Brain Pickings

Nabokov and Homeland Security: How Russia’s Most Revered Literary Émigré Became an American

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How a broken lock, a suitcase of dead butterflies, and a pair of boxing gloves became the backdrop of the making of a legend.

Born on April 22, 1899, Vladimir Nabokov — beloved author, butterfly-lover, no-bullshit lecturer, hater of clichés, man of strong opinions — endures as Russia’s most revered literary émigré export. While his journey to cultural acclaim in America was in many ways a story of hope, it was also one underpinned by profound sadness and loss that would come to permeate his work. After the Bolshevik Revolution, when Nabokov was only eighteen, his family was forced to flee their hometown of St. Petersburg. As refugees in nomadic exile, they finally settled in Berlin in 1920. Two years later, Nabokov’s father, who had become secretary of Russian Provisional Government, was killed by accident while trying to shield the real target of a political assassination. Shortly thereafter, Nabokov’s mother and sister moved to Prague, but he remained in Berlin and garnered considerable recognition as a poet. In 1923, he met Véra Evseyevna Slonim, the Jewish-Russian love of his life, with whom he’d remain for the rest of his days.

But Nabokov wasn’t destined for stable refuge. In 1940, when their only son Dmitri was just six years old, the Nazi occupation swept Europe as World War II reared its ominous head. In May of 1940, the Nabokovs, who had settled in France, fled from the menacing advance of the German troops and boarded the SS Champlain for America.

In The Secret History of Vladimir Nabokov (public library), Andrea Pitzer, founder of Harvard’s narrative nonfiction site Nieman Storyboard, shines an unprecedented, kaleidoscopic spotlight on the author’s largely enigmatic life and its complex political context, including his emigration to America:

Just before departure, Dmitri came down with a blistering fever. It was not clear whether or not he could travel, or would be permitted to. After a visit with their doctor, the Nabokovs got sulfa tablets to treat Dmitri’s symptoms and boarded their train. By the time they finished the six-hour ride to the harbor in a sleeping car, he had recovered.

The Champlain pulled away from the dock on May 19, 1940, leaving a continent behind. Two weeks later, bombs would fall on Paris. The following month, France would surrender and Luftwaffe planes flying over St. Nazaire would kill more than four thousand British soldiers in the midst of evacuating.

But the Nabokovs managed to outrun the havoc of war. On the ship’s roster, Nabokov was listed as Russian, Véra as Hebrew, and Dmitri as Russian, distinctions that would have become relevant if they had missed their ship. But they did not miss their ship, and could revel for a moment in the possibilities of what the New World might bring. None of them had seen it before, though surely it would have more to offer than the mossy corner of his mother’s property in Russia that her family had once nicknamed America. … Shipboard, he carried the story of a Central European refugee with a passion for young girls and a tale of a Russian émigré crushed by tragedy, along with a novel of two brothers and the distance between them that is fixed by death.

By the time the passengers on the Champlain lost sight of Europe, the first building of the Auschwitz concentration-camp complex had opened a thousand miles away in Poland.

[…]

Aboard the Champlain, the crew fired its guns at a whale, mistaking it for an enemy submarine, while Nabokov sailed more than three thousand miles across the Atlantic in a first-class cabin. The elegance of the trip contrasted sharply with the passengers’ desperation. Germany and Russia marched deeper into chaos; Paris wobbled at their departure. Arriving on May 26, the ship anchored off Quarantine for a day before sailing into New York Harbor.

Vladimir Nabokov's United States Immigration Identification Card

(Image courtesy Andrea Pitzer)

Though the circumstances of the Nabokovs’ escape were as devastating as history could afford, the logistics of their arrival in America seemed just as mundanely yet exasperatingly bureaucratic as what those of us who go through the process today face:

On the forms, Nabokov listed himself as an author and Véra as a housewife. Immigrants also had to answer a standard battery of questions about polygamous tendencies, physical defects, and mental health problems, and were required to assert repeatedly that they were not anarchists and had no intent to overthrow the government. The United States was not at war, but was very much worried about Communists and revolutionaries entering the country.

After they finished with immigration, the Nabokovs’ luggage still had to clear customs, but Véra could not find the key to their trunk. Waiting for a locksmith, Nabokov asked where to find a newspaper, and was given The New York Times by a porter. With the persuasion of an iron bar, the lock yielded to the locksmith, who promptly relocked it by mistake. When the trunk had finally been opened for good, customs officials remarked on the dead butterflies Nabokov had packed, and began to spar with the boxing gloves they found inside. Vladimir Nabokov was on his way to becoming an American.

Vladimir Nabokov's United States Certificate of Naturalization

(Image courtesy Andrea Pitzer)

Despite derailed plans by their greeting party, the ex-wife of Nabokov’s cousin, the family took a cab to her apartment and so began their new life in the city that, as E. B. White famously termed it, “blends the gift of privacy with the excitement of participation.” Pitzer writes:

Gifted with unfettered liberty (so long, apparently, as they did not promote anarchy), Vladimir and Véra made their way into Manhattan with a $100 bill and hope for better prospects.

For all the thrill of arrival on a new continent, Nabokov’s routine in the first few weeks must have seemed dispiritingly familiar. Living in a succession of temporary quarters, he once again tried to sell himself and his literary talents — the thing in which he had the most confidence in the world — to a public ignorant of their value.

And yet that very public would come to elevate Nabokov to the status of literary über-celebrity. What few realize, however — and what Pitzer reveals through newly-declassified intelligence files and rigorously researched military records — is that Nabokov wove serious and unsettling political history into the fabric of his fiction, which had gone undetected for decades: until now. Absorbing and illuminating, The Secret History of Vladimir Nabokov paints an unparalleled portrait of the author’s dimensional life and legacy, remarkably, without stripping his work of any of its magic.

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