Sunday, October 16, 2011

Five memoirs of identity, dislocation & belonging

Eva Hoffman was born in Krakow, Poland, and emigrated to America in her teens. She is the author of Lost in Translation, Exit Into History, Shtetl, The Secret, After Such Knowledge, and Appassionata, and the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Whiting Award, and an award from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters.

With Alec Ash at the Browser, Hoffman discussed "five striking memoirs of identity, dislocation & belonging," including:
Speak, Memory
by Vladimir Nabokov

Next is Nabokov’s memoir Speak, Memory. I gather Nabokov originally titled it Speak, Mnemosyne but his publisher complained that readers “would not buy a book whose title they could not pronounce”.

I can see how publishers would say that. This was written in fragments, parts of which appeared in The New Yorker. It is a memoir which emerged from exile. Nabokov was forced into exile after the Russian revolution. In 1920 he moved to Berlin, then to Paris and finally to America in 1940. The memoir is a reconstruction of his own life, but also of his lost world. He grew up in the most privileged circumstances imaginable, in a palatial house in St Petersburg, part of a very prosperous and aristocratic family. His father was a liberal statesman, and was assassinated in 1922 by a stray bullet meant for someone else at a political conference. But Nabakov had a very happy childhood. He was convincingly loved by both of his parents, what I think of as the “Oedipal winner”. He was nurtured, nourished and loved.

Then, exile – and all of this was utterly lost. His mother lived in very meagre circumstances in Prague. He was reduced to impoverishment himself, and had to give tennis and language lessons to support himself. Fortunately, he was good at tennis. His wife was Jewish, and as World War II approached there was an increasing sense of threat. That is why they eventually went to America. The memoir takes them up to the point of emigration, but really is about the old world. He claims the rights to his bit of ecological territory – I mean the human ecology. And the memoir constitutes an almost palpable reconstruction of that ecology, of a lost world, through the powers of language and memory.

The narrative bears similarities to yours in Lost in Translation and you share one of his chapter titles, “Exile”. Was it a strong influence?

I reread it as I was writing my memoir, and I love it for several reasons. First, it made me feel that it is possible to give written form to nostalgia. The lyrical affirmation of that was quite important to me. Secondly, his preoccupation with language. I kept looking for books which talk about language, and at the end of the book Nabokov has a dedication to the Russian language, or an invocation of it and his incredibly poignant loss of it. That gave me the courage to think that this was a subject I could write about. His memoir was mostly written in English, although I believe some parts were written in Russian first. He was brought up in English as much as in Russian. It was practically his first language. He came from a part of the Russian aristocracy that was very Anglophile.

Nabokov was important to me because in a sense he was a counterpart to my own situation, and perhaps even to my response to exile. He responded to exile with largesse. It’s triumphant. He always felt that he could assert his absolute originality. He didn’t need to belong to any group, even though he came from a certain background. And he didn’t need to define himself by larger circumstances. At one point he mentions the Russian revolution by the by, as if a terrible event but below the notice of his attention. So in a sense it was the opposite of the vexed struggle that I had with the condition of exile, and I loved it for that.

How crucial is the language one speaks to one’s sense of identity?

To me it was absolutely crucial. And what was crucial was not the particularities of Polish or English, but my relationship to the language. The relationship to your first language is very different to your relationships to subsequent languages, no matter how well you speak them. You learn the first language unconsciously, and it seems to stand for the things that it names. There is no distinction between the word and the thing. It has a kind of absoluteness that seems to emerge from yourself. It is very difficult to recreate that in subsequent languages, especially if one learns them later in life.

But this was very much what I wanted to recreate in English for myself. That was my project for quite a few years – for English to drop into my psyche, so that I didn’t feel a distance from it. Initially, for quite a long time, I felt it was a different self when I spoke English. I sympathise with Sartre’s self-creation through words, and the element of falseness and bad faith that it necessarily involves. I made the decision to write my diary in English when I still hardly knew English. It involves a very wilful self-creation.
Read about the other memoirs Hoffman tagged at The Browser.

Speak, Memory is one of Susan Cheever's favorite books.

--Marshal Zeringue