Tuesday, 17 June 2014

A Portrait of Awe


    Today, Vladimir Nabokov, is for you.

   This morning I approached my library with caution, trying to ease in to inspiration, eyes scanning the spines of my friends and loved ones.  Would a muse be among them today?  Uncertainty rattled me.  How to choose among so many favorites?  And there he was, my hero for today, one side leaning against someone from Ireland and on the other, pressed tightly against him, a decrepit Tolstoy, yellowed and brittle with age. ‘I promise to return you later’, I thought, ‘as I know you whisper together in the night’.  

   Nabokov is not someone I know well.  I’m sure Lolita introduced us but we fell out of touch for years, with only one or two other works of fiction punctuating the silence. I thought about him often and knew that his reputation was large, well respected and intimidating. We kept our distance, with only occasional eye contact in a library or bookstore, until fate intervened when a friend sent me a copy of ‘Speak, Memory’ and the courtship began. To know someone’s history, particularly through the imaginative lens of such an honest and acute eye, is a privilege. My memory of his memories has somewhat faded but the awe I felt towards the brilliance of his writing has remained.  

   What is this nature of being impressed?  This reverence?  I only know that I can call it at will by merely holding my copy of ‘The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov’ in my hands. The lilac cover that promises transport.  A temporal intimacy – a phantom lover. My admiration hovers between respect for his mind and its ability to pull from its depths imaginative flights of iridescence as beautifully marked as the wings of his beloved butterflies. This gentleman with old fashioned ways who could twist time with acrobatic ease never ceases to amaze me.    
   Here is an exquisite rendering of a painful and difficult subject. It is from the novel ‘Pnin’ and is referencing the Holocaust.  I’m quoting here from an excerpt by Martin Amis in the Guardian Nov.14, 2009 
‘At an émigré house party in rural America a Madam Shpolyanski mentions her cousin Mira and asks Timofey Pnin if he has heard of her “terrible end”. “Indeed, I have,” Pnin answers. Gentle Timofey sits on alone in the twilight.  Then Nabokov gives us this: 
“What chatty Madam Shpolyanski mentioned had conjured up Mira’s image with unusual force.  This was disturbing.  Only in the detachment of an incurable complaint, in the sanity of near death, could one cope with this for a moment.  In order to exist rationally, Pnin had taught himself….never to remember Mira Belochkin – not because….the evocation of a youthful love affair, banal and brief, threatened his peace of mind….but because, if one were quite sincere with oneself, no conscience, and hence no consciousness, could be expected to subsist in a world where such things as Mira’s death were possible. One had to forget – because one could not live with the thought that this graceful, fragile tender young woman with those eyes, that smile, those gardens and snows in the background, had been brought in a cattle car and killed by an injection of phenol into the heart, into the gentle heart one had heard beating under one’s lips in the dusk of the past.” 

   My admiration for this man who was able to shine a light of such brilliance into the painful and disturbing corners of life with such understanding and tenderness is boundless.  I admit to viewing him through the colored panes of glass through which he viewed his youth but at this point I have no inclination to blink. 

   I’ve spent a few weeks now with Nabokov and my limited selection of his writings, and it’s time to deepen our acquaintance. I have a list.  For now, I will take you Vladimir and put you back on the shelf with your fellow explorers of the human heart. 




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