More Nabokov Memories, And a Couple of My Own

In several of R.A. Lafferty’s unclassifiable novels there are quotes from an imaginary author named Armand Arputinov.  Arputinov’s imaginary book was entitled “The Back-door of History”.   Back-doors to history can come from autobiographies; take a gander at this quote from Vladimir Nabokov’s memoir “Speak, Memory”:

…On the same day, at a waterside cafe′, my father happened to notice, just as we were being served, two Japanese officers at a table near us, and we immediately left — not without me hastily snatching a whole bombe of lemon sherbet, which I carried away secreted in my aching mouth.  The year was 1904.  I was five.  Russia was fighting Japan.  With hearty relish, the English illustrated weekly Miss Norcott subscribed to reproduced war pictures by Japanese artists that showed how the Russian locomotives — made singularly toylike by the Japanese pictorial style — would drown if our Army tried to lay rails across the treacherous ice of Lake Baikal.

But let me see.  I had an earlier association with that war.  One afternoon at the beginning of the same year, in our St. Petersburg house, I was led down from the nursery into my father’s study to say how-do-you-do to a friend of the family, General Kuropatkin.  His thickset, uniform-encased body creaking slightly, he spread out to amuse me a handful of matches, on the divan where he was sitting, placed ten of them end-to-end to make a horizontal line, and said “This is the sea in calm weather.”  Then he tipped up each pair so as to turn the straight line into a zigzag — and that was “a stormy sea.”  He scrambled the matches and was about to do, I hoped, a better trick when we were interrupted.  His aid-de-camp was shown in and and said something to him.  With a Russian, flustered grunt, Kuropatkin heavily rose from his seat, the loose matches jumping up on the divan as his weight left it.  That day, he had been ordered to assume supreme command of the Russian Army in the Far East.

This incident had a special sequel fifteen years later, when at a certain point of my father’s flight from Bolshevik-held St. Petersburg to southern Russia he was accosted while crossing a bridge, by an old man who looked like a gray-bearded peasant in his sheepskin coat.  He asked my father for a light.  The next moment each recognized the other.  I hope old Kuropatkin, in his rustic disguise, managed to evade Soviet imprisonment, but that is not the point.  What pleases me is the evolution of the match theme: those magic ones he had shown me had been trifled with and mislaid, and his armies had also vanished, and everything had fallen through, like my toy trains that, in the winter of 1904-05, in Wiesbaden, I tried to run over the frozen puddles in the grounds of the Hotel Oranien.  The following of such thematic designs should be, I think, the true purpose of autobiography.

This passage, I think, is a wonderful example of a gifted writer attempting to make sense of his life.  Thinking about this fragment of a memoir made me try to recollect what was going on in my life when I was five years old.   The year was 1959…

The town was Hutchinson, Kansas, a mid-sized town in the southeastern quadrant of the state.  A flat town with salt-mine caverns beneath and sandburs in the yards.  I remember the launch of the Soviet Sputnik satellite, but being so young I had no idea of the geopolitical significance of the event.  The image which remains in my mind is a trivial one, but here it is, for what it’s worth:

My father was a partner in an up-and-coming business, a new type of business during those optimistic post-war years: TV repair and sales.  Television was new back then, and not everyone had one of those primitive black-and-white small-screen TVs.  In recent years my father told his progeny about the old ladies who would come by the shop during the afternoon to watch soap operas.

But back to the vivid memory: my father came home from work one day with the day’s newspaper.  He held out the front page and said “Larry, look at this!”  A large black-and-white photo was displayed there of a grinning young man with a “Sputnik haircut”, a tonsorial oddity consisting of gelled-together spikes radiating from the man’s scalp, evidently in imitation of the Sputnik satellite’s antennae.

Many years later my ex-wife Betsy and I were invited to eat dinner at a couple’s house just a few miles from our Knox County home.   The man’s name was Roland, and he had been a science teacher for many years in nearby Quincy, Illinois.  I remember Roland telling me:

“Man, the early sixties was just wonderful for science teachers!  The Space Race was on and their were just scads of federal funding for science education.  I was paid to get my master’s degree.  It hasn’t ever been the same since then!”




Filed under Books, Recollections

2 responses to “More Nabokov Memories, And a Couple of My Own

  1. Darrell

    Re Nabokov and Sputnik (Sputnik first however). Roland must have been on to something, or maybe funding did materialize eventyally . . BUT at Eugene Field in ca. ’56-’58, I felt like the Little-Kid-who-smelled-bad because of my mania for “space science” . . . I was being urged by teachers and classmates alike to give it up and do something practical (like follow the set curriculum). I had to fight to school to do my own space science. Eventually this tended to wear me down and I gave it up by the time I was in high school (’58-’61). I soon drifted into firearms technology, something that proved to be a job getter as a sales manager in a large L.A. gunstore, and then as an associate editor with Guns and Ammo. But “space science ” did come back in a way because I ended up training folks in anti-ballistic missile technology. And none of this was ever taught by the local school curriculum. So, much of the Missouri school curriculum – from Field School to the Univ of Mo. – was a career bust for me. It’s an ironic world we dwell in, as Nabokov wrote.

    As for VN . . wasn’t Lolita a jr high aged problem child as well? Seriously . . I’m asking? I don’t know.

  2. Yeah, Darrell, Lolita in VN’s novel was about twelve. The first-person narrator, Humbert Humbert, was obsessed with the girl and crazy to boot, a classic example of an “unreliable narrator.

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