Saturday, January 10, 2015

NABOKOV'S FIRST LETTER TO BUNIN: "these days of great bereavement"

On Mar. 18, 1921, Vladimir Nabokov, who was still a student at Cambridge University, wrote the following letter to Ivan Bunin in Russian:

                                                Most Respected Ivan Alekseevich,

I am sending you several of my poems--selected at random--and I take this opportunity to tell you how encouraged I am by what you have written about my timid creative works--the more so since these nice words come precisely from you--the only writer who in our blasphemous and tongue-tied age goes on calmly serving the beautiful, sensing the beautiful in all things--in manifestations of the human spirit and in the pattern of lilac shadow on moist sand--and whose every verse is incomparable in its purity, depth and brilliance.

Forgive me for expressing myself so badly. This is as difficult for me as a declaration of love--a love of long standing.

In a word, I wish to say to you how infinitely I am consoled by the realization that there is someone to turn to in these days of great bereavement [v eti dni velikoj sirosti].

                                                                    Most respected Ivan Alekseevich,
                                                                        with deepest respect

                                                                              V. Nabokov

[my translation of the letter, as published in Maxim Shrayer, Bunin i Nabokov: istorija sopernichestva, M., 2015, p. 33-34]

This letter did not come out of the blue. Bunin was acquainted with Nabokov's father, the noted jurist and political figure, and the two had discussed the writer-son Nabokov before. V.D. Nabokov was murdered by fanatical Russian monarchists a year later, in Berlin on Mar. 28, 1922.

The last line in this letter is especially interesting. What are "these days of great bereavement?" I can only assume that the reference is to the hard lot of the Russian emigre, who has just been deprived of his native land. In 1921 Nabokov and Bunin and lots of others had been "orphaned" by Lenin and his gang.

The word Nabokov uses (for "bereavement") is sirost', which is related to the word sirota, usually translated as "orphan." The word sirota in Russian, however, refers to one who has lost a parent. The expression for orphan (one who has lost both parents) is kruglaja sirota. Nabokov became a sirota, and his time of great bereavement began when his father was murdered. That's why the last line is so interesting.

There is a strange premonition in that final line. It is as if almost exactly a year before his father's murder Nabokov were foreseeing this event, one of the worst things to happen to him in his whole life. As if he had some eerie foreboding, or as if the thing had already happened, and the grieving Nabokov were telling his literary godfather, Bunin, how consoling it was to have someone to turn to.

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