Cradling the Abyss

Vladimir Nabokov died on this day in 1977. Nabokov spent his last years in Montreux, Switzerland, the last of the many hotel-residences in which he and his wife lived. Tended by Vera and their only child, Dmitri, Nabokov had been in and out of hospitals for some time and, as told in the biographies, the ailing lepidopterist knew a migration when he saw one:

Parting from his father for the second to last time, Dmitri kissed his forehead as he always did for a goodbye or a goodnight. Nabokov's eyes suddenly welled with tears. When Dmitri asked him why, he replied that a certain butterfly was already on the wing, and his eyes made clear that he expected never to see it again. (Brian Boyd's Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years)

Having been displaced from Russia by revolutionary politics, Nabokov said that his only enduring inheritance was the "unreal estate" of memory and art; the following, a pre-memory presaging displacement and exile, is from the opening pages of Speak, Memory, Nabokov's memoir of his early decades (#8 on the Modern Library Top 100 nonfiction list):

The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness. Although the two are identical twins, man, as a rule, views the prenatal abyss with more calm than the one he is heading for (at some forty-five hundred heartbeats an hour). I know, however, of a young chronophobiac who experienced something like panic when looking for the first time at homemade movies that had been taken a few weeks before his birth. He saw a world that was practically unchanged -- the same house, the same people -- and then realized that he did not exist there at all and that nobody mourned his absence. He caught a glimpse of his mother waving from an upstairs window, and that unfamiliar gesture disturbed him, as if it were some mysterious farewell. But what particularly frightened him was the sight of a brand-new baby carriage standing there on the porch, with the smug, encroaching air of a coffin; even that was empty, as if, in the reverse course of events, his very bones had disintegrated.

 


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch is the winner of the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. James Parker calls this Dickensian coming-of-age novel "an enveloping…

advertisement
Books, CDs, DVDs to know about now
Poems That Make Grown Men Cry

And women too.  Luminaries from Colin Firth to Nick Cave and Jonathan Franzen chose the poems that bring them to tears, and the result is a stunning collection of poignant verse from writers like Auden, Whitman, Bishop, Larkin, Neruda and many others.  Warning: choking-up hazard.

The King of Pain

Trapped beneath his entertainment system, reality TV mastermind Rick Salter reflects on his life and tries to piece together the events of the previous evening. Seth Kaufman’s romp is an outrageous meditation on pain and entertainment in a deranged world in which the two are often interchangeable.

The Good Inn

Frank Black, frontman for the Pixies, has written a transgressive historical fiction with shades of Thomas Pynchon (focused as it is on the history of explosives and cinematic pornography), all set in a hallucinatory Edwardian Europe.