The Secret History of Vladimir Nabokov was another world-rocker for me. How could it be otherwise? It centers on the life and literature of a Russian who grew up in a wealthy anglophile home (his mother was the daughter of a mining magnate, Russia’s Carnegie). He spoke English first and his native tongue, second. He was the son of the leader of the Kadet Party, the closest Russia ever got to democracy.
Nabokov escaped Fate at the hands of the Bolsheviks in 1919 and poverty in Berlin with his mother and 4 siblings after two angry tsarists thugs assassinated his father. He married a Jewish woman from St. Petersburg named Vera and together, they slipped from the Germans in 1939 from Berlin and again, in 1942 from Paris, and then from McCarthy and the CIA throughout their American years. Many of their siblings and relatives got caught either in the Holocaust (V’s brother, who was gay), or behind the Iron Curtain in Prague after 1961 and 1968.
The entire 19th century gets covered in this magnificent memoir. Most surprising, but hardest to read, is the author’s revelations about the history of the Holocaust, the Russian Revolution, totalitarianism, and torture (both Nazi concentration camp and Stalinist gulag) lurking beneath the surface of all of Nabokov’s convoluted plots and the despair caused by the resulting loss of the perfect peaceful world that was his childhood. It’s heartbreaking. I see Nabokov and his literature with fresh eyes.