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Referring to his father’s story “Conversation Piece, 1945,” and its fictionalized Cambridge-based soirée of bigots, I asked him about the Nabokovs’ first American decade. He recalled how, in planning their cross-country trips, he and his parents “were always both annoyed and amused” by an ad in The New Yorker for a “more or less pretentious hotel” that would say “‘churches nearby’ — a classic phrase.”
Like most of Vladimir Nabokov’s students, I had read about his dismay at hotel signs like “Gentile clientele only,” as I was also aware of a certain “polite prejudice” toward Jews in the academic and literary environment. I wanted to know whether Dmitri felt prejudice at St. Mark’s School or elsewhere. “Even in my age group at school,” he recalled, “somebody [was] saying, ‘Your mother is a Jew….’ It was not done in any greatly offensive style, but it was mentioned as if it were a negative point.”
“So did you fight?” I asked, remembering my own school years in the Soviet Union.
“No,” Dmitri replied, chuckling. “He didn’t say, ‘She’s a Jewish pig’ — nothing like that. But that word sort of floated by. It wasn’t strong enough an offense. I’ve fought on other occasions. That wasn’t one of them.”
He looked so much like both of his parents — so Russian and so Jewish. His voice grew especially tender when he remembered his mother. As dusk entered the room through the French doors, I asked him about Zinaida Shakhovskaya, an émigré author and a close acquaintance of Vladimir Nabokov in the 1930s. In postwar decades, Shakhovskaya spoke of Dmitri’s father’s talent “withering” under his mother’s Jewish influence.
“I’d say the exact opposite is true,” replied Dmitri Nabokov. “My mother did more for my father as a person and a writer than anyone else in the world could have.”
Maxim D. Shrayer’s books include “Yom Kippur in Amsterdam” (Syracuse University Press, 2009) and “I Saw It: Ilya Selvinsky and the Legacy of Bearing Witness to the Shoah” (Academic Studies Press).