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Before she could publish The Enchanter, her book about novelist Vladimir

Nabokov, Lila Azam Zanganeh needed the permission of the authors son,
Dmitri, who died last week at the age of 77. Here she tells the story of her
nights spent reading to him in Palm Beachand learning about his family, and
remembering her own.
For three days and three nights, on a damp February weekend in Palm Beach, Florida, I read
Nabokov to Nabokov. I had traveled from New York to Palm Beach with a manuscript in my
suitcase to visit Dmitri Nabokov, the only son and literary executor of Vladimir Nabokov.
The manuscript, my first book, contained a number of Nabokov quotes for which I needed to
obtain rights before I could approach an American publisher. I knew that, in 1999, Dmitri had
threatened to sue an Italian author named Pia Pera over a book titled Los Diary, a rewriting
of Lolita from Lolitas point of view. To avoid an infringement lawsuit, Peras American publisher
had printed a scathing preface by Dmitri (Pia Pera [henceforth PP], an Italian journalist and
author of some stories that I have not read ). Aside from this, Dmitri had built a forbidding
reputation in the literary world for attacking the works of many a would-be Nabokovian. Fearing
the worst, I had emailed Dmitri the manuscript, hoping he would read it before I made it to
Florida, and that we might spend the evening discussing potential issues.
My book was a curious combination of fiction and essay, of invention and interpretation. It posited
that Nabokov was the great writer of happiness. A notion that, over the years, almost invariably
turned small talk into opinionated tirades. Happiness, evidently, did not keep good company with
nymphets and nympholepts.
Palm Beach felt like a sort of grotesque inversion of Nabokovs short story Spring in Fialta:
gigantic pine trees; juniper shrubs; sorry-go-rounds of concrete high-rises. With a map and a
bicycle, Id made my way to Ocean Drive. I rehearsed with myself how I might parry various lines
of attack: breathe, acquiesce, qualify. Your father hated didactic writings, hence this book had to
be extremely playful ... I had to imagine him. With an accelerated heart rate, I rang the bell of
Dmitris apartment. A beaming nurse opened the door, and I stepped into a living room adorned
with posters outlining, in 19th-century font, the casts of productions Dmitri had sung in during his
operatic career. La Bohme stood outa memorable performance, as Dmitri later recounted, at
the Teatro di Reggio Emilia, where he had sung his debut role on the same night as Pavarotti,
nearly half a century ago. On the door to his bedroom, to the left, a glossy poster of Kubricks Lolita displayed the famous pair of heart-shaped red glasses. Among mirrors and modern
cream-white furniture, one could glimpse various miniature models of racing cars, another of his
lifes passions.
Dmitri himself, now 76 and looking uncannily like his father at about the same age, was seated in
a wheelchair, at the head of the dining table. To his left was Ariane, a blond lady with an edgy
sense of humor who turned out to be an old friend of Dmitris, and like him a former opera singer.
Dmitris ice-blue eyes looked dazed and sleepy that night. Ever the gentleman, however, he
announced that he, together with Ariane, had read and appreciated the first two chapters. The
most conventional ones from a narrative standpoint, I immediately thought to myself, and felt my
temperature drop. He had read only a fragment, and everything remained uncertain. I joined them

at the table for a three-course meal, and tried to ease into a semblance of small talk. He could yet
hate, and kill, the book I had worked on for the last several years. A moment later, Dmitri Nabokov looked up, smiled, and declared he had come up with a good idea. He was too exhausted to
read the manuscript, he confessed, so would I kindly read it out loud to him over the span of the
next few days? I glanced at Ariane, who nodded in agreement.
For the past 20 years, Dmitri has been a remarkably meticulous translator of his fathers earlier
works, from Russian to English and Italian. Last year he edited and oversaw the publication of the
unfinished manuscript of Nabokovs last novel, The Original of Laura. But during those three
marathon days in Florida, he remained in bed, and I sat on a chair by his computer and read to
him. As I started off on chapter threethe chapter on his fathers first lovesbursts of
SLOWER! and LOUDER! punctuated our hours. Dmitri had been a basso profundo singer, and
to this day retains a commanding voice as well as a keen ear. I must have driven him mad, as I
garbled my words and raced erratically through clusters of sentences that looked clear on the
page but sounded barely intelligible as I spoke them. At the end of each evening, he would begin
to nod off, and I bicycled my way back to the hotel.

