Wednesday, March 28, 2018

`They Sit Apart, Frowning at the Floor'

On March 28, 1922, Vladimir Dmitrievich Nabokov, the novelist’s father, was murdered in the Berlin Philharmonic Hall by Russian monarchists. The former Russian foreign minister, Pavel Milyukov, was delivering a lecture – “America and the Restoration of Russia” -- to a crowd of some 1,500. The event was sponsored by the exiled Constitutional Democratic Party -- the Kadets – formed during the Russian Revolution of 1905. The Kadets are customarily described as “liberal” in the Russian context. They favored an eight-hour work day and Jewish emancipation. After seizing power the Bolsheviks issued an arrest warrant for the senior Nabokov. As a member of the first Duma, in 1906, he had already been deprived of court rank and imprisoned by the Tsarist government.

Two far-right monarchists, Peter Shabelsky-Bork and Sergey Taboritsky, entered the Berlin hall intending to kill Milyukov. One of them fired a revolver at him and shouted, “For the tsar’s family and Russia.” Nabokov leaped from his seat, grabbed the arm of the shooter – Shabelsky-Bork -- and tried to disarm him. Taboritsky shot Nabokov three times, killing him almost instantly. Seven others were wounded but Milyukov remained unharmed.
See Brian Boyd’s Vladimir Nabokov: The Russian Years (1990) for a more detailed account, including the entry from the future novelist’s diary written on the day of the killing. Boyd says it “prefigures his innovative handling of emotional crisis in his fiction.” It also prefigures the recurrent theme of mistaken murder, as in Pale Fire when the buffoonish Jakob Gradus assassinates John Shade. In Speak, Memory, the loveliest autobiography in the language, Nabokov remembers his father and others among the dead:

“Whenever in my dreams I see the dead, they always appear silent, bothered, strangely depressed, quite unlike their dear, bright selves. I am aware of them, without any astonishment, in surroundings they never visited during their earthly existence, in the house of some friend of mine they never knew. They sit apart, frowning at the floor, as if death were a dark taint, a shameful family secret. It is certainly not then -- not in dreams -- but when one is wide awake, at moments of robust joy and achievement, on the highest terrace of consciousness, that mortality has a chance to peer beyond its own limits, from the mast, from the past and its castle tower. And although nothing much can be seen through the mist, there is somehow the blissful feeling that one is looking in the right direction.”   

See also, at the end of Chap. 1, his father’s “marvelous case of levitation.”

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