Nabokov’s Jewish Family
A friendship with an ambassador reveals the great writer’s surprising relationship with Israel
One day in 2000, Arieh Levavi took me into his rather cold apartment on the Ha-Palmach Street in old New Jerusalem. The house was in a garden and had a balcony overlooking the trees, which were spreading out their green fan fingers and poking them into the windows. Leather-bound albums covered with a thin layer of dust, with labels showing the year and location, which had been fastidiously pasted on and had now been faded by time, contained scenes from Israeli life with the dark-complexioned Levavi children, and all of this was punctuated by events from his career: There is Levavi in a frock coat shaking hands with a Cardinal; there he is next to a Monsieur with the Most Noble Order of the Garter or some Legion of Honor badge; here we have a reception in honor of a foreign affairs minister; and there is the face of a tribal bigwig—with the eyes of a satiated boa constrictor but wearing a coat entirely appropriate for the occasion.
These were evidence of importance, acquired over a quarter century as an Israeli diplomat. But it was only during my second meeting with Levavi that I came to understand his charm—and finally grasped how he had enchanted Vladimir Nabokov.
“How much time did Nabokov spend drawing these butterflies?” I asked Levavi, pointing at the inside of a book cover. To anyone else this might have seemed like a silly question. But as I now know, one could write a book about any view expounded on by the master without ever learning such a remarkable minute detail—something no encyclopedia could divulge and about which the most painstaking biography has nothing to say.
Levavi answered just as he ought to have done, and I was given a photographic description of a gesture: “It took Nabokov about 20 minutes for each butterfly. He went into his rooms and returned to the hotel lobby with a pack of colored pencils, which he carefully picked over. He wanted everything to look as though it were being done properly.”
For many years, Arieh Levavi was the epitome of a cinematic hero or, in a pinch, a literary character. He was the Golem from Jewish folklore. He was the stuff from which the Kinbotes and Shades of Swiss origin were made: a blueblood of purely Jewish extraction at an almost imperceptible level. In a yellowed photograph at 55 years of age he looks every inch a Robert De Niro, even with the famous birthmark beside his nose. In images from his time in Switzerland he looks like something out of a James Bond film: Levavi in dark glasses and an overcoat down to his heels with an upturned collar, all against the backdrop of the snowy Alps. Or else he is in the company of stout men at a wooden table set with beer mugs at some Alpine campsite, while behind them, as if in a dream, stretch the filaments of the lift, with little red droplet compartments vanishing into the mountain gorges.
More specifically, though, Levavi was the Israeli ambassador to Switzerland, a position he held from 1967 to 1975. For purposes of cultural exchange between the two countries, the budget of the Israeli embassy allocated money to invite luminaries from Switzerland to visit Jerusalem. Organizing these trips did not require any special approval from the ministries of foreign affairs and culture, so the choice of whom to invite was left to the ambassador himself. Levavi decided to include Nabokov in the list of candidates invited by him.
Nabokov not only agreed but apparently resolved to make serious preparations for the upcoming journey. He asked Levavi to bring materials that might help him become better acquainted with contemporary Israeli culture and with Israeli history. During his next visit to Nabokov in Montreux, Levavi brought a gift of an entire stack of books from various fields, from works on Zionism to monographs on the governmental structure of the country. “I really did not clearly understand what Nabokov had in mind,” said Levavi, recalling this scene. But among the editions was one specimen that elated Nabokov. “I do not know whether he read anything related to political philosophy,” Levavi recalled. “Judging by his answers, it seemed to me that he did not even look at those works, and if he did read the table of contents it was merely to be polite. But, just in case, I had brought a two-volume set on the flora of Israel from my personal library in Switzerland. Nabokov took an extraordinary liking to this edition, examined the illustrations at great length, and often brought up this book later on in the conversation.” When he returned home, Levavi ordered a duplicate of the set of books he had given to Nabokov in the 1970s. And until his death in 2009, Levavi’s Jerusalem apartment contained the two volumes of Flora Palaestina issued by the Hebrew University publishing house.
In a subtle but insistent way, life always seemed to be trying to bring Levavi and Nabokov together, making preparations for a future meeting. Nabokov, who was fond of seeing the rhythm of fate in the symmetry of events, would himself later make note of this fact during one of their meetings. They had spent their childhood and youth in the same capital city, in Russia. Twenty years later, after their emigration from Petrograd, they lived for several years practically on parallel streets in a different capital city, in Germany. And after another 30 years they both found themselves in Switzerland: Levavi in service to his country, and Nabokov in service to his Muse.
Arieh Levavi was born in Vilnius in 1912 and, according to various sources from Israel, he also grew up there. But when memory speaks aloud, it is apt to err, particularly when it comes to numbers. Levavi’s mother was a direct descendant of the Vilna Gaon, a symbol of Jewish wisdom who lived in the “Lithuanian Jerusalem” more than 200 years ago. A somewhat religious woman, she decided to bear her child in the city of her ancestors, taking a special trip there from Russia.
“My mother had great hopes in going to give birth to me in Vilnius, where I spent exactly one week of my entire life, and that the very first week of my life. The blessed woman believed that at least one of her three sons (I was the youngest) would walk in the footsteps of the Vilna Gaon,” Levavi told me. “My poor mother was sadly mistaken.” At this thought, the gray-haired Levavi banged his stick against the stone floor of his apartment and smiled for some reason—maybe a ghost, hiding behind my shoulder and seen only by him. Rather than turn around, I continued to look at this vigorous 89-year-old man with his clever blue eyes.
His family was forced to leave St. Petersburg during the Russian Civil War, immediately after the October revolution, in the spring of 1918. Levavi’s family, like Nabokov’s, fled to the Crimean Peninsula, where they lived quite well for several months at a dacha there. But military movements had led to Crimea being cut off for the time being from the territory where the Bolshevik dictatorship had been established. There was no hope of returning to Petersburg. As Levavi put it, that was when “the great saga” began.
A Yale president’s forebear was an enigmatic and pro-Christian member of the famed rabbinic dynasty