Cars in Books, December 1983

Once again I am indebted to a reader or sending us the following very interesting extract, from “Speak Memory” by Vladimir Nabokov, about motoring as it was for one family in Russia before the Revolution, before they had to abandon their estates and go to Yalta in the Crimea. The chauffeur Tsiganov is described as a “one-time racing-driver”. I cannot confirm this, but he must have been a model employee, for later in the book he is described as thinking nothing of riding across “the immense, frosty and savage expanse of Russia on the buffers and in freight cars,” from St Petersburg to Yalta, arriving in the middle of a January night “swathed in leather and fur”, simply to deliver some money sent to his master by some good friends, and the mail. After staying a month, the ex-chauffeur said the Crimean scenery bored him and he left on the long return journey. The extract reads:

“I would ascertain which of our two cars, the Benz or the Wolseley, was there to take me to school. The first, a grey landaulet, manned by Volkov, a gentle, pale-faced chauffeur, was the older one. Its lines had seemed positively dynamic in comparison with those of the insipid, noseless and noiseless, electric coupe that had preceded it; but, in its turn, it acquired an old-fashioned, top-heavy look, with a sadly shrunken bonnet, as soon as the comparatively long, black English limousine came to share its garage.

“To get the newer car was to start the day zestfully. Pirogov, the second chauffeur, was a very short, pudgy fellow with a russet complexion that matched well the shade of the furs he wore over his corduroy suit and the orange-brown of his leggings. When some hitch in the traffic forced him to apply the brakes (which he did by suddenly distending himself in a peculiar springy manner), or when I bothered him by trying to communicate with him through the squeaky and not very efficient speaking-tube, the back of his thick neck seen through the glass partition would turn crimson. He frankly preferred to drive the hardy convertible Opel that we used in the country during three or four seasons, and would do so at 60 mph (to realise how dashing that was in 1912, one should take into account the present inflation of speed). Indeed, the very essence of summer freedom — schoolless untownishness — remains connected in my mind with the motor’s extravagant roar that the opened muffler would release on the long lone highway. When in the second year of World War One Pirogov was mobilised, he was replaced by dark, wild-eyed Tsiganov, a former racing ace who had participated in various contests both in Russia and Belgium. Later, sometime in 1917, soon after my father resigned from Kerenski’s cabinet, Tsiganov decided — notwithstanding my father’s energetic protests — to save the powerful Wolseley car from possible confiscation by dismantling it and distributing its parts over hiding places known only to him.

“Still later, in the gloom of a tragic autumn, with the Bolshevists gaining the upper hand, one of Kerenski’s aides asked my father for a sturdy car the premier might use if forced to leave in a hurry; but our feeble old Benz would not do and the Wolseley had embarrassingly vanished, and if I treasure the recollection of that request (recently denied by my eminent friend, but certainly made by his aide-de-camp), it is only from a compositional viewpoint — because of the amusing thematic echo of Christina Von Korffs part in the Varennes Episode of 1791.

“Although heavy snow falls were much more usual in St Petersburg than, say, around Boston, the several automobiles that circulated among the numerous sleighs of the town before World War One somehow never seemed to get into the kind of hideous trouble that modern cars get into on a good New England white Christmas. Many strange forces had been involved in the building of the city. One is led to suppose that the arrangement of its snows — the tidy drifts along the sidewalks and a smooth solid spread on the octangular wood blocks of the pavement — was arrived at by some unholy co-operation between the geometry of the streets and the physics of the snow clouds. Anyway, driving to school never took more than a quarter of an hour.

“Upon reaching Nevski Avenue, one followed it for a long stretch, during which it was a pleasure to overtake with no effort some cloaked guardsman in his light sleigh drawn by a pair of black stallions snorting and speeding along under the bright blue netting that prevented lumps of hard snow from flying into the passenger’s face.

“A street on the left side with a lovely name — Karvan-Nays (the street of caravans) — took one past an unforgettable toyshop, next came the Cinizelli Circus. Finally, after crossing an ice-bound canal one drove up to the gates of Tenishev School in Mohovaya Street (the street of mosses).

“Belonging, as he did by choice, to the great classless intelligentsia of Russia, my father thought it right to have me attend a school that was distinguished by its democratic principles, its policy of non-discrimination in matters of rank, race and creed.

“The headmaster who knew little about games, was suspicious of my always keeping goal in soccer ‘instead of running about with other players’. Another thing that provoked resentment was my driving to and from school in an automobile and not travelling by street-car or horse-cab as the other boys, good little democrats, did. One teacher suggested to me that the least I could do was to have the automobile stop two or three blocks away, so that my school mates might be spared the sight of a liveried chauffeur doffing his cap.” — W.B.