Archive for October, 2008

Reading Nabokov: Shut up, memory

Tuesday, October 21st, 2008

From a journal entry, August, 2001

Just finished reading Vladimir Nabokov’s memoir “Speak, Memory.” How observant an eye. How gorgeous a prosodist. How I dislike him.

There’s a meanness that hovers in the offing of his writing, a fastidious drawing-back of the skirts and nostrils that goes beyond mere daintiness into discrimination in its ugly sense. Whether it’s the peasant girl at a gate or the burghers in a Berlin park, these are beings beneath him.

I’m sure he could love very deeply – his father, his son, his butterflies. But the ordinary unwashed – he can’t love them, or understand why sometimes you don’t or can’t wash.

I know this is partly my good old knee-jerk leftish upbringing coming into play. I was utterly taken aback by the sheer wealth of his early surroundings – the estate in the country, the town houses in St. Petersburg, the summers in Biarritz, the servants, the governesses, the dentists in Berlin.

“About bloody time there was a revolution,” I was muttering by the end of the first chapter.

But I doubt my reaction is completely determined by solidarity with the workers. It’s a personal thing – a reaction to what seems small, self-centered. He is astonished when his governess, Mademoiselle, seems to remember a different relationship than the one he recalls. But he never thinks there is any doubt of his memory being the more accurate one.

Walt Whitman wrote, “If you love to have a servant stand behind your chair at dinner, it will appear in your writing – or if you possess a vile opinion of women or if you grudge anything … these will appear by what you leave unsaid more than by what you say.”

What Nabokov constantly leaves unsaid is, “I might have been wrong. Someone else might interpret the situation otherwise, and be just as correct.”

Oh, now and again he expresses a mild regret at writing a harsh review of someone. Once, he’s not sure, in the struggle of remembered emotions during an embarrassing school situation, whether he was empathetically silent or one of the rowdy teenagers who humiliated the tutor. (I’ll bet it was the latter, Vladimir.)

But mostly his sense of privilege is so deeply engrained that it is invisible to him, and this privilege extends to being the one whose account of the past is right.

And then there’s that affectation in the last chapters of never naming his wife and son, referring only to ‘you’ and ‘our son.’ I’m sure his official, external reason would have been to protect their privacy, not to claim them in public. But there’s a horrible possessiveness to that continual beat of ‘our child’. As though by depriving these people of their names, Vera and Dmitri, he denies them an independent existence.

Oh, it’s very lovely, very detailed, very synaesthetic, all those pictures in the park. But I never feel he recognizes they have different eyes to look through.

There’s one point in the memoir where Nabokov describes a failed dinner with Ivan Bunin, the Russian novelist and Nobel laureate who was also from an aristocratic background. Nabokov is not impressed by the fine restaurant—he’s had plenty of quails in his childhood, he prefers to eat lying down on a couch. (You have my sympathies, Vera.)

Towards the end of this tiresome evening, Bunin says, “You will die in dreadful pain and complete isolation.”

Just a page earlier, I’d been thinking, “Gawd, does this guy ever get his comeuppance?” So when I read that, I recognized a deep fellow feeling with Bunin.

In describing the incident, Nabokov was ostensibly being honest, citing the critical remark by a famous man. But underneath that (or on top of it), he is being smug. See, here I am in later life, not alone, not in great pain. After all, he issues this ‘final version’ of his memoir in his mid-sixties, in Montreux, Switzerland, well known, well-published. Life has never been hard—slightly impoverished for a while, but never hard.

Perhaps there were moments in his life where he knew he was alone and in pain. You can’t look into another man’s mind—only into his memoirs. But, as Whitman noted, they are curiously reliable. What we write cannot conceal what we are.

Nabokov thought comfortably well of himself. Conceit is an ugly thing. Bad enough when some macho guy in a mullet flashes his gold chains and a grin at you in the bar. But worse when an intellectual looks disdainfully in his direction and thinks, “I’m better than you are.”

