Why didn't Vladimir Nabokov and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn ever meet each other? The two literary exiles were in the same country, the same city, even the same hotel. Roger Boylan investigates ...
Special to MORE INTELLIGENT LIFE
There was a time when Vladimir Nabokov and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn reigned jointly over the empire of Russian literature-in-exile. There was mutual respect, yet the two authors were wary of each other. They knew they represented different traditions in Russian literature--and history. And they never met, despite the fact that both men lived in Switzerland from 1974 until 1976. They tried to meet once, but in a turn of events worthy of Gogol, it never came off.
The aristocratic Nabokov, one-time owner of vast estates, saw himself as the literary heir to Pushkin. He was a stylistic virtuoso in both Russian and English, and no slouch in French. Solzhenitsyn, however, was a man of the people. A veteran of Stalin's draconian penal institutions, he was a master of socialist realism and the unadorned narrative style of Gorky and Tolstoy. He documented his own terror and toil in "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich" and "The Gulag Archipelago".
Solzhenitsyn admired Nabokov, but claimed he had betrayed his Russian origins when he started writing in English. For his part, Nabokov lauded the power of Solzhenitsyn's books, but dismissed some of his writing as "journalese."
Each, in short, felt he represented a purer Russian sensibility than the other. Solzhenitsyn claimed he had the moral scars, after 11 years in the camps, whereas Nabokov never spent a day in Soviet Russia after he left it in 1919. But Nabokov was in constant contact with fellow émigrés, and until 1937 he lived in Germany, where he witnessed a slow and steady extinction of freedoms. In his early Russian-language novel "Bend Sinister", the hero, Krug, is railroaded for political crimes and imprisoned with violent criminals: a common event in Stalinist Russia. Cincinnatus, the hero of "Invitation to a Beheading", is publicly scorned and denounced, much like Alexander Zinoviev and Lev Kamenev. He is even forced to dance like a trained bear, as Stalin's minions often were at the great dictator's late-night dinner parties.
These early works of Nabokov's are not about hands-on sadism. Rather, they capture the administrative nature of Stalin's horror show, the banality of its evil, the systemic callousness that facilitated its terror. Solzhenitsyn had a deep admiration for these early works of Nabokov's, which, like the rest of his books, were banned in his native land. Like most of his fellow writers, Solzhenitsyn read them in émigré editions smuggled into the USSR from Berlin, Geneva and Paris. But beyond the intelligentsia there was limited interest in Nabokov's work. To most Soviet readers, the exiled aristocrat belonged to a distant time and place, writing for a phantom readership in a vanished land.
Nevertheless, in 1972, two years after he had been awarded the Nobel Prize in literature, Solzhenitsyn wrote a letter to the Swedish Academy recommending Nabokov for the prize in the strongest terms. Nabokov, tantalised by rumours of the Nobel (only to be repeatedly disappointed), was deeply moved by the gesture. When Solzhenitsyn and his family were expelled from the USSR in 1974, Nabokov promptly wrote his new fellow exile a welcoming letter:
I was happy to learn today of your passage to the free world from our dreadful homeland. I am happy as well that your children will be attending schools for humans, not for slaves.
Only now is it possible for me to thank you for your letter of May 16, 1972, with your appeal to the Swedish Academy enclosed. I was keenly touched by your words. If I have not answered you until now, it is because for a long time I have made it a rule not to write to Soviet Russia, so as not to subject my benevolent correspondents to additional danger. . .
I never make official ''political'' statements. Privately, though, I could not refrain from welcoming you.
I shake your hand.
Solzhenitsyn first stayed with fellow novelist and Nobelist Heinrich Böll in Cologne, then moved to Zurich, Switzerland, in 1975, where his wife, Natalya, and their three sons eventually joined him. Zurich is only about two hours' drive from Montreux, where Nabokov lived, and a meeting between the two great Russians was arranged by Heinrich Maria Ledig-Rowohlt, a German publisher and agent acquainted with them both. They planned to meet at the Palace Hotel in Montreux for lunch.
Solzhenitsyn expected to receive a confirmation from Nabokov, but heard nothing. Unsure of what Nabokov's silence implied--illness? disdain?--Solzhenitsyn and Natalya were reluctant to inquire further. They drove down to Montreux from Zurich on the appointed day and made it as far as the Palace Hotel forecourt. There they lingered, worried about the unconfirmed appointment, unaware that at that very moment Vladimir and Véra Nabokov were waiting for them in the Palace restaurant, having reserved a table for four.
One imagines Nabokov impatiently glancing at his watch. "He was obsessive about punctuality," said Ledig-Rowohlt in an interview with the New York Times. "If you were five minutes late, his face showed it; ten minutes and a meeting was a disaster." Half an hour passed. Mere steps away, Solzhenitsyn hesitated. A world-famous Nobel laureate but also a dyed-in-the-wool Russian provincial in the glittering West, he was ill at ease in the luxurious surroundings of the Montreux Palace. According to Ledig-Rowohlt, he was put off by the sight of the Palace Hotel doormen, whose long greatcoats and embroidered caps may have evoked memories of uniformed KGB officers. Solzhenitsyn threw up his hands, and the couple drove off. The Nabokovs dined alone.
Why did Solzhenitsyn leave? To have come so far and yet not take the final few steps seems an odd failure of nerve in a man who had twice endured a death sentence. He had spent half his life in obscurity, imprisonment and oppression, yet he succumbed to intimidation. His biographer, Michael Scammell, explained to me in an e-mail he had never heard the detail about the KGB-like doormen. Perhaps what truly jostled Solzhenitsyn was Vladimir Nabokov himself: scion of pre-Revolutionary aristocracy, famously caustic ironist and supremely self-confident mandarin of letters.
To Solzhenitsyn, the ex-gulag prisoner, raised by his widowed mother on a collective farm, Nabokov's life could not have seemed more remote. The "two men were poles apart in their aesthetic sensibilities," writes Scammell in his biography. Perhaps Solzhenitsyn suddenly felt moved to criticise Nabokov's adoption of English, and so wished to pre-empt a meeting that could have devolve into mutual recriminations and ill-feeling.
What a pity. It is hard not to think wistfully of the lunch, had it taken place. The old Russia dining with the new one; the labourer mixing with the aristocrat; the sensibility more familiar than removed. And their wives, those remarkable women, might have enjoyed each other.
A few days after the non-meeting, Natalya Solzhenitsyn wrote the Nabokovs a letter of apology. The apology was accepted, but no alternative rendezvous was proposed by either party. Next year, the Solzhenitsyns moved to the United States; the year after that, Nabokov died.
"He was a genius," said Solzhenitsyn in an interview later. "[B]ut he lost his Russian roots."
Picture credit: thrudhame (via Flickr)
(Roger Boylan is a writer based in Texas and the author of "Killoyle" and "The Great Pint-Pulling Olympiad". The third volume of the Killoyle trilogy, "Killoyle Wine and Cheese", was published in Germany in 2006 and is forthcoming in English.)