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.


  1. My copy is called The Luzhin Defense.

  2. Sheesh. I knew perfectly well the standard translation is The Defense; I don’t know why I typed “Luzhin’s Defense,” but I’ve fixed it now. I haven’t seen The Luzhin Defense; who publishes it?

  3. “The Luzhin Defence” was the title given to the UK reissue after the release of the movie of the same name. I believe this was in 1999 or 2000.

  4. I posted something on this novel when I read it last year (in English and with a ‘c’ in “Defence” as you can see in the picture).

  5. It was a search for VV Sirin, many moons ago, what first cast me up on this delightful shore called languagehat.
    He held the Grand Order of the Republic of Acerbia. He was as American as April in Arizona. May his precious memory be blessed.

  6. Actually, my copy might just be called The Defense—my memory may have been influenced by your post. I haven’t read it in a while.

  7. I too prefer to read him in Russian; Spring in Fialta is my favorite.
    Still, when I’m not in the mood for Bunin’s undertones (which quite possible I’m only imagining)I turn to Ada; never fails to give me a good shake.

  8. One angle on Lolita I haven’t seen raised is that, like “On the Road”, it was a road book. He has lots of stuff about driving around, motels, etc.
    In the intro to “Lolita”, Nabakov referred to “mediocrities hacking out novels with their sweaty thumbs” or something like that, but I think that he meant Norman Mailer and James Jones, et al, since he specifically referred to war novels IIRC. However, I suspect that he would have been happy to have included Kerouac in his slam.

  9. Another VV gem: after mentioning the death of a young woman he explained the circumstances in a two-word parenthetical: (picnic, lightning).
    A true genius.

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