The Art of Memoir - Mary Karr (2015)

Chapter 5. Don’t Try This at Home: The Seductive, Narcissistic Count

. . . I mean what
would you do if you had to create Beauty?
I’m afraid I’d start screaming, the most irksome
forms of insects coming from my mouth. I’m afraid
I’d come up with Death.

Dean Young, “One Story”

So enchanting is the atmosphere Nabokov conjures in my brain that reading him almost rewires it. I lift my face from a folded-down page to find colors brighter, edges sharper. Trash I glimpse on my otherwise shoddy street—a ticket stub or lipsticky cigarette butt—come across as souvenirs from some intrigue that dissolved right before I looked up. The world becomes a magic collage or mysterious art box à la found-object assembler Joseph Cornell. And it works every time you reread—a miraculous widget for perceptual transformation. As Philip Larkin once said of poetry’s slot machine, you put the penny of your attention into it, pull a handle, and a feeling comes out. Like my students, I’ve tried to copy Nabokov’s mysterious dance methods, and I looked like a fool—some stout and hirsute cross-dresser trying to pass as pretty in pink ballerina tights.

Having taught this book at least a dozen times, I still find it a mystery. Trying to catalogue Nabokov’s talents would take a library, and yet not to call out Speak, Memory in a book about memoir would be like Fourth of July sans fireworks.

Looked at through the lens of a more ordinary writer’s gifts, Speak, Memory leaves out much that a normal reader tends to identify with. Yet we wander its pages with wonder and feel bereft as any exile at its end.

Recently, from sheer frustration, I started combing it for what isn’t there, which—it surprised me to find—is the kind of deep link with an author that hooks me into most other great memoirs. Speak, Memory lacks long-run, personally dramatic stories of the type we associate with normal plots. There’s no dialogue; the occasional instant or anecdote, but very few scenes. You’re intimate with the writer’s thought processes without feeling he has anything in common with the likes of you. The writing is intoxicating and irresistible—but you can’t find your experience anywhere in it. His extreme refinement frees him from the humdrum where most of us live. Novelist Jenny Offill refers to him as “an art monster”: “Nabokov didn’t even fold his own umbrella. [His wife] licked his stamps for him.”

The creature you find in Speak, Memory is rare enough to be zoo-worthy. He’s not just smarter but somehow more effete than most of us without seeming put on. Resenting him for it would be like resenting a gazelle for her grace. He doesn’t sound prissy painting himself as a cultivated synesthete who can hear colors and see music, nor vain talking as a polyglot who translates his own work back and forth into many languages. He’s just your standard virtuoso aristocrat from a gilded age.

Which is the miracle of his talent. He has shaped the book to highlight his own magnificent way of viewing the world, a viewpoint that so eats your head that you never really leave his very oddly bejeweled skull, and you value things in the book’s context as he does, never missing what you otherwise adore in another kind of writer.

In fact, if you could list some of the information Nabokov reports about his relationships apart from his magical atmosphere, you’d find he fails to meet many measures we use for being a halfway decent person. If we weren’t so in love with him, we might cringe from him. His aristocratic social mores and emotional quirks—absent the beguiling atmosphere he woos us into—could come off as foppish at best or malignantly misanthropic at worst.

The book is a mesmerizing meditation on the nature of beauty, time, and loss, played out against backdrops of fairy-dusted interiors. And it’s a cry of longing for his lost parents and of joy for his wife and son. Nabokov unabashedly identifies with imperial Russia’s lush allure as the rich lived it in the early 1900s—enchanted rooms he steers us through page after page. He gives us philosophy and moments of transcendence. He leaps and drags us in his wake across the century, and we follow him without envy at his privilege. We’re just glad to get past the velvet rope.

