A Genius in the Attic: Secrets of a Cape Cod Dacha

Tablet original fiction, on Vladimir Nabokov’s 116th birthday

Maxim D. Shrayer
April 22, 2015
Tablet Magazine/Esther Werdiger
Tablet Magazine/Esther Werdiger
Tablet Magazine/Esther Werdiger
Tablet Magazine/Esther Werdiger

We give up comfort for a measure of beauty, and then we pay for our losses and our gains. About a year after Karen and I got married, we bought a World War I-era house in Chestnut Hill just west of Boston. When our elder daughter was born, we moved our offices to the attic to make room for a nursery. From behind my desk in the attic, I looked down on the emblazoned slate roofs of the mansions in the carriage row of Commonwealth Avenue. Treetops of centenarian lindens and pseudo-Gothic towers with crosses crowded my sight. In that attic I wrote most of Waiting for America and started Leaving Russia. In that house and its terraced garden, Mira and Tatiana made their first steps and spoke their first English and Russian words.

In the spring of 2009 Karen and I managed to get away for two nights—our first time without the girls since they were born. We stayed in Chatham, on the elbow of Cape Cod. At Chatham Bars Inn rooms were almost affordable during the off-season. On our second day in Chatham we wandered into a real-estate office on Main Street. The principal, a soft-spoken Yankee with clipped straw hair and a ruddy face, drove us around town for about an hour. On an impulse we rented a summer house in Lobster Lane, walking distance to Lighthouse Beach and the center of town.

Why Chatham? Our social environment it was certainly not. The inhabitants of the waterfront estates, grinning gentlemen in cranberry shorts and ladies in tennis skirts, resembled overbred pointer dogs. Father off from the shore, in carefully maintained houses built in the middle of the previous century, there lived the descendants of Irish immigrants—Boston doctors, lawyers, and financiers. There were so few Jews in town that we half-joked about starting a “Jews for Chatham” page on Facebook. But there were also the daily gifts of salt and sea. A coverlet of fog would burn off by mid-morning, but not before lapping against your face and cleansing the overnight worries. There was the Fish Pier, where seals stopped in for a plate of fish guts and a glass of briny beer. The vanishing sandbar opposite Lighthouse Beach, on which hurricanes took out their rage … And the numerous swimming and fishing options, from the cold oceanfront beaches and the warm beaches of the Nantucket Sound to the kettle ponds—those gaping mouths of glacial joy. We were hooked, hooked on Chatham.

By the spring of 2011, when Mira was 5 and getting ready to start kindergarten, everything was finally clear—finally after eight years of what had seemed like a well-ordered suburban living. We had decided to sell the big old house, buy an apartment in a modern building, and apply the remaining capital toward a cottage in Chatham. The girls would grow up in an urban world, take Mandarin Chinese at school, use public transportation, and have fascinating classmates with sophisticated parents. And they would also have a cottage near the ocean, to visit on weekends and to stay at during summers. From a house with four bedrooms, two offices, a playroom, and two guestrooms we moved to a modish pad in a Frank Lloyd Wright look-alike building in the heart of Brookline. Boston’s pillow top mattress where my parents had retired three years earlier, Brookline had become a mecca for ex-suburbanites. Our new apartment would have seemed palatial by the standards of my Soviet childhood, but it felt small after all the space to which we had grown accustomed after almost 10 years in Chestnut Hill. Friends and relatives thought us slaves to fashion and even uncaring parents, but we stubbornly pushed ahead with the city-country plan.

Gradually we had narrowed the cottage hunt down to a small area between the village of South Chatham and the shore of Nantucket Sound. We liked being about a 10-minute drive to the center of town and close to the warm beaches just south of the Cape’s elbow. Karen’s dream had been to find a cabin with basic amenities, where we would sit on the porch with a glass of white wine and listen to the radio after rinsing off in an outdoor shower as the kids frolicked in the yard. As we quickly discovered, not without warnings from our realtor, “rustic” was almost invariably synonymous with “decrepit.” And by purchasing a charming cabin on a forest clearing next to conservation lands, one took on not only the inspectors and the spring torrents but also legions of mosquitoes and troops of gregarious ticks.

In the autumn of 2011 the market for summer homes might have hit silt bottom. After Thanksgiving we made a low offer on a perfectly ordinary Cape house built in the 1920s, expanded and rebuilt in the 1960s, and renovated in the early 2000s. It was hardly rustic; it had modern systems, two large upstairs bedrooms, and two guest bedrooms on the first floor, an addition with cathedral ceilings and windows around the perimeter, and also a basement under the addition, where the previous owner had assembled a woodshop that I bought—nails, chisels, and jointers—along with the garden furniture, antique scythes and rakes, and several crates full of ancient fishing gear. There was also a full-height attic running across the front of the house.

