On stage, I normally I read from my own fiction. I have read nonfiction pieces before—at Freerange Nonfiction and Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood—but the pieces there were essays from my life. The one I read last night started out as though it were, then veered into travelogue territory.
Here’a a bit of it, about the Nabokov Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia:
. . . They had Nabokov’s typewriter, under glass. I found myself staring at it stupidly for several long moments—hoping, I suppose, to witness sparks. It was an ancient well-worn thing, an upright L.C. Smith with Cyrillic keys. I soon realized I was only staring at a thing, a typewriter. It was what the Roman Catholics consider a relic of the second class. I didn’t have any visions of greatness or a sense of how Nabokov wrote. I did notice, however, that he must have hit the spacebar in a heavy, almost brutal manner because it was badly bent. There were also his papers: he wrote on index cards, much as he had described the poet as doing in Pale Fire. The cards didn’t have scribbled corrections on them, however—there wasn’t the sense of a writer at work; each note was a little finished piece, encased in Nabokovian precision, confirming his reputation as the world’s preeminent fussy man. I learned he played Scrabble and imagined what a terror he must have been to play against—and how petulant he would have been, had anyone beaten him in that game.
Visitors aren’t allowed upstairs to see his former bedroom nor are they allowed in any of the areas where the family lived and slept. The upper floors were a newspaper office and supposedly little of what was up there was original. We trapped in the Nabokov family reception area—it was as if we had handed our visiting card to the butler and had been told that young Vladimir wasn’t “at home.”
But isn’t that the way it should be—what exactly is there to see at a writer’s house? Upstairs, we wouldn’t have seen Vladimir’s teenage writer dreams, unless of course, there had been dioramas of them at the Museum of Dreams. [My note:There is such a thing in St. Petersburg; it’s referred to earlier, in the essay] With writers, there isn’t an opportunity for a Hard Rock Café equivalent: a writer has a few dreary notes and a dirty typewriter or laptop. It’s what in writer’s words where the great sights are, not in the things one would hang on the walls of some third-rate restaurant.
And what is there to learn from typewriters and a discarded Scrabble board? The only thingness we require of writers is their bound books—and perhaps not even that, as works are being transferred to the Kindles and Nooks.
I think Nabokov would have agreed. After all, he wrote in Speak, Memory “How small the cosmos (a kangaroo’s pouch would hold it), how paltry and puny in comparison to human consciousness, to a single individual recollection, and its expression in words!” . . .
. . . and so on. In the audience, I met a man who said he’d read Pale Fire 17 or 18 times. I’ve only read it twice. And not in years.
Anyway, I think the reading went well.