Nothing in his existence is banal. He is never bored or irritated. His parents are never less than glorious dolls, incapable of doing anything petty or commonplace. Both “shone like the sun.” His mother wears white and shades of rose, bestowing on him sugary advice, i.e., love with all your soul and leave the rest to fate. His father, resplendent in Horse Guard uniform, “with that smooth golden swell of cuirass burning upon his chest and back,” is the luminous king in a myth. Nabokov gets away with this by making us fall in love with his aristocratic mindscape.

Of all his talents, it’s Nabokov’s flair for carnality—by which, again, I mean physicality, not sexuality—that first lures me in. He can light on a physical object and—by filtering it through his perceptual machine—transform it into a relic that shoots off poetic associations like sparks. His whole childhood seems devoted to ingesting as much beauty from memory as he can wolf down—thus forging the lost empire into art before it turns to ash in his memory. He makes these objects signify in metaphorical ways that merge them with the book’s themes: he must, as an expression of love for the lost, become sophisticated enough in taste to travel back and forth through time at will, to find the underlying patterns that order what’s otherwise been obliterated. The whole effort is a salvage operation with life-or-death stakes, and the “plot”—so far as one exists—organizes itself around his making a sensibility fine enough to save the “perceptual Eden” he claims he was born into.

In another writer’s hands, to focus on a single object at length reads as off-point or decorative. But for Nabokov, every object portends a whole slew of other meanings—ideological, moral, spiritual—that weave into the book’s leitmotifs.

So the objects he dwells on aren’t just pretty gewgaws from antique parlors; he infuses them with emotional consequence and symbolic weight and philosophical resonance. Early on, he starts training you to read into things like a necromancer deciphering the stars.

He’s a kid in a cot making a tent of his bedclothes, “shadowy snowslides of linen,” and that crib exists for me as though I’d wallowed in it. And it’s his mother’s jewels he played with in the crib—rings and tiaras and so forth:

[A] certain beautiful, delightfully solid garnet-dark crystal egg left over from some forgotten Easter; I used to chew a corner of the bedsheet until it was thoroughly soaked and then wrap the egg in it so tightly, so as to admire and re-lick the warm, ruddy glitter of the snugly enveloped facets that came seeping through with a miraculous completeness of glow and color.

A lesser writer might sound florid detailing an object’s jewel-like hue with phrases like “miraculous completeness.” But in Nabokov’s case, his dramatic devouring of the egg enacts his actual physical passion for splendor while granting the object psychological power. He calls sucking on it “not yet the closest I got to feeding on beauty.”

So that egg is stone-cold food, only nurturing to the poetic mind, which is the altar at which Nabokov worships. The fake egg is maternal and primordial, and it holds in its ruby light birth’s promise—and he, the artist-to-be, is nursing on it. This is baby Nabokov, the nascent connoisseur coming to consciousness before his mysterious, radiant god—timeless beauty. That stone garnet egg is cold and indestructible, but somehow mother’s milk for him.

This description comes early enough to help establish in a reader’s mind the poetic resonance of objects as part of the book’s inner struggle. Siphoning up beauty isn’t only a leitmotif; it’s a form of survival.

So he can devote a chapter to butterfly hunting, while his father being shot in exile occupies less than a moment, and the two events in no way seem off balance in the writer’s account books. Of course, it’s his father who taught him to stalk through the fields with a net, so in some way the folded, papery insects are paternal heirlooms, short-lived flying flowers—sacred icons from the divine patriarch known for his cutlass and boxed dueling pistols.

The whole Russian revolution that ruined his family in every sense is mere background music to Nabokov’s refinement. It will take a keen eye and keener taste and the keenest of philosophical minds to rescue his lost beloveds from the ravages of time, and it’s his inability to control time externally—to resurrect them—that serves as his inner enemy. In a great memoir, some aspect of the writer’s struggle for self often serves as the book’s organizing principle, and the narrator’s battle to become whole rages over the book’s trajectory. So being an aficionado of beauty and philosophy makes Nabokov’s parents “alive” for him in the book. In this way, developing his aesthetic sensibility becomes a life-or-death matter, not a peacock’s vain preening.