It seemed like a worry-free house, winterized and sufficient to host family and friends. It was about 15 minutes by foot to the uncultivated Forest Beach, and only three minutes to the nearest water, a marshy inlet connecting a salt pond with the ocean. White herons stood guard by the inlet’s banks, and at low tide the locals and the summer folk raked for littlenecks and quahogs. To get to the house one turned off the county road and found oneself in a New England village unchanged by history, with captains’ houses lining the main street and a one-room library and a village hall where contra dances were still held on Saturday night. We were most likely the only Jewish family for two miles around.

We closed on a dank morning in mid-January and immediately started renovations. A crew of Carpathian Russians put down wide oak boards all around the house. In the spring we surrounded the front of the property with a split rail fence and built an outdoor shower. We renovated a shed that was meant to serve as my summer writing office, except the girls quickly turned it into a playhouse. A vintage ’68 Czech mason came down from Boston and dressed up the sleeves of the back yard with cufflinks of mossy rocks. We furnished the house with light Scandinavian furniture and hosted the Boston-based relatives for Passover. The Cape house—or dacha, as my parents and I now called it—quickly entered our routine. In May I built a raised vegetable garden on the sunny side of the house and also an herb garden in the back yard. We bought a couple of extra bicycles and a clownish yellow inflatable boat. In July, after a visit to Russia, the girls and I moved to Chatham for the rest of the summer, Karen commuting from Boston for long weekends. It felt as though we had always had the dacha on the not so distant cape of our existence.

The first oddities emerged after we had stayed at the dacha for two weeks. My parents, who had the front downstairs bedroom, claimed that somebody paced upstairs in the middle of the night. Several tins of sardines and a pack of saltines had disappeared from the cupboard; a few candles and a bottle of Pinot Noir were also missing. I became more aware of the presence of some perplexing signs and symbols soon after the arrival, from Moscow, of my dear friend Maxim and his partner Olechka. For some reason the door, which led to the attic from the walk-in closet of the master bedroom, was open when I showed my guests around the house. I remember putting the safety hook back on the latch. Two days later I once again found the attic door unlatched and ajar. I turned the file cabinets upside down without finding a medium-size black box with copies of letters from a New-York-based émigré archive.

We kept finding cigarette butts on the ground outside the house, and then we even came upon a crumpled-up pack of Lucky Strikes on the front porch. We thought about confronting the garbage man, but one person could not have produced so many cigarette butts during the weekly trash pickups. Our Muscovite guest Olechka, who was working on a screenplay based on Ivan Bunin’s “Gentle Breathing,” claimed that pencil marks had mysteriously appeared in the margins of her Bunin volume. Initially we made fun of her, claiming that after three glasses of wine consumed with lunch on top of a day at the beach one ceases to recognize one’s own handwriting. But we became convinced that some monkey business was indeed going on after my father showed disparaging notes someone had made in the margins of a multivolume edition of Ilya Ehrenburg’s works, which I had placed in a glass bookcase in my parents’ room downstairs along with Chekhov’s oeuvre and odds and ends of religious philosophy. On the opening page of Ehrenburg’s novel Storm someone had scribbled the word “venal Stalinist,” then crossed out the word “venal” and only kept “Stalinist.” At first I thought my father himself had done it and then forgot about it, except it was definitely not his doctor’s chicken scratches but a different, faintly familiar, airy Russian handwriting.

An emotionally overburdened person often has no interest in hearing about someone else’s eerie night dreams. Karen and I were still learning how to be happy owners of a house on Cape Cod and to host summertime visitors. And so we didn’t have much time to investigate these oddities. At the end of August, as we celebrated the departure of Maxim and Olechka and the nearing end of the summer, my mother discovered a velvety moth that was stuck and crucified between a French door and a screen. Three days later Mira and Tatiana found, in one of the kitchen drawers, a matchbox emptied of its contents and lined with cotton. Rescued from its cross, wings lovingly folded, the moth had found a resting place in the matchbox crypt …


Five months had gone by. A winter storm hit New England on the Friday of the second week of February. Classes were canceled at my university, and schools were closed in anticipation of a weather calamity. Expecting to be out of power, we loaded up on water, candles, and dried fruit. Mira’s birthday party had to be rescheduled. A statewide ban on driving went into effect. Friends and colleagues called, emailed, and skyped from Europe and Israel to give us moral support. In the end Boston got about two feet of snow, but it wasn’t quite the disaster we had been expecting. Cape Cod was a different story, though. As the storm was beginning to wind down, I called Randy V., a mustached retired cop and passionate hunter who lives in Chatham and takes care of our house during the off-season months. Not usually one to panic, Randy V. sounded alarmed. They had 75-mile-an-hour gusts of wind, lots of fallen trees and broken utility poles. One-third of the town was out of power, and he couldn’t even get to our house because the roads were closed.

