Tuesday, April 01, 2014

`As Bleak and Changeless As an Old Gray Rock'

That the greatest of American autobiographies – Speak, Memory by Vladimir Nabokov, and Witness by Whittaker Chambers – should be written by men with painful, first-hand experience of Communism is hardly surprising. No force so dominated the last century and claimed so many lives as the savage messianism of Marx and his disciples. From cretin to genius, even the most privileged and protected among us were touched. Take Nabokov: After the Bolshevik Revolution, his family fled St. Petersburg and found refuge in Crimea. In April 1919, they settled in England. A year later they moved to Berlin, where Nabokov’s father was assassinated in 1922. In 1937, the novelist, his wife and son moved to France, fleeing the fascist twin of Communism, and in 1940 to the United States for what he called the “spacious freedom of thought we enjoy in America.” In a 1964 interview Nabokov outlined his “political creed”: 

“The fact that since my youth--I was 19 when I left Russia--my political creed has remained as bleak and changeless as an old gray rock. It is classical to the point of triteness.  Freedom of speech, freedom of thought, freedom of art. The social or economic structure of the ideal state is of little concern to me. My desires are modest. Portraits of the head of the government should not exceed a postage stamp in size. No torture and no executions. No music, except coming through earphones, or played in theaters.” 

All attractive and perfectly reasonable, and all still quite impossible in much of the contemporary world. Nabokov was outraged when soft-headed critics mistook his hatred of Communism for sour grapes over his family’s lost wealth. In Speak, Memory  (1966) he writes: 

“The following passage is not for the general reader, but for the particular idiot who, because he lost a fortune in some crash, thinks he understands me. My old (since 1917) quarrel with the Soviet dictatorship is wholly unrelated to any question of property. My contempt for the émigré who `hates the Reds’ because they `stole’ his money and land is complete. The nostalgia I have been cherishing all these years is a hypertrophied sense of lost childhood, not sorrow for lost banknotes.” 

In terms of temperament and even appearance, Chambers was Nabokov’s distorted reflection in a fun-house mirror. The Russian was witty, elegant and urbane, blessed with a gift for happiness. Chambers was morose, conflicted, a self-described “slob.” In his review of Witness (1952), Philip Rahv reported seeing in Chambers’ “talk and manner, a vibration, an accent, that I can only describe as Dostoevskyean in essence.” Nabokov famously detested Dostoevsky. One of the threads linking two such disparate men, along with their abhorrence of Communism, was William F. Buckley Jr., who befriended both. In the nineteen-sixties, Buckley delighted Nabokov with the gift of a button proclaiming “Fuck Communism.” What the longtime hater of Marxist tyranny and the Communist apostate shared was a visceral love of freedom. In the “Letter to His Children” which serves as the foreword to Witness, Chambers writes of the Hiss-Chambers standoff: 

“At heart, the Great Case was this critical conflict of faiths; that is why it was a great case. On a scale personal enough to be felt by all, but big enough to be symbolic, the two irreconcilable faiths of our time—Communism and Freedom—came to grips in the persons of two conscious and resolute men.” 

Students assigned to read Speak, Memory and Witness will acquire an essential lesson in twentieth-century history, a nuanced understanding of public and private morality, and a crash course in the art of prose. Chambers was born on this date, April Fool’s Day, in 1901. Later this month, on April 23, we’ll celebrate Nabokov’s 115th birthday.

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