As I continue to buck the memoir trend and focus instead on mining my personal experience to enrich my fiction, I can still appreciate the work of real masters. Here I compare and contrast Virginia Woolf’s “A Sketch of the Past”, “Reminiscences”, “Hyde Park Gate” and “Old Bloomsbury” with Vladimir Nabokov’s “Speak, Memory”. When I think I can lay it out this evocatively and with these levels of power and grace, I may reconsider.
Vacuums only exist in the abstract and laboratories; they do not surround writers; they do not protect fragile human lives or psyches.
Much as anyone with a pen (or a keyboard) would like to throw up a force field to deflect the distractions of an unruly world, to wholly concentrate on the story, in reality that force field is porous and what oozes through can’t help but find its place on the page in one form or another. No story is hermetically sealed and that is even more the case for memoir.
Chaotic times breed memoir.
Primo Levi, Winston Churchill, Douglas MacArthur, and Elie Wiesel sat in the rubble and wrote, needing no walls because this world-shattering catastrophe was their story. But for others it was a backdrop and for some it was a very distant backdrop.
Both Virginia Woolf and Vladimir Nabokov were born towards the end of the nineteenth century so their lives were largely tempered and bent by the violence of the early twentieth century. Each was born to a position of some privilege saving them from the unspeakable fates of millions of others who were fed to the machine as the world tore itself apart.
Still they both developed strategies to protect their psyches and creativity in a hostile time. Their defense mechanisms differed and it’s fascinating to see the ways in which these worked or didn’t and how that colored what they put onto the page.
There are other differences as well. It matters that Woolf didn’t intend for her ponderings in “A Sketch of the Past”, “Reminiscences”, or “Old Bloomsbury” be published. These gathered bits of autobiographical puttering are more diary than memoir, especially “Sketch” which takes the form of entries that begin in April 1939. At the opening Woolf is taking a break from writing the biography of Roger Fry, the renowned painter and art critic, and she wants to avoid the pitfall of failed autobiographies, that “…leave out the person to whom things happened” (1). With this as her pole star she submerges herself in the past with a decided eye for the interior over the exterior Virginia. She is always behind her own eyes looking out at a perplexing and cruel world.
While the rumblings that would explode into The Great War were certainly being heard in England by now it’s not surprising that they didn’t seem to be shaking the ground under Woolf’s feet. Children are allowed to ignore political rantings and focus on what really matters. What really mattered to the young Virginia Stephen was an altogether different series of horrors: Her mother’s death followed all too quickly by that of her beloved elder stepsister, Stella, in 1895.
Through the memories of loss and pain, however, Woolf does pause to “Consider what immense forces society brings to play upon each of us, how that society changes from decade to decade; and also from class to class”. She is clear that “…if we cannot analyse these invisible presences, we know very little of the subject of the memoir; and again how futile life-writing becomes” (2). That said, there is only the briefest reference to the first World War in “Old Bloomsbury” when Woolf notes that “Before the war, I think we should most of us have said ‘Yes” [to Bedford Square having been included in Bloomsbury] (2).
Vladimir Nabokov was born almost two decades after Woolf, in 1899, but grew up in a similarly cushioned environment. His father’s involvement in anti-Tsarist politics of the day occasionally poked through although it’s the adult Nabokov and not the five year old Vladimir observing that in 1904 “Russia was fighting Japan” (3). Despite “The close of Russia’s disastrous campaign in the Far East” that was responsible for “furious internal disorders”, Nabokov’s mother brought her children back “to St. Petersburg after almost a year of foreign resorts” (3).
Even this level of upheaval could be deflected with the appropriate amount of wealth and mobility. From behind his protective walls, though, the young Nabokov did feel vibrations. The adult Nabokov acknowledges these tremors throughout with elliptical references to his father’s death. The first, and most cryptic, of these simply gives the date of March 28, 1922, and ends with “…when the telephone rang”(3). Only by reading further does one discover that Nabokov’s father was assassinated on that day and more astoundingly that Nabokov’s paternal grandfather died 18 years previously to the day (3).
