I see again my schoolroom in Vyra, the blue roses of the wallpaper, the open window. Its reflection fills the oval 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.
I just read this passage as I was about to get off the subway at Sasang, in Busan, South Korea; though it’s been taken out of context and it may mean nothing to you I just have to say that as I climbed the stairs and dwelled on the exquisite I felt my feelings intensify; tears brimmed in my eyes as the light brims in the infinite glass of Nabokov’s mirror, I looked down, I breathed, and such sadness filled my chest, as if this ideal idyll had been lost to me, and not to a man who died ten years before my birth. Everything in the book and everything in my life came together to such an extent that I cried while walking to work this morning.
Any friend of mine, any reader of this blog, knows I love books, but you may not know that while I’ve been reading tomes of literature since I was a squiggly little gamete I have never once cried over a word of prose or poetry. Films and music could have me wailing like a baby, the end of Paths of Glory or some of Bach’s Cello Suites, but never a book, never a silent word, never.
Nabokov in particular is a great writer (a truism!), which means that he despises all instances of cloying, weeping, kleenexy sentimentality, and has the unfair reputation (propagated perhaps by modern Russian poets like Yevgeny Yevtushenko (mentioned in Nabokov’s wikipedia entry) of working at literature in the same emotionless way a mortician works at a cadaver; i.e., with rubber gloves, medical mask, and quicksilver scalpel.
And indeed the man seems to have quite a cold, cruel view of things. In this same work, an autobiographical novel called Speak, Memory, he mentions without comment that he was not able to be with his mother when she died, an unbelievably strange omission that I think inspired a poem by my teacher Polina Barskova—I would quote it here but I believe the copy she gave me is sitting in a box of papers in Maine—though as I think about it now it reminds me of Borges’ essay on Plato’s only mention of himself in the dialogues of Socrates—“Plato, I think, was sick”, or something along those lines (that book, too, is with my heart in Maine), which comes when Socrates decides that he will drink his goblet of hemlock in the name of exploring the unknown and describe the feeling of his limbs going numb and blue before losing the ability to describe anything at all.
Plato was so devastated by the suicide of his teacher that he could not bear to be with him when he died; twenty years later the wound was still too painful to explore in any detail; perhaps it was the same with Nabokov, writing decades after his mother’s death in Europe.
Despite this reputation of coldness, gained perhaps by the virtuoso’s perfection of language, which overshadows every other achievement of story or character development or chess problems or lepidoptery, Nabokov’s use of bathos, which I would define as the very powerful and very absurd combination of the tragic and the comedic—such as the moment when Pnin cries out something like “I haff nothing! Nothing!” upon learning that he is getting fired (I also can’t remember the exact details), or the hilarious volley of humiliations to which Gogol subjects the sad figure of Bashmachkin in The Overcoat—this bathos, and Nabokov’s perfection of it, is so overwhelming as to be irresistible. No one else, and I mean no one, ever made me cry while I was reading.
So I suppose sentimentality is the easy way to wring a few tears out of the masses—in Scrubs, combine an epiphanic voiceover with a slow acoustic guitar and a montage of sad people realizing things, and you get “panty points” from the show’s primary audience and the principle theatergoers to romantic comedies (and the spouses they drag along with them). In Dostoevsky, write about a child’s little hands or the way some people torture children, and you’ll make a literature professor at Mt. Holyoke burst into tears in front of his whole class over a century later—a rather powerful event I witnessed myself, and evidence that only good teachers cry when talking about the subjects to which they’ve dedicated their lives.
But I think bathos is more difficult to achieve. It’s so easy to shift into slapstick, or trip up and spill into the blubbery mawkish and the vicious meretricious, but Nabokov the Master achieves such power with his words that for a moment it was I who had lost the childhood, boyhood, and youth of an enlightened Russian aristocrat, with its blue roses and its Joycean Borgesian mirrors and its clownish uncle rolling his eyes in ecstasy over a French children’s book, and not the long-dead author of Speak, Memory.