“Doc, it doesn’t look too good,” Randy said. He called me simply “Doc” and my wife—“Dr. Karen.” “I’ll try to check on the house later this evening if I can dig out the bulkhead door and shut off the main,” Randy said. “The pipes could freeze.”

“Do I need to come down?”

“If we don’t have power by tomorrow, I’d say you might have to,” Randy advised.

I didn’t sleep well Saturday night, pursued by visions of bursting pipes, bulging floor boards, and the piano’s wet feet. Sunday morning I announced to my family that I couldn’t wait and was driving to Chatham. On the road I got hold of the Polish plumber who lives just half a mile inland from us, and he said he would help out. Heart pounding, I turned off Mill Creek Road onto our street, which must have only recently been plowed. Climbing over the snowdrifts I made it to the front steps and released the door from the grip of icy snow. The security alarm sounded its warning; the hallway light was on. We were lucky, very lucky. I felt vindicated.

It took me a good part of the day to dig out the driveway and clear the walkways to the front and side doors, the back porch and the cellar bulkhead. By the time I had finished and gone out for a walk to the inlet, the dusky air had turned a phosphorescent blue, and only lines of peach and vermillion striated the horizon, warming the steely surface of the water. Both calmed and exhausted, I felt unfit to drive back to Boston. I called home from the town landing. On Monday I didn’t have to teach until the early afternoon. Could Karen manage without me? School was still canceled, and the nanny would stay with the girls. I was free for the night. Back at the dacha I had a shot of vodka, chasing it with some toasted frozen bread and Ikea herring from a jar I had located in the lower depths of the cupboard. I took a long bath, microwaved frozen pancakes for my supper, and collapsed into a dreamless sleep at about 8:30.

I woke up so renewed that even the thought of morning South Shore traffic didn’t seem as oppressive as it should have been on a Monday morning after a Nor’easter. Coffee with toast and marmalade doesn’t make for the most nutritious of breakfasts, but that was the best I could come up with. I went upstairs to collect my weekend bag and was about to lock up and get on the road when I remembered—or so one says when a flash of afterknowledge pierces one’s mind—I remembered that I needed something from the attic. During the first year after I left Moscow for good, my friend Maxim sent me regular letters. I have preserved them, and I now needed to consult the letters for a book project. They were stored in one of the file cabinets in the attic. I opened the walk-in closet and automatically yanked on the light switch rope. Right in front of me, a smoldering cigarette in hand, stood Vladimir Nabokov.

Leaning on the threshold of the attic door, Nabokov squinted from the bright morning light coming in through the bedroom windows. He was lanky, skinny to the point of emaciation. A rare stubble of ashen and reddish hues highlighted the ancient bone structure of his Varangian face. His eyes, however, were almond-shaped and hinted either at a princely Tatar ancestor or at the more recent influx of Eastern genes from a Jewish great-grandfather. Nabokov’s eyes studied me with a mixture of tendresse and venom. After taking a drag on his vile cigarette, he pressed the words “forgive me” through his bloodless lips. His thinning hair was combed—no: licked—back, and the nobly graying temples made me think of those tired, yet somehow touching descriptions of the last tsar. Nabokov was dressed in a black suit, pants all crumpled up and down, a button missing on the front of the jacket. His neck was bare, and his elegant white shirt had an old wine stain on the sternum. A refugee, I remember thinking as I stepped back into the bedroom, freeing the passage from the attic.

“Vladimir Vladimirovich, what are you doing here?” I asked.

Unperturbed, Nabokov handed me a white trash bag with red drawstrings. “I’ve been congregating here,” he replied, gorgeously misrolling his r’s in the manner of Russian aristocrats, whose liquid consonant had gotten stuck halfway between a French château and a Russian country estate.

“For how long?” I asked.

“Since last summer, since May, to be precise,” he answered in Russian. Then he switched into English.

