Chapter 1: 1923
[c. 26 July 1923]
[Domaine de Beaulieu, Solliès-Pont, Var, France]
I won’t hide it: I’m so unused to being—well, understood, perhaps,— so unused to it, that in the very first minutes of our meeting I thought: this is a joke, a masquerade trick . . . But then . . . And there are things that are hard to talk about—you’ll rub off their marvellous pollen at the touch of a word . . . They write me from home about mysterious flowers. You are lovely . . .
And all your letters, too, are lovely, like the white nights—even the one where you so resolutely underlined several words. I found it and the previous one when I got back from Marseilles, where I was working in the port. It was the day before yesterday, and I decided not to reply to you till you wrote me more. A little joke . . .
Yes, I need you, my fairy-tale. Because you are the only person I can talk with about the shade of a cloud, about the song of a thought—and about how, when I went out to work today and looked a tall sunflower in the face, it smiled at me with all of its seeds. There is a tiny Russian restaurant in the dirtiest part of Marseilles. I ate my grub there with Russian sailors—and no one knew who I was and where I was from, and I was surprised myself that I used to wear a tie and thin socks. Flies circled over spots of borsch and wine, a sourish chill and the hum of portside nights wafted in from the street. And listening, and watching—I thought that I remember Ronsard by heart and know the names of skull bones, bacteria, plant juices. It was strange.
I am very drawn to Africa and Asia: I was offered a place as a stoker on a boat going to Indochina. But two things are forcing me to return to Berlin for a while: the first is that Mother must be so very lonely—the second . . . a mystery—or rather a mystery I desperately want to resolve . . . I leave on the 6th, but will spend some time in Nice and in Paris—at the home of a man I studied with in Cambridge. You probably know him. So I will be in Berlin on the 10th or 11th . . . And if you’re not there I will come to you, and find you . . . See you soon, my strange joy, my tender night. Here are poems for you:
You call—and in a little pomegranate tree
an owlet barks like a puppy.
In the evening height the moon’s curved blade
is so lonely and ringing.
You call—and a spring splashes with the turquoise of evening:
the water is fresh, like your voice,
and the moon, quivering, pierces a clay jug,
gleaming with its glaze.
I wiped the prickles of burning drops off my forehead
and lay supine on the slippery warm slope,
where the sun thundered among fragrant pines
with the voices of flattened cicadas.
And I floated into the scorching darkness
of the southern day, to the drunken swash of a timbrel,
to the babbling of flutes, and Pan’s purple mouth
pressed greedily to my heart.
I have written an awful lot here. Among other things, two plays, “The Granddad” and “The Pole.” The first will be in the collection “Gamayun”—the second, in the next issue of “Russkaya Mysl’.”
[8 November 1923]
To: 41, Landhausstrasse, Berlin W.
How can I explain to you, my happiness, my golden, wonderful happiness, how much I am all yours—with all my memories, poems, outbursts, inner whirlwinds? Or explain that I cannot write a word without hearing how you will pronounce it—and can’t recall a single trifle I’ve lived through without regret—so sharp!—that we haven’t lived through it together—whether it’s the most, the most personal, intransmissible—or only some sunset or other at the bend of a road—you see what I mean, my happiness?
And I know: I can’t tell you anything in words—and when I do on the phone then it comes out completely wrong. Because with you one needs to talk wonderfully, the way we talk with people long gone, do you know what I mean, in terms of purity and lightness and spiritual precision— but I—je patauge terribly. Yet you can be bruised by an ugly diminutive— because you are so absolutely resonant—like seawater, my lovely.
I swear—and the inkblot has nothing to do with it—I swear by all that’s dear to me, all I believe in—I swear that I have never loved before as I love you,—with such tenderness—to the point of tears—and with such a sense of radiance. On this page, my love, I once (Your face betw) began to write a poem for you and this very inconvenient little tail got left—I’ve lost my footing. But there’s no other paper. And most of all I want you to be happy and it seems to me that I could give you that happiness—a sunny, simple happiness—and not an altogether common one.
