There was no one else like Professor Gennady Barabtarlo. I met him in person long after reading his books and profiting by them. The first time I spoke with him was at a dinner party hosted by Brian Boyd and Bronwen Nicolson to celebrate the conclusion of the Nabokov Upside Down Conference in Auckland in 2012. That first conversation took place on a warm and sunny terrace in the very middle of summer.
But my most vivid recollection of Professor Barabtarlo, one that I've frequently thought about since, took place in Philadelphia in 2015. Late November in Philadelphia is no mid-January in Auckland: it was cold and bitter, which raises the question why I made a lunch reservation for six Nabokovians on a restaurant terrace fully exposed to the biting wind.
As we were about to sit down to lunch, a young student joined us, informing us that she had changed her mind about going to the Art Institute and, if we would still have her, she would much rather have lunch with us. I dithered: the student was wearing a T-shirt and our table would clearly accommodate no more than six people. But as I and the others hesitated, Professor Barabtarlo took off his coat, placed it lightly on her shoulders, squeezed the existing chairs closer together, pulled up an empty chair from a neighboring table, and invited everyone to sit down.
Instinct and habit made Professor Barabtarlo the consummate gentleman. I know that he would have felt more comfortable addressing his Anglophone colleagues by something more substantial than a flimsy first name. But his innate gentlemanliness made him a citizen of the world; I suspect no social circumstance, however complicated or puzzling, would have left him resourceless. Like Pnin, he never lost the refined graces of a deeply cultured Russian even as he became a distinguished scholar in the United States. Spending time in his company was like being present at a master-class in the art of courtesy.
His oversized scholarly generosity benefited me, as it did so many others. He read two chapters I sent him (more than once) and responded with his characteristic honesty and rigour. He corrected many errors and shared with me his treasure-trove of knowledge about Pushkin, Tolstoy, and, of course, Nabokov. No question could stump him. No riddle puzzled him for long. The way he responded to particular claims or turns of phrase produced breakthroughs.
In his monograph from 1993, Aerial View: Essays on Nabokov’s Art and Metaphysics, he observes that Sebastian Knight’s name is a near-anagram of “Knight Is Absent.” That coded message might be said to encapsulate the totality of the moral universe of The Real Life of Sebastian Knight. But it also encapsulates, though significantly in reverse, the ethics that Professor Barabtarlo lived by: in his case, the knight was ever present and alive, lending assistance and doing what is right. It is difficult to absorb the cruel fact that he’s no longer just an email away. He will be sorely missed.
Carleton University, Canada