“Speak, Memory” began its journey to full autobiographical status as an essay written while Nabokov was in exile in Paris in 1936. It resulted in a series of other essays that later became Chapter Five. Later, translated into English from French, it was published in the January 1943 issue of The Atlantic Monthly. More essays, articles and chapters grew haphazardly by way of translation into Russian and then re-translation into English. This bumpy, counter-intuitive approach to life-storytelling is similar to Woolf’s collection of autobiographical bits and pieces, but Nabokov meant for his pile of dates, places and descriptions to see the light of day and Woolf didn’t.
Nabokov is a lover of detail, intense and layered and almost suffocating in places. He can wander off into paroxysms of delight about certain species of butterfly that either did or did not escape his net. With an almost visibly furrowed brow he relates the complicated intricacies of thorny chess problems that, for him, were “…points of connection” with “…operations of the creative mind” (3). It’s interesting that he never expresses the composition, construction or solutions of these problems in military terms, a favored metaphor for generations of chess enthusiasts.
There is less a sense of his reminiscences being colored by the violent history happening around him than of jagged pieces of it thrusting up through the almost saccharine loveliness of his childhood. As a boy of six, he rebelled against the pacific rhetoric being read to him by a teacher:
…in angry defense of my world of toy pistols and Arthurian knights. Under Lenin’s regime, when all non-Communist radicals were ruthlessly persecuted, [that teacher] was sent to a hard-labor camp but managed to escape abroad and died in Narva in 1939 (3).
Later, in the middle of a paragraph about having opened Christmas stockings before his mother wished and causing her terrible distress, there is this weirdly streamed bit of reminiscence:
A decade passed. World War One started. A crowd of patriots and my uncle Ruka stone the German Embassy. Peterburg was sunk to Petrograd against all the rules of nomenclatorial priority. Beethoven turned out to be Dutch. The newsreels showed photogenic explosions, the spasm of cannon, Poincaré in his leathern leggings, bleak puddles, the poor little Tsarevich in Circassian uniform with dagger and cartridges, his tall sisters so dowdily dressed, long railway trains crammed with troops (3).
There is no paragraph break to indicate a move from that long ago Christmas to the madness of revolution and Nabokov ties it all together with recollections of his mother having set up a private hospital for wounded soldiers.
The young aristocrat wasn’t completely sheltered even then but he had walls of words to stand between himself and the horrors. He had poetry, butterflies, and a series of tutors to harass.
Woolf’s own sense of personal loss was on a scale she saw as cosmological.
To her eyes her mother and sister “…were sun and moon to each other; my mother the positive and definite; Stella the reflecting and satellite.”. When her mother died in 1895 Virginia was thirteen and, “It was Stella who lifted the canopy again. A little light crept in”. To lose Stella only two years later shoved the outer world even further away putting a selfish and grief-maddened father directly between his children and what was happening outside the closed doors and drapes at 24 Hyde Park Gate (4).
Dating each entry marks the sporadic progress of this memoir. Jumping along from April of 1939 with short entries along the way throughout that summer, suddenly almost a year elapses. Now it’s June, 1940 and she’s in the process of “correcting the final page proofs of Roger” (1) when a first ominous note arises:
The battle is at its crisis; every night the Germans fly over England; it comes closer to this house daily. If we are beaten then — however we solve that problem, and one solution is apparently suicide (so it was decided three nights ago in London among us) — book writing becomes doubtful. But I wish to go on, not to settle down in that dismal puddle (1).
The walls have now been breached.
Flooding into this mildly melancholic nostalgia comes a nightly barrage of bombs that threatens physical life, but worse, book writing. Even with a history of breakdowns and depression, even with that suicide pact made in London, Woolf means to keep writing.
The next entry is at the end of June and brings the terrible news the “…the French have stopped fighting. Today the dictators dictate their terms to France”. Having nodded in the direction of the breach, however, Woolf goes on “Meanwhile, on this very hot morning, with a blue bottle buzzing and a toothless organ grinding and the men calling strawberries in the square, I sit in my room at 37 M[ecklenbrugh] S[quare] and turn to my father” (4).
The walls may have been compromised but Woolf works her father into the gap as, later in July, she mutters that “Invasion still impends. My book is out; and jaded and distracted I return to this free page”. War, chaos, and destruction press against her defenses but she turns her attention to “The sociable father then I never knew” (5).
