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This home at 55 Stanhope Gardens in South Kensington, London, is where Vladimir Nabokov came to rest for a short time after the long journey of emigration from Russia by way of Crimea, Turkey, Greece and France. The Nabokov family arrived in England May 27, 1919, pulling into the port of Southampton on a ship that had departed from Le Havre. Nabokov (1899-1977) had just turned 20. Vladimir’s father Vladimir rented the home for the whole family at Stanhope Gardens in early June, although it would appear they didn’t stay long. A fabulous webpage called Nabokov’s Whereabouts, put together by the German writer and scholar Dieter E. Zimmer, indicates that, soon enough, they moved to a place nearby at 6 Elm Park Gardens. I spent some time looking for that building, but could not find it. I don’t know if the reason was my ignorance or the fact that things have changed in 85 years. The Stanhope address, however, like several other locations around London, is still there to be tracked down, perused and photographed.
Nabokov, at this time, was already an aspiring author. He had published two volumes of poetry in Russia, Poems (1916) and Miscellany: Two Paths (1918), a collection of twelve verses by Nabokov and eight by Andrei Balashov, a young man who subsequently disappeared from the historical record. By the tradition of alphabetizing, Balashov’s name stands first on the book cover and his poems are printed up front. Some of the titles of Balashov’s poems are: “Verses about Russia,” “Two Lives,” “The Death of a Man” and “Have you Really Known Parting?” I’m not trying to read too much into titles (I have never seen a copy of the book, so I have not read the poems), but there is no denying that Nabokov’s titles, at least, differ from those of his colleague. Some of the Nabokov titles are: “Dark Blue Wallpaper,” “Rain Flew Past and Burned Up in Flight,” “Admiring Mutinous Clouds,” “Birch Trees Do Battle with Rain and Wind” and “I Absolve the Wise and the Evil of Nothing.” You can see a scan of the book’s cover at this Russian website.
The eminent American scholar Simon Karlinsky (whom I had the distinct pleasure of escorting around Moscow one day in 1989 – we talked mostly about Nikolai Gogol), brings to our attention a passage in Nabokov’s autobiography Other Shores, that reflects at least one poet’s response to these early poems. Zinaida Gippius, symbolist, mystic, poet, playwright and memoirist, reportedly told Nabokov’s father shortly after the publication of Poems, “Please tell your son that he will never be a writer.” (See Karlinsky’s “Nabokov and Some Poets of Modernism.”)
That aside, Miscellany: Two Paths is of interest for several reasons. One, it is the only book in which Nabokov shared authorship (although none of the poems are co-written). Two, it was published in Petrograd by M.S. Person (whose typography office was located at 35 Kazanskaya Street) several months after Nabokov and his family had already left the city to escape the Revolution. Three, there is the case of Balashov, about whom we know virtually nothing. The total mystery of this man, who shared a flash of poet’s glory with a friend or colleague in his teenage years, then disappeared utterly, is quite Nabokovian in itself.
Balashov and Nabokov were classmates at the Tenishev School. There is some basic information extant about Balashov’s parents and siblings, but after his graduation from Tenishev and the publication of his eight poems, there is virtually nothing of importance we can say about him. Russian Wikipedia writes that he stayed in the Soviet Union, although one wonders if any real facts exist to back that claim.
I spend some time on Balashov because Miscellany: Two Paths would still have been of some importance for Nabokov at the time he arrived at Stanhope. It was published less than a year before, and it would be the last of Nabokov’s major publications until 1926 when his first novel, Mashenka, appeared in Germany under the pseudonym of Vladimir Sirin. Standing between the publication dates of Miscellany: Two Paths and Mashenka were two translations, Russian versions of Romain Rolland’s Colas Breugnon (1922) and of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1923). This translation of Alice, incidentally, is still cherished in Russia.
Nabokov’s first stay in London was short. Whatever the amount of time he spent at Stanhope and/or Elm Park Gardens, by October 1 he was already enrolled in Trinity College, Cambridge.