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Fiction #7
(published Late in the Year, 2000)
Countess Tolstoi and Mrs. Nabokov Reminisce in Heaven
by Margaret Lazarus Dean

"My Lev Nikolayevich was once given a typewriter," Countess Tolstoi said. "It changed the way he worked completely."

"Ah, yes?" her companion answered. Both women stirred their tea with tiny silver spoons which tinkled pleasantly against their china cups. They were speaking Russian.

"The typewriter was given to him by the Remington company— they were sending typewriters to the most prominent writers of the day. He called me into the study while he unpacked it. 'Look at this, Sofya! A writing machine!' It had glossy black keys that looked like candy, like licorice. He stroked them lightly with his fingertips."

Countess Tolstoi took a sip of tea and looked out the window at a blooming apple tree. She was lost, for the moment, in the past.

"Well. He revered this machine, this Remington. He revered the Remington company for designing it. He called the room he kept it in the Remington room."

Mrs. Nabokov, unsure of what to say, helped herself to another cookie.

"After a number of weeks, though," Countess Tolstoi continued, "He would not go into this Remington room any more. He said the noise of the typewriter disturbed him, excited him. He continued to write longhand." She blinked slowly, and for a moment saw the floor of her husband's study carpeted with scribbled papers.

"So the Remington went unused?" asked Mrs. Nabokov.

"Oh, no, his drafts still needed to be typed. By then, his handwriting was nearly impossible to read. He couldn't even read it himself, and needed clean drafts to work from."

"Yes, Vladimir also had handwriting only a loving wife could decipher," said Mrs. Nabokov.

"Yes. Well, of course I was happy to help any way I could."

"How many drafts did your husband write?" Mrs. Nabokov asked gently.

"Oh, I don't remember. Quite a few," the other woman said. She glanced up at her companion.

"For War and Peace, for example, I believe there were nine." Mrs. Nabokov was quiet for a moment, lost in calculations. As Countess Tolstoi lifted her teacup to her lips, Mrs. Nabokov could not help glancing at the tendons on the backs of her long white hands.

"Lev Nikolayevich was so wonderful with the children, playing with them, reading to them. If I hadn't helped him here and there, he never would have emerged from his study to visit with them."

"How many children, Sofya Andreyevna?"

"Thirteen," said Countess Tolstoi.

There followed an uncomfortable silence. Mrs. Nabokov shifted slightly in her seat. She'd had only the one child.

"I understand that your husband discovered a butterfly?" asked Countess Tolstoi, politely turning the topic of conversation away from herself.

Mrs. Nabokov smiled and nodded. "He was a lepidopterist at Harvard while he was teaching literature at Harvard and Wellesley. He discovered new species when we went butterfly hunting each summer."

"Where did you go on these field trips?"

"The American west, mostly— Colorado, Wyoming, Utah."

"The American west!" echoed Countess Tolstoi with longing. "How lovely it must be to travel so freely! No horses, no driver, just climb into your automobile and drive as far as you please!"

"Yes," said Mrs. Nabokov, smiling tightly. "Vladimir and I enjoyed traveling together." There was a polite pause while she took a sip of tea. "Though it might have been better, at times, if we had had a driver," she added.

"Your husband did not enjoy driving the car?" asked Countess Tolstoi.

"Vladimir never learned to drive," said Mrs. Nabokov with a pleasant smile. "I didn't mind, of course, except on certain mornings, when I'd been up late typing. You see, he was always writing, even when we traveled. I watched him sleeping in the car sometimes, and wished—" The door to their private room opened abruptly. A head poked in and looked left and right. Only Mrs. Nabokov recognized Virginia Woolf, and smiled at her politely. Virginia Woolf gave an apologetic smile and withdrew, shutting the door behind her.

"It was very fulfilling to have been able to help in his endeavors," Vera said.

"Oh, yes," agreed Sofya Andreyevna.

Sofya Andreyevna sipped delicately at her tea. She opened her mouth to speak, then shut it again. She moved forward an inch or two on her seat.

"It was very fulfilling to be able to help with such important work. I wonder, Vera Evseevna, perhaps you are aware that my Lev Nikolayevich was prone to a certain— ah— wordiness?"

Mrs. Nabokov froze, her teacup halfway to her lips. She met the other woman's eyes, unsure whether it would be polite to agree. At length, she nodded. Countess Tolstoi smiled.

