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Vladimir Nabokov

[whitespace] Vladimir Nabokov A personal centenary salute

By John Yewell

IT WOULD BE NO exaggeration to say that my discovery of Vladimir Nabokov's work changed my life. I was an undergraduate lit major at UCSC in the mid-70s when a friend gave me a copy of Lolita. What range of expression, I thought, what deftness, what intelligence.

I was hooked instantly. In fact, I became pretty insufferable about it. So completely was I under his spell that I tried to mimic him--and a more spectacular failure would be hard to imagine. I borrowed words he chose for their precision and grace and tried to shoehorn them into the most unlikely coinages. I was young.

For a time I briefly corresponded with Nabokov through his wife, Vera. I never got to meet him, but through his books he taught me important things about literary art, about the craft that goes into ransacking the human soul in the search for love and truth--and then finding the right words to portray our discoveries. He was a true believer in Mark Twain's dictum: Use the right word, not its second cousin.

Nabokov was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, on April 23, 1899, to an aristocratic family. He was educated in England and lived in Germany after the Bolsheviks came to power. Nabokov published his first novel, Mary, in 1925. In 1937, with Hitler making things look pretty dicey, Nabokov and Vera, a Jew, fled to Paris. In 1940 they managed to get on one of the last boats to America, just as Nazi tanks were rolling into Paris.

He spent the next 20 years in this country, teaching much of that time at Cornell. During this period he produced his most notable works, including Lolita, Ada, Pale Fire and one of the great memoirs of all time, Speak, Memory.

Besides President Kennedy, Nabokov is the only person whose death recalls for me where I was at the moment I heard the news. In early July 1977 I was on a train to Amsterdam from Paris. I remember sharing a compartment alone with an attractive young American woman and looking forward to pleasant conversation. Upon opening that day's International Herald Tribune, I found an editorial tribute to Nabokov, who had died July 2.

"No!" I blurted out, and a shroud fell over me. Maybe she couldn't have cared less, but it was ill-mannered of me to ignore that woman for the rest of the trip.

With the 100th anniversary of Nabokov's birth approaching, I just wanted to thank him: thanks for the books, thanks for the devotion to art, and most of all, thanks for the words. I have done my best, over the years, to learn how to put them to better use. But mine will always pale in comparison to Nabokov's fire.

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From the February 24-March 3, 1999 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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