Friday, 19 January 2018

Nabokov's The Gift: chapter 2, Fyodor's father, butterflies, and the love of life

1/ In my previous post, I seemed to be comparing Fyodor’s father’s death to Yasha’s. That wasn’t what I meant. Other than the dead ones’ haunting reappearance in dreams or hallucinations, the only thing the 2 cases have in common is grief, and the inability to come to terms with a loved one’s death. 
The grief for Fyodor’s father is, in a sense, a hope-suffused grief (Nabokov’s phrase), and because of his age and achievements, there is a sense of consolation. The loss of Yasha brings nothing but despair and anguish, shattering all hopes of what he could have become. 

2/ In The Gift, Nabokov writes about remembrance, nostalgia, and longing. He also writes about the impossibility of knowing anyone completely, the desire, the hope to know more, and the attempt to grope for answers one can never get.  
“… In and around my father, around this clear and direct strength, there was something difficult to convey in words, a haze, a mystery, an enigmatic reserve which made itself felt sometimes more, sometimes less. It was as if this genuine, very genuine man possessed an aura of something still unknown but which was perhaps the most genuine of all. It had no direct connection either with us, or with my mother, or with the externals of life, or even with butterflies (the closest of all to him, I dare say); it was neither pensiveness nor melancholy—and I have no means of explaining the impression his face made on me when I looked through his study window from outside and saw how, having suddenly forgotten his work (I could feel inside how he had forgotten it—as if something had fallen through or trailed off), his large wise head turned slightly away from the desk and resting on his fist, so that a wide crease was raised from his cheek to his temple, he sat for a minute without moving. It sometimes seems to me nowadays that—who knows—he might go off on his journeys not so much to seek something as to flee something, and that on returning, he would realize that it was still with him, inside him, unriddable, inexhaustible. I cannot track down a name for his secret, but I only know that that was the source of that special—neither glad nor morose, having indeed no connection with the outward appearance of human emotions—solitude in which neither my mother nor all the entomologists of the world had any admittance.” 
“Sometimes he was quite alone, without even this nearness of men sleeping in camp tents, on felt mattresses, around the camel bedded down on the campfire ashes. Taking advantage of lengthy halts in places with abundant food for the caravan animals, Father would go away for several days on reconnaissance, and in doing so, carried away by some new pierid, more than once ignored the rule of mountain hunting: never to follow a path of no return. And now I continually ask myself what did he use to think about in the solitary night: I try fervently in the darkness to divine the current of his thoughts, and I have much less success with this than with my mental visits to places which I have never seen. What did he think about? About a recent catch? About my mother, about us? About the innate strangeness of human life, a sense of which he mysteriously transmitted to me? Or perhaps I am wrong in retrospectively forcing upon him the secret which he carries now, when newly gloomy and preoccupied, concealing the pain of an unknown wound, concealing death as something shameful, he appears in my dreams, but which then he did not have—but simply was happy in that incompletely named world in which at every step he named the nameless.” 
A short while ago I had a discussion with Himadri, in which he spoke of a sneering tone to Nabokov’s prose, and wondered if he could directly convey depth of feeling, or tenderness (the sad and sweet Pnin is narrated by a cruel, contemptuous man who treats Pnin as a laughingstock). 
The Gift is evidence that he could. The sneering tone creeps in a few times at the beginning of chapter 1, but quickly disappears. The Gift has a warmth, a tenderness not found in other Nabokov novels I’ve read. 

3/ Chapter 2 can be called the Pushkin and butterflies chapter. 
The Gift is about Nabokov’s 2 greatest passions—literature and lepidopterology.  

4/ In a paragraph about butterflies: 
“All this fascinating life, by whose present blend one could infallibly tell both the age of the summer (with an accuracy almost to within 1 day), the geographical location of the area, and the vegetal composition of the clearing—all this that was living, genuine and eternally dear to him, Fyodor perceived in a flash, with 1 penetrating and experienced glance.” 
He then tells a folklore, which includes this line: 
“That is the human eye—it wants to encompass everything in the world.” 

5/ Somebody, I don’t really remember, once wrote that he likes writers who love life, who say yes to life. 
So do I. 
Nabokov is perhaps the best example. Even though his novels often deal with cruelty, tyranny and madness, his passion for life can be seen in his attention to detail, his vivid descriptions of nature and colours, his love of butterflies, his celebration of the senses and the imagination, his love of freedom, creativity, and art. He makes us more alert, more aware of our surroundings. 
Tolstoy is another great example. To quote Virginia Woolf “His senses, his intellect, are acute, powerful, and well nourished. There is something proud and superb in the attack of such a mind and such a body upon life. Nothing seems to escape him. Nothing glances off him unrecorded. Nobody, therefore, can so convey the excitement of sport, the beauty of horses, and all the fierce desirability of the world to the senses of a strong young man. Every twig, every feather sticks to his magnet. He notices the blue or red of a child’s frock; the way a horse shifts its tail; the sound of a cough; the action of a man trying to put his hands into pockets that have been sewn up.” (The Common Reader
Tolstoy notices everything, and writes about all kinds of experience. His War and Peace and Anna Karenina seem to contain all about life. Now and then the preacher in him takes over, but when the artist triumphs, Tolstoy’s unsurpassable. 
Another favourite writer of mine, Herman Melville, also loves life. Readers who call Moby Dick boring approach it the wrong way; those who appreciate and love it are the ones who share with Ismael a sense of wonder and curiosity, and a love of learning. Anything mundane Melville turns into something meaningful, philosophic. Moby Dick makes you feel more alive. 
I don’t have much affinity with writers like Elfriede Jelinek (after The Piano Teacher, which I thought was excellent but didn’t see as a favourite, I read Greed, and perhaps a bit of Wonderful, Wonderful Times). Her view on life is dark, bleak, unbearably negative, even sick and perverse, and without hopes. Life is hard and often unfair, but I can find joy, and there is much to live for.

1 comment:

  1. Someone who loves life would love people too, I assume?