Sarah Weinman on the Not-So-Unlikely Friendship Between Vladimir Nabokov and William F. Buckley, Jr.
“What is bad for the Reds is good for me.”
In 1999, Nina Khrushcheva met William F. Buckley at the offices of National Review. Then a fellow at the New School’s World Policy Institute (and now a professor of international affairs at the university) Khrushcheva had much to discuss with Buckley, whom she’d first met a few months earlier at an event commemorating the tenth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Buckley had been a panelist along with her uncle Sergey, son of the Cold War-era Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev, one of Buckley’s sworn enemies in his, and the conservative movement’s, ferocious fight against Communism.
National Review had gone so far to create a “Khrushchev Not Welcome Here” bumper sticker in 1959, in advance of the premier’s visit to the United States at President Eisenhower’s invitation. The “Kitchen Debates” with then-Vice President Richard Nixon did not alleviate any of Buckley’s concerns about the Communist threat. Forty years later, it all seemed rather ironic to Khrushcheva; her uncle had been an American resident since 1991. And she owned, and displayed, one of the bumper stickers in her own Upper West Side apartment.
So it was with surprise that Khrushcheva discovered that the fire had gone out of Buckley’s fervor, especially at odds with the bright yellow sweater he wore that day. He discussed her great-grandfather almost desultorily: “Were it not for Buckley’s multisyllabic diction, we might have been discussing the weather,” she wrote nearly a decade after their meeting. He said his outrage hadn’t been personal, anyway, that it had always been about ideology, and he’d respected Khrushchev. It was better to “let bygones be bygones.”Nabokov had been such an avid reader of National Review that William F. Buckley had given him and his wife, Vera, a lifetime subscription.
The conversation seemed to be over after just 20 minutes. Then, ever polite, Buckley asked Khrushcheva what had brought her to New York. She replied that she was at work on a book about Vladimir Nabokov, one that would map his ideas and writings to the Soviet Union’s rise and fall. Buckley lit up: “What a wonderful idea!” he told Khrushcheva, not only approving of it himself, but suggesting that Nabokov would have loved it, too.
“Did you know he and I were friends, very good friends indeed? We were neighbors in Switzerland.”
The news took Khrushcheva by surprise, just as it did the same to me, nearly 20 years later. But in the years since my first book, The Real Lolita, was published, and the subsequent work on my next book, Scoundrel—the former in large part about Nabokov, the latter to some degree about Buckley—I came to realize I shouldn’t have been surprised at all.
“Let me simplify matters by saying that in my parlor politics as well as in open-air statements . . . I content myself with remarking that what is bad for the Reds is good for me,” Nabokov told the New York Times in 1968. Nabokov, of course, was not answering this question off-the-cuff over a telephone line, but in a carefully composed written response to queries sent in advance. Which is perhaps why the continuation of his answer went into more detail without giving too much away:
I do not have any neatly limited political views or rather that such views as I have shade off into a vague old-fashioned liberalism. Much less vaguely—quite adamantically, or even admantinely—I am aware of a central core of spirit in me that flashes and jeers at the brutal farce of totalitarian states, such as Russia, and her embarrassing tumors, such as China. A feature of my inner prospect is the absolute abyss yawning between the barbed-wire tangle of police states and the spacious freedom of thought we enjoy in America and Western Europe.
What Nabokov did not reveal to the paper was that, by this point, he had been such an avid reader of National Review that William F. Buckley had given him and his wife, Vera, a lifetime subscription. (“The National Review has always been a joy to read . . . and your articles in the Herald Tribune counteract wonderfully the evil and trash of its general politics,” Nabokov wrote Buckley in 1973.) A couple of years later, in August 1970, Vera Nabokov sent a check for $49.95 (nearly $360 in today’s dollars) to cover a two-year subscription to the magazine. “As long as I am alive, you will receive National Review with my compliments because you made the mistake of being so generous with me,” Buckley replied a month later.
The Buckley-Nabokov friendship dated to the late 1950s, around the time of the American publication, and astounding success, of Lolita. The novel’s triumph after several frustrating years of limbo, including its original, error-filled, argument-inciting 1955 publication by the Olympia Press, was the culmination of the Nabokovs’ time in the United States, a far cry from their imperiled emigre status escaping the Nazis in 1940. Lolita meant freedom, not just from tyranny, but from having to earn a living in academia. The novel’s success eventually afforded Vladimir and Vera the means to leave Ithaca, New York, where Nabokov taught literature at Cornell University, for Montreux, Switzerland, in 1961.
The Montreux Palace Hotel was about an hour’s drive from Gstaad, where William F. and Patricia Buckley wintered in the early parts of the year. There was skiing, dedicated time to write—in later years Buckley would work on his Blackford Oakes spy thrillers exclusively during his time there—and choice friends across ideological spectra and the arts, most notably the actor David Niven and the economist John Kenneth Galbraith.The Buckley-Nabokov friendship dated to the late 1950s, around the time of the American publication, and astounding success, of Lolita.
The Nabokovs were not part of this circle. But Bill and Pat made it a point to visit the other couple whenever they were in residence at Gstaad, and corresponded regularly when they were elsewhere. WFB wanted Nabokov to come on Firing Line as a guest, but Nabokov demurred, “because he would need to memorize everything he would then say,” Buckley told his longtime editor at Doubleday, Sam Vaughan, in 1996. “I said, come on, your extemporaneous talk is absolutely lapidary. He said no, he had never spoken in public in his entire life, including lectures to students, without first memorizing what he was going to say.”
