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Sunday, July 13, 2008

The Sunday Salvation


The International Herald Tribune reports:

Nina Khrushcheva [shown above], the great-granddaughter of Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet leader who boasted that the Soviet Union would catch up with and overtake the United States, has a different model for post-Soviet Russians making their way in the Western world: the life and works of Vladimir Nabokov [the statute in the picture], the émigré writer who became a giant in the West decades before being acknowledged in Russia.

The Moscow publisher Vremya recently released her book, "V Gostiakh U Nabokova," or "Visiting Nabokov," first published in English in 2007 by Yale University Press as "Imagining Nabokov," a slightly different version. Khrushcheva was in Moscow in June, lecturing on individual freedom and national identity, which are at the heart of her book.

Freedom, as it was understood during the Putin era, was the antithesis of Nabokov's own understanding of the term, Khrushcheva said in an interview.

"I think Putin stops at Dostoyevsky," she said, musing on whether Vladimir Putin had read Nabokov. "I think Nabokov would be very threatening to his whole worldview. He doesn't really provide for any exceptionalism and sovereign democracy."

"The 'American' Nabokov of the second half of the twentieth century is the most important cultural and literary phenomenon for Russia in the first half of the twenty-first," writes Khrushcheva in the book.

Both editions deconstruct "Pnin," "Pale Fire," "Ada, or Ardor: A Family Chronicle" and other works by Nabokov as breaking with the Russian literary tradition of suffering epitomized by Gogol and Dostoyevsky and nurtured by fatalistic, submissive Russian Orthodox culture.

Nabokov depicts characters who "take responsibility for their own lives," Khrushcheva writes.

"He is our textbook, and our road map for today's transitional period from a closed and communal terrain to its Western alternative, one open and competitive," she continues. "How to survive and succeed in this Western world, which Russia always deemed linear, cold and calculating: this is what the art of Vladimir Nabokov teaches us."

Khrushcheva dedicates "Imagining Nabokov" to Andrei Sinyavsky, the Soviet dissident author who wrote under the pen name Abram Tertz. His essay "Strolls With Pushkin," written in prison camp and shocking at the time, is an irreverent take on Russia's god of literary gods.

Likewise, "Imagining Nabokov" and its Russian counterpart, "Visiting Nabokov," are far from dry literary analyses. Khrushcheva converses with the statue of Nabokov in Montreux, Switzerland. He comes alive and responds, citing passages from his works.

In June, Ex Libris, the literary supplement of the Moscow newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta, praised the "amazing lightness and sincerity" of "Visiting Nabokov." Khrushcheva has also been taken to task, on the basis of her ancestry, for daring to approach Nabokov.

Nabokov was forced out of Bolshevik Russia and fled Nazi Europe for America, where he realized his passion for butterflies as an entomologist at Harvard and taught literature at Cornell University. He then returned to Europe and settled in a hotel in Montreux.

"Nabokov showed others how to live now - in a world with open borders, among different people, different cultures," writes Khrushcheva. "He showed us how to live in the new solitude of multiple worlds."

She recalls her repellant introduction to Nabokov - a cardboard-bound, carbon copy, or samizdat, of "Lolita" that was furtively passed around - but then describes how she grew to identify with his writing.

In 1991, just as the Soviet Union was collapsing, Khrushcheva went to the United States, where she earned a degree in comparative literature at Princeton University. She now teaches international affairs at the New School in New York. At a 1999 exhibition at the New York Public Library, "Nabokov Under Glass," honoring the 100th anniversary of his birth, the writer's notebooks, with their constant, organic interchange between Russian and English, captivated Khrushcheva.

"Those who live in several languages know, and at times can almost sense, how their minds wander not between words but between worlds," she writes of the experience, so close to her own. "Nabokov is me!"

Nabokov, who as a member of the well-educated Russian gentry was trilingual, wrote his first works in Russian, then switched to English and translated some of his own books, including "Lolita."

In a Nabokovian twist, Khrushcheva wrote her books in parallel - in English and Russian - with some variation based on cultural context. The conversations with the statue of Nabokov in the English-language version were jarring to her American editor and moved up closer to the beginning of the book, where they were explained, said Khrushcheva, while the Russian editor had no problem with the long passages quoting Nabokov in English.

In "Imagining Nabokov," her literary and political interests have converged. Khrushcheva lectured on the book last month in London at the Royal Society of Arts and Pushkin House.

Khrushcheva outlines the way responses to Nabokov changed under Vladimir Putin's presidency. In 2001, she taught a course called "Nabokov and Us" at Moscow State University and found that the "post-postcommunist new-century kids" in her class had wholeheartedly embraced Nabokov's worldview, calling him "our Pushkin."

By 2006, she writes, young listeners at her lecture at the Nabokov Museum in St. Petersburg responded by downplaying Nabokov's social and political significance, saying that Russia was strong enough to find its own way.

But there are signs of a new openness to Nabokov. Elena Nemirovskaya, the founder and director of the Moscow School of Political Studies, which runs seminars about civil society, was impressed by Khrushcheva's book and invited her to lecture there on June 12, Russia's independence day.

"This book shows that through the wonderful language of Nabokov, the modern embodiment of genius of the Russian language, we can read how language forms identity," Nemirovskaya said.

Nabokov's transition from Russian to English marked a quest for personal responsibility, she added. "I make a choice and I want to realize my freedom and answer for it."

Nabokov, after years of writing in English, compared his Russian language to "frozen strawberries."

Sergei Sulimsky, a Moscow-born lawyer and Nabokov enthusiast who is based in London and commutes between the two cities, wrote by e-mail: "The taste of the frozen strawberry on the tip of my tongue still keeps me going as distinctively Russian through my English odyssey and helps me to feel not as conspicuous reading a Penguin paperback of 'Ada' on the Moscow underground.

"Nabokov taught us how to remain Russian without Russia."

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