Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Happy Birthday, Vladimir Nabokov

Happy Birthday to one of my favourite writers, Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov.

Within the past half hour I have been scanning my mind, trying to remember where and when I first learnt about him. It was Lolita of course. But was it during the twilight years of questionable prudery in college, or later, through an innocuous Amit Roy reference in his Sunday column Eye on England? I can't remember. But at a certain point in time--during the later half of my first year at the university, and throughout my second year at the university--I was nearly driven into insanity by my desire to read Lolita. I finally found a second-hand book at a little shop I used to frequent during those days. The book was in a dire state with no cover, but I was desperate, and I must have got it at a very negligible price. I remember promising myself that I would buy a new copy eventually (incidentally, I haven't got around to that yet). I read the first paragraph during the drive home and was breathing rapidly. At least I should have.

I had been very ill during the spring of 2011, and it was in bed that I finished Lolita. I remember another incident from that time. At a Gender Studies group, someone had argued how Lolita was essentially a pornographic novel, and that it should be banned. An ex-classmate, who hadn't read Nabokov (and probably still hasn't), but made faux-intellectual (and hence hollow) remarks about his style, brought it to my notice. At that moment, I was drenched in Nabokov's sensuous prose and attacked the person with a wrath that is only incidental to lovers. I argued about the several facets of the novel, how it could be read as a Great American Novel (really, every other day a book is elevated to the hallowed halls of this remarkable abstract paradigm, so why not this book?); how it was a quintessential road novel (one cannot possibly overlook the great journey and checking in and out of dinghy motels that occupies the middle section of the book); and his sensual language. Many people commented on the thread and as is wont in Facebook, a fight among strangers broke out. I quit and returned to the book and let myself be hypnotised by the prose.

Less than two years ago, at a crucial point in my life, I found Nabokov's autobiography Speak Memory at the American Center Library. I carried the book with me for days, reading, rereading, feeling a heaviness, occasionally crying. I had no money to buy the book then, and I eventually had to return the copy to the library. Days later I would be visiting the house I grew up in, for one of the last times before it was to be sold off. In that dismal late autumn-early winter, as I went around the old house whose interiors had irrevocably changed since I had moved away, and where each corner where I had had precious memories had ceased to exist, I tried to recollect Nabokov's words. How must he have felt, how must he have coped: a childhood home lost, a life lived in exile.

Have you ever happened, reader, to feel that subtle sorrow of parting with an unloved abode? The heart does not break, as it does in parting with dear objects. The humid gaze does not wander around holding back a tear, as if it wished to carry away in it a trembling reflection of the abandoned spot; but in the best corner of our hearts we feel pity for the things which we did not bring to life with our breath, which we hardly noticed and are now leaving forever. This already dead inventory will not be resurrected in one's memory . . .

I bought my Collected Stories of Vladimir Nabokov at the Boi Mela last year. It must have been the only Nabokov at the Penguin stall, because I had scourged all the shelves containing Modern Classics, and orange covers, black covers, and faded yellow covers, and had found nothing else (by him; I'd certainly found many other gems). I have been reading the stories this summer slowly, savouring them two or three a day, and I'm left mesmerized. Have you read the absurdly tragic story 'Lips to Lips'? But you must. One of the reasons of my enduring dissatisfaction with this life is that not too many of my friends and acquaintances have read Vladimir Nabokov and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I have acquired most of Nabokov's ebooks, and one of the reasons I look forward to life and dream impossible dreams is because I hope that one day, when my life has form and meaning, I will acquire them all--Pale Fire, Speak Memory, Pnin--all.

I retire today with these lines of an exiled Russian poet in Berlin who writes this letter, but it never reaches Russia.

Listen: I am ideally happy. My happiness is a kind of challenge. As I wander along the streets and the squares and the paths by the canal, absently sensing the lips of dampness through my worn soles, I carry proudly my ineffable happiness. The centuries will roll by, and school-boys will yawn over the history of our upheavals; everything will pass; but my happiness, dear, my happiness will remain, in the moist reflection of a streetlamp, in the cautious bend of stone steps that descend into the canal's black waters, in the smiles of a dancing couple, in everything with which God so generously surrounds human loneliness.

                                                                                                  ' A Letter that Never Reached Russia'

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