Gennady A. Barabtarlo
Some people, and some scholars, give so fully of themselves to the world during their lives that we cannot feel we have really lost them, because so much of them continues to saturate everything we do, everything we think. Gennady Barabtarlo—Gene to Anglophones who knew him personally, Gennady Aleksandrovich to most Russians—was such a person and such a scholar. As someone who solved so many of Nabokov’s delightful riddles, and someone who embodied that spirit of mischievous, yet deadly serious probing into mysteries of word and world, Gene felt to those around him like a direct contact with something otherwise far away. He carried within him not so much the past or its token, but many of the best treasures of humanity’s history, intact and whole, for the present, like that very minor character admired by Mrs. Luzhin in The Defense, Petrov, who walks with special care to protect his precious inner collection of verbal artifacts against jostling and breakage. And all this he shared with warm generosity with his students and his colleagues.
I must have met Gene in 1995, at a typically hyper-glitzy conference hotel in Washington, DC. I don’t know when or where our first words of greeting were spoken, but I do know that among the earliest were some that immediately highlighted his wry, understated sense of humor: my talk was a naive thing on mirrors in Nabokov’s works, and Gene gently teased me, as we rode a specular elevator together at some point, “Look, there are so many mirrors around here!” Such ribbing, or his quiet joy at the pranks unfolding in life around us, was a steady refrain through all the intervening years.
Meetings with Gene at any occasion were always a special treat to be savored, and he was wonderfully playful on so many levels, exploring and playing with words as if in continuation of Nabokov’s own games. I remember, at one not-so-long-ago encounter, he tossed out mid-sentence an impossibly obscure word (I wish I could remember it!); luckily, it was one I vaguely knew, having only just recently sought it or found it randomly in the dictionary. But his use of it was such that you could tell that he too had found it, perhaps by chance just recently, in the dictionary, and just couldn’t resist putting it into live action. I suggested this to him, and he admitted that I was right, and we both laughed—perhaps not quite as hard as Pushkin had once laughed at his own English. Gene’s English, like his Russian, was rich and entrancing, the closest to Nabokov’s prose one can get without overstepping into the realm of trespass. His translations to and from both languages are at once acts of discovery and creation.
Reading Gene’s work, finding his most felicitous phrases and his quiet jokes, was and will remain one of the great joys of this life in the world of Nabokovians. His comparative analysis of Pnin’s birthday juxtaposed with his own should be required reading—the first on a long, long list from his prolific career, especially focused on Nabokov first of all, as well as on Pushkin. He always offered keen critique and feedback, filled with kindness and forbearance, of any draft I asked him to read for me, and I know I was far from the only one. His role in the development of the International Vladimir Nabokov Society and its scholarly traditions has been immense, filling me and many others with both awe and gratitude. The next ongoing task and pleasure in this life will be working to keep Gene’s generous, loving spirit ever-present among us, and within us.
Stephen Blackwell, University of Tennessee