Saturday, November 14, 2009

The Wandering Spector of the Revolution

The Nabokovs

When I was 21 I moved from Washington D.C. to Los Angeles, California. Upon arrival, I entered a totally alien world. Los Angeles felt like a foreign country, more foreign than many of the real foreign countries I had previously visited. In some ways it felt like another planet. Greater Los Angeles had exotic plant life like palm trees, exotic homes (all homes occupied a single level, no matter how grand), and exotic weather (winter—a staple of life up until that moment--somehow disappeared altogether and I ended up going hiking on Christmas Eve). In California one ran into magnificent beaches, washed up movie stars delivering Chinese food, mountains, and deserts. Still ostensibly in America, I was now a few hours from surreal locales like Tijuana, Barstow, Santa Monica, and Las Vegas.

I lived first in Santa Monica and then in Westwood, but I worked in Hollywood, which seemed to be the epicenter of the bizarre universe I had unwittingly entered. I was here on a fluke—my girlfriend had moved and I had followed her on a whim—and that made everything more interesting, more jarring. Each day I drove to work on Sunset Avenue, scene of so many movies and television shows that had, up until now, seemed to be located in a fantasy landscape. I started my drive in Beverly Hills—the show was in full swing at the time and defined the place for me—and drove past enormous landscapes on a winding road, past the Beverly Hills Hotel, past the enormous billboards featured on Entourage, and into Hollywood. My job was located at Sunset and LaBrea, at a post-production studio, something I had never heard of until I landed the interview through a friend of a friend. The place was directly across from the Seventh Veil, a strip joint, and crack addicts regularly strolled the alley behind it.

I left Los Angeles abruptly, dramatically--moving back across the length of the country to Washington, D.C. My departure from alien Los Angeles was so abrupt that, for many years (and sometimes even now), I vividly imagined that my old life in L.A. was continuing, even as one part of me set up shop again thousands of miles away on the East Coast. Years later, I sometimes still wonder how my Los Angeles persona is getting on. I figure he has gotten a few promotions, and is no longer working for $9 dollars an hour. I am in sales now, no doubt, living in a cheaper suburb, enjoying the weather, etc. As I write this, I figure Californian Derek is probably on Facebook, and I should certainly attempt to “friend” him. He’s out there somewhere—unless he too has moved by now. Or perhaps he has already died. And come to think of it, doesn't death work according to the same principle of doubleness: what are ghosts if not evidence of rupture and the multiplicity of plot lines that emanate from the same point of origin?

I think all history is like that. I think ruptures (especially traumatic ones) don’t really end lives, they just multiply them. In Russia, these ruptures were commonplace, and severe. The Revolution of 1917 was the ultimate break in continuity. Thus it is that many Russians continued to believe for decades that the Old Russia was still alive and well, living its life quietly and uneventfully. If the tsar and his family were brutally murdered in a basement, many believed for a very long time that at least one or two of the children had managed to escape and had escaped abroad, waiting to return to Russia to reestablish the old way of life. It’s seems quite probably that there is a Romanov somewhere still hoping to return to the thrown—and who can say with certainty that he won’t?

The Russian Diaspora (perhaps all exile communities work this way) lived a rich double life, setting up show in alien worlds—Prague, Berlin, Paris, New York—even as they enjoyed making contact with ongoing pre-revolutionary life of their alternative personas. Bunin and Nabokov expressed this feeling of temporal bifurcation in two totally different literary styles, but the mood was the same: the Old Life still existed. When Nabokov’s protagonist enters a Russian food shop, it’s a “kind of wax museum of the old country’s cuisine.” Most poignantly, Nabokov—like all those who allow themselves to acknowledge the existence of double (or a multiplicity of) lives, imagines a homecoming to Russia, where his childhood goes on, unencumbered by political reality, economic transformation, violence, or indeed his present life as an exile. He imagines walking around his family’s old estate, noticing the changes that have occurred to the place over time. The idea of re-capturing the past (however frustrating or illusive) is, he says, the thing that makes “the business of exile worth cultivating.”

It’s childhood, above all, that continues to live for Nabokov. The Revolution came during his childhood with unexpected fury and violence, and thus that childhood can’t evolve or disappear. It lives on. Nabokov sometimes says that he recognizes that it’s futile to recapture that which has disappeared, but his whole work testifies to the contrary. His childhood is more vivid in his books than it must have been when it occurred. As Nabokov writes in the Gift: “Thus a former impression keeps living within harmony’s ice.”

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