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Nabokov’s Jewish Family

A friendship with an ambassador reveals the great writer’s surprising relationship with Israel

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(Collage Tablet Magazine; original images courtesy of the author)

The gentlemen found each other to be engaging conversation partners, and Levavi, who had an automobile with a personal chauffeur, made a practice of going to see Nabokov in Montreux, which was about two hours’ drive from Bern, where the Israeli embassy residences were located. Visits to Nabokov were usually combined with other diplomatic activities in the region, and the meetings with the writer were scheduled as “dessert” on the daily agenda, in the second half of the day. Levavi took note of a curious detail that was typical of his meetings with Nabokov: The author would invariably appear in an immaculate three-piece suit, and “his entire mien seemed to express a level of respect for the position of ambassador that I myself did not even have.” To be sure, Levavi was also in formal dress, if only because of the other affairs he was attending to that day.

The meetings took place in the foyer of Le Montreux Palace Hotel, which had comfortable chairs, while waiters poured drinks—from refreshing waters to elegant French wines. They talked in English: Although Levavi of course spoke Russian, his wife Rika, who attended these meetings with him, did not know the language well. As is the wont of those in diplomatic service, Levavi knew very well how to distinguish dialects, and he instantly identified the Cambridge coloration of Nabokov’s English. (“He spoke classical English, very far from the American or Canadian versions,” Levavi told me.)

Strangely enough, Levavi did not suspect before their first meeting that Nabokov’s wife was Jewish. Nabokov, who was not only an attentive host, but also had an indomitable sense of humor, at one point noticed that his guest’s glance lingered momentarily on Véra’s profile and resolved his doubts by saying “Yes, Yes! She is a Jew.” Everyone had a good laugh.

But the philo-Semite in the family appears to have been the writer, not his wife. Nabokov’s own father, Vladimir Dmitrievich, strongly opposed anti-Semitism; after a pogrom in the city of Kishinev in April 1903, he published his famous article titled “The Bloodbath of Kishinev” denouncing the state-backed atrocities against the Russian Jews. What probably neither of the Nabokovs knew was that one of their own ancestors was actually a Jewish convert to Christianity, a fact that came to light only in 1997 during an archival discovery at the University of Kazan, which retains Nabokov’s great-grandfather’s dossier.

Levavi’s impression was that the author’s wife, Véra Slonim Nabokov, having been raised in an assimilated Jewish family, knew little about Judaism. Incidentally, the ambassador himself presumed, based on Véra’s stories about the place where her family lived in Ukraine, that the family was descended from the famous rabbinical Slonim family, as the surname is not terribly common. In conversations about Israel, the Nabokovs were most interested in matters related to the spiritual life of young people. Nabokov recalled that almost half of his class at the Tenishev Academy in Petersburg had been made up of Jewish children. His closest childhood friend, Samuil Rozov—who served as a prototype for an episodic character in Nabokov’s novel Pnin—lived in Haifa. The two men remained close for their entire lifetimes, with Rozov also frequently inviting Nabokov to come for a visit.

In any case, Nabokov’s conversations with Levavi focused primarily on literary interests. Levavi confessed that his tastes did not always correspond to those of Nabokov. For example, Levavi was a great fan of Thomas Mann, whom Nabokov “could not stand.” Levavi was less experienced in Russian literary matters, but this did not prevent Nabokov from sharing with him a few thoughts on the arduous piece of work he had just completed in producing his English translation and commentary of Eugene Onegin. Apparently harboring a grudge against the American critic Edmund Wilson (formerly his friend), even in his discussions with Levavi Nabokov would go off on detailed tangents about his disagreements with Wilson on translation theory. Nabokov’s own novels were a less frequent topic of conversation. Ever a true diplomat, Levavi avoided discussing books in the presence of their authors, not because he believed himself to be a dilettante, but more likely because he believed such discussions to be improper. Nabokov was certainly aware that his acquaintance was not only familiar with his works but had read some of them more than once, for example Lolita. (Levavi had read the Russian novels in English, not knowing that they were originally written in Russian.)

Their conversations would eventually come to encompass a broader range of themes, though they basically never touched on politics. Levavi related how Nabokov, even in his 70s, boasted of his parents. As Levavi told it, he was struck by the fact that whenever the conversation turned to Swiss cuisine, Nabokov gleefully recalled that, when he lived in Petersburg, his mother never once set foot in the household kitchen, nor did she even know what it looked like, because these duties were always performed by servants.

***

Because of the gap in the documentation and the length of the time in question, it is difficult at this point to reconstruct the exact sequence of events associated with preparations for Nabokov’s abortive visit to Israel. However, in all likelihood, Levavi’s insistence and charm were victorious at some point.

Nabokov relented and made a “knight’s move,” shifting the planned voyage to a year earlier, i.e., the spring of 1971. This we may surmise from an epistle that we have dated Feb. 28, 1971. However, when the time of the spring visit was approaching, Nabokov sent the ambassador a somewhat disappointed letter:

Dear Mr. Levavi,

I find it embarrassing to write this letter, especially after all the kindness and attention you showed me. I can only explain the making, remaking, and unmaking of my mind in relation to your Government’s invitation by the highly complicated life I am leading, Such matters as the redeepening shadow of a business trip to America, where the LOLITA musical is undergoing awful difficulties, or the nightmare prospect of having to check the French translation of my huge ADA right at the time when I would have liked to be in your country, and various other worries, may prevent me from visiting Israel this year [italics added]. I believe that my first reaction to your invitation was the correct one. This is a muddled year for me, and it is wiser that I apologize now than cancel our visit at the very last moment.

The letter concludes with an assurance that Nabokov will, without a doubt, make a visit to Israel “(even if it will be unofficial) before I am too decrepit to chase butterflies!”

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Nabokov’s Jewish Family

A friendship with an ambassador reveals the great writer’s surprising relationship with Israel