- - Tuesday, April 21, 2015



By Vincent Giroud

Oxford University Press, $39.95, 562 pages, illustrated

Composer Nicolas Nabokov was four years younger than his far more famous novelist first cousin Vladimir, but was perhaps as talented artistically and more admirable in character. Reading about the family in this comprehensive biography of the musician and public intellectual by Vincent Giroud, a professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Franche-Comte, is to be reminded of the lesser-known but deeply rooted traditions of culture and democracy in Czarist Russia that were swept away by the brutality of the Communist revolution in 1917.

Fortunately for themselves and for their adopted nations, first in Europe and then North America, both cousins had absorbed enough of this cultivation and love of freedom in their impressionable youth for it to have left an indelible impression on the rest of their long and productive lives. As Mr. Giroud writes, exile in Germany, France and the United States “made him a free spirit in every possible sense — morally, philosophically, politically, aesthetically — by broadening his perspectives and stimulating his intellectual curiosity.”

Although very little of Nicolas Nabokov’s music has been recorded, he was actively engaged in composition for much of his life and was close to many of his great contemporaries, particularly Serge Prokofiev and Igor Stravinsky. Much of his professional life was spent teaching at institutions in the United States, including the Barnes Foundation, St. John’s and Wells Colleges and the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore. Although he was to influence such American composers as Virgil Thompson, Russian music was deeply embedded in his soul.

Thus, he could admire the work of someone like Dimitri Shostakovich, pitying him for his submission to Stalin and yet not hesitating to admonish him in print and to confront him at the notorious Communist-sponsored 1949 Waldorf Conference in New York. Nabokov also wrote several operas, with such distinguished librettists as W.H. Auden and Stephen Spender, the latter a colleague in the Congress for Cultural Freedom, an organization of prominent artists and intellectuals that played an important role in the anti-Communist struggles that were such a feature of cultural life during the Cold War.

The subtitle of Mr. Giroud’s book is very much to the point and it is significant that “Freedom” comes before “Music” there. The author points out that Nabokov was deeply committed to freedom, whether it be artistic, cultural, political or personal — his private life featured no fewer than five wives. It is certainly correct that he was “above all passionately hostile to fascism and totalitarianism in all their forms,” but it is, I think, a distortion to write that “It does Nabokov a grave injustice to see him primarily — or only — as a Cold War cultural warrior, which he never really was in any case.”

“Only,” perhaps, yet it is clear from the evidence in these pages, to say nothing of the myriad memoirs by other Cold War cultural warriors, that he was indeed one.

I think it is no exaggeration to say that it was his glory, something he was deeply committed to and very proud of. Anti-fascist he certainly was, but once it was defeated in 1945, the major totalitarian threat to freedom came from Communism, and so, although he — and the Congress for Cultural Freedom — fought repression wherever they saw it, anti-Communism inevitably took center stage. It is also interesting that, like his close friend and political ally, Isaiah Berlin, Nabokov had firsthand experience at a tender and impressionable age of life under the Soviets. And unlike Berlin, he heard Lenin speak in 1918 and so actually saw him and the kind of society he was bent on creating:

“This contrast between Lenin’s posh diction — ‘like a Baltic baron,’ as Nabokov later put it, and the brutal, radical program he was presenting, and which became known as the ‘April Theses’ — peace, demobilization, wholesale confiscation of landed property and privately owned factories, revolutionary takeover by ‘soviets’ (i.e., councils) of peasant and workers — seemed, Nabokov sensed, both ludicrous and ominous.”

Nothing that he saw in the next 60 years made him alter his reaction to the indelible impression left on this teenager wise beyond his years.

In the mid-1960s, it was revealed that the Congress for Cultural Freedom, which Nabokov had headed in Paris for the past 15 years, was partially funded by the CIA. As Mr. Giroud, correctly notes, “this unfortunately resulted in biased, unfair accounts of this remarkable institution [and] Nabokov’s own image has suffered owing to this state of affairs.” Nabokov remained proud of the CCF’s work and his own role in it. The account in these pages of how Nabokov handled its fraught denouement with subtlety, maturity, intelligence and integrity only increases one’s opinion of him. He always kept that vital sense of perspective, one of a raft of fine qualities which make him a pleasure to read about and remember.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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