that marched on Moscow, and which was subsequently soundly defeated by Boris’s forces. Boris stayed in power, and died one year later, in 1605.

Some 314 years later, another Tsar lay freshly dead, and the aristocratic Vladimir Dmitrievich Nabokov family was forced at bulletpoint to flee Mother Russia. Vladimir Vladimirovich, our Dmitri’s father, was then only 19 years old, the oldest of five children. He never again set foot on Russian soil.

In this opera, Dmitri takes the stage. He is the immortal figure evoked in Cake’s “Opera Singer:” “I’ll sing the mountains crumbling apart, I will sing when you’re all dead.”Fast-forward 69 years: At a party in Israel, in January 1987, Dmitri was told that if he were to return to Russia, he would undoubtedly be received as if he were Pushkin’s son himself. No surprise then that when Dmitri returned to Russia in the 1990s he was welcomed with open arms: “I was grandly received in St. Petersburg, lectured at the Public Library, and sang with Marina Arkhipova at a recreated masked ball at the Kaiserhof.” Dmitri toured the family’s St. Petersburg townhome.

And so our Dmitri, Dmitri Nabokov, remains unvanquished by life’s various death-dealing Borises. And our Dmitri, of course is no artistic pretender to the Nabokov literary throne. He is simply following in his father’s footsteps. Consider this scene at the end of Speak, Memory:

Vladimir depicts a day at the beach in Mentone (Southern France) where little Dmitri found in the surf a broken piece of majolica (a type of glazed, patterned earthenware) which fragment matched and continued the pattern, Vladimir surmised, on another, similar broken fragment that he’d found on that same beach back in 1903 (when he was a boy Dmitri’s age), and which two pieces continued and also matched the pattern on yet another, and similar, broken fragment found by Vladimir’s mother:

…on the same Mentone beach in 1882, [which matched] a fourth piece of the same pottery that had been found by her mother a hundred years ago—and so on until this assortment of parts, if all had been preserved, might have been put together to make the complete, the absolutely complete bowl, broken by some Italian child, God knows where and when, and now mended by these rivets of bronze.13

And so father and son, working together with two prior distaff generations, cobble an heirloom artwork from random fragments in life’s beach-wash, and fasten it with precious fragments of bronze. This is a mystical kind of multi-generational artwork, delicate but indelible, transcending even the most violent Bolshevik then Stalinist then Nazi opposition, transcending even Vladimir’s and Vera’s deaths, to emerge unscathed in Dmitri’s hands. Let me be clear: the Nabokovs (Vladimir, Vera, and Dmitri) represent the best qualities of the Russian aristocracy that was stamped out by Communist Russia: its virtues, its liberalism, its erudition, its ambition; they represent it in their way of life, and all of Nabokov’s writings are shot through with these values. For an American Gen-X thirtysomething like me, raised on tales of Reagan’s Evil Empire, the existence and resurrection of this aristocracy and its literature is nothing short of revelation. This is a kind of living epic, the stuff of grand opera.

Yes, yes, that’s it: the ultimate Russian opera that’s also a kind of requiem, sung by Dmitri, the real Dmitri in homage to his father, heir to and savior of the (literary) tradition left vacant by Gogol and Tolstoy, and which seats the Nabokovs at the right hand of Pushkin.

In this opera, Dmitri takes the stage. He is the immortal figure evoked in Cake’s “Opera Singer:” “I’ll sing the mountains crumbling apart, I will sing when you’re all dead.” He wears a cape. He strikes a heroic pose, arms akimbo. This is a figure of imaginative grandeur—which is different, note well, from imagined grandeur. The threefold moan, in song, becomes a lament: “Farewell my son, I am dying.” However, the decedent here is Russia herself, when she bid the Nabokovs goodbye in 1919, and vice versa. Loved ones were subsequently shot through the heart, some burned to ashes. Life inevitably leads to death. Vera, writing later in life, said that “the otherworld” was her husband’s primary literary preoccupation.

