The last lines of Nabokov’s poem, “An Evening of Russian Poetry”.
Vladimir Nabokov, or VN for short, shared his autobiographies with me last night in the form of collected, bound words entitled Speak, Memory. Originally, he considered titling the book The Anthemion, which is the name of a honeysuckle ornament consisting of elaborate interlacements and budding clusters, but it didn’t resonate as richly with his friends or editors.
Memory speaks to him in “comets and eclipses” (see this excerpt for details). I’d forgotten how thick and tactile VN’s descriptions can be- the heady, scented details of childhood conjure everything except the adult version of the moment. When he describes in intimate detail the horrors of bedtime, the thudding fear of the moment when his nanny would finish her reading and turn out the light in her room thus transforming his world in the terrors of pitch black, I remember a grade-school, flannel-clad Alina fearing the moment when he dad would turn off the hall light- the wide-awakeness of the interval between that first darkness and the assurance of his slumber which allowed her to sneak out and turn the light back on. My childhood bedtimes, like VN’s, stand out for the vivid demons and shadowed strangers, undistracted by chains of prayers and guardian angels, those messengers of restlessness which selected me as medium while ignoring everyone else in my family.
VN revisits his childhood terrors with the sanguine complacencency of an adult who has grown accustomed to his “bedtime ordeal”:
“All my life I have been a poor go-to-sleeper. People in trains, who lay their newspaper aside, fold their silly arms, and immediately, with an offensive familiarity of demeanor, start snoring, amaze me as much as the uninhibited chap who cozily defecates in the presence of a chatty tubber, or participates in huge demonstrations, or joins some union in order to dissolve it. Sleep is the most moronic fraternity in the world, with the heaviest dues and the crudest rituals. It is a mental torture I find debasing. The strain and drain of composition often force me, alas, to swallow a strong pill that gives me an hour or two of frightful nightmares or even to accept the comic relief of a midday snooze, the way a senile rake might totter to the nearest enthusiasm; but I simply cannot get used to the nightly betrayal of reason, humanity, genius. No matter how great my weariness, the wretch of parting with consciousness is unspeakably repulsive to me….”
Dear VN. You can imagine how comforting this was to read at 1:30 am last night if you are the kind of woman who finds sleeping pills and their attendant hallucinations more uncomfortable than a cumulative sleep deficit. Maybe I’ll have time to catch up on all that sleep I missed when I’m comfortably nestled in a coffin. How to explain or understand this insomnia which only disappears as if by magic when I am pregnant? Does the existence of a sleep-loving life within me affect my sleep cycle? In the world of bedtimes, pregnancy makes me like you- a contented member of the go-to-sleep crowd unmolested by strange messengers and dim fugues. Having known both worlds makes it impossible to choose between them.