Dmitri Nabokov: Editor who guarded his father's legacy

 

Dmitri Nabokov, the son of the Russian novelist Vladimir Nabokov, tried to escape the shadow of his father's legacy, pursuing interests as diverse as opera singing and racing-car driving. But it was to the translation, preservation and championing of his father's work that he returned time and again.

He was born in Berlin in 1934, the only son of Vladimir and Vera Nabokov. Fearing the rise of Nazism, the family escaped Germany for Paris in 1937 and three years later emigrated to New York. In 1951 he joined Harvard University to study History and Literature and graduated cum laude, despite his father's observation at the time that his interests had been in "mountaineering, girls, music, track, tennis and his studies, in that order..."

Following the international success of Lolita (1958), Vladimir Nabokov decided to make more of his works available in English. Dmitri's first major translation project with his father was the Kafkaesque Invitation to a Beheading (1959), which the author called his "dreamiest and most poetic novel", first published in Russian in 1938.

Nabokov's operatic debut came in April 1961 in the role of Colline in La Bohème. The performance, at the Teatro Municipale di Reggio Emilia, was the result of his winning the basso division of the city's International Opera Competition. Luciano Pavarotti, also debuting that day, as Rodolfo, had won the prize for tenor. While Pavarotti's career took off, Nabokov's principal role for the following decade was as translator and editor of his father's works, including The Eye (1966), King, Queen, Knave (1968) and Glory (1971). Many shorter pieces were published in the New Yorker, and other magazines, throughout the 1960s and '70s, with Dmitri credited as the translator.

Nabokov enjoyed the bon vivant lifestyle that the family name and wealth brought him and indulged in mountaineering and motorsport driving. This was to change in September 1980, when he crashed his competition-prepared Ferrari on the Swiss motorway and sustained third-degree burns over much of his body. Recalling his near-death experience, Nabokov said, "I am enticed by a bright light at the far end of the classic tunnel, but restrain myself at the last instant when I think of those who care for me and of important things I must still do."

When Vladimir Nabokov died in 1977, he left behind an unfinished novel, The Original of Laura, handwritten on 138 index cards. His instructions were that any incomplete work should be burned upon his death. His wife, Vera, had been his literary secretary during his lifetime, editing his texts and dealing with publishers. So, when his mother died in 1991, without having complied with the instructions, the dilemma passed to Dmitri: Should he respect his father's wishes or should he edit and publish the novel?

Opinions were divided but tended to favour destruction. Tom Stoppard expressed the view that "It's perfectly straightforward. Nabokov wanted it burnt, so burn it", while Aleksandar Hemon wrote, "Not only does it go against his expressed wishes, it goes against his very aesthetic sensibility, against his entire life as an artist".

Eventually Dmitri announced in April 2008 that the family would proceed with publication. Defending the decision, he told BBC Newsnight in 2008: "My father told me what his most important books were. He named Laura as one of them. One doesn't name a book one intends to destroy. He would have reacted in a sober and less dramatic way if he didn't see death staring him in the face. He certainly would not have wanted it destroyed. He would have finished it."

And was it worth the wait? Thomas Leveritt, reviewing for this newspaper in early 2010, called it "a bewildering act of brand dilution" and pointed out: "...there's nothing there. The gimmick is that you can take the index cards out (they're perforated), to shuffle them as if you were the author yourself. The actual purpose, it strikes me, is literally to create the hole that is already metaphorically there." In contrast, Professor David Lodge, in the Literary Review, observed, "Is it, as the blurb claims, Nabokov's 'final great book'? No. Does it contain brilliant, funny, astonishing sentences only Nabokov could have written? Yes. Should it have been preserved and published? Definitely."

Dmitri Nabokov, translator, editor and literary custodian: born Berlin 10 May 1934; died Vevey, Switzerland 22 February 2012.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
News
Kim Wilde began gardening in the 1990s when she moved to the countryside
peopleThe singer is leading an appeal for the charity Thrive, which uses the therapy of horticulture
Sport
Alexis Sanchez celebrates scoring a second for Arsenal against Reading
football
Life and Style
health
Voices
An easy-peel potato; Dave Hax has come up with an ingenious method in food preparation
voicesDave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
News
i100
News
Japan's population is projected to fall dramatically in the next 50 years (Wikimedia)
news
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own