The Irish band’s 1987 carol for the Grinchiest among us tells of a pair of fresh-faced lovers ground down by the Big Apple and reduced to Edward Albee-style fury.
Most importantly, both novels made their debut with Olympia Press, the Parisian publishing house run by Maurice Girodias.
From before he signed with Olympia, Nabokov suspected that his story of a nymphet and her tormentor might only find a home in Europe at a sketchy publishing enterprise.
As Girodias alternated posing as a high-minded litterateur with frank identification as a pornographer, Nabokov likewise began to take against him. In the end, Donleavy and Nabokov each probably owe Maurice Girodias a debt of gratitude for taking a chance on their breakthrough novels—but Girodias also inspired a more-than-justified revenge from both men.
Long after I expected the well of reviews for The Secret History to have run dry, two new appraisals popped up. Most critics looking at The Secret History have focused on that Lolita material, which is hardly a surprise, given the novel’s place in our literary firmament. Fifty years is long time to wait for a decryption device but one has been furnished by Andrea Pitzer, the author of the The Secret History of Vladimir Nabokov, not just one of the most beguiling literary biographies to come out in years but also a first-rate addition to the groaning shelf of Nabokov studies. After the blazing success of Lolita in America and the sale of its movie rights to James Harris and Stanley Kubrick, Vladimir Nabokov and his wife Vera ended up in Switzerland, joining the community of celebrities at the Montreux Palace Hotel on the shores of Lake Geneva.
I traveled to Montreux in April 2011, spending one night at the Palace Hotel before moving to a less extravagant location a few blocks down the street. Here’s a 180-degree view of the Montreux Palace and its surroundings, taken on shaky-cam from the front lawn, which sits between the hotel and the lake. You can see the Alps rising behind the hotel, and as the video pans around, the lake and the mountains again, home to the butterflies Nabokov loved to chase and collect.
The collapse of recognition runs through both fiction and nonfiction about prisoners returning from the Soviet Gulag. At the heart of The Secret History of Vladimir Nabokov is the idea that Pale Fire‘s delusional narrator, who imagines himself the exiled king of Zembla, has a story and a past bound up deeply with the Gulag. In Journey Into the Whirlwind, Evgenia Ginzburg’s memoir of an eighteen-year Gulag sentence and exile, a mother mistakes her living son for her dead one.
Ivan Grigoryevich goes back to Leningrad and stands beneath his former lover’s window, but feels farther from her than he did when barbed wire separated them.
In “A Parable of Misrecognition” (paid) from The Russian Review, Alexander Etkind brings together the work of Ginzburg and Grossman to show how obliterating recognition revealed the horror of the camps and the distance between the prisoners and those who remained at home. In 1956, Nikita Khrushchev used the concept of “unjustified repressions” as the euphemism for mass murders, arrests, and deportations.
Charles Kinbote, the mad narrator of Nabokov’s 1962 novel Pale Fire, tells stories of a revolution that resulted in a totalitarian state.
Notions of repression and the uncanny pervade Pale Fire—Kinbote believes locked doors become unlocked overnight, that someone has tied a white silk bow on the cat while he lay sleepless in his rented house. Stuck in the shadows of more accomplished, more loved siblings, lesser novels are often the bitter children of genius. They surrender family secrets and the details of their creators’ flawed parenting. Such is the case with Bend Sinister, Vladimir Nabokov’s first novel written after his 1940 arrival in America. A chapter at the center of the story records a translator’s struggles with a state-sponsored, monstrous version of Hamlet.
Yet the fate of Hamlet in a police state was not some abstract question, and the play’s the thing that links Nabokov’s fictional universe with our world in a haunting way. Shakespeare ranked as one of Nabokov’s three favorite writers (the others: himself and Pushkin), and the Bard’s plays make an appearance in more than one book by Nabokov, including the novel Pale Fire, whose title was provided by Timon of Athens and perhaps even by Hamlet itself.