As the days and nights unfolded, my heart often pounding, I read to Dmitri passages from Lolita,
Ada or Ardor, Speak, Memory, and countless short stories, but also imaginary interviews and
fictional accounts of his fathers erotic life. The page at times elicited fierce reactions, even fits of
anger (Why, please tell me why you need to invent this? It almost sounds too close to home!),
but also moments of gentleness. His critical ear remained sharp throughout the reading. He not
only critiqued and edited, but also corrected grammar (Is it onto or unto?), diction (Vladimir and
his mother would never argue over a weak serve! Perhaps you meant squabble?), and, most
precious of all in my sense, pronunciation. Dmitri or I often picked up the dictionary to check
British and American variations, and sometimes, to my relief, found we were both right, as in the
case of skein (pronounced both skeen and skeyn). Dmitri also taught me to pronounce the
names of butterflies ( Lycaeides Samuelis), myriad plants, and the Latinate shades of many
other words I had read and written but never said aloud.
My mother, though Iranian, had taught me English exactly two decades before in Paris (where I
was born) - irregular verbs, vocabulary, tonic accents, and modulations. As Dmitri instructed me,
the powerful reminiscences of my childhood lessons with my mother began to meld with memories of her reading Nabokov when I was an adolescent, of her own world-within-worlds mirroring
of Nabokovs childhood in a country and a period I had never known. The forests of blue firs by
the Caspian sea-lake, the glorious countryside in summertime, her grandparents who time and
again had traveled to Russia in the first decade of the 20th century, in another world that appeared as remote and mysterious to her now as it was to be always unreal to me. So that, in the
end, several generations seemed to converse through Dmitri and myself during those afternoons
- fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, exchanging words and even at times switching parts,
as in a luminous labyrinth through which Russia, by way of Iran, had come alive again in the most
unlikely of American towns. It felt like a miraculous antiphonal echo to my first English lessons
that, years later, a Nabokov was completing my English education.

We had all survived the revolution in our own way. We had created our stories. I had been born in
Paris and spent a fraction of time in Tehran. But soon the 1979 revolution swept away time as we
knew it. My uncle was assassinated. My grandmother suddenly died. My mother was the final
person to be called on the endless waiting list for the last flight out, amid an airport convulsed
with fear. That night, the borders were closed. Her cousin walked west through the Kurdish
mountains. My father and I had been away and were never to return. I grew up in Paris
surrounded by Iranians who only ever talked about their homeland. The things they had seen that
I would never see. The ancient cities, the dreamy harbors, the sonorous street names that no
longer existed. I created a mental geography, and imagined, likely, another country.
In this, our new reality, my mother became an anchor. She had lost almost everything overnight.
Yet her strength was to believe in culture. She wanted me to acquire the one thing that could
never be taken away. So we read, listened to music, learned unknown languages. Western
literature existed alongside centuries of Persian tradition. Each new discovery brought its
modicum of happiness. For an hour or two, exile became a notion rather than a perpetual prickle
in the stomach. Space was abolished. And culture amounted to no more and no less than a
mosaic of stories, where home, at last, was everywhere.
As the days passed, I was still unsure about what Dmitri actually thought of my book. But what
had begun as a nervous attempt to garner approval had turned into an exercise in sharing,
somewhat ecstatically, with a hawk-eyed Nabokov, the thrill of planting ones claws into such
miniature stuff as stories, and texts, are made on. Until the third night, when following hours of
question-and-parry, Dmitri rather matter-of-factly approved the manuscript, and sent off its writer
to a life of her own. He was asleep when I left the apartment, and whisked down Ocean Drive,
holding fast to the marked-up pages and thousands of words.
Lila Azam Zanganeh was born in Paris. She has taught literature, cinema, and
Romance languages at Harvard University. She now writes and lives in New York City.