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Son of a Nabokov

What Dmitri Nabokov’s curious life tells us about his remarkable father – and the challenges of being a famous writer’s child

Dmitri Nabokov and his father, Vladimir, at dinner in 1961.

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Dmitri Nabokov and his father, Vladimir, at dinner in 1961.

The greatest literary memoir of the 20th century, Vladimir Nabokov’s “Speak, Memory,” ends with an emblematic image, that of Nabokov standing alongside his 6-year-old son Dmitri as they gaze at the ship that will carry them from France to safety. Over the preceding pages, the author has survived numerous losses and brushes with danger, fleeing not one but two totalitarian regimes: the Soviets and the Nazis. And while that memoir has many moving moments, none are more so than those dedicated to filial love — Nabokov’s love for his father, Vladimir Dmitrievich Nabokov, assassinated in 1922, and for his young son, Dmitri Vladimirovich Nabokov.

Dmitri Nabokov — opera singer, race car driver, translator, and, perhaps, spy — died last month in Vevey, Switzerland, at the age of 77. In his later years, he was best known as the curator of his father’s literary estate, and — most notably — for the scandal sparked by his publication of an unfinished work his father wanted destroyed, “The Original of Laura.” But long before “Laura,” Dmitri Nabokov was known for activities in stark contrast to those his father enjoyed.

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Sons generally want to be like their fathers, all the more so when their fathers are kind, caring, loving, and remarkably talented. And yet sons also need to be different from their fathers. Few families demonstrate this more clearly than the three generations of Nabokov men presented in “Speak, Memory.” Vladimir Nabokov’s father was a renowned jurist and a prominent and courageous political figure. His eldest son — who would go on to be one of the greatest writers of the century — revered his father and yet showed not a glimmer of interest in either law or politics, turning his energies instead to literature and lepidoptery.

By the time that he in turn became a father, Vladimir Nabokov displayed a startling array of talents, but there were two things which he could not do. He had a nearly complete inability to enjoy or interest himself in music (to the point that Oliver Sacks includes him in a list of music-related pathologies). And despite far above average intelligence and excellent hand-eye coordination (he taught tennis and boxing as a young man, and hunted butterflies up and down Alpine slopes well into his 70s), he proved stubbornly unable to learn to drive a car.

And so it is notable that his son Dmitri first embarked on parallel careers as an opera singer and race car driver, only to dedicate the final decades of his life to his father’s literary legacy. His choice of careers, like that of his father before him, reveals something fundamental about the tension between becoming your own man and becoming your father.

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DMITRI NABOKOV WAS born in Berlin in 1934. In 1937, he fled that city with his parents for Paris (his mother was Jewish); three years later, the family fled from the Nazis again, this time to the United States. When their boat docked in New York in 1940, his father was one of the most famous and respected Russian emigré writers. He was also essentially penniless, and in his search for work soon secured a much-needed job at Harvard engaging his other primary passion — lepidoptery. The family moved to Cambridge and found a cramped apartment at 8 Craigie Circle. “Every day including Sundays,” Nabokov later recalled, “I would spend up to 10 hours studying the structure of certain butterflies in the laboratorial paradise of the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology.”

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In the hours remaining to him during this period (1942-1948), Nabokov taught Russian literature at Wellesley College, played with his son (who attended Dexter School in Brookline, where JFK had studied a decade and a half earlier), and wrote his second novel in English, “Bend Sinister.” That book is about many things, but perhaps nothing so much as the love of a father for his young son, and that father’s fear of losing him — as Nabokov had indeed feared losing the half-Jewish Dmitri under the Nazis in Europe.

In 1948, a full professorship in literature at Cornell took the Nabokovs to Ithaca, N.Y. Dmitri, however, soon returned to Greater Boston to attend St. Marks School in Southborough. He went on to Harvard, for which the pre-“Lolita” Nabokov had to borrow heavily, and then the Longy School of Music, where he studied voice and piano.

At this point in Dmitri Nabokov’s story, things take a decidedly dashing turn. After graduating from Harvard in 1955, he was admitted to Harvard Law School. Much to his parents’ consternation he decided, however, to pursue the twin destinies of singer and driver over the field — law — in which his grandfather had excelled. And, just maybe, he began his life as a spy.

