Friday, August 19, 2011

Memory speaks above an abyss

Falling in love is a favorite pastime of exiles, those for whom "home" can only be visited in memory, not topographically. Whenever I go back to Long Island and see the house where I grew up I get all shook up. The frame of the building may be the same but I am forced to reject the actuality of it. The image I carry in my memory overwhelms me. The structure I see in the present is emphatically not the house I remember. I stare at the modest Cape Cod, the vinyl siding, the two dormers, the professionally landscaped front yard. Hah! -- professionally landscaped, the realtors' phrase. No, it is not the house I grew up in. That house no longer exists.

Nabokov was born in St. Petersburg, Russia and carried that place with him all his life, kept in his pocket like a vial of earth. Where it could be fingered like a rabbit's foot. Exiles have to re-plant themselves in the soil of their youth. Even Dracula brought Transylvanian dirt to England so he could rest his casket in it. We love the homes we are forced to leave, hence we memorialize them. Then, of course, we allow our memories to play tricks with them, on us.

My friend T. grew up in Queens Village in a neighborhood that no longer exists, despite the fact that the names of the streets are the same as they were fifty years ago. 223rd Street, 222nd Street, 101st Avenue. Go on Google Maps. Click on satellite view. From the sky you can see that the streets are still there. So is Belmont Park, the Belt Parkway (or is it the Cross-Island? -- we used the two names interchangeably back then), and Hempstead Avenue. I loved that place, the smoky attic full of music, the delicious smells from the kitchen, the Baldwin Organ on the enclosed porch. Falling in love is a favorite pastime of exiles. "Be careful," said Quist, "It causes poetry even as it staunches the flow of blood to the brain."

Nabokov, nearly a scientist, so good at identifying butterflies and moths, superb at languages, exacting in his prose, busied himself constructing characters out of words, oddballs for whom identity proves to be a puzzle, or, worse, a mistaken case. They slip and slither across time's greased causeway, get waylaid at tourist traps, in hot pursuit of their obscure objects of desire, en route to falling flatly in love. Once love is captured, it's all over. You sit on the edge of a unmade bed in a rented room smelling vaguely of disinfectant staring off into space. The shower is running. The radio is on. Nothing can make you whole.

Years ago, I walked around Queens, a middle class savage from Elmont one generation removed from poverty. I wasn't quite at home nor was I a complete stranger. But I knew that I couldn't afford to take a touristic approach to the world I was passing through. I didn't have the will. Nor could I go back and be the untamed boy tripping over the surface of things -- not only unaware of death, but unmindful of others -- coddled by parents who told him how great he was, how great he would be. No one ever kicked me out of my home. (The one that no longer exists.) But I didn't need to be told that I couldn't stay.

T. and I still read slowly, parsing each sentence, plumbing the depths of meaning. We haven't reached bottom yet. We believe that all things carry a message, even if we don't get it at first. If you're as impatient (and homeless) as Nabokov, you translate what you see into your own symbols, whether they make sense to others or not. You create an international style, carefree, despairing, modern. You live in Switzerland. You dismiss Dostoevsky, Freud, Faulkner, and the rest. And you seduce others into agreeing with you in believing that self-created puzzles are the only ones we can expect to solve.

When T. refers to himself in the here and now as opposed to the man he was years ago, he points out, "In the most real and philosophical sense this is not the same person." For us, words are tools, the pliers one uses to extract the living heart from a dying animal, again and again and again. Quist laughed at me when I used that metaphor. "Don't make it sound so dramatic, poot. Life will go on without you understanding it."

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