Introducing Margaret Atwood

Thursday, October 2nd, 2008

I don’t actually inhabit the same universe as Margaret Atwood. I do live right on the border of one of those multiverses that the physicist John Wheeler thought up the math for, where the universe splits at every decision point and goes its separate ways. She’s in one of them, I’m in another.

I don’t live in the same world, but it seems I’m always introducing her. As I did again yesterday at an “Albertans for the Arts” rally, down in Sir Winston Churchill Square. The organizers asked me to pop up and say a few words to clarify federal spending on culture. This is like clarifying the math for the many-worlds hypothesis, and a bit hard to ask of a poet.

But I felt I should pitch in. I’m not unusually political, but I don’t want to live in a universe where the Canadian prime minister thinks all that artists want is the invitation to glitzy galas. If there is any small thing I can do to change the equations, I’ll do it.

And then, as if the universe was going to pat me on the back for accepting the challenge, the organizer said “Oh, great—and will you introduce Margaret Atwood?” She had gracefully agreed to say a few words at the rally, which was taking place right before her lecture at the Winspear Centre.

The immediate picture of an alternate universe dizzied me. I would make a short, inspiring speech (about budgets? But this was to be another universe, I could do it.) I would deliver a warming couple of paragraphs to summarize her multi-page biography. She would hear it all and maybe even remember my name!

(In the other universe that bubbles immediately and irrepressibly out of this delirious one, she would say, “Oh, Alice Major!¦ Of course. I do like that last book of yours!”)

So I crafted two minutes worth of federal budgetary comment around the snappiest metaphor I could come up with in 24 hours, dressed myself to balance financial expertise and poetic flare as best I could, and went downtown. Where the media cameras were circling like a pod of nervous whales about to be beached by the six o’clock news.

The timing  was supercritical—Margaret Atwood had only five minutes to give us before going on to her lecture. The television news needed to get their feeds in. We delayed for a few moments while scouts scanned the square for our arriving star, but had to start.

I give my remarks. No Margaret. Maria Dunn comes to the stage to sing. In mid-song, the buzz went round—”she’s here, she’s here.” Maria picks it up and cleverly works it into some closing bars. The crowd cheers loudly.

By now there is no practical need to introduce her and the cameras are jostling like breaching whales who desperately need to breathe some air. I leap on the stage, say a single laudatory sentence and jump back into anonymity.


This is not the first time I have introduced Margaret Atwood. I did so when she gave the Anne Szumugalski lecture for the League of Canadian Poets in 2006. This was at a banquet in the Ottawa hotel where the League’s annual meeting took place. As past president, I was to give the introductory remarks about the lecture series and—gasp—sit at the same table.

Well, imagine putting Margaret Atwood in a room full of poets, all of them hoping to live in the same alternate universe. (Oh, yes, Peter X, that last book of yours! ) It’s as though you’ve changed the strength of the gravitational constant when she comes in the door.

“For god’s sake, let’s look as though we’re grown-ups,”I had muttered to Mary Ellen Csamer, then the League president. I spent the whole meal glaring at poets who wanted to thrust poems into her hands, books into her hands, even one member who was handing out samples of non-animal-product body lotion or something like that and wanted to give one to Atwood.

Of course, I had imagined the scintillating conversation that I would have with her. Instead, I spent the whole meal across the round table from her, too far to converse, just glaring at renegade poets beyond her shoulder.  If she noticed me at all, it would have been to wonder who that woman with the sour expression was.

I have found myself beside Margaret Atwood in a cafeteria line-up, trying to make up some intelligent comment about pancakes. I have sat across the room from her during  meetings of the Writers Union of Canada, knowing I’d never have the nerve to say anything at all.

In fact, much as I’d like to live in the same universe, I know that the bubbles of our separate worlds will forever bounce gently off each other and go their separate ways into the foam of the multiverse.

Surely the math could come out better! I can only hope the federal election does.

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