Cradling the Abyss

Vladimir Nabokov died on this day in 1977. Nabokov spent his last years in Montreux, Switzerland, the last of the many hotel-residences in which he and his wife lived. Tended by Vera and their only child, Dmitri, Nabokov had been in and out of hospitals for some time and, as told in the biographies, the ailing lepidopterist knew a migration when he saw one:

Parting from his father for the second to last time, Dmitri kissed his forehead as he always did for a goodbye or a goodnight. Nabokov’s eyes suddenly welled with tears. When Dmitri asked him why, he replied that a certain butterfly was already on the wing, and his eyes made clear that he expected never to see it again. (Brian Boyd’s Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years)

Having been displaced from Russia by revolutionary politics, Nabokov said that his only enduring inheritance was the “unreal estate” of memory and art; the following, a pre-memory presaging displacement and exile, is from the opening pages of Speak, Memory, Nabokov’s memoir of his early decades (#8 on the Modern Library Top 100 nonfiction list):

The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness. Although the two are identical twins, man, as a rule, views the prenatal abyss with more calm than the one he is heading for (at some forty-five hundred heartbeats an hour). I know, however, of a young chronophobiac who experienced something like panic when looking for the first time at homemade movies that had been taken a few weeks before his birth. He saw a world that was practically unchanged—the same house, the same people—and then realized that he did not exist there at all and that nobody mourned his absence. He caught a glimpse of his mother waving from an upstairs window, and that unfamiliar gesture disturbed him, as if it were some mysterious farewell. But what particularly frightened him was the sight of a brand-new baby carriage standing there on the porch, with the smug, encroaching air of a coffin; even that was empty, as if, in the reverse course of events, his very bones had disintegrated.

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at