Part of his singular skill—manifested in his voice—is translating philosophical ideas into physical or carnal metaphors; in this way he is not unlike Babel and Batuman. He’ll somehow smoosh ideas into unforgettable images. Instead of saying, as I might, dully enough, “The whole universe is small compared to a single memory,” Nabokov injects feeling into the idea—and makes it syntactically memorable as hell—by conjuring his own wonder with an image we’ll find wonderful ourselves.

How small the cosmos (a kangaroo’s pouch would hold it), how paltry and puny in comparison to human consciousness, to a single individual recollection, and its expression in words!

Like any master writer, he’s found the “trick” of doing what he most excels at: structuring the voice so that his talent sits in the foreground.

Students love trying to imitate Nabokov, which teaches them a lot—mostly about why not to imitate somebody wired so differently from yourself. Nabokov wannabes don’t sound just like turds, but like pretentious turds. The writer’s best voice will grow from embracing her own “you-ness”—which I call talent, and which is best expressed in voice.

Which brings me back to that simplest of voice building blocks: diction. Nabokov uses a diction more ornate than would fit most of us. For the vast majority of writers, we’re better off with simpler vocabulary—the shorter, often monosyllabic words you use all the dang time. Unless you’re like my friend, poet Brooks Haxton (who translates Greek, Latin, French, Hebrew, and German), throwing in three-dollar words will just make you look like a dick. So you’re better off writing fuck than copulate—the first has Germanic origins, the second derives from Latinate language. There are no rules, but Germanic words tend to be thought of as “low.” It’s the vocabulary of the street, of childhood or the underprivileged. The other vocabulary is often seen as “high”—the parlance of science and diplomacy. In France there was an actual academy that screened out words deemed too shitty (Germanic) or scrofulous (Latinate) to join their fancy dictionary.

Nabokov’s sentences go on for lines and sometimes pages, and his highfalutin diction sprouts naturally from his polyglot education and rarefied background.

His psychological need, stated early in the book, is to be free of time, which will eradicate the past he’s trying to hold on to—he almost can’t believe, we sometimes think, that his mind can’t change the facts. So being untethered by chronology becomes—like his constant trolling for beauty—part of the book’s driving engine, almost working like a plot. He opens with the subject:

The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness. . . . I rebel against this state of affairs. I feel the urge to take my rebellion outside and picket nature.

Throughout the book, he talks about how “the walls of time separate me and my bruised fists from the free world of timelessness.” Later he writes, “Initially, I was unaware that time, so boundless at first blush, was a prison.”

What caps off time for us, of course, is death. Nabokov loves “twinning”—finding matching patterns in disparate places and laying them together like butterfly wings. The cradle that opens the book becomes—by the first chapter’s end—a coffin, presumably his father’s.

He ends the chapter with that coffin in a long, unspooling-for-yards sentence that starts with a memory from young Nabokov’s childhood place at the table. He watches his exalted father perform what he calls “an act of levitation,” when peasants toss him in the air three times in “the mighty heave-ho”—their way of cheering the landowner lord for some gift. He flies up and hangs suspended in the window as if by magic. The subsequent metaphor takes us on a long journey.

And then there he would be, on his last and loftiest flight, reclining, as if for good, against the cobalt blue of the summer noon, like one of those paradisiac personages who comfortably soar, with such a wealth of folds on their garments, on the vaulted ceiling of a church while below, one by one, the wax tapers in mortal hands light up to make a swarm of minute flames in the mist of incense, and the priest chants of eternal repose, and funeral lilies conceal the face of whoever lies there, among the swimming lights, in the open coffin.

Ezra Pound said rhythm in poetry is “cutting a form in time.” Nabokov’s form in this chapter—the cradle at its opening, the coffin at its end—makes a satisfying little click in the reader’s head. The shape of it works to satisfy you like repetition and variation in music.

