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26 September 2018

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Chasing Nabokov

Author: Diana Bruk

Mar/Apr 2014
Page 42   ( 6 pages)

Summary: In which a scholar of the great Russian-American writer goes in search of Nabokov’s other family estate.


“You have to walk through the path that runs through the entire village. You’ll pass by an abandoned electrical factory, a bunch of huts, and a tractor standing in front of a large mound of dirt. Turn right there and walk for about ten minutes, and when you reach a little meadow and see an oak grove to your left and hear a waterfall to your right, you’ll be standing in the spot where Nabokov’s house used to be.”

These were the instructions given to me by the tour guide at the Nabokov estate on how to get to Vyra. Vyra. The country home Nabokov had described with such languorous longing and parched nostalgia in Speak Memory, Mary, and countless Russian poems, where he had discovered through nature those literary techniques that he would later release through art.

Vyra was where he had experienced those first thrills of what he termed aesthetic bliss: “a lark ascending the curds-and-whey sky of a dull spring day, heat lightning taking pictures of a distant line of trees in the night, the palette of maple leaves on brown sand, a small bird’s cuneate footprints on new snow.”*

This was where he learned of the transformative power of perspective, while peering at the garden through the harlequin patterns of their veranda: “If one looked through blue glass, the sand turned to cinders while inky trees swam in a tropical sky. The yellow created an amber world infused with an extra strong brew of sunshine. The red made the foliage drip ruby dark upon a pink footpath. The green soaked greenery in a greener green.”

This was where he and his mother would go mushroom-hunting in a fir-lined forest that possessed “that special boletic reek which makes a Russian’s nostrils dilate – a dark, dank, satisfying blend of damp moss, rich earth, rotting leaves.” It was the magic of these childhood hide-and-seek games that he imbued into his novels, in which the author hides what the reader must joyfully seek.

The Nabokovs were one of the last truly aristocratic Russian families, and as such they had a house in St. Petersburg in which they lived throughout the year, and three country estates in which they spent their treasured summers. His mother’s estate, Vyra (Nazis, fire), his grandmother’s estate, Batovo (Bolsheviks, fire), and his grandfather’s estate, Rozhdestveno, which he inherited and promptly lost. Of the trifecta, only the Rozhdestveno manor remains.

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