Not for the General Reader

12 Jul

I do not believe that butterfly-chasing, literary superstar Vladimir Nabokov worried much about what people thought of him.

And, yet, Nabokov’s memoir (Speak, Memory), a lyrical conjuring of a very privileged childhood in pre-revolutionary Russia, snaps out of its reverie in Chapter 3 with this aside:

The following passage is not for the general reader, but the particular idiot who, because he has 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 emigre 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.

And finally: I reserve for myself the right to yearn after an ecological niche:

…Beneath the sky
Of my America to sigh
For one locality in Russia

The general reader may now resume.

I love this passage.

I love it because we are all, in fact, robbed of the ecological niche of our childhood, bolsheviks or no bolsheviks.  (The house I grew up in is now rented to a bunch of college students.  Or, here’s an example a little closer to Nabokov’s ancestral estate:  There’s an IKEA store on the outskirts of Moscow today.)

I love this passage for my own selfish purposes also.

For years I have tried to imagine how I might reserve for myself the right to yearn after my own particular ecological (and temporal) niche in Russia: a dilapidated student dorm in Leningrad just before Perestroika.

It’s unseemly to love those last crumbling, corrupt years of Soviet rule.

Unseemly because we, American students, were just visitors, not permanent inmates.

Unseemly because Americans were in deficit (to put it in Soviet terms), and we enjoyed a wholly unjustified popularity everywhere we went.  We had the right jeans, the right backpacks, sturdy (and stylish!) boots and coats.  With western currency in our pockets, we were like billionaires.  We had access to everything, and Russians wanted access to us.

Getting a date was a cinch.  You didn’t have to be particularly pretty, particularly witty, particularly smart, particularly anything.

But those are just the banknotes.  You must not confuse me with those Westerners who returned again and again to Soviet Russia to bask in that sort of easy attention.  My contempt for them is complete.

My old (since 1991) regret at the opening up of Russia is unrelated to any question of property.  I regret the loss of a wretched, shabby, peculiar moment that happened to be mine.

The nostalgia I have been cherishing all these years for Leningrad in 1983 is a hypertrophied sense of lost youth, not sorrow for lost banknotes.

The general reader may now resume.

21 Responses to “Not for the General Reader”

  1. david osman July 12, 2010 at 3:44 am #

    As I am reading your piece I am trying to recollect how I felt leaving Russia for good in 1982.
    I remember I was running away with tremendous desire to forget,to break away I was soaked with hate
    for the past and guided by the hope of unknown.
    I remember small crowded HIAS office in Ostia and indifferent HIAS female asking me “why did I leave Russia? “
    Why did I leave Russia? I could not breathe – I said.

    Neither nostalgia nor money can reconnect me to Russia although I feel nostalgic at times.
    I left my language, my friends, graves of my parents…
    Yes,I could breathe yet there is a sense of loss which comes to me at times.
    And I do not know anymore if it is better to suffocate in Russia or to live die free away from your past in America.

    • jenny July 12, 2010 at 11:22 pm #

      David, it’s funny that you mention HIAS. Another topic swirling around in my mind is NYANA, of course.

      I hope you noticed Cheri’s comment below. Though it is a familiar tale to me, I, too, was moved by what you wrote. Thanks.

  2. Andreas Kluth July 12, 2010 at 5:22 am #

    Very well written. We strangers here had no idea that you’ve ever even been to Russia, and yet you’ve eased us into your experience there, through the parallel with Nabokov, in a very moving way.

    What brought you out there, in those years before perstroika?

    • jenny July 12, 2010 at 11:24 pm #

      Great set-up.

      “What brought me out there?”

      My health. I came to Leningrad for the waters.
      …I was misinformed.

      • theseagullatmxat July 13, 2010 at 3:45 am #

        Ah, the lovely healing powers of the water of Leningrad, where one must brush her teeth with bottled water to avoid a stomach parasite…

  3. Cheri July 12, 2010 at 2:34 pm #

    I’d like to know more about your “wretched, shabby, peculiar moment”that still evokes nostalgia.

    I’d like to know more about your thoughts on Nabokov.

    I’d like to tell David (above), I was moved by his comment.

    I’d like to tell you this piece is a unified gem.