Constantin Stanislavsky and Gordon Craig staged a landmark Russian production of that play beginning in 1911. He was eventually relieved of his position and chastised for “excessive radicalism.” As the decade wore on, he continued to struggle with Hamlet.
Vladimir Nabokov disdained most novels as “topical trash” and sought to create something transcendent in his own fiction.

Growing up in the twilight of Russian Empire, where his father was first imprisoned under the Tsar in 1908 and then arrested under Lenin in 1917, Nabokov was familiar with state-sponsored surveillance and informers from both ends of the political spectrum. After his father’s death in 1922 at the hands of reactionaries trying to assassinate someone else, Nabokov finished his university studies and then returned to Berlin. During these years, Nabokov was said to make ill-advised jokes over the phone with a Jewish friend about when their (non-existent) Communist cell should meet.
Early on, he developed a distaste for petty bureaucracy and laws that allowed “rat-whiskered consuls and policemen” to harass innocent refugees. Even after Vladimir and Vera escaped to America in 1940, Nabokov’s brushes with intrigue and spying continued. With recent titles including works by Samuel Beckett and Jean Genet, Olympia was known for publishing sexually frank but serious literature, and seemed (however briefly) like it might offer an appropriate home for Lolita and The Ginger Man. So when that suspicion turned into reality, Nabokov appears to have been less shocked than Donleavy to find his book included in the Traveller’s Companion series that would eventually encompass Tender Was My Flesh, White Thighs, and Until She Screams. His distaste only intensified after Lolita began drawing international attention and Girodias demanded staggering percentages in exchange for overseas rights to the book, threatening to distribute it in America himself. As the Guardian describes it, after more than two decades of legal battles, in which the proceeds from The Ginger Man likely helped fund both parties to the suit, Girodias tried to buy back the name Olympia Press at a bankruptcy auction. And while music seems primarily to have been an irritant to him, Nabokov might well have appreciated the spirit of “Fairytale,” a song that withholds easy sentiment while acknowledging how close love and resentment sit to each other. She reads the novels for their cryptic hints, oblique allusions and hidden political themes, their cunning fusion of history and art, and reveals new dimensions of meaning. But another October review, posted on The Daily Beast, tackles Pale Fire and its historical context—what I would call the heart of the book. Signing a lease in the summer of 1961, they took up residence there that October during the last months of Nabokov’s work on Pale Fire. Before my arrival, I had asked for a tour of the place and historical information–the staff somehow thought I was doing a travel piece.
Zeks released in the 1950s after years of being mangled by a state determined to reshape society found themselves unknown and unknowable.
But even absent the history explored in the book, Pale Fire parallels Gulag memoirs in multiple ways, sharing themes of ghostliness, shattered recognition, impostors, and fantastic stories of escape. Equally estranged from herself, at one point in a labor camp, she recognizes her reflection only by its resemblance to her mother. They want to reunite with him but fear his judgment against them for compromises they have made.
In a place where those who vanished come back to haunt the living and are themselves haunted in return, it can be hard to know which characters are ghosts.
Millions of the surviving victims of these “repressions” were coming back to their homes after years or decades of separation from their families.
He is imprisoned but through spectacular, unbelievable means, escapes and makes his way to the West. Revealing more authorial struggles than triumphs, the novel recounts the fate of a freethinking philosopher in a totalitarian state. Filled with echoes of “Lenin’s speeches, and a chunk of the Soviet constitution, and gobs of Nazist pseudo-efficiency,” the book lurches from horror to slapstick and back, grinding gears as it goes.
In his June 1960 review of the novel for Encounter, Frank Kermode criticized the Hamlet episode as a “digression” and “a useless but agreeable exercise of intellect.” The polyglot gamesmanship of the chapter fails to integrate the warped play into the stillborn society. Just before Nabokov began work on his novel in 1941, Joseph Stalin criticized Hamlet, triggering its disappearance from Soviet stages for more than a decade. Their collaboration for the Moscow Art Theater revolutionized drama across Europe, inspiring veteran director Vsevolod Meyerhold—already a legend for his work in theater, opera, and cinema—to likewise try his hand at staging Hamlet.
