I fell in love with Nabokov when my psoriasis had turned me into the bitter, home-loving and slightly overweight adult I am now. I didn’t have children yet, but they weren’t far off, and with them the knowledge that I had absolutely no cause to consider myself wise. If taking my child in my arms for the first time made me into an ignoramus who needed to go back to square one in the life-lessons stakes, reading Nabokov showed me that I knew nothing about literature either. All the hours spent in the company of a reading lamp, all the pages I robbed from time having fun with non-existent friends and girlfriends, turned out to be banal and full of lumps.
That white Russian, of course, wasn’t the cruel and flippant tsarist I’d imagined him to be, but then again they only existed in certain novels set in Paris during the decline of the salons and written by communists, where princesses still inhabiting those salons organised seances intended to deprive the halfwits of the Faubourg Saint-Germain of a few francs. Under the label ‘White Russians’ there hid an itinerant and sentimental group of human beings with only two things in common: the language they spoke and the fact they weren’t Bolsheviks. Their number included those on the right, terrorists and admirers of Hitler, of course they did, but there were also fervent Mensheviks, social democrats, and liberals like Nabokov’s father, who was murdered in 1922 for the views he espoused. And then there were those shunned by the herd, the Vladimirs who had grown up with silver spoons in their mouths and had to get used to real life, exposed to the elements when their racist landlords evicted them. Among these was my beloved butterfly hunter, who left Russia at the tender age of twenty, like those who go off on an Erasmus year, bent on seducing all the Russians in Europe – the white ones and those of every other colour, he didn’t discriminate along the lines of Von Luschan’s Scale--whose homesickness and melancholy he promised to cure with a few verses written especially for them.
Until the acidity of exile began hitting his intestinal flora. His money ran out, his father was killed, and Stalin followed Lenin. Russia was the past now, and no longer the future, a handful of childhood memories to return to on idle afternoons. The present was about nothing but survival: obsessively trying to scrape a few pennies together, ducking and diving to save a little on the rent, hoping beyond hope that the tattered old suit would still look new. And which country to go to next, in which language they’ll have to argue with the landlords, how long this neighbourhood is going to put up with them.
There's a story about butterflies and beaches featuring Vladimir as a child that I’d like to tell my son, but not yet. For now, I want to enjoy the crude reality of adult things, look that thirty-something man in the eye, the one known as Sirin to the Russian intellectuals of Berlin, Paris and London, the son of that famous Nabokov who gave so many speeches at the Duma. A thin man desperately on the hunt for a conference to speak at, an article to write, an advance, or for a translation of one of the prose pieces he’d been writing for years and that nobody could make heads nor tails of. A man begging for a teaching position in England or the US, whichever, as long as it was far from Germany and further still from Russia. A married man whose wife was named Véra and who was father to a small boy named Dimitri.
How is it possible for someone so fragile and so prone to
being knocked down by the buffeting winds of the twentieth century to become the nemesis of the monster called Stalin? I imagine him in shirtsleeves, learning not to put crosses on his sevens in order to pass for a Westerner with perfect English, since, unlike the Russians, the English don’t cross their sevens. He doesn’t want to give himself away as an émigré, doesn’t want that mark on that number to divulge his identity as the son of a ruined aristocrat, yearning for his palace and his estate and his serfs. Of course, he doesn’t give up the Russian language, just as his mother keeps hold of the family photos, but when he writes in English he writes like an Englishman: he’s quite prepared to assimilate, to erase himself entirely if that means a decent life for him and his family. Nobody knows it, not even himself, but his transparency and directness in the way he is in the world dramatises Stalin’s defeat. While Nabokov flapped around in the gloomy hostels of exile, Stalin’s totalitarianism was proving a total failure, the all-encompassing part in that ‘total’ having proved beyond its powers to achieve. Nabokov triumphed because he didn’t so much as show up for the battle. It was the obstinate way in which he clung to life, so similar to the short, insouciant distances covered by the moth in flight, that lifted him above the bloodstained devil of the tarot.
And yet, something connected that moment of obscurity
and the swimming pool in Sochi. Something that a person more tuned in to esotericism would have appreciated, if not at the time, then in later years, when memories begin to ripen and are tarnished by significance. In July 1936, the same month in which the vozhd was following Kamenev’s and Zinoviev’s trial from his dacha, an itching began to spring up across Nabokov’s body and he complained of the first really vicious outbreak of what he called ‘my Greek’, for the pedant’s name it went by: psoriasis.
