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This article is taken from PN Review 263, Volume 48 Number 3, January - February 2022.

To Valdimir Nabokov Frederic Raphael

Cher Maître,

Today, when every tease and tout writes “Hi, Fred”, Shelley’s antique courtesies retain their call on me. My father recommended that, if in doubt, call a man “Sir”, never a woman “madam” (despite Macaulay’s famous first words). Born in the same year as yourself, named in honour of Little Lord Fauntleroy, Cedric had been a world amateur champion tango dancer. His dago turn served him better than small talk. When it came to the ladies, he offered me no advice save Spinoza’s caute, rubberised. I discovered much later that he had failed to honour it; hence the appearance, in middle age, hers more middle than mine, of my half-sister Sheila, no Augusta Leigh. I never heard my father say “fuck”, with or without a screamer, my wife’s early term for an exclamation mark. In Speak, Memory, you recall your father saying – fifteen-years-old were you? – “You threaded that girl?” Neither reproach nor praise, was it? A constatation. Lightly flossed shins did she have? Life is one story; story another life.

I associate getting little things right with those sketches, in one of your critical compendia, of the disposition of seats in the old Russian railways. You say, in Speak, Memory, that you received a “college blue” for tennis while at Trinity, Cambridge, in the 1920s. I have never heard of anyone else being honoured in those terms but hesitate to cross words with a man whose vigilance entailed several sub-species of lepidoptera being tagged Nabokovensis. When you posted nature’s oldest law as ...

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