Pressured to alter his work under Tsarist rule, he cheered the Revolution and joined the Communists, dreaming that the arts might flourish under Soviet rule. He did not want to cut a line but could not find a way to leave it intact and stage it to his standards. Meyerhold’s reputation continued to grow, and despite the censors, he managed to carry out extraordinary work, including productions of Chekhov and Tchaikovsky.

In Speak, Memory, he notes the evening his father’s librarian discovered a Tsarist stooge in a back room eavesdropping on a meeting. Through the Weimar era into the Nazi rise to power, the city remained a playground for double agents, with a reputation as the Soviet central bureau for espionage abroad. His short story “The Assistant Producer” tells a thinly veiled tale of Russian singer Nadezhda Plevitskaya, who went to prison for espionage and collaborating with her husband’s murderous intrigues. In Bend Sinister, a bumbling group of informers and agents of the state try to enforce conformity. Vera’s sister Sonia had been fraternizing with a known propagandist for the Nazis, and as she made her way from France to Casablanca to America, a telegram delivered to the U.S. Nabokov invented a story of a European immigrant’s sexual depravity in America; Donleavy wrote of an American’s sexual adventures in Europe. Nabokov began to look for ways to exit his deal with Olympia, twice wishfully declaring his contract void. Donleavy sent his then-wife Mary to France, where she made the final bid and ended up purchasing the Olympia name for Donleavy, taking it forever from the man he felt had misrepresented his book from the beginning.
Not unlike the Pogues song, which—as with Nabokov’s best works—also has a hint “of malice at the back of [its] voice,” a streak of uncertainty, and joy. After a year the Nabokovs moved up to the top floor, which has a truly spectacular view–and no overhead neighbors.
Coming back from the Trojan War dressed as a beggar, Odysseus found that his dog and childhood nurse could see through his deception. Russians left behind at home, who might once have understood the prisoners, had also been transformed in the meantime—often through complicity required to survive the system. In Sigmund Freud’s famous definition of 1919, “something which is secretly familiar, which has undergone repression and then returned from it,” was the uncanny. By the time the book opens, he has lost his identity and has become unrecognizable even to himself, taking refuge in the delusion that he is the exiled king of the land of Zembla. During this silence, Bend Sinister carried the wreckage of the play, standing as a condemnation of art stripped down to politics.
Analyzed by the revolutionary Decembrists, the historical tragedies played a pivotal role in Alexander Pushkin’s ascent to literary immortality.
But he soon found himself criticized on the pages of Pravda by revolutionary leader Nadezhda Krupskaya, wife of Vladimir Lenin. After the Revolution a family retainer led Soviet sympathizers to the hidden safe containing the Nabokov family jewels. Nabokov’s novel Glory includes the drama of illicit border-crossings into Soviet Russia by anti-Bolshevik revolutionaries. 1943: SS officers in the service of William of Lecce try to recover the Ark of the Covenant. In Donleavy’s Fairytale, a man returning to New York with his wife’s corpse meets up with a woman whose millionaire husband has also just died. Both authors steamrolled postwar obscenity standards and found their books’ distribution hamstrung by censorship.
He would end up in litigation that continued more than a decade after Lolita’s publication, when a French court finally closed the book on legal obligations between Nabokov and Olympia. The two readings of the term “repression(s),” Freud’s and Khrushchev’s, are intimately correlated. And at the dawn of Russia’s civil war, Nabokov was himself captured in the hills above Yalta and interrogated on suspicion of signaling the British with his butterfly net.
Despite the opposition of the Mafia, they manage the feat, but too late: Fate begins to play its final hand, and the war appears lost for the Axis Powers.

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