"I have found it to be easier to edit wordy prose as it is typed," Sofya Andreyevna commented breezily.

"Yes, Vladimir and I found that too. Often as he dictated to me, I would suggest changes."

"Lev Nikolayevich sometimes remarked to me that a typed chapter was less... voluminous than he'd thought it would be." Countess Tolstoi spoke slowly, as if choosing her words carefully. "You see, it seems that sometimes certain passages were— misplaced—in the process of typing."

"Ah," said Mrs. Nabokov.

"We had a terrible row over a passage in Anna Karenina," she said quietly. "He noticed that a long passage was missing. It seemed that the pages had been— ah— mistakenly burned. When he rewrote it, unfortunately, the passage was even longer, even more detached from the fabric of the novel. Perhaps you know the passage I mean?"

Mrs. Nabokov nodded sympathetically.

"A beautiful book," she murmured. "A masterpiece."

"Yes, a beautiful book," Sofya Andreyevna agreed, sighing. "Everyone remarked upon how amazing it was that Lev Nikolayevich could capture the complex feelings of a young girl just coming out into society. The fear and anticipation of leaving home, falling in love, marrying. 'How could Count Tolstoi create these feelings so masterfully?' people asked."

Mrs. Nabokov nodded blankly a few times. Abruptly, her head stopped moving and she opened her mouth slowly.

"Ah," she said at length. "A beautiful book," she repeated.

A silence developed. Both women looked out the window absently, lost in thought. Mrs. Nabokov cleared her throat and leaned forward to speak.

"Do you know, Sofya Andreyevna," she said, "When Vladimir began writing in English, I noticed in his prose certain— Russianisms. At first, I typed them as they were. But after a while, it seemed that it would save him time if I simply changed it myself."

Mrs. Nabokov hesitated.

"He was also prone to turns of phrase that were a little— I don't know— stuffy. Pompous. I found that when I changed these things too, he would not notice."

Countess Tolstoi sighed and nodded slowly.

"Sometimes when he finished a chapter, he would read it to me after dinner— read it to me as if I had never read it. Well, that was fair enough, I suppose. You can type something without reading it."

Countess Tolstoi nodded her agreement.

"I remember the night he read me the last chapter of The Real Life of Sebastian Knight. He read it very loud, dramatically, as if to a large auditorium. He was enjoying himself. He was savoring his own words. But the turn of phrase he seemed to enjoy most— enjoyed so much that he looked up from the page, looked into my eyes for a reaction— was, it turns out, not his turn of phrase at all."

Countess Tolstoi's teacup clattered in its saucer.

"He was always working two jobs—butterflies and literature. He was tired all the time. He often fell asleep working. He was sometimes heard to remark that he could not clearly remember having written some of his most lyrical passages, that—"

Mrs. Nabokov looked up at her friend.

"—that they seemed to have come from elsewhere," she finished quietly.

A very long silence ensued. Countess Tolstoi looked out the window. Mrs. Nabokov consulted her watch.

"Amazing, isn't it," said Countess Tolstoi, still looking out the window, "That they never did know." She patted the back of her chignon.

"No, they never did," answered Mrs. Nabokov, brushing crumbs from her lap. "But I remember, Sofya Andreyevna, that once or twice, Vladimir called me over to where he was working. He'd point to something in the typescript, some word or sentence. He'd say, 'What's this? What did you type here? "Fire of my loins?" I don't remember writing this.' I'd blush and apologize, and say that I must have misread his handwriting, I must have been tired, and my eyes played tricks on me. I'd go over to the garbage, start looking through it for the index cards he'd written on. 'No, no, Vera, don't trouble yourself,' he'd say. 'Don't trouble yourself.'"

Countess Tolstoi brought a hand up to cover her smile. Both women tittered. Vera spoke again.

"One time he said to me, 'You know what, darling? I think I like it better this way. I think I will keep your little mistake!'"

Both women giggled, their giggles giving way to laughter. They laughed and laughed. Tears streamed down their cheeks and they slapped each others' shoulders. They stood up, still laughing, and kissed each other on both cheeks. Mrs. Nabokov opened the door to their private room and they walked out together, holding hands, chuckling and sighing. They had recovered themselves completely by the time they found their husbands under a gazebo, deep in a game of chess, their gray brows wrinkling, oblivious to the women rustling toward them.

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