Having no money for doctors, he turned to the oldest folk remedy going: bathing in coal tar. But, precisely as has happened to many of us who have run a bath and sprinkled in that oleaginous filth until the water turns muddy and quite literally pitch black, the treatment only served to irritate his skin more.
In January 1937, the year of the Great Terror in the USSR, Vladimir left Véra and Dimitri in their small Berlin flat and left for Paris to prepare the ground for their second exile. Germany had become hostile territory: Véra was a Jew, and the Nazi government had named Nabokov’s father as a spokesperson for Russians in exile. Like other intellectuals, Nabokov Jr had created something of a network for himself in France, and now looked to take advantage of it. The idea was to make some money through collaborations, commissions and talks, and to establish relationships with newspapers and French editors in order to be able to settle in the country. Meanwhile, he would rent somewhere cheap for the summer months, calling in favours, not so much from friends, as from the friends of friends’ friends. The idea was to spend a few months on the Côte d’Azur from April onwards, and from there, see what came. Paris itself was out of the question – too expensive – but neither could they live too far away, since Vladimir would have to travel there frequently to show his face in the salons and newspaper desk.
This plan all came about against the backdrop of a bureaucracy that crushed the life out of the refugees scattered across the poor neighbourhoods of European capitals. Vladimir and Véra were stateless persons: the new USSR did not recognise them as citizens, and the old Russia had ceased to exist. It was for them that the United Nations had created Nansen passports, which were printed on very thin, low-grade paper which tore any time they were stamped. Half of the countries in the world did not recognise them as official documents, and the other half only after enormous amounts of red tape. Crossing borders, not to mention bringing a young child along and a few pieces of furniture, entailed a considerable headache – appointments in consulates, documents in triplicate – that consumed almost all of their time and energy. The rejections, the unforeseen costs, and the general ill will shown by the civil servants they dealt with, ended up chipping away at the marriage, with the two of them arguing endlessly over a future that was impossible to plan. To Nabokov it was clear they needed to go to France, where he had Russian friends. Véra, on the other hand, thought Belgium or Italy were better options. When Vladimir went to Paris to give his talks and prepare the ground, they still hadn’t come to a decision. And all of this was going on while he was dealing with the worst, most raging bout of psoriasis, which, according to some of his biographers, led him to consider suicide.
On 27 January 1937, Vladimir wrote to Véra about his illness: ‘My Greek tortures me so much (I don’t sleep at night because it itches furiously – and this greatly affects my mood) that I decided to see a doctor, since it gets even worse from the précipité blanc. This idiotic tar has affected me awfully.’
The next day, he writes in a postscript: ‘I have been to M’s with Lyusya, and then to the doctor’s. He suggests I get some kind of injections, twenty at twenty francs a time. I declined.’
Twenty injections at twenty francs a time. So, 400 francs, or a month’s rent. Better to go on scratching.
On 1 February 1937, he writes: ‘I won’t tell you about the unbearable sufferings imposed on me by the Greek; the itchiness doesn’t let me sleep, and all the linen is covered in blood – terrible. There is a good new salve, but I don’t dare to use it, because it says on it “Sali[t] énormément le linge”. And he concludes: ‘Everything would be fine, if it weren’t for the damned skin.’
He returns to the topic on 4 February: ‘The psoriasis is only getting worse. I will do something about it on my return from London. From time to time I have a dream: to cover myself with ointment from head to toe and lie in hospital for a month.’ And further on: ‘My underwear is in such a state that it was too awkward to give it to Jeanne and I had to take it to a laundry, where washing a shirt costs almost three francs.’ (Nabokov, Vladimir, Letters to Véra, Knopf, 2015.)
Reading these letters, in which the distress of the psoriasis mingles with the distress at having to waste three francs at a laundry, my admiration for the writer becomes affection towards a friend and fellow sufferer. I would happily wash his shirts along with mine, the ones that still can be washed and aren’t permanently stained – black by now, rather than red.
