Apr. 23, 2009
From a Bus Window in Central Ohio, Just Before a Thunder Shower
Cribs loaded with roughage huddle together
Before the north clouds.
The wind tiptoes between poplars.
The silver maple leaves squint
Toward the ground.
An old farmer, his scarlet face
Apologetic with whiskey, swings back a barn door
And calls a hundred black-and-white Holsteins
From the clover field.
It's the birthday of novelist Vladimir Nabokov, (books by this author) born in St Petersburg, Russia (1899). He said he grew up "a perfectly normal trilingual child in a family with a large library." They had a large town home in St. Petersburg and a country estate. His governesses taught him to read and write English before his native Russian. When the Bolsheviks came to power in Russia, Nabokov's family was forced to flee. They escaped to Germany, but had to leave behind their fortune. Nabokov's father was a lawyer, a journalist, and a politician; he was assassinated at a political rally in Berlin the same year that Nabokov went off to Cambridge to study literature. After graduation, Nabokov returned to Germany, where he supported himself by giving language lessons, teaching tennis and boxing, and creating crossword puzzles and chess problems.
At night, he wrote, sitting in the family bathroom so that the light wouldn't bother people who were sleeping. He wrote his first nine novels in Russian, as well as dozens of short stories and plays.
In 1939, when he was 40 years old, he was invited to give a lecture on Slavic languages at Stanford University. He decided to stay and become an American citizen, and he started to write in English instead of Russian. With the help of his friend Edmund Wilson, he became a regular contributor to The New Yorker magazine.
Wilson and Nabokov were close friends during the 1940s and 1950s, and they exchanged hundreds of letters. And then Edmund Wilson wrote a very unflattering review of Nabokov's translation of Eugene Onegin, and he accused Nabokov of "faulty" Russian, and after that they became personal enemies.
Nabokov loved butterfly hunting, and he and his wife, Vera, traveled across the country every summer in search of butterflies. During one of these road trips, he was struck by an idea and started taking notes on index cards, and they became his most famous novel, Lolita (1955). The New York Times review said the book was "highbrow pornography." But despite mixed reviews, the book sold extremely well, and Hollywood bought the film rights. Nabokov was able to quit teaching and devote himself to writing. He moved into a hotel in Switzerland on the shore of Lake Geneva, where, with his wife, he spent the last 20 years of his life. He said, "I don't fish, cook, dance, endorse books, sign declarations, eat oysters, get drunk, go to analysts, or take part in any demonstrations. I'm a mild old gentleman, very kind."
He said: "Seeing things as if they were new is funny in itself. The unusual is funny in itself. A man slips and falls down. It is the contrary of gravity in both senses."
Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®