To celebrate the birthday of Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov, and perhaps to tweak him a little (he “wanted to be valued more as an American writer than a Russian one”), I’ll tell the story of how I came to realize what a wonderful Russian writer he was. It took me a little over a paragraph. I had decided (for reasons that escape me now) to read his early novel Zashchita Luzhina (translated as The Defense); Chapter 1 begins with a teasingly vague conversation between a couple who had been worrying about telling their son… something; the father says he took it well. Thank God, says the mother.
The next paragraph starts with the statement that that was a real relief, and continues: Все лето – быстрое дачное лето, состоящее в общем из трех запахов: сирень, сенокос, сухие листья – все лето они обсуждали вопрос… [Vsyo léto – býstroye dáchnoye leto, sostoyáshcheye v óbshchem iz tryókh zápakhov: sirén’, senokós, sukhíye líst’ya – vsyo leto oní obsuzhdáli voprós…: ‘The whole summer – the quick dacha summer, consisting on the whole of three smells: lilac, haymaking, dry leaves – the whole summer they had discussed the question…]. I was stopped in my tracks by the phrase set off by dashes; not only did the phrase siren’, senokos, sukhiye list’ya [lilac, haymaking, dry leaves] brilliantly sum up the experience of a summer in the country by means of three distinctive smells corresponding to the early, middle, and late parts of the season, but the phrase itself, with its seductive sibilants and perfectly placed vowels (soo-KHEE-ya LEES-tya), sank instantly into the memory like a lyric poem. I repeated it to myself, enjoying its taste on my tongue, and continued reading with the comfortable feeling that I was in the hands of a writer who would continually surprise and delight me. I was not disappointed.
Incidentally, as I was turning this post over in my mind my wife said to me “Are you going to do a post on Nabokov, since it’s his birthday?” Memo to those who wish to preserve a facade of impenetrable mystery: do not get married.