It wasn’t only washdays that brought him shame. Staying over at friends’ houses was a torment he had no choice but to undergo, not having the money to rent for a room. He accepted the offer of a few days at Mme Chernavin’s, who said he could sleep in the room with her son. On 8 February, he writes: ‘[I] very much regret this, since I foresee I’ll be diabolically uncomfortable in a room already inhabited – especially given my psoriasis (which absolutely poisons my existence, but I’m afraid to start treatment before leaving for London).’
Nevertheless, he liked to emphasise the fact that the illness was the only bad thing in his life. He was at pains to convince Véra that he was clearing the way in France, and that they’d soon be living together in the new country: ‘My psor is getting worse all the time – although in all other respects I feel splendid’ (10 February 1937).
Then, on 15 February: ‘I’m still suffering terribly from the psoriasis: it has reached hitherto unseen dimensions, and it’s particularly unpleasant that my face is blotchy too. But the most awful thing is the itch. I dream madly of peace, ointment, sun.’
He writes two weeks later from Notting Hill, where, as ever, he was staying in the house of some Russian émigrés. His affairs in London had gone well, he was making progress in his contacts with editors and with old fellow students from Cambridge (where he had also been on a daytrip, visiting the backs overlooking the Cam, the first place he composed any good poetry). On 2 March, he writes: ‘It appears I’m going to be able to have a free course of ultraviolet rays for my Greek.’
In the 1930s, PUVA (psoralen and ultraviolet A) rays were being used in a very novel, virtually experimental form of treatment for severe cases of psoriasis, and they are still used in certain cases today. It is one torment that I, however, have avoided. In any case, the key word in what Nabokov says here is ‘free’. It pleases him that the chain of mutual favours that exists between émigrés has come up trumps. This letter marks a turning point in the bout he was then suffering. The rays began to take effect.
On 10 March, he writes from Paris: ‘I have been scribbling away at the play, getting up late, going for the sunlamp every day at three: the mountain sun has already helped me, at least my little face, otherwise I looked thoroughly obscene. The itch on my neck has more or less gone – but how awfully I’ve suffered all these weeks, how my underwear looked – from the blood – I’ve never in my whole life been so utterly miserable . . . this treatment costs me nothing. At the end of the sessions the doctor will also inject me with my own blood – it’s supposed to help a lot. Either because I have been writing, or because of the lilac sun, or because I will see you in three weeks I am completely cheerful today.’
Here, his mood has changed completely, which leads me to conclude something that I’ll come back to: that it isn’t the person’s state of mind that aggravates the psoriasis, via so-called somatisation, but the psoriasis itself that embitters that person’s nature. As soon as the psoriasis is dealt with, the irritation in the person’s words also disappears, an ebullience enters the things they say and their adjectives become unscaly.
On 6 April, Nabokov is so enthused by his treatment that he goes so far as to recommend that Véra see his doctor so that she can help with her nerves and all the aches associated with the tension of living alone in Berlin with a three year-old child: ‘By the way, my doctor, Kogan-Bernstein (the saintliest of women and an excellent doctor who gives me light treatment daily for an hour, which anywhere else would have cost 100 francs per session, rather than nothing), says that Franzen[s] bad mud baths are perfectly replaceable – and even more than replaceable – by electric baths . . .’
Doctor Kogan-Bernstein – what a doctor: more than just a scientist, a saint. Though that doesn’t mean he’ll go so far as to do everything she asks. On 12 April he writes: ‘Today, in fact, the doctor was supposed to perform an experimental operation on me (to draw blood from one of my veins and to inject it in the other), but “the students” . . . are strongly dissuading me; besides, my Greek is getting wonderfully better from the sun.’
On 15 April, the improvements are verging on a complete cure: ‘I’ve grown fatter, more tanned, changed my skin.’ The Greek barely gets another mention in the correspondence. Although it is also true that this correspondence was immediately interrupted, because the couple was finally reunited, after five months apart, and spent the summer together in Cannes, speaking face-to-face, not via letters. Vladimir went to the beach with Dimitri every day and they bathed in the munificent Mediterranean, identical to the sea of his childhood, when he didn’t have a Nansen passport and travelled in a sleeper car, a whole compartment to himself. Everything has changed, but his son is still a Russian spending the summer on the Côte d’Azur, as he himself once did.