Now I’m not naive enough to think every reader makes the conscious association between the two containers for a human, “fore and aft,” as Nabokov calls it, baby/corpse. But such is my own faith in poetry, which taps into both the unconscious and memory, that I believe finding the coffin at chapter’s end gives even the most reckless reader the sweet sense of some underlying order. I’m enough of a poetry fan to believe it can work like voodoo under a reader’s awareness. Nabokov makes you drool like one of Pavlov’s dogs for these moments when he takes one scene in time and stitches it to another.

And finding lost connections in these “clicking” or twinning moments becomes what you shop for as you read, thus providing momentum. From early on, each flight from time implies longing and a desperate scramble to reenter the past. So when he sails from one era to start what would (in another writer’s book) be digressive, we gladly fly into another age with Nabokov—it becomes a forward movement, not a sideways detour.

I confess I do not believe in time. I like to fold my magic carpet, after use, in such a way as to superimpose one part of the pattern upon another. Let visitors trip. And the highest enjoyment of timelessness . . . is when I stand among rare butterflies and their food plants. This is ecstasy, and behind the ecstasy is something else, which is hard to explain. It is like a momentary vacuum into which rushes all that I love. A sense of oneness with sun and stone.

“Oneness with sun and stone” sounds not unlike being God. And from his state of timelessness, he is a god at resurrecting the lost.

Another twinning example. At one point, he describes a boyhood encounter with General Kuropatkin, head of the Russian Army in the east, who lines up on a divan ten matches for young Vladimir to make a smooth ocean surface. When the general tips the matches up in pairs to look like sharp waves, that pattern represents a stormy sea. Fifteen years later, as Papa Nabokov flees the Bolsheviks across southern Russia, he meets what he presumes is a peasant in a sheepskin coat who asks for a light. Of course it’s the old general, seeking a match. The twin moments are jammed together to reveal a great truth—how the powerful fall, the matches are burnt out and lost.

But as for the general himself, he’s a pawn in the pattern, not a character we’ve been made to care about. “I hope that old Kuropatkin, in his rustic disguise, managed to evade Soviet imprisonment, but that is not the point” (emphasis mine).

In other words, whether this man lived or died interests the writer not nearly as much as his own poetic associations.

What pleases me is the evolution of the match theme: those magic ones [Kuropatkin] had shown me had been trifled with and mislaid, and his armies had also vanished, and everything had fallen through, like my toy trains. . . . The following of such thematic designs through one’s life should be, I think, the true purpose of autobiography. (Emphasis mine.)

Nabokov’s not giving a crap about the general as a human critter would read as hideously hateful in any other writer’s book, particularly one where the writer’s warmth or heart sits at the core of her talent—Angelou, say, or McCourt. And Nabokov’s beloveds are wholly vague except insofar as they’re recipients of his exaltations. The characters he sketches in keenest detail tend to be people he scorns, which differs from what we expect from most writers. Mostly we like them to sound “fair.” It’s one thing for Tobias Wolff to snark at his tyrannical first stepfather with his nyah nyah note in This Boy’s Life: “[He] used to say what I didn’t know would fill a book. Well, here it is.” But we may have thought less of Wolff as a narrator if he undertook the kind of grotesque portraits Nabokov can paint of family underlings like his neurasthenic governess Mademoiselle.

Her hands were unpleasant because of the froggy gloss on their tight skin besprinkled with brown ecchymotic spots. . . . I think of her hands. Her trick of peeling rather than sharpening a pencil, the point held toward her stupendous and sterile bosom swathed in green wool. The way she had of inserting her little finger into one ear and vibrating it very rapidly. . . . Always panting a little, her mouth slightly open and emitting in quick succession a series of asthmatic puffs.

Any character in a teen movie exhibiting even one of these qualities would be doomed for two hours to no end of high school cruelty. In case we haven’t judged her harshly enough from this portrait, at one point, he dubs her a creature without a soul—brutal.

