Nabokov (Part One)

Image courtesy
Image courtesy

By Christopher Zoukis

In one of the most beautiful places on earth, or at least in Europe, is one of the most beautiful ‘walks.’  Kind of like the boardwalk at Santa Barbara, California, or the cement sidewalk along Mission Beach near La Jolla, California.  Only much longer.  The ‘walk’ goes all the way from Villeneuve to Vevey.  Along the way you pass the Place du Marche.’  And there, disconcerting to some and admired by others, stands a statue of a rock star.  Freddy Mercury, facing the brilliant blue waters of Lake Geneva.  And why not?  The rock band Deep Purple made the city famous in their song ‘Smoke on the Water.’

The city is Montreux, Switzerland.  Numerous small villages surround Montreux, including La Tour-de-Peilz, Clarens, Territet, and Villeneuve.


The grave marker is large and rectangular, cut from a single piece of purplish stone.  The façade of the stone is very rough, like just-poured cement that hasn’t been smoothed.  Behind the marker, carefully trimmed, stands a hedge of white oleanders, flat-faced with flowers.  In front of the grave marker is a single, double-wide slab of cement, which covers the graves.  The slab is smooth and surrounded by green grass and flowering plants.

This is the Cimitiere de Clarens, the Cemetery of Clarens.  Clarens is one of the villages near Montreux. 

The two names engraved on the rough face of the purplish stone are Vladimir Nabokov, and just below it, in somewhat smaller font, Vera Nabokov.  Vladimir and his wife, Vera, lived in a suite at the Montreux Palace Hotel from 1960 until 1977.  They now live together in a somewhat smaller suite in the Cemetery Clarens.

Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov wrote many novels, including the controversial Lolita, and demonstrated how a memoir should be written in his Speak, Memory, which may be the best memoir ever produced.  Nabokov was also an accomplished lepidopterist, and a master of chess.

His childhood, which he himself called “perfect,” was spent in St. Petersburg (Stalingrad), Russia.  The family spoke three languages, Russian, English and French on a daily basis, and enjoyed the privileged lifestyle of their aristocratic heritage. 

With the revolt of 1917, the blue-blooded Nabokovs fled Russia for the relative safety of Crimea.  After eighteen months in Crimea, the family moved to England.  Vladimir became a student at Trinity College.  He graduated from Cambridge and moved to Berlin, where a large ghetto of Russian emigres resided.  Taking the nom de plume of Vladimir Sirin, he began writing and married Vera Slonim. 

Tragic and mysterious events chaperoned the family:  Nabokov’s father was assassinated by Russian monarchists in 1922, a case of mistaken identity.  Nabokov himself, like Kandinski, was a synesthete, which, in Nabokov’s case, means he not only associated letters with colors, but that the letters were actually colored.  Later on, Nabokov’s brother, Sergei, who was homosexual, died in a Nazi concentration camp.

Vladimir Nabokov moved his family to Paris in 1937.  Then because of Germany’s invasion of France, Nabokov fled to the United States in 1940.  He taught comparative literature at Wellesley College, simultaneously working as a curator of lepidoptery at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Biology.  In his spare time, he wrote.