Prospero's Progress

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    Poetic Riffs
    Entomologists still credit Nabokov as a serious lepidopterist. He described a dozen new variations of butterfly (mainly in the broad-ranging subfamily of blues), including the "Lycaeides melissa samuelis Nabokov". His reports were models of precision, experts recall. But, in a prose necessarily dense with taxonomical terms, a few refreshing poetic riffs occurred: "From the opposite side of the distally twinned uncus," Nabokov wrote in a 1944 report describing genus Lycaeides, "and facing each other in the manner of the stolidly raised fists of two pugilists (of the old school) with the uncus hoods lending a Ku Klux Klan touch to the picture."

    Nabokov's own grasp of the organic union between world and world, between observation and inspiration, goes back to a precise moment afield at Vyra, when at 15 he saw with clinical accuracy the genesis of his first (admittedly very bad) poem. "Without any wind blowing," he could still describe it 40 years later, "the sheer weight of a raindrop, shining in parasitic luxury an a cordate leaf, caused its tip to dip, and what looked like a globule of quicksilver performed a sudden glissando down the center vein, and then, having shed its bright load, the relieved leaf unbent. Tip, leaf, dip, relief -- the instant it all took to happen seemed to me not so much a fraction of time as a fissure (in it, a missed heartbeat . . . when a gust of wind did come, the trees would briskly start to drip all together in as crude an imitation of the recent down pour as the stanza I was already muttering resembled the shock of wonder had experienced when for a moment heart and leaf had been one."

    In the 1920's the young Nabokov like other emigres, was really a stateless person traveling on a special Nansen passport. He spent nearly 20 years among white Russian emigres in Europe -- mainly in Berlin. The role of nobleman in exile customarily inclines toward comic cliche or attenuated anguish. Nabokov's did neither. Yet anyone who wonders what he survived need go no further than his earlier writing. Much of it is filled with details of emigre life. They are fondly presented. But many reveal the interminable, corrosive regret, the fulminating, the vaporous political argument, the feuding and backbiting that so often afflict emigre society.

    "The Gift", last and most compelling of the novels that Nabokov originally wrote in Russian, is a treasure house of exiliaria. Nabokov's poet-protagonist fyodor, a chess expert and indigent English tutor, is all too familiar with an exile writer's crippling cultural dependence on the erratic tastes of a handful of emigre critics. Colly, he notes among his contemporaries such things as their haIf disapproving, half hopeful backward glances at their former homeland ("In Russia one observed the spread of abortions and the revival of summer houses"), their lingering monarchical pieties. "In her bedroom," Fyodor says, remembering an early mistress, "there was a little picture of the Tsar's family and a Turgenevian odor of heliotrope."

    Nabokov had nothing but Scorn for emigres who lament their lost riches and real estate. He has never complained. He was able to go to Cambridge, where he studied foreign languages on a scholarship. But he was not happy. "The story of my college years in England," he says, is really the story of my trying to become a Russian writer. I had the feeling that Cambridge and all its famed features-venerable elms, blazoned windows, 1oquacious tower clocks -- were of no consequence in themselves but existed merely to frame and support my rich nostalgia."

    Thereafter, to make a bare living, Nabokov translated and wrote book reviews. He also tutored Germans in EngIish and tennis, created and sold chess problems, and composed the first Russian-language crossword puzzles for a daily emigre paper.

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