Our opera is lyrical, exciting, not sad so much as contemplative; it turns tragedy into joy, even perhaps ecstasy. It’s the hope of life after death, even if only in our loved ones’ imaginations. (And fans are indeed loved ones of a kind.) This legacy is not just Dmitri’s, nor is it solely his father’s or mother’s, but for as long as humans have ears and imaginations (and spinal columns capable of feeling the shiver of artistic inspiration): it is immortal, and it is ours.

1Page 318, Halpern, Daniel, editor, Our Private Lives: Journals, Notebooks, and Diaries, The Ecco Press, 1998
2Ibid, pg. 319
3aPage 308, Our Private Lives, edited by Daniel Halpern, Ecco Press, 1998. Dmitri’s contribution to the collection, which begins on page 299, is entitled: “Close Calls and Fulfilled Dreams: Selected Entries From a Private Journal.” It begins in early 1935, less than a year after Dmitri’s birth (May 10, 1934): “My knees are completely green, because I have been crawling on the emerald rug of the apartment where I have lived since I was born last year.”
3bWe received a post-publication email from Dmitri:

The illustrious comic basso who prevented me from crashing backwards, at the most dramatic moment of Don Giovanni, through a prematurely opened trap door, was indeed Fernando Corena, when he adroitly signaled Justino Diaz, the Don, to nudge me to safety. On the other hand, it was the extraordinary Bulgarian bass Nicolai Ghiaurov whose voice gave me a thrill and lasting inspiration when I first heard him as the renegade monk Varlaam in a Scala dress rehearsal of Boris Godunov. What a pity that, along with other greats, the late Ghiaurov has been almost totally forgotten.

4Page 294, First Vintage International Edition, August 1989
5Authorial inference from “The Injustice Collector,” The New Yorker, June 19, 2006
6See here his email to me listing most, but not all, the cars he’s owned before (cue Willie Nelson):

My inventory has varied greatly since my first car, a 1931 Model A Ford 2-door, bought for $70 when I was 17 and a freshman at Harvard, and driven to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, for my second season of serious [mountain] climbing. Some 40 automobiles have followed, including such rarities as a 1964 Alfa Romeo Tubolare Zagato (white with blue stripes), prepared for racing by Facetti and custom-bodied by Zagato with roof humps to accommodate my 6’5” frame with helmet; a lightweight Bizzarrini Stradale GT; a unique Iso Rivolata GT with fuel injection and supercharger once offered as a Corvette option; a rare fiberglass Ferrari GTBi Quattrovalvole; and, more or less contemporaneously: two 1993 Viper convertibles (one imported to Switzerland and the other elaborately modified by Hennessey); a Viper 1998 GTS coupe; a Viper GT2, one of 100 built to celebrate the marque’s GT wins at LeMans and in the World Championship; a Ferrari 348; and a Ferrari 456 GT.

A footnote to the Alfa GTZ: the registry entry and hence [the corresponding entry] in an official Alfa volume were falsified, by his own admission, by a disgruntled employee, a minor Italo-British baronet named Raimondo Corsi di Turri, so as to make the car appear to have been his own.

Since 2001, I have been partly disabled by neuropathy and unable to drive in my usual style. Therefore, most of my sports cars have been sold. All that remains is the Ferrari 308 GTBi Quattrovalvole plus a 10-cylinder Dodge Ram 3500 to tow my offshore powerboat.”

Oh, and one more vehicle. In a follow-up email sent shortly after the foregoing inventory, Dmitri writes: “How embarrassing: I forgot my most frequent motorized companion in Montreux, a 10-year-old Jeep (a green Grand Cherokee Limited, in more or less pristine shape.)
7Page 320, Halpern, Daniel, editor, Our Private Lives: Journals, Notebooks, and Diaries, The Ecco Press, 1998
8April 2008 interview with Suellen Stringer-Hye (pdf)
9From a 1/15/08 email: “The VN Trust was a temporary arrangement after my father’s death and before that of my mother, after which I became ‘The Estate.’”
10April 2008 interview with Suellen Stringer-Hye (pdf)
11Page 129, Vladimir Nabokov: A Tribute, Edited by Peter Quennell, 1979, First U.S. Edition
12Page 25, Speak, Memory, Nabokov, Vladimir, First Vintage International Edition, August 1989
13Ibid, pp 308-309