    • jenny July 12, 2010 at 11:30 pm #

      Cheri, you and I are serious danger of sinking into a state of cloying mutual admiration. Who will be able to tolerate us?

      Just for propriety’s sake, we must get into a cat fight! 😉

      • Andreas Kluth July 13, 2010 at 2:48 am #

        You must. If you don’t, you lose all credibility.

  4. Cheri July 13, 2010 at 2:55 am #

    An ocelot fight? with Andreas as the referee…

  5. Phil July 13, 2010 at 4:39 am #

    David’s moving comments about escaping the claustrophobia of Russia are a reminder that a place experienced as romantic or exotic by a visitor with a return ticket in his pocket, can be a hell for someone native to that place for whom the prospect of leaving is fraught with difficulties and dangers.

    • jenny July 13, 2010 at 11:49 am #

      Phil, you go right to the heart of one wrinkle of what has caused me a lot of anxiety for years. This insouciance (and, paradoxically, my awful awareness of it) is just exactly what interests me. Once I dared to wrap myself in Nabokov, I began to see it in him too.

      I was (am) hoping to write a few words addressing precisely those uncomfortable thoughts.

  6. Thomas Stazyk July 13, 2010 at 10:01 am #

    This is great. I know Russia mainly from reading (and one visit) but I could totally understand what you are saying.

    • jenny July 13, 2010 at 11:55 am #

      Thomas, thank you for that. I appreciate being undertood, especially by readers (and lovers!) of Gogol.

  7. Thomas Stazyk July 15, 2010 at 3:29 pm #

    I’m not sure if you are familiar with this blog, but it always has interesting ideas. I thought you might enjoy this post:

    • jenny July 15, 2010 at 5:53 pm #

      Thank you very much for the recommendation. No, I was not familiar with this blog, and I did, indeed, enjoy the post!

  8. lyndabirde July 17, 2010 at 12:25 pm #

    How refreshing to hear someone thankful for America’s open doors, David, and congratulations that you can now breathe freely. Jenny, you continue to delight us with your writing even though it is a bittersweet subject. This nostalgic longing touches all of us when we recall a place, a time, the people, the feeling of where we are not now. We fall in love with a place and want to go back but can’t, kind of Hotel California in reverse where we can check out but can never leave. I wonder how Isak Dinesen distanced herself from Kenya–oh, she wrote a book, never to return. Melville, too. And all those artists who passed their time somewhere else. My mentor in college advised me that to really know a people and a place, one could not just visit but must live in the midst of the people. Then to leave the place you had come to know! Now, the places where we really had our roots have changed as well e.g. 296 Loomis St. full of college kids, not Clayton kids. What is there that doesn’t change? Our determination to not lose anything is a brick wall. Scarlet O’Hara’s daddy was right that all that lasts is THE LAND. I think of the many people working here who have not returned to their homes in Central America for years. Who wants to go back to find another dictator in charge? Well, if mama is still there. Freedom I’ve seen celebrated in so many who want to stay here. What did Thomas Wolfe say? You can’t go home again. Let’s move on.

    • jenny July 18, 2010 at 7:27 am #

      Lynda, my teenaged infatuation with Russia in no way rises to the level of Dinesen, Melville or Wolfe. Not in any way. But, now, Don Henley…if you only knew how many evenings (a guitar was a permanent fixture in that time and place) featured Hotel California!

  9. Iden May 9, 2011 at 1:19 pm #

    How did I miss this one when you wrote it? Oh well. Perhaps you might be interested in the single Gavin and I dreamed up for our group the Rockin’ Sovietologists. It’s title was “Visa Down My Pants”. Way off the mark of the high town of your normal habitues here in Litland but well no excuses.

    • Iden May 9, 2011 at 1:20 pm #

      oops type meant to write “high tone” not “town”

    • jenny May 9, 2011 at 1:32 pm #


      You know that I like high and low tone all mixed up together.

      🙂 🙂 🙂

  10. Mimi May 21, 2011 at 9:37 pm #

    This is lovely. It sums up feeling about several moments in time over the course of my life that I will never have back, except the bits and pieces I carry in my heart. Including 1980’s Leningrad. Thank you for sharing this with me.

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