Sunday, November 6, 2011

Speak, Memory by Vladimir Nabokov

All my life I have been a poor go-to-sleeper. People in trains, who lay their newspaper aside, fold their silly arms, and immediately, with an offensive familiarity of demeanor, start snoring, amaze me as much as the uninhibited chap who cozily defecates in the presence of a chatty tubber, or participates in huge demonstrations, or joins some union in order to dissolve in it.

Sleep is the most moronic fraternity in the world, with the heaviest dues and the crudest rituals. It is a mental torture I find debasing. The strain and drain of composition often force me, alas, to swallow a strong pill that gives me an hour or two of frightful nightmares or even to accept the comic relief of a midday snooze, the way a senile rake might totter to the nearest euthanasium; but I simply cannot get used to the nightly betrayal of reason, humanity, genius. No matter how great my weariness, the wrench of parting with consciousness is unspeakably repulsive to me.

I loath Somnus, that black-masked headsman binding me to the block; and if in the course of years, with the approach of a far more thorough and still more risible disintegration, which nowanights, I confess, detracts much from the routine terrors of sleep, I have grown to accustomed to my bedtime ordeal as almost to swagger while the familiar ax is coming out of its great velvet-lined double-base case, initially I had no such comfort or defense: I had nothing- except one token light in the potentially refulgent chandelier of Mademoiselle [my Nanny’s] bedroom, whose door, by our family doctor’s decree (I salute you, Dr. Sokolov!), remained slightly ajar. Its vertical line of lambency (which a child’s tears could transform into dazzling rays of compassion) was something I could cling to, since in absolute darkness my head would swim and my mind melt in a travesty of the death struggle.

In 1908, the year selected here, I still shared a nursery withy my brother. The bathroom assigned to Mademoiselle was at the end of a Z-shaped corridor some twenty heartbeats’ distance from my bed, and between dreading her premature return from the bathroom to her lighted bedroom next to our nursery and envying my brother’s regular little wheeze behind the japanned screen separating us, I could never really put my additional time to profit getting to sleep while a chink in the dark still bespoke a speck of myself in nothingness. At lengthy they would come, those inexorable steps, plodding along the passage and causing some fragile glass object, which had been secretly sharing my vigil, to vibrate in dismay on its shelf.

Now she has entered the room. A brisk interchange of light values tells me that the candle on her bed table takes over the job of the ceiling cluster of bulbs, which, having run up with a couple of clicks two additional steps of natural, and then supernatural brightness, clicks off altogether. My line of light is still there, but it has grown old and wan, and flickers whenever Mademoiselle makes her bed creak by moving. For I still hear her. Now it is a silvery rustle spelling “Suchard”, now the trk-trk-trk of a fruit knife cutting the pages of La Revue des Deux Mondes. A period of decline has started: she is reading Bourget. Not one word of his will survive him. Doom is nigh. I am in acute distress, desperately trying to coax sleep, opening my eyes every few seconds to check the faded gleam, and imagining paradise as a place where a sleepless neighbor reads an endless book by the light of an eternal candle.

The inevitable happens: the pince-nez case shuts with a snap, the review shuffles onto the marble of the bed table, and gustily Mademoiselle’s pursed lips blow; the first attempt fails, a groggy flame squirms and ducks; then comes a second lunge, and light collapses. In that pitchy blackness I lose my bearings, my bed seems to be slowly drifting, panic makes me sit up and stare; finally my dark-adapted eyes sift out, among entoptic floaters, certain more precious blurrings that roam in aimless amnesia until, half-remembering, they settle down as the dim folds of window curtains behind which street lights are remotely alive.

How utterly foreign to the troubles of the night were those exciting St. Petersburg mornings when the fierce and tender, damp and dazzling artic spring bundled away broken ice down the sea-bright Neva…!

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