“How are things on the Eastern Front?” he asked, stepping into the bedroom.

“Eastern Front?” I repeated with bewilderment.

“The last time I saw the paper, the Germans were pushing ahead to the Caucasus and the Don. It didn’t look very good.”

“It’s all over now,” I replied, trying to avoid winsome clichés under the gaze of my visitor. “We won the war. Hitler’s no more.”

Nabokov didn’t say anything, but I saw his eyes cloud over for a moment, and then I felt my own eyes moisten with a dew of shared gladness.

I skidded past him into the closet and stuck my head into the attic. A smell of tobacco, naphthalene, and something else, rancid and stale, hit my nostrils. In the attic’s far corner I saw a rolled-out futon with my wife’s old sleeping bag. I also noticed a small pile of half letter-size sheets on a cardboard box that had been placed atop a metal file cabinet in the manner of a lectern, and an empty wine bottle all melted over with tentacles of candle wax.

“Vladimir Vladimirovich,” my hands gestured in the direction of the upstairs hallway. “Why don’t we go downstairs?”

He nodded and followed me down to the sitting room. I flicked on the gas fireplace. We sat on the sofas opposite each other.

“Have you got an ashtray?” Nabokov asked, his fingers twitching to a ternary beat.

“An ashtray? I’m afraid not. We don’t smoke. And my younger daughter has asthma.”

“I’ve been using an empty tin,” Nabokov said. “I hope you don’t mind.”

I got up. From the dining room I brought in a bottle of prized cognac, two snifters, dark chocolate on a plate, and a saucer. It was 10 in the morning.

“So, how did you end up in this house?” I asked, pouring us drinks.

Nabokov took a sip of the cognac and chewed it with his lips and gums. “Very nice,” he said and paused, relaxing his back and shoulders and crossing his legs. One of his shoelaces was threadbare.

“Oh yes, the house,” he finally replied. “Quite a melancholy story. I came down to Cape Cod the first weekend in May. By bus. Vérochka and I had had a bitter fight, and I ended up going alone. We were expected at the Wilsons’.”

“What was the fight about?” I queried him.

“Ah, the same old Parisian song called ‘Irina.’ Except this time it was a letter that was forwarded to me, care of Wellesley College, by a mutual New York acquaintance, whom it had reached by way of Casablanca and Lisbon.”

“Still jealous?” I asked, refreshing Nabokov’s drink.

“Vérochka is not jealous,” Nabokov retorted, curling his voice. “She is worried. And so am I, to be quite frank. I still haven’t found a decent teaching position. We’re getting ready to move from Wellesley to Cambridge. Mityusha is 8, a big boy. We’re short of funds. And then, on top of everything else, this silly letter from Paris, which I couldn’t hide from Vérochka.”

“But where does my dacha fit into all of this?” I risked coming across as thick.

“It was all a matter of chance,” Nabokov answered, settling back on the sofa. “I came down alone to visit Bunny Wilson. He and Mary have a place in Wellfleet. All three of us had originally been invited there for a weekend. There was also another guest, Randall Jarrell. A Southerner. A poet and Bunny’s protégé—Bunny published him in The New Republic. A witty fellow, that Jarrell, but completely deluded about agrarian socialism. Even more so than Bunny himself.”

“You were staying in Wellfleet …” I pulled at the thread, still unclear about what happened.

“Almost immediately upon arrival I felt restless. When Bunny was drunk, his leftish sentiments were particularly difficult to bear. There was also Reuel, the Wilsons’ boy, who seemed to be having just the kind of childhood that we couldn’t give our Mitya. It turned out Jarrell was leaving, and he had a car. So, I came up with an excuse and left with him the next day. He offered to take me as far as Hyannis. I told him I wanted to spend two more days at the Cape in order to finish a piece, and he didn’t question my intentions. He dropped me off in Chatham and suggested that grand old hotel facing the sandbar, where I went to inquire about a room. The prices were much too high for me anyway. And the hotel had one of those signs, you know the sort, ‘clientele carefully selected.’ I kept picturing Vérochka and Mityusha being turned away and felt nothing but bile and anger.”

“I’ve heard about such signs. There’s also ‘near churches,’ ” I said. “But I didn’t think we had them here in Chatham.”

“You ‘had them here in Chatham’?” Nabokov repeated, mockery in his voice.

“Would you care for a cup of coffee?” I changed the subject.

Five minutes later I returned with a French press, two cups, and a sugar basin on a painted tray. Nabokov was leafing through a coffee table book about Paris.

“And yet: our dacha, you, Chatham?” I asked after pushing down the plunger.

“Also strictly by chance,” Nabokov replied. “I had but a light valise, and so I walked up Main Street, made some inquiries, and took a local bus to South Chatham. I was told, at the tobacconist’s, that I would find inexpensive lodgings at Captain Ned’s House near the little church with a white steeple.”

“That’s just up the road from us,” I said with excitement.

Nabokov lit another cigarette from a soft pack with a white-and-red circular logo.

“I rang the doorbell. An older lady came out, an apron across her hips. It turned out that Captain Ned’s hadn’t yet opened for the season. But besides the hotel, they also owned summer cottages. Weekly rentals. Couldn’t I possibly rent a little cottage someplace quiet near the water? I queried. The lady nodded: Yes, she had one nearby, it hadn’t been properly cleaned … I could have it as is. So I stayed.”

“What have you been doing with yourself?” I asked.

“Well, at first I wrote a little story and mailed it off to The New Yorker. I hope you don’t mind that I borrowed an envelope and some postage from your desk.”

“Of course not.”

“I did a stupid thing, though. I sent a clean copy but stuck the draft someplace. Now I can’t find it. If it turns up … ”

“ … Of course. You don’t need to worry.”

“Then I translated some Tyutchev—you keep quite a good book selection here.”

“Thanks, Vladimir Vladimirovich. We have many more books up in Boston. These are mainly extras. Yours … ” and I cut myself short, thinking of the reprints of Nabokov’s prewar books that I had purchased back in graduate school, and of years’ worth of my notes in the margins. But Nabokov didn’t say anything.

“I’ve been tinkering with this new novel. A delicate little thing, for which I need to invent a mongrel language. And I take walks when nobody is around. A nice spot you’ve got here, picturesque. And those Marconi Towers over by the beach.”

I glanced at the wall clock. It was 11 already, and I had a class at two.

“Vladimir Vladimirovich, you’ll have to excuse me,” I said in Russian.

“No, it’s I who must beg your forgiveness … ”

As I fussed with my scarf and black down jacket and fished for the keys in my breast pocket, I had a strange sensation that it was I who was the visitor and was now finally leaving, and he, Nabokov, was the master of the dacha.

I made my way to the side door off the dining room. Then I thought of something and returned to the sitting room and turned off the fireplace.

“Vladimir Vladimirovich, let me ask you a question. It’s a bit indiscreet, I apologize.”

“Go ahead, dear fellow.”

“Did you love her?”

“Vérochka? Of course I did. I still do.”

“No, not Vérochka. Irochka, I mean Irina.”

Brows in flight, mouth furrowing with pity, Nabokov got up from the sage-green sofa and made two steps in my direction.

“Young man,” he said, slowly. “Young man—“

“—Vladimir Vladimirovich, I’m older than you. I’ll be 46 this summer. And I have two daughters and have been around the block a few of times.”

“Esteemed colleague,” Nabokov then said, peering into my eyes. “Have you ever felt as though your whole world is about to implode? When you press your chin to her shoulder and shut your eyes from the sweet pain … ”

“No,” I answered. “I mean, yes.”

“Then don’t ask me if I loved her.”

We stood in the kitchen, staring at each other. Then I waved him goodbye, hand moving in the manner of a windshield wiper, and walked to the side door, keys jingling in my left hand.

“Thank you for putting me up,” Nabokov said. “And for putting up with me,” he added with a chortle.

“Thank you, Mr. Nabokov,” I said, right hand cupping the doorknob.” Please help yourself to anything you like in the cupboard and fridge. And we have plenty of sweets in the dining room buffet, just in case you should try to quit smoking … ”


I didn’t encounter any traffic on the way back to Boston, not even at the Braintree split or on Route 9. Can time really halt, I was thinking as I kept replaying in my head the whole encounter with Nabokov. Who was he, after all? A figment of my imagination? An enchanter? And how would I tell Karen and the girls about the new guest living at our Cape house? The girls would probably take it in stride, the way children often do. But my wife … It’s hard enough living under the same roof with a composer of fiction, and now she will have to contend with a lonely Russian genius in the attic.

Copyright © 2015 by Maxim D. Shrayer.

Maxim D. Shrayer is a bilingual author and a professor at Boston College. He was born in Moscow and emigrated in 1987. His recent books include A Russian Immigrant: Three Novellas and Immigrant Baggage, a memoir. Shrayer’s new collection of poetry, Kinship, is forthcoming.