Imagining Nabokov: Russia Between Art and Politics by Nina L Khrushcheva - review by Donald Rayfield

Donald Rayfield

Strolls with Vladimir

Imagining Nabokov: Russia Between Art and Politics

By

Yale University Press 233pp £18.99 order from our bookshop
 

This book, or rather series of quotations interspersed with random thoughts, will occasionally enchant, frequently infuriate and constantly puzzle the reader. It imagines Nabokov rather as one of Nabokov’s heroes, Godunov-Cherdyntsev in The Gift, imagines a much-loved collocutor, and talks to him, often leaving us unsure whether this is Nabokov alive or dead, or whether the answers are real or voices in the author’s head. What sustains the writing is a passionate love of Nabokov (although it focuses on only a few of his works) and of two other great Russian writers: Osip Mandelshtam, who is just as frequently quoted, but less appositely, and Andrei Sinyavsky (known by his pseudonym Abram Tertz), whose iconoclastic Strolls with Pushkin these imaginings are modelled on. The quotations work as an anthology which leads us back to the texts; the author’s reflections, when not just a tribute to the her subjects’ heroism (or, in the case of Nabokov, lucky life), seem to centre on the experience of exile for a Russian and on the profound differences between Western and Russian culture. On the latter subject Nina Khrushcheva goes back to the Russian philosopher Khomiakov, taking the hoary old chestnut of irreconcilable cultural and religious differences and grinding it into a purée.

One thread that I did succeed in unravelling is the author’s conviction that she and Nabokov have a shared experience as members of the Russian elite who find themselves in exile merely as middle-class university teachers in America. As a way of understanding Nabokov when he converted from writing in Russian to writing in English (though he continued to reserve Russian for his lyrical verse), I can just about accept that approach, although his bearing in America was as aristocratic as it is possible to be in the north-eastern USA. The comparison between author and subject, however, sticks in the throat. Nina Khrushcheva is free to go back to Russia and to publish there whenever she likes; Nabokov was not, except in his imagination. Nabokov came from a genuine elite: his work is inspired by a series of heroic or saintly ancestors, particularly his father who laid down his life to save that of the leader of the Russian liberals in exile. Khrushcheva (who chooses to bear the name of her infamous great-grandfather, even though she is descended from his granddaughter and would presumably be Petrova by default) is not responsible for the sins of her forebears, but a great-grandfather who complained to Stalin that he was not shooting enough of the Ukrainians he had singled out for repression and twenty years later was butchering the Hungarians is best not compared with a Nabokov.

The enthusiasm of this book suggests that Nina L Khrushcheva may be an excellent university teacher, though perhaps she should stick to international affairs, given the oddness of her literary readings (particularly of Mandelshtam). She visits Russia frequently but does not appear to notice some of the changes since Soviet times: Moscow no longer has more bookstores than any other city, any more than its citizens in the metro are still immersed in solid tomes. Moscow’s surface is now gaudily Western, and its undertones are something that even Nabokov and Mandelshtam’s nightmares did not anticipate.

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