Dmitri Nabokov, the only child of Vladimir Nabokov and Véra Nabokov (nee Slonim), died 22 February, 2012, in Vevey, Switzerland, at the age of 77. Dmitri Nabokov was a person of many gifts and was one of the most dedicated Jewish sons I have ever encountered.
In responding to his parents’ critics — or to what he perceived as transgressions against his parents’ will and vision — he was sometimes intemperate, perhaps tyrannical. But his counterattacks and pre-emptive strikes were almost always elegant and witty. He reacted with a special vehemence to misreadings of his parents’ legacy by Russian chauvinists.
When it came to reflecting on crucial aspects of his father’s art, Dmitri Nabokov the critic, translator and interpreter usually got it right.
In December 2011, I traveled to Crimea to conduct research on the mass executions of Jews in November and December 1941. On the way there I visited Dmitri in Montreux, Switzerland. I had been corresponding with him since 1994 and had previously visited him. This December evening was different because we spoke mostly about various Jewish and Judaic questions and intersections in his parents’ lives — and in his own. The gallery of Jewish characters in Vladimir Nabokov’s fiction had been a subject of my perennial fascination. I was very keen to talk at length about this topic to his son. The conversation — our last one, as destiny had it — was not a formal interview but rather the beginning of a projected series of conversations.
Clad in shorts and a polo shirt, Dmitri Nabokov exuded energy and determination. He towered over the objects in the sitting room. An iPad, which I used to record the conversation, had to be propped up by a dozen thick tomes to be the same height as his shoulders and head.
“How do you feel [your mother] was Jewish? What was Jewish for her?” I asked him.
“To the extent that she could answer lots of question,” he said. “To the extent that she knew all kinds of civic and historical and social things that not everybody, not even all Jews, know. That was because she was a very cultured person who went beneath the surface of many things. [Jewishness] was never a social concern and never a social discomfort. On the contrary, I could ask her all kinds of things that only a cultured Jewish person would know, even though she was never a professional Jew.”
“[My father] very much shared his own father’s very strong opposition to anti-Semitism, was close to Jewish culture in many ways — not typical for a young Russian man [of his time and milieu],” Dmitri Nabokov observed.
“In my work,” I said, “I [had] argued that your father had developed an interest in Jewish things, and even in Judaic philosophy, before he met your mother [in 1923 in Berlin], except it’s hard to prove.”