And you should forgive me for my pettiness—that I am thinking with aversion about how—practically—I will mail this letter tomorrow—and yet I am ready to give you all of my blood, if I had to—it’s hard to explain— sounds flat—but that’s how it is. Here, I’ll tell you—with my love I could have filled ten centuries of fire, songs, and valour—ten whole centuries, enormous and winged,—full of knights riding up blazing hills—and legends about giants—and fierce Troys—and orange sails—and pirates— and poets. And this is not literature since if you reread carefully you will see that the knights have turned out to be fat.
No—I simply want to tell you that somehow I can’t imagine life without you—in spite of your thinking that it is “fun” for me not to see you for two days. And you know, it turns out that it wasn’t Edison at all who thought up the telephone but some other American, a quiet little man whose name no one remembers. It serves him right.
Listen, my happiness—you won’t say again that I’m torturing you? How I’d like to take you off somewhere with me—you know how those highwaymen of old did: a wide-brimmed hat, a black mask, and a bell-shaped musket. I love you, I want you, I need you unbearably . . . Your eyes—which shine so wonder-struck when, with your head thrown back, you tell something funny—your eyes, your voice, lips, your shoulders—so light, sunny . . .
You came into my life—not as one comes to visit (you know, “not taking one’s hat off”) but as one comes to a kingdom where all the rivers have been waiting for your reflection, all the roads, for your steps. Fate wanted to correct its mistake—as if it has asked my forgiveness for all of its previous deceptions. So how can I leave you, my fairy-tale, my sun? You see, if I’d loved you less, then I would have had to go. But this way—it makes no sense. And I don’t want to die, either. There are two kinds of “come what may.” Involuntary and deliberate. Forgive me—but I live by the second one. And you can’t take away my faith in what I am afraid to think about—it would have been such happiness . . . And here’s another little tail.
Yes: an old-fashioned slowness of speech,
steely simplicity . . . Thus the heart’s more ardent:
steel, incandesced by flight . . .
This is a fragment of my long poem—but didn’t go in it. Wrote it down once, so not to forget, and here it is now—a splinter.
All of this I’m writing lying in bed, resting the page on a huge book. When I work long into the night, the eyes of one of the portraits on the wall (some great-grandmother of our landlord) become intent and very unpleasant. So good to have reached the end of this little tail, such a nuisance.
My love, good night . . .
Don’t know whether you’ll be able to make sense of this illiterate letter . . . But never mind . . . I love you. Will wait for you tomorrow at 11 p.m.—otherwise call me after 9.
[30 December 1923]
Praha Třida Svornosti 37
My dear happiness,
How charming, lovely, light you were at that bustling station . . . didn’t have time to say anything to you, my happiness. But I could see you through the window of the carriage, and, for some reason, while looking at you standing there pressing the fur coat to your sides with your elbows, hands deep in your sleeves—looking at you, at the yellow glass in the station window behind you, and at your grey little booties—one in profile, another en trois quarts—for some reason it was precisely then that I realized how I loved you—and then you had such a fine smile when the train began to glide off. But you know—our trip was absolutely, exceptionally awful. Our things were scattered all over the train, and we had to hang about standing upright, in the draught, till the border. I wanted so much to show you how amusingly the frozen snow, like kernels of silver corn, attached itself to the inner side of those, you know, leather aprons that connect the carriages. You’d have enjoyed it.
Imagine three little rooms: furniture, a deal table, a dozen chairs hiding splinters, seven beds—entirely wooden, without mattresses, with crosspieces instead of bottoms—and one couch, bought by chance. That’s it. A thin mattress is stretched along the crosspieces—but you can feel these wooden ribs through it, so in the morning you’re all aches . . . and bed-bugs inhabit the couch. They’d almost vanished after a turpