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.
As a boy, Levavi ended up with his mother in Kharkov. The other members of the family were scattered on both sides of the battle line. The city changed hands three times, and each time the change was invariably accompanied by a Jewish pogrom. The Levavi family lived not far from the headquarters of the White Army command staff. Arieh would run around in the yard with a little toy pistol that he had, and the Cossacks, not knowing he was a Jew, would pretend to be scared when they saw him. After some time, his father finally found his wife and son in Kharkov and sent them on to Danzig. No visa was required to enter the Free City of Danzig in the 1920s, and access to it remained relatively open. For this reason, Danzig quickly became an important Jewish center. For those who were not able to obtain a passport valid for entry into Switzerland, where the international Jewish congresses were held, Danzig was where Zionist gatherings were arranged. During the war, Danzig maintained its neutrality. Levavi finished high school there and obtained a Bachelor of Science degree in math and physics at Heidelberg University.
Levavi made it to the Middle East in 1932. For a moderate bribe, his father had finagled a Polish passport, which allowed him to obtain a certificate for entry into Palestine. According to this passport, our protagonist was named Lev Grigorievich Leibman. Three years later, Levavi defended his master’s thesis in philosophy at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
As a Palestinian national, he went on a semi-secret mission to Nazi Germany for almost two years, from October 1936 to June 1938. This occurred during the brief period when Hitler was imagining a strategic partnership between the Third Reich and the United Kingdom, perhaps even involving the Soviet Union. By using these conflicting interests, the Zionist Histadrut was able to obtain six visas from the German authorities that permitted holders of a British Palestine passport to move about Germany unhindered. One of these six visas was given to Arieh Levavi. The group was mainly engaged with arranging emigration (aliyah) of German Jews to Palestine. After the adoption of the Nuremburg Laws in 1935, the Nazis set about beginning a policy of planned exile of Jews from Germany. A few years still remained before the large-scale physical destruction. The German authorities and representatives of the Jewish Yishuv in Palestine both participated in creating a situation in which Jews, leaving their property behind, left their country. “The visas were issued for six-month periods,” Levavi recalled, “and they had to be extended each time. For some reason they refused to return my papers in June 1938, and then Kristallnacht happened in November of that year. By that time I had already left Germany.”
At the end of World War II, Levavi fought against the fascists in Italy as part of the British Army in Europe. After the declaration of the State of Israel, he took an active part in developing its foreign policy and rapidly ascended the diplomatic service hierarchy.
At the dawn of diplomatic relations between Israel and the Soviet Union, Levavi worked from 1948 to 1950 at the Israeli embassy in Moscow. The minister plenipotentiary to the Soviet Union at the time was a 50-year-old named Golda Meir. Levavi initially served as the first secretary of the embassy and later as an adviser to the “iron lady.” In 1954, Levavi was appointed minister plenipotentiary of Israel to the Yugoslav government and, in 1958, ambassador to Argentina. He served two terms with Israeli delegations to the United Nations.
He hit his first professional snag in May of 1960, when Adolf Eichmann was captured in Buenos Aires. Abba Eban, then minister without portfolio, was in Argentina making an official visit to the country, and Mossad agents spirited Eichmann back to Israel using Eban’s plane. As reported in Levavi’s obituary, when local authorities summoned him to provide an explanation, he was forced to send a telegram to his Argentine colleagues that, while it held to all the rules of diplomatic protocol, was absurd to the point of fantasy: “The Government of Israel was not aware of the arrival of Eichmann in Israel because the secret service did not notify the government of this fact.” As the former Israeli ambassador to Peru, Nathaniel Lorch, remarked, “In relations with Latin American countries, what was terrible was not so much the lying, but the fact that it was not coordinated.” Levavi was declared persona non grata and immediately deported from the country. It was later discovered that in 1938 the papers expelling the young Palestinian emissary from Germany had been signed by none other than Adolf Eichmann. The circle was complete.
After returning home from his work abroad, Levavi became the director-general of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In the late 1960s, doctors determined that he had heart disease. The patient was advised to seek work in a calmer position. “ ‘If you continue to work at this pace,’ ” he said he was told after the consultation, “ ‘your life will be extremely interesting, but extremely short.’ ”
“I went to Golda and honestly conveyed to her the specialists’ opinion. By that time,” he added with a smile, “I had already earned my way to the maximum pension.” When Levavi was offered the opportunity to head any of the vacant Israeli emissary positions in the world, he found an ineluctable choice standing before him. Rejecting a number of large and prestigious countries, he chose quiet and beautiful Switzerland.
He made the right choice—certainly for his health. The Swiss air and the efforts of European doctors cured Levavi, and the years of his life abroad from late 1967 (right after the end of the Six-Day War) to January 1975 were no less significant, and perhaps more so. In particular, he would become acquainted with Vladimir Nabokov.
The reason for Levavi’s first visit to the writer, sequestered in his luxury hotel, was his idea to invite Nabokov to visit Israel as part of the cultural program. Letters indicate that, at least in principle, Nabokov agreed almost immediately to make the voyage. There are a total of three known letters from Nabokov to Levavi. The ambassador himself had forgotten about them entirely until I offered him published copies in a volume of Nabokov’s correspondence.
In a letter dated Dec. 31, 1970, Nabokov thanked Levavi for the invitation and added that he would be delighted to visit Israel sometime around April of 1972, justifying the delay by his need “to go this spring on a business trip to New York for the opening of a musical made of one of my novels.” Nabokov was referring to the 1971 staging of Lolita, My Love in Philadelphia and Boston, which he never did actually see. He was diverted from his journey to the New World by the failure of the musical (a “nice little flop,” Nabokov seemingly indifferently jotted down in his diary). As Brian Boyd writes in his biography, the time Nabokov saved by doing this was spent on the new novel Transparent Things, which he was working on in those months.
“I would be very pleased to discuss matters at your convenience, particularly if you and Mrs. Levavi happened to be again in Montreux,” Nabokov wrote on New Year’s Eve 1971. The suggestion of visiting Montreux was evidently not just a stock phrase hung there haphazardly. After reaching a formal agreement, when matters related directly to the visit could, it seemed, be put off quite naturally for a year, the relationship between Levavi and Nabokov instead developed at an unexpected pace.
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!”
As Levavi tells it, the whole affair never progressed as far as making concrete plans for the visit, though in one of his first letters Nabokov did set down the basic outline of the proposed trip: “I would be happy to give one or two readings of my works, I would enjoy visiting museums, libraries, and universities, and I would like to take advantage of this wonderful occasion to do some butterfly hunting.”
Meanwhile, the geopolitical situation in the Near East at the beginning of the 1970s did not bode particularly well for butterfly hunting. In early October 1973, Egypt allied with Syria in an attempt to win back the territory lost in the Six Day War. The Soviet army was providing the allies with the latest military technologies, and Saudi Arabia and Kuwait were financing the allied army. OPEC cut off oil supplies to the United States and some other Western countries as a response to their support of Israel.
During this tense time, on Oct. 9, 1973, Nabokov sent a check to Levavi in support of the Israeli defense army for what would later become known as the Yom Kippur War. The accompanying note, reproduced in Selected Letters, contained the following sentence with a phrase that would have been worthy of becoming a political neologism: “I would like to make a small contribution to Israel’s defense against the Arabolshevist aggression.” Nabokov asked the recipient to forward the check at his own discretion: “May I beg you to forward the enclosed check. I am leaving the name in blank because I don’t know to what organization exactly it should go.”
This gesture was yet another proof of what Nabokov had earlier admitted in an unpublished typescript of his interview with Nurit Beretzky, then a young reporter for the leading Israeli newspaper Maariv, who asked about Nabokov’s opinion of the current situation in the Middle East: “I can only reply to your question about the Near East in a very amateur way: I fervently favor total friendship between America and Israel and am emotionally inclined to take Israel’s side in all political matters.”
What might have attracted Nabokov to Levavi, a younger man engaged in a completely different field of endeavor? One gets the impression that a number of factors played a role. First among these was a common general interest in world literature. It also helped that Levavi’s profession was the traditional Nabokov family career: The author’s father and grandfather had been in government service and politics at the highest levels, and his uncle Konstantin had served on a number of diplomatic missions to London at a time somewhat like Levavi’s, during that period when, to use the words of Konstantin from his 1921 memoirs, “elemental events that were unleashed as a result of the European War … began to strike cruel blows at the national dignity of Russia.” The two men shared an equal disgust for both fascism and communism: When he visited Soviet Russia, it was with the eyes of a foreigner that Levavi saw the regime and the scale of the Bolshevik terror. In addition, Levavi had visited Leningrad/Petersburg, the city where Nabokov grew up. The ambassador told a Swiss acquaintance that, despite the new name and the still visible effects of the three-year blockade and bombardment in World War II, Leningrad in 1949 remained a city of unrivaled beauty.
I do not wish to exaggerate: The relationship of the ambassador and the would-be guest of his country never ventured outside the bounds of close acquaintanceship. But there is reason to believe that it subtly crossed over into something more than the reverence of typical diplomatic good manners. If nothing else, there is lasting proof of it, found in the wonderful butterflies on Levavi’s copies of Nabokov’s books, drawn especially for the diplomat. And though no one knows whether Russian literature would have benefited from any “Jerusalem prose” that might have come from Nabokov’s pen had his wish to visit Israel been fulfilled, the story of his life cannot be told without this unrealized shadow of a possibility.
As for Levavi, after he retired he composed philosophical treatises and sometimes taught university courses on a voluntary basis. He died in 2009—nine years after our meeting in Jerusalem—at the age of 97.
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