Prospero's Progress

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    Flight from Home
    Nabokov's tall, gentle father was an ex-Guards officer who could trace his family tree back to ancient Muscovite princes; he was also a professor of criminal law, and that rarity in Czarist Russia, a liberal politician as well. He held a seat in the first Russian Parliament. In 1906 -- when Vladimir was seven -- Czar Nicholas II illegally dissolved the Parliament less than a year after its establishment. Nabokov's father signed a manifesto exhorting popular resistance to the move -- and went to jail.

    The sentence lasted only three months. Family life at Vyra began again, to last, apparently unshadowed, for nearly a decade more. In 1919 (young Vladimir was 20, and had recently inherited the equivalent of $2,000,000 from an uncle), the Bolshevik revolution forced the Nabokovs to begin their flight from Russia with only a few jewels and clothing. The real awareness of tragedy did not fully come home to them until 1922 in Berlin, when a night telephone call informed the family that their father was dead. He had been shot at a political rally, trying to protect another man from an assassin's bullets.

    Nabokov's mother, Elena Ivanovna, who lived on in exile until 1939, read aloud to Vladimir in three languages. More important, she encouraged his attempts at poetry and nourished his susceptibility to sound and color. Mother and son shared a strong sense that certain colors and certain letters of the alphabet are related -- "p" was an unripe apple green, for instance; "y's" and "u's" had a brassy "olive sheen." Matching colors and letters, Nabokov evolved a new private word, "Kzspygv", which meant but did not spell "rainbow."

    A series of nannies and governesses assisted his mother in teaching Vladimir to speak and read English (before he could read Russian). Tutors and coaches turned Nabokov into a competent boxer and a skilled tennis player -- good enough, in fact, so that later, in straitened exile, he helped pay his way by giving lessons. More or less on his own he became an expert at chess problems and a collector of butterflies.

    There was nothing soft or dreamy about Nabokov. He seems to have been an astonishingly disciplined, highly competitive, hopeless overperformer. His cousin Nicolas, a composer living in Hamburg, remembers Vladimir at 18 as tall, handsome and insufferably skillful at nearly everything -- though he always smelled slightly of the ether he used to kill the specimen butterflies he caught. When Vladimir was enrolled in a liberal school expressly chosen by his father, he resented a master's suggestion that the Nabokov coachman deposit him several blocks away so he could arrive at class democratically afoot. A more galling comment, though, came from teachers who accused him of "showing off" -- mainly for "peppering my Russian papers with English and French terms which came naturally to me."

    The pursuit of butterflies and poetic perceptions provided Nabokov with a conception central to his existence -- of art and science seen not as antagonists but as allies in capturing and celebrating the delightful, eccentric and always individual surfaces of life. Yet his feeling at times encompasses an almost mystic vision of beatitude. "This is ecstasy," he once wrote about standing alone in green woods among rare butterflies. "Behind the ecstasy is something else which is hard to explain. It is like a momentary vacuum into which rushes all that I love. A sense of oneness with sun and stone. A thrill of gratitude to whom it may concern -- to the contrapuntal genius of human fate or to tender ghosts humoring a lucky mortal."

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