The Morning News has decided to play Reading Roulette with six Russian authors, shooting a new one into the American blogosphere each month. And because I can't get enough of translation, I’ll be writing about this year's selections — and linking to each story so you can read it yourself. Third up is Igor Sakhnovsky's shrewd pseudomemoir, "A Family of Monsters."
Volodya, light of my life, fire of my loins? Sort of.
When I was a senior in college, I took a class on Nabokov. We went from his early short stories to the sublime Pale Fire (“And then the gradual and dual blue / As night unites the viewer and the view”), and our professor told us about meeting Nabokov’s wife in Europe. I took the class because I had fallen in love with the way Nabokov interjects himself into his stories, like a god unwilling to leave his creation in peace. He warns readers about the diminishing number of pages in their right hands; he struggles in his writing “not [with] text but texture.”
So it was an unexpected flashback to read Igor Sakhnovsky’s “A Family of Monsters.” Taking on the voice of a female reader, he slowly unspools the story of her obsession with the famously reclusive Nabokov and his wife, Véra. Filippa, our narrator, is utterly self-absorbed and self-interested — she calls the esteemed author “The Hog” — which only underscores the hilarity of her love for a couple that would rather be left alone.
In no time, Filippa decides to seduce the famous wife. Does she succeed? Well, let's just say that this story is set not long after the publication ofLolita. And that what she ends up doing is far more reckless than any affair: she chooses to publish a story about the Nabokovs.
Keep in mind that we’re talking about an author who kept rigid control over his personal image. Exhibit A: Volodya being interviewed with notecards in hand.
So no, he doesn't take too kindly to this unwarranted exposure. But even after the unauthorized publication, Filippa keeps on writing letters to them and concocting stories about their personal lives. And she isn’t done trying to seduce Véra.
Without giving too much away, bridges are burned. Communication breaks down. And it's Véra who has the last laugh, in a footnote twist whose irony is gorgeously Nabokovian.
That this funny, multilayered story is based on real people — not just the Navokovs, but Filippa, too — only proves Nabokov’s dictum, in Strong Opinions, that the best art is “fantastically deceitful and complex.” If Igor Sakhnovsky was able to cram all this into a single story, I can only imagine how extraordinary his novel must be.