From Geneva to Montreux

Getting off the plane in Geneva, I expected to encounter a city that reigns international affairs, business, and education. My first impression was instead of a seaside resort. The air was warm and inviting. The relaxing atmosphere seemed to order the visitors to take it easy ‘there is plenty of time,’ it seemed to say, ‘relax and enjoy, your business can wait.’

            The lake and the famous fountain. The mountains on the other side. The promenade along the lake. The boats. Am I dreaming a view from a postcard? A statue of a thin, good looking woman with a fan in her hand, turning away from the sun, as if finding the perfect angle to showcase her timeless beauty. Is it possible that it was Sisi (Elisabeth), the Empress of Austria and Queen of Hungary, about whom I was just reading a book? Turns out it was her– her statue, that is–erected in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of her assassination, as she was leaving a nearby hotel. Reigning as the most beautiful woman of Europe for almost four decades, she was obsessed with preserving her youth. But her focus on fitness and age-defying procedures, as many of her biographers pointed out, could have been compensation for an otherwise unhappy life. An unfulfilling marriage, distrust and abuse by her mother in law, the death of her eldest daughter, and the murder-suicide of her son later in life were too much to bear for the once happy, carefree, charming and well-loved girl.   

On the opposite end of Lake Geneva is Montreux. For many people it is known as home to the famous jazz festival. In my world, however, this has been the forever place of Vladimir Nabokov. The renowned writer spent the last fifteen years of his life in Montreux and is buried there. I fell in love with Nabokov’s prose at 16, first discovering his short stories. Then came his novels and poetry. He made the most aesthetically sophisticated jewelry with words, playing with his own creations; he zoomed in and out of his characters, coming close but then distancing himself infinitely from his readers.

When reading his novels and short stories in Moscow at the end of the 1980s, I couldn’t have imagined that we would “meet” at different places and that my journey would bump against his many times. I took several classes on Russian literature at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem while pursuing my degree in Sociology. It just so happened that the semester I was looking for an elective course, one was offered by a Russian-speaking visiting professor from Cornell University, where Nabokov had taught for a few years. And naturally, his specialty was Nabokov’s work. The professor considered Invitation to a Beheading the best novel by the writer. It is one of my least favorite. I prefer Other Shores (known by the English-speaking world as Speak, Memory) or The Gift. But the course was enjoyable overall.

On one of our first trips to New York City, we went to the Museum of Natural History and they had an exhibition of orchids and butterflies. I love orchids and went right there, only to run into Nabokov’s butterfly collection—entomology was his other passion. It had slipped my memory that he had collaborated with the Museum, so it was rather unexpected. While in graduate school, I developed a habit of writing in coffee shops. Working on my doctoral dissertation, I often sat in the café of a Barnes and Noble bookstore. Once in a while, I would look up at the painting above the counter and see my idol with his Russian fur hat on, looking at the glasses in his hand. It just felt good to have him there. Seven years later I officially “welcomed” him to the Pennsylvania State University—when one achieves faculty promotion, the library purchases a book to commemorate it. When in 2013 I was promoted to Associate Professor, my natural choice was The Gift by Nabokov.

It didn’t stop there. A few years later, we were in Massachusetts. We always “collect” university campuses on our trips. Wellesley was a great choice for yet another charming college town. I can’t get enough of beautiful campuses, full of old trees and flower beds and little paths between the buildings that are inhabited by young minds looking for answers, finding their voices and place in the world. Wellesley is a women’s college and the residential buildings require a key card to access. I was looking for a restroom; a young woman was coming out of the door of one of the buildings and I sneaked in. The first thing I saw on the wall was a quote from the novelist: “Life is beautiful. Life is sad. That’s all you need to know.”  I knew that Nabokov taught there for a short time, but it still was a rather nice surprise.

So here we were in Montreux, 29 years since this small Swiss town became a part of my personal map. The bright yellow Palace Hotel where Nabokov and his wife Vera lived overlooks the lake. The sculpture garden I was so looking forward to seeing was under construction, with a figure of the writer sitting on a chair wrapped in a black plastic. In a twisted, Nabokov kind of way, it made sense. I was going after a dream, trying to get closer or even “touch” the writer who has inspired me for decades and yet, it was impossible.

At last, we visited the cemetery where Nabokov is buried, alongside Vera and his son, Dmitri. It is a perfect spot: in the shade from the old trees, sun shining through their bright leaves, bringing the smell from the grapevines on the hills far above, with the impossibly blue waters of the lake below. Rest in peace, genius.

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