What is known is that Dmitri enlisted in the US Army as an instructor of military Russian, went to Italy, and was, like his father, fiercely anti-Communist. In Italy he led fast-paced social and professional lives. He raced Ferraris. In 1961 he made his operatic debut, aptly enough, in “La Bohème” in Reggio Emilia. (Although he took first prize for the basso division, a tenor who was also premiering stole the show: Luciano Pavarotti.) His reputation as a playboy was soon such that the Italian press gave him the abundantly absurd nickname “Lolito.” That this was conveniently flamboyant cover for anti-Communist espionage is something at which Dmitri liked to hint. It is the subject of some speculation, but no certainty (at his death he was at work on his memoirs). But whatever secret life he may have been leading, whether or not he went to Italy on a mission of state, Dmitri remained there, and his presence led his parents to choose nearby Montreux, Switzerland, as their place of retirement in 1961.

Throughout these years, Dmitri remained extremely close to his parents, and intensely proud of his father’s literary accomplishments. As “Lolita”’s fame brought increased interest in Nabokov’s earlier Russian works, Dmitri began to collaborate with his father on their translations. His first attempt in this field had been unpromising. In 1955 his father had arranged for Dmitri — who had just graduated from Harvard cum laude after writing a thesis on Pushkin and Shakespeare — to translate Lermontov’s “A Hero of Our Time.” At Harvard for a visiting professorship in literature, Nabokov would pass by his son’s convertible — whose top had long ceased to work — every morning to check his progress in an increasingly dog-eared and rain-soaked copy of the book. As progress slowed to a halt, Vladimir took over.

A decade later, however, Dmitri’s dedication had significantly increased. To his parallel professions of singer and driver, he added that of translator. Dmitri collaborated with his father on a long series of translations of the latter’s Russian novels, stories, plays, and poems into English, chief among which were “King, Queen, Knave” in 1968 and “Glory” in 1971. After his father’s death in 1977, Dmitri became, alongside of his mother, the co-custodian of a vast literary estate.

Five years later, something happened to set Dmitri even more decisively on this literary course. A horrific car accident in 1982 left him with a broken neck and severe burns over nearly half his body. This effectively ended both his singing and his driving careers — as well as fixing his resolution to dedicate himself to his father’s literary legacy. This was left to his sole stewardship after his mother’s death in 1991, and involved a wide range of activities, from unearthing, translating, and publishing manuscripts long thought lost (such as the 1930s precursor to “Lolita,” “The Enchanter”), to sifting through and selling archival material to the New York Public Library; from translating and publishing his father’s “Collected Stories” to conferences, colloquia, and seminars — and to legal suits. In 1999, he threatened the Italian novelist Pia Pera with a lawsuit for her retelling of the tale of “Lolita” from the perspective of the little girl, “Lo’s Diary.” They eventually reached an agreement that an English translation could be published on the condition that it be accompanied by a preface by Dmitri himself, in which he argues that the book the reader is holding is not only tasteless, but at least as poorly written in the original Italian as it appears in translation.

The greatest scandal of Dmitri’s stewardship was, however, of his own prompting, and proved his last. Vladimir Nabokov had strong opinions about posthumous publication: He forbade it. In the case of each of his final two completed novels, “Transparent Things” and “Look at the Harlequins!”, the aging author had made abundantly clear that should he die before their completion they were to be destroyed. The same injunction was laid on “The Original of Laura,” the novel left unfinished at his death in 1977.

Despite his declarations on the matter, Nabokov’s “Lectures on Literature,” along with his “Lectures on Russian Literature” and “Lectures on Don Quixote,” were, with the approval of his wife and son, published after his death. These books, however, did not represent unpolished or unfinished work. Nabokov composed the lectures before his arrival in America in 1940 and revised them over the course of the next 10 years of teaching. As a violation of wishes general (no posthumous publication) and specific (burn “The Original of Laura”), the “novel in fragments,” as it was subtitled, was a far greater violation, and was seen as such upon its publication in 2009. The greatest indignation and disappointment, however, were reserved for the introduction Dmitri wrote for it. The Irish novelist and critic John Banville called this introduction “a lamentable performance, stridently defensive, slippery on particulars, and frequently repellent in tone.” Alexander Theroux qualified it as “nonsensical, snobbish and cruel.” Such things are profoundly subjective matters, but there can be no doubt that Dmitri Nabokov did not show his best side or make the best case for his decision.

A life in — and alongside — letters is as complex as any other, and as resistant to graceful thematic arcs and harmonious conclusions. Many sons can indeed only find space to become their own man, to become themselves, by rebelling against their fathers. But what one finds in the long and rich life of Dmitri Nabokov is nothing on the order of a rebellion. Instead, it represents the quest of a son to develop his talents and follow his passions — first and foremost what his father once called our “innate passion for independence.”

Leland de la Durantaye is the author of “Style Is Matter: The Moral Art of Vladimir Nabokov” and “Giorgio Agamben: A Critical Introduction.” He is the Holtzbrinck Fellow at the American Academy in Berlin.

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