Since boyhood, whenever I have looked at paintings, films or photographs, my first impulse has been to date them, to fix them in time, both the work itself and its contents. One learns to read images for temporal clues, without which we may experience vertigo in time, a state as disorienting as its spatial cousin. The rebirth of sideburns and facial hair in the nineteen-sixties, for instance, provides a fairly reliable calendar for the subsequent decade. The same goes for cars, clothing, music and advertising. But as I’ve aged and memory has grown as blurrily dense as a palimpsest, my own presence in memories has grown more central. In short, I remember remembering. Had I not read Nabokov’s “A Guide to Berlin,” the 1925 story he and his son Dmitri translated from the Russian and collected in Details of a Sunset (1976), I might have gone on thinking my temporal sensitivity was unique.
Nabokov called it “one of my trickiest pieces.” At the end of the story, the narrator and a friend are seated in a Berlin pub, looking into the proprietor’s apartment at the rear. A boy sits at a table. His mother feeds him soup and he looks at a magazine. The narrator projects himself into the boy and looks back into the pub, at the narrator and his friend:
“[The boy] has long since grown used to this scene and is not dismayed by its proximity. Yet there is one thing I know. Whatever happens to him in life, he will always remember the picture he saw every day of his childhood from the little room where he was fed his soup. He will remember the billiard table and the coatless evening visitor who used to draw back his sharp white elbow and hit the ball with his cue, and the blue-gray cigar smoke, and the din of voices, and my empty right sleeve and scarred face, and his father behind the bar, filling a mug for me from the tap.”
Two paragraphs remain in the story: “`I can’t understand what you see down there,’ says my friend, turning back toward me.”
“What indeed! How can I demonstrate to him that I have glimpsed somebody’s future recollection?”
Of course, he can’t. Nothing is so private, so guardedly autonomous, as memory. To a significant degree, we are our memories. They lend the self continuity. Without them, we are a flux of sensory impressions, a Humean nightmare, and only art can lend memory a suitable external form to share with others. Earlier in the story, Nabokov’s narrator says:
“I think that here lies the sense of literary creation: to portray ordinary objects as they will be reflected in the kindly mirrors of future times; to find in the objects around us the fragrant tenderness that only posterity will discern and appreciate in the far-off times when every trifle of our plain everyday life will become exquisite and festive in its own right: the times when a man who might put on the most ordinary jacket of today will be dressed up for an elegant masquerade.”
Nabokov died thirty-five years ago today, on July 2, 1977, in Montreux, Switzerland. I heard the news on the car radio shortly after the sun had set in Youngstown, Ohio.