Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Nabokov's love

After a long time, I have come back to reading Nabokov. I had read him long ago with his Lolita, which I found to be a shocking work expressed beautifully. However, even with that impression, sometime it is easy to forget that Nabokov has written anything other than his ubiquitous Lolita. It is only when you begin to read his other works, the grave folly of this assumption is illuminated.

In this return to Nabokov, quite by accident, I picked up an interesting assortment which is strongly inter-connected, with the themes merging into each other. I picked up first a short story collection from Penguin pocket series - Cloud, castle, lake and then after a short break simultaneously started reading Mary, which was his first work, and Speak, Memory, his autobiography.
Cloud castle lake has a handful of stories, but the best I liked amongst them was the Admiralty Spire, which is all about keeping the past alive in fiction, something Nabokov perhaps did in his many works. Even though in this story he seems to criticize the fictionalization of memories, he is himself guilty of this crime, as I discovered from the three readings. In the story, an anonymous reader writes a letter to the author of a romantic book, accusing the author of kidnapping and distorting the memories of his first love. He then describes his version of the affair. What is interesting is, within a few days of each other, I read the same version of the romantic interlude being described thrice - first in this story, then in Mary, and then again in Speak Memory when Nabokov actually describes his first love affair with a girl called Tamara. It is the same meeting in the country side, days of happiness, the sudden distancing that falls on them in Petersburg and then the ache of separation after a physical distance is super-imposed on the emotional one.

Mary, his first work, was clearly meant to re-live his beautiful memories of Tamara, and lend an outlet to his romanticized impressions of the affair that haunted Nabokov long after he separated from her. What it also expressed in this delicious work is how memories are sometimes far more satisfying than actual meetings or love affairs. For Nabokov, separation from Tamara almost coincided with his departure from his homeland, and thus an ache for one corresponded with the ache for the other forming a beautiful and irresistible mixture.

Speak Memory is an exceptional autobiography laced with many sentiments. Here you meet a rather emotional Nabokov, trying to hold precious pieces of memory like moments with his mother and the childhood of his son, not to mention the memories of his beloved Russian home. And of course Tamara.

1 comment:

Alok said...

I really love the "Tamara" chapter, it is one of my absolute favourites. It puts me in the same "yearning for a tragedy of my own" mood!! Too bad, real life is more like Woody Allen and less like Nabokov. Sometimes I feel grateful that my memory isn't as good as Nabokov's :)

Jokes apart, I have read that chapter so many times, I almost remember it by heart now. The chapter where he writes about how he wrote his first poems is also beautiful. The whole book is in fact stunning...specially when you think of how much pain hidden there is beneath all the word games, carefully and deliberately rendered images and scenes. It also shows how language can be used to distance one's self from pain and trauma, and in the process transform them into works of art. It was one of Sebald's favourite books too. He wrote an essay on it and the figure of Nabokov appears many times in The Emigrants (again a book about people dealing with historical trauma) as a motif or even a presiding deity.

You are also right in finding the parallels.. both Mary and Admiralty Spire have the same origins too. Also I don't think he is commenting against the fictionalization of the stories.. he is more incensed with the writer taking real life incidents and putting them inside the conventions of a genre (sentimental romantic fiction in this case) which defeats the whole purpose of writing itself, which should be more like a tool for self-discovery. The story also underlines the idea that stories are always deliberated "constructed"... that is, there is always a distance between the real life and the its representation in language and as a reader we should always keep it mind.