The conversation between Buckley and Nabokov revolved around, as Buckley described it in his moving obituary of Nabokov, “the literary scene, the political scene, inflation, bad French, cupitidous publishers, the exciting breakthrough in his son’s career, and what am I working on now?” Buckley thrilled to receive a copy of Transparent Things, Nabokov’s last novel published during his lifetime. (There would be some discussion of the work-in-progress that eventually saw the light of day as The Original of Laura, too.)
At one meal, Buckley remarked that Nabokov seemed to be rather pleased with himself.
“I am,” Nabokov said. “I finished my OSS.”
“Obligatory Sex Scene.”
Buckley would send Nabokov copies of his own books; he even modeled a character—the father of a Soviet spy—featured in his second Blackford Oakes novel, Stained Glass, after Nabokov. “I told him I was going to do it,” WFB told an interviewer in 1978. (Nabokov was, apparently, amused, but not that amused.)
He also brought or sent other people’s works, including, oddly, two paperbacks by the historical fiction writer Mary Renault. After sending Nabokov an Ezra Pound anthology edited by Hugh Kenner, the author replied: “Though I detest Pound and the costume jewelry of his verse, I must say Kenner’s approach is very interesting.”
Buckley would later send the Nabokovs inscribed copies of two books, The Governor Listeth and American Conservative Thought in the Twentieth Century, for which the couple thanked him profusely—as well as for WFB’s “rare understanding of the Soviet atmosphere” in his NR articles about Russia: “The more such observant travelers as you the better.”
The final Buckley-Nabokov summit took place in Montreux in February 1977. By then Vladimir’s health had declined steeply, and he had nearly died in hospital. Bill had missed the prior year’s annual visit because of some health problems of his own. Nabokov would live a few more months. The Buckleys sent telegrams expressing their condolences to Vera and the couple’s son, Dmitri. A month later, on August 4, 1977, Bill wrote to Vera: “He was a lovely man, so kind and generous to me, above all so fortunate to have had at his side for so many years one of the world’s loveliest women.”
William F. Buckley also heard, on occasion, from Dmitri, who was just nine years younger than Buckley. There were postcards from Dmitri’s skiing travels, and updates on his “itinerant” lifestyle of opera-singing, women-chasing, and race car-driving (which later led to rumors that he was a spy.) WFB extended, on more than one occasion, an invitation to the younger Nabokov to stay with him and Pat at the Manhattan maisonette or the house in Stamford.
Their most extensive encounter happened, however, about two decades after Vladimir Nabokov’s death. Dmitri was heavily involved in organizing events around the centennial of his father’s birth, which would culminate in the Nabokov Centenary Festival at Cornell University in September 1998. There was a swirl of activity, including the impending release of Adrian Lyne’s film version of Lolita after protracted censorship battles, the publication of Pia Pera’s Lo’s Diary (widely panned, not very good, though officially sanctioned by the Nabokov estate), and a new play by Terry Quinn, Dear Bunny, Dear Volodya, that dramatized the letters between Nabokov and the literary critic Edmund Wilson, depicting the rise and fall of their relationship.
In several performances—first at the Century Club in Manhattan in December 1997, and another at the Cornell conference—Dimitri Nabokov played the part of his father, while Buckley took on the role of Wilson. “VN was such a good friend, I didn’t mind becoming a liberal for that occasion,” Buckley told Nina Khrushcheva. (A third performance of the play, in London in 1999, featured someone else in the role of Wilson.)
According to Nabokov scholar Galya Diment, who attended the Century Club performance, “If I were writing a theater review, I’d have to say that next to Dmitri Nabokov, Buckley seemed to lack a certain energy.” The Cornell Chronicle‘s James Stevens characterized the staging as a “lukewarm performance”, though Mel Gussow, covering the conference for the New York Times, praised Dear Bunny, Dear Volodya as a “dramatic highlight.”
A week later, Buckley wrote Dmitri Nabokov to tell him how “splendidly” he thought the other man had performed, and looked forward to a tape of Dmitri’s keynote speech at the closing banquet. (Dmitri sent a transcript, which is included in Buckley’s archives, but there’s no record of the tape itself.) Correspondence between Buckley and the younger Nabokov fell off afterwards. Buckley died a decade later, in 2008, and Dmitri four years after that.
William F. Buckley liked to say that every book by Vladimir Nabokov was “a blow against tyranny.” He’d heard that from Vera, on more than one occasion, during those annual-ish get-togethers in Switzerland. While that ethos underpinned the friendship between the two men, it couldn’t have sustained it.
What I came to learn, from working on my own projects, is that Buckley believed in friendship more than almost anything. Ideology mattered, but one didn’t need to let it get in the way of being friends with somebody. And having opposing ideology, in fact, was an advantage, if it led to genuine understanding and exchange of ideas—but that was less important than sharing a love of the arts, or sailing, or whatever interest was forefront on Buckley’s mind at any given time.
Belief in friendship comes at a price. Because it’s important to consider who one’s friends are, and who merits the gift of friendship. It got Buckley in trouble several times, most notably with the convicted murderer Edgar Smith, but also with those he trusted to run a broadcasting company he owned, which led to a financial settlement with the SEC for violating securities laws.
What transpired between Buckley and Nabokov, however, was genuine feeling, unlikely as it seemed on the surface. They were, as Nina Khrushcheva wrote, conservative comrades. One of Nabokov’s proudest possessions was a button that Buckley had given him during one of their annual lunches. The button said: “Fuck Communism.”