Nabokov - 'Revelation'

By chrisfraser64, Jul 3 2018 02:13PM

There are times when I’m in a trance-like state mulling over a recent event or listening to the voices of the characters in a piece I’m writing - when a louder voice intrudes, ‘Knock, knock - anyone at home?’ It’s my wife dragging me back into the present to put out the rubbish or take the dog for a walk.

For some months now I’ve been processing the implications of a Guardian Masterclass I attended with the seductive title of How to write a best selling novel. Since it was a one-day event, lead author Sebastian Faulks had the grace to admit that it was not possible to give any meaningful advice on this subject. However, he and three other young authors gave valuable insights into their own creative processes. Faulks himself said, ‘I set out to write the best books I possibly can.’ One of the other authors, Alex Preston did me a big favour by recommending Vladimir Nabokov’s autobiography ‘Speak, Memory’. I read it and was astounded.

Nabokov had an idyllic childhood in a colossally rich but liberal family in St Petersburg. From an early age he was speaking and reading in Russian, French and English as a result of his father employing a series of tutors from all over Europe. With the coming of the Russian Revolution, he and his family were forced to flee the country. This journey was made with a certain panache. The Greek ferry left Sebastopol Harbour under machine gun fire from Bolsheviks as he and his father calmly played chess on the deck. Somehow he managed to survive the shock of losing great wealth to become a poverty-stricken emigre, scraping a living as a private tutor. Despite the turbulent times and constant movement between Cambridge, London, Berlin and Paris, he continued to publish a stream of poems and novels in Russian.

After 20 years he was forced to flee again, but at his own pace. With his wife and son, he sauntered leisurely towards the last steamer to leave France for America, mere weeks ahead of the Nazi invasion. After reaching safety in America he forsook his beloved native language and mastered the art of writing novels in consummate English.

In his autobiography, Nabokov describes the arrival of the vast form of his French tutor ‘Mademoiselle O’ at a remote Russian railway station on a winter night, ‘frozen to the centre of her brain’. She is greeted by ‘a burly coachman in sheepskin and huge gloves protruding from his scarlet sash’ and driven on a sledge pulled by ‘two black horses, Zoyka and Zinka’ through the frozen wastes to the substantial family estate.

But where is Nabokov in this ‘stereoscopic dreamland’? He’s a trickster who scatters clues throughout the sequence:

‘I can visualize her, by proxy, as she stands in the middle of the station platform, where she has just alighted, and vainly my ghostly envoy offers her an arm that she cannot see.’

And later, ‘Let me not leave out the moon – for surely there must be a moon, the full, incredibly clear disc that goes so well with Russian lusty frosts.’

The truth is, he was never there. He had recreated the scene from his imagination in a snow-bound New England many years later. He explains with a twinkle, ‘The snow is real, though, and as I bend to it and scoop up a handful, sixty years crumble to glittering frost-dust between my fingers.’

Nabokov shows how the human mind can select from memories of the past and with a creative use of vivid imagery create something as though it is happening in the present. It’s a magical combination of elements which reanimates the character of his old tutor. In his novels and poems, he is able to use his own experiences together with his imagination to create fictional characters and situations. He talks about the writer as combining the qualities of a storyteller, a teacher and an enchanter, with the enchanter predominating.

Undoubtedly, Nabokov was an exceptionally accomplished writer but mulling over his life and work I had a revelatory AH-HA moment. I realized and appreciated for the first time the gifts that we, as humans, are all blessed with. We can chose from a myriad of media –not only words but also music, paintings and film - to pass on our experiences to others. Creativity is in our DNA.

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These are a series of talks I gave as part of the 'Apothecary' spoken word meetings at the Beach and Barnicott in Bridport