Tag Archives: nostalgia

After Two Shots

18 Nov

My daughter’s singing teacher at the Moscow Art Theatre Studio is about my age. I shouldn’t be surprised by our shared musical tastes.

I am invited to observe class on a November morning, still a little jet-lagged from yesterday’s more-than-trans-Atlantic flight.

I listen to my Anna sing a Turgenev poem called On the Road, set to music, and now more widely known as Misty Morning. A classic. One of those Russian romances about the inescapable, irretrievable past.

In the 1980s, at Leningrad State University, we sang it, too, usually around the table, with exaggerated pathos, after a couple of shots of vodka:

Misty morning, grey morning,
Sorrowful fields covered with snow;
Unwittingly, you recall times past,
faces, forgotten long ago.

You recall effusive, passionate words,
glances so eagerly, so timidly espied;
First meetings, last meetings;
the beloved strains of a quiet voice.

You remember parting with a strange smile;
You remember so much: so distant, so dear,
listening to the relentless murmur of wheels,
gazing, lost in thought, at the broad sky.

I know that Anna came to Moscow to study acting. She knows that I sent her to Moscow to learn Russian.

So, after class, we put on our coats, scarves and mittens, and head up Tverskaya (in my day called Gorkovskaya) Street, taking the words of the song apart: why the instrumental case in this phrase, the proper pronunciation of that unstressed o, and, finally, a bit about how (I think) this simple poem works.

Look here, Anna. Two things I like:

Turgenev, the poet, is remembering his past: faces, glances, words. But all of the verbs are in the second person. And (though this is lost in the translation), in Russian, the verbs are all in the future tense. Whose past are we talking about here?

This will happen to you, too.

And, notice that by the end of the poem, the past and present have intertwined: Did you smile strangely at the time of parting or do you smile strangely now recalling it?

That’s the way it feels to be back there and here at the same time.

Endless cars rush by us on Tverskaya/Gorkovskaya, as always. We talk over the din.

The foot traffic is pretty scary, too. Walking here demands your full attention.

Eyes straight ahead, no gazing at the sky.

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.