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Thursday, 13 May 2010

Night Train (III): Vladimir Nabokov


File:Train station with train and coal depot  by Gustave Le  Gray1.jpg

Train station with train and coal depot: photo by Gustave Le Gray, n.d.: scanned by Uno Lindstrom, 2006 (Victor von Gegerfelt Collection)


It was at night that the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits et des Grands Express Européene lived up to the magic of its name. From my bed under my brother's bunk (Was he asleep? Was he there at all?), in the semidarkness of our compartment, I watched things, and parts of things, and shadows, and sections of shadows cautiously moving about and getting nowhere. The woodwork gently creaked and crackled. Near the door that led to the toilet, a dim garment on a peg and, higher up, the tassel of the blue, bivalved nightlight swung rhythmically. It was hard to correlate those halting approaches, that hooded stealth, with the headlong rush of the outside night, which I knew was rushing by, spark-streaked, illegible.

I would put myself to sleep by the simple act of identifying myself with the engine driver. A sense of drowsy well-being invaded my veins as soon as I had everything nicely arranged -- the carefree passengers in their rooms enjoying the ride I was giving them, smoking, exchanging knowing smiles, nodding, dozing; the waiters and cooks and train guards (whom I had to place somewhere) carousing in the diner; and myself, goggled and begrimed, peering out the engine cab at the tapering track, at the ruby or emerald point in the black distance. And then, in my sleep, I would see something totally different -- a glass marble rolling under a grand piano or a toy engine lying on its side with its wheels still working gamely.

A change in the speed of the train sometimes interrupted the current of my sleep. Slow lights were stalking by; each, in passing, investigated the same chink, and then a luminous compass measured the shadows. Presently, the train stopped with a long-drawn Westinghousian sigh. Something (my brother's spectacles, as it proved next day) fell from above. It was marvelously exciting to move to the foot of one's bed, with part of the bedclothes following, in order to undo cautiously the catch of the window shade, which could be made to slide only halfway up, impeded as it was by the edge of the upper berth.

Like moons around Jupiter, pale moths revolved about a lone lamp. A dismembered newspaper stirred on a bench. Somewhere on the train one could hear muffled voices, somebody's comfortable cough. There was nothing particularly interesting in the portion of station platform before me, and still I could not tear myself away from it until it departed on its own accord.

Next morning, wet fields with misshapen willows along the radius of a ditch or a row of poplars afar, traversed by a horizontal band of milk-white mist, told one that the train was spinning through Belgium.

Vladimir Nabokov: from Speak, Memory, 1950


Curtis Roberts said...

It’s the most remarkable thing to read exact descriptions of things you’ve felt and to see images publicly that you’ve seen privately, awake or in dreams.

“From my bed under my brother's bunk (Was he asleep? Was he there at all?), in the semidarkness of our compartment, I watched things, and parts of things”.

Putting myself to sleep “by the simple act of identifying myself with the engine driver” is something that’s often worked for me and I think I’ll try to do it again shortly.

Can’t wait to read to other two entries, but they might keep me awake, which wouldn’t be good after today and in view of tomorrow.

TC said...

Well, Curtis, I do hope you've had a good night's sleep, regardless.

If so, I envy you.

I've tried that engine driver trick, along with every other trick in the books.

None of them has ever worked.

About the images, I marvel at the specificity of Nabokov's memories.

I know they were the product of long sessions of writerly mnemonic concentration.

But, keeping in mind the lesson imparted in "Crying Wolf" (you will recall it, a few posts below this one), I have wondered whether he did not invent a detail or two here and there.

Wondrous either way.

TC said...

... well, I will concede he was talking about "fiction", there.

Still, the sentence I cannot get out of my head is the last one in that post: "He was the inventor".

Observation is observation, a secondary art in Nabokov's view; and memory is memory, a primary one for him.

Fiction, or what he calls invention, seems to have existed somewhere beyond the two, though at times I have suspected that for him it was sometimes (as here) in the middle, like a slightly confused dog running back and forth between two masters.



Great to read these three, after a (pretty good) night's sleep, and have time to read them (Johnny still asleep in the bed beside me (time to wake him up for school), crows calling in the field out the window. . . .

TC said...

How well one recalls those crows, from the long early morning rambles down from the mesa, out along the lagoon...

The crows here are in perpetual turf-warring bickering battle with the bluejays, evidently over who shall have dominion over the great redwood tree out front (it is 104+ years old, won by a woman who lived here then, as a potted plant at the '06 World's Fair).

The crows, of course, win out.

They are not in residence here like the bluejays, they just seem to show up. A big shopping street down the block draws them, with heaping public garbage cans, often not emptied for days on end.

And on the freeway feeder out front they sometimes pause to snack on road kill.

Ah, city life. Nature red and pink in tooth and claw on grey concrete and asphalt.