In Nabokov’s novel The Gift (1938) the young poet Fyodor Godunov-Cherdyntsev is solitary and gifted. A virtuoso of perception, he sees around him many small, delightful details – a shopkeeper’s pumpkincoloured bald spot; an iridescent oil slick on a road with a plume-like twist, asphalt’s parakeet – that others around him miss.
This capacity makes him one of nature’s aristocrats, as Clarence Brown once wrote of the poet Mandelstam, refined, elegant and immeasurably, immaterially rich. He also happens to be a literal aristocrat, a Russian count dispossessed of his estates by the Revolution and living in apparently permanent exile in Berlin in the mid-1930s. He lodges in furnished rooms and scratches a living as a private tutor while his first collection of poems sells a few copies to fellow émigrés.
His girlfriend Zina is perfectly attuned to him emotionally and intellectually and happens to be Jewish. These circumstances might be expected to produce a bitter, strenuous political engagement in Fyodor, but he has only disdain for politics and the wider life of society and keeps his intellect apart, entirely devoted to the ‘complex, happy, devout work’ of writing that can only be conducted in a state of ‘energetic idleness’, in ‘lofty truancy’. In this, he bears a family resemblance to two other fictional aesthetes of incipient genius, Proust’s Marcel and Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus.
I was very impressed by Fyodor as a teenager and longed to join that prickly cohort of arch individualists, to write poems of lasting value myself, and to live in that repetition of aesthetic bliss to which they were all committed. I read a great deal of Nabokov. He was one of the few prose writers whose work had the concentrated richness of poetry, my preferred form, and I was bewitched by his brilliance, his dashing, unashamed intelligence and the comprehensive dislike he has for received opinion and group activity that makes liking him
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