Nabokov, for his part, continues to circle back to his father throughout his memoir in a way that illustrates perfectly his philosophy of “The spiral is a spiritualized circle….uncoiled, unwound, has ceased to be vicious; it has been set free” (3). A first glimmer of memory is of his father in “…the trappings of his old regiment as a festive joke” (3), setting an early military note. Spiraling through so many pockets of unrest and trouble the sense of bad things to come is borne out by this flat statement:
Vladimir Dmitrievich Nabokov, jurist, publicist and statesman, son of Dmitri Nikolaevich Nabokov, Minister of Justice, and Baroness Maria von Korff, was born on July 20, 1870, at Tsarskoe Selo near St. Petersburg, and was killed by an assassin’s bullet on March 28, 1922, in Berlin (3).
The elder Nabokov’s mother despaired of him, for having scorned “…the kind of ‘brilliant’ career in the Tsar’s service his forefathers had pursued”, that he should become a “Liberal, thus helping to bring on a revolution that would, in the long run, as she correctly foresaw, leave him a pauper” (3).
Looking back from his adopted land and on the other side of exile, Nabokov wonders that:
…no shadow was cast by that future event [his father’s assassination in 1922] upon the bright stairs of our St. Petersburg house; the large, cool hand resting on my head did not quaver, and several lines of play in a difficult chess composition were not blended yet on the board (3).
The hum of disruption in the background doesn’t come into the forefront of Nabokov’s story until the twelfth of fourteen chapters and, shockingly, there it is: “….the Bolsheviks immediately subordinated everything to the retention of power, and a regime of bloodshed, concentration camps, and hostages entered upon its stupendous career” (3). Nabokov’s mother and siblings go to the Crimea for what they believe will simply be another of many similar trips to sidestep trouble after which they will return to their normal lives.
This is, of course, the end of what Nabokov calls “…the small curve or arc that initiates the convolution centrally” at the beginning of his spiraled life (3). After this, his insulated world of netting splendid butterflies and composing passionate verse collapses and his feet don’t touch bottom for years to come. What had been something unpleasant along the periphery, what had bent the tone of his memories like a prism does the light, now takes its place in the center of the story. He is in exile and regardless of how intricate and beautiful the chess problems he invents become, what the characters in his novels do and don’t do, he can’t re-spark his force field.
He is at the mercy of a world on the brink of unprecedented insanity and destruction.
In contrast, while Woolf’s walls are weakened, they do hold. On August 18th, 1940 she almost shrugs that “…five German raiders passed so close over Monks House that they brushed the tree at the gate. But being alive today, and having a waste hour on my hands…I will go on with this loose story” (1). A near-final reference to the war opens her entry of 22nd September when, as an aside, she notes that “…we think of weather now as it affects invasions, as it affects raids, not as weather that we like or dislike privately…”(1).
It is what has been happening within the confines of her force field that has done the damage. Here she muses upon those two devastating deaths; her mother’s followed so soon after by Stella’s:
Not many lives were tortured and fretted and made numb with non-being as ours were then. That, in shorthand, was the legacy of those two great unnecessary blunders; those two lashes of the random unheeding, unthinking flail that brutally and pointlessly killed the two people who should have made those years normal and natural, if not ‘happy’. (5)
Wealth and connections, geographic distance and the happy accident of not having been born Jewish in that time saved these two very different personalities from being overtly and horribly mangled by the conflagration that engulfed the world in the first half of the twentieth century.
But nobody rides for free and there is no defense against that “random unheeding, unthinking flail” regardless of how rich an inner life one might possess.
What resonates and what remains are the various ways each survivor internalizes, interprets and explains the chaos to themselves and to the world.
What cannot be done is to fully separate the inner and outer world.
(1) — Woolf, Virginia. Sketches of the Past.
(2) — Woolf, Virginia. Old Bloomsbury.
(3) — Nabokov, Vladimir. Speak, Memory.
(4) — Woolf, Virginia. Reminiscences.
(5) — Woolf, Virginia. Moments of Being.
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