And then there are days when you read a short story by Nabokov and wonder why you haven’t yet read just about everything this man has written so far. It is my lightest day at work, Wednesday. Around 9 in the morning I click open a document called ‘Signs and symbols’, I read it and suddenly it is very clear to me that my day is not going to be ordinary. I smiled sheepishly to myself after I decided to take it to class. It wasn’t an easy choice. I had to brave terrible flashbacks about taking a piece that I really liked to a class, only to have the monsters butcher it in front my eyes while I look at them with menace and helplessness.
But I took it to class and had fun talking about the piece and the man. I was pleased to see that they were just as thrilled and confused as I had been. We talked about the story, the details and the sheer pleasure that is his narrative. He takes seemingly ordinary things in the world and weaves magic around them. It is not what he writes about as much as it is about the amount of detail he gives them, like they are his to write about. By evening I was so much in love with him and the world around me that it tired me to be so happy for so long. It wasn’t familiar.
The day continued to surprise me because I was on a Nabokov spree. After crying over ‘Signs and Symbols’, I read ‘Terror’ and ‘Razor’.
Some lines from the ‘Razor’ I wish I had the head to think of and write about:
‘One very hot, bluish summer morning, taking advantage of the nearly total absence of customers during those workaday hours, both of Ivanov’s colleagues took an hour off. Their employer, dying from the heat and from long-ripening desire, had silently escorted the pale, unresisting little manicurist to a back room. Left alone in the sun-drenched shop, Ivanov glanced through one newspaper, then lit a cigarette and, all in white, stepped outside the doorway and started watching the passersby.
People flashed past, accompanied by their blue shadows, which broke over the edge of the sidewalk and glided fearlessly underneath the glittering wheels of cars that left ribbonlike imprints on the heat-softened asphalt, resembling the ornate lacework of snakes’.
I have seen shadows, I am familiar with the concept, I am quite sure. I just never would have looked at one ‘gliding fearlessly’ even though that is what shadows do all the time. It’s as though he breathes life into things that I have seen before but will only notice after he writes about it. How much must this man have truly lived his life, in moments and in details, to write about it just the way they appear to us?
‘Then the following happened. The little eyes darted about, then suddenly shut tight, eyelids compressed like those of the savage who thought closing his eyes made him invisible’
Note here – he isn’t saying ‘a’ savage. He doesn’t know this savage. It’s the savage we are all only familiar with through pictures and stories. But look how Nabokov remembers the savage and does not forget the eyes and what they could mean when they are shut.
I read ‘Terror’ at The Parisian café amidst conversations about petrol prices and Sonia Gandhi and the BJP. I was amused at the spectacle that was before me but soon, I was reading these lines and Nabokov took me in his palm and placed me in front of this:
‘During the time I had been deep at work, I had grown disacquainted with myself, a sensation akin to what one may experience when meeting a close friend after years of separation: for a few empty, lucid, but numb moments you see him in an entirely different light even though you realize that the frost of this mysterious anaesthesia will presently wear off, and the person you are looking at will revive, glow with warmth, resume his old place, becoming again so familiar that no effort of the will could possibly make you recapture that fleeting sensation of estrangedness.
Yet next morning, while shaving, it would never occur to me to question the reality of my image’.
I’m not done yet.
‘I looked at houses and they had lost their usual meaning – that is, all that we think when looking at a house: a certain architectural style, the sort of rooms inside, ugly house, comfortable house- all this had evaporated, leaving nothing but an absurd shell, the same way an absurd sound is left after one has repeated sufficiently long the commonest word without heeding its meaning: house, howss, whowss. It was the same with trees, the same with people’.
Long before Ted Mosby finds the word ‘bowl’ absurd in ‘How I met your mother’, I discovered the numbness that such absurdity leaves one with long after the meaning has left the word. I did that with ‘pants’ and ‘green’. But to take a concept that is familiar to words and meaning and to be able to see the same familiarity with vision and thought is genius!
This craze for Nabokov is animated in part by my inability to write the way he does and to see the world in the way he does and also, in part, by hope that someday somebody sitting and smoking at a café will discover me the way I discovered Nabokov.
I have decided to read a bit of Nabokov everyday simply because the world seems lovable and liveable after a short story by Nabokov. And this has absolutely nothing to do with the love for humanity, which I think; fortunately, Nabokov doesn’t give a damn about. But just the exuberance of living amidst details and not noticing them until somebody holds your face gently with the roughest hands and steers it towards these details, beckoning you to look at them and listen to them and live in them.