Thursday, April 25, 2024

'One Is Always at Home in One’s Past'

I will quote the writer who has given me more pleasure – “aesthetic bliss” he called it – than any other and whose birthday we observed earlier this week: “One is always at home in one’s past.” That might serve as a gloss on his autobiography, Speak, Memory, in which he writes at the end of Chapter III: 

“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 summery 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.”


“One is always at home in one’s past” is taken from an interview Nabokov gave The Observer in 1976, a year before his death. But it also appears, with the identical wording, in Chapter V of Speak, Memory. Vyra was Nabokov’s family estate, fifty miles south of St. Petersburg, soon to be seized and looted by the Bolsheviks. We needn’t be Russian aristocrats to appreciate the poignance of Nabokov’s memory. In the same interview, Nabokov is asked, “Does this suggest you dislike facing the future or contemplating the present?” He answers:


“What we perceive as the present is the bright crest of an evergrowing past and what we call the future is a looming abstraction ever coming into concrete appearance. I love and revere the present. As to the past, my dealings with it are more complex, ranging as they do from delicious gropings to blind angry fumblings.”


[The Nabokov interview is collected in Think, Write, Speak: Uncollected Essays, Reviews, Interviews, and Letters to the Editor (eds. Brian Boyd and Anastasia Tolstoy, 2019.)]

1 comment:

Thomas Parker said...

That passage from Speak, Memory makes me think of another passage, one of the most beautiful and moving things I've ever read - the ending of Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House in the Big Woods:

But Laura lay awake a little while, listening to Pa's fiddle softly playing and to the lonely sound of the wind in the Big Woods. She looked at Pa sitting on the bench by the hearth, the fire-light gleaming on his brown hair and beard and glistening on the honey-brown fiddle. She looked at Ma, gently rocking and knitting.

She thought to herself, "This is now."

She was glad that the cosy house, and Pa and Ma and the fire-light and the music, were now. They could not be forgotten, she thought, because now is now. It can never be a long time ago.