And yet we don’t recoil from him, because he’s created a context where he’s entitled to do this. For him to feign sympathy for her or to pose as a man of the people would come off as smarmy. The following of poetic themes can be the purpose for him, since that’s the nature of his particular psyche and character and emotional patois and camber. Few of us have such philosophical natures so attached to deep emotional places, nor the effete sensibility for such pattern-making or thematic explorations (maybe Hong Kingston in The Woman Warrior).

Nabokov’s not cold—few books are more passionate. He can make you tear up as he mourns his family: “[Beings] that I had most loved in the security of my childhood had been turned to ashes or shot through the heart.” His outbursts for his loved ones pepper the book, but love is often manifest in a more oddly abstract form than most writers would be able to pull off.

Whenever I start thinking of my love for a person, I am in the habit of immediately drawing radii from my love—from my heart, from the tender nucleus of a personal matter—to monstrously remote points in the universe. Something impels me to measure the consciousness of my love against such unimaginable and incalculable things as the behavior of nebulae.

When most of us think of our love for a person, we think of the actual person. So a normal writer, drifting into this kind of metaphor in the midst of her memoir, would sound like a literary show-off avoiding the point. Because Nabokov’s mind naturally moves in a metaphorical direction, he’s trained us to read these excursions as emotional events tethered to the writer’s survival.

He devotes way more time to falling in love with poetry than he does to either brother. Yet we barely notice his completely ignoring one brother* and barely mentioning the other, Sergey, who was probably gay, based on what Vladimir read in a teen diary, which he showed—rather cruelly—to a tutor. Yet the brothers are ten months apart, and as kids, Vladimir admits to being both “the coddled one” and “something of a bully.” We accept that situation as part of the universe we’ve begun to inhabit: “[Sergey] is the mere shadow in the background of my richest recollections.” The two brothers cross paths in Cambridge, where Sergey’s dismissed as a crap tennis player; and in Paris, where he sometimes “dropped by for a chat.” Nabokov loses sight of him during the war—how is it possible this isn’t a bigger deal to the writer? I wonder. He later learns that Sergey died in a concentration camp. Nabokov’s cagey explanation for this brother’s absence fills one vague sentence: “For some reason, I find it inordinately hard to speak about my brother.” Then the reader hops over this guy’s corpse as glibly as Nabokov seems to; on we go to the next ravishing scene.

Still, using devices more common to other memoirists, Nabokov can draw tears from me at certain passages as predictably as if turned on by a spigot. Students who fear sentimentality as death have to study Nabokov, who proves that sentimentality is only emotion you haven’t proven to the reader—emotion without vivid evidence. For Nabokov, memory itself is a country, and his tender reflections, coupled with longing, move us even more perhaps in coming from a speaker who can be so cool.

I see again my schoolroom in Vyra, the blue roses on the wallpaper, the open window. Its reflection fills the mirror above the leathern couch where my uncle sits, gloating over a tattered book. A sense of security, of well-being, of summer warmth, pervades my memory. That robust reality makes a ghost of the present. The mirror brims with brightness: a bumblebee has entered the room and bumps against the ceiling. Everything is as it should be, nothing will ever change, nobody will ever die.

The above passage shows how an odd instant in time can endure in memory and reassemble itself decades later, the writer producing in the reader that very sense of security on the brink, which begins to tip and shiver toward desolation with that last phrase: “nobody will ever die.”

Of course there are a thousand such more common moments uncommonly written in Speak, Memory, but mostly Nabokov structured the whole thing to play to his particular strengths—twinning, metaphor, poetic moments of transcending time, carnal luxury. He found that talent for his talent. He sets us up early on to assign emotional value to his abilities. Once we understand his process, we can watch him frisk around like a rabbit, leaping forward and back in lengthy descriptions. He’s imbued with emotional heft and meaning that very leaping, which would seem capricious or vain in another’s work. The process of his thought has become the point of the book, form marrying into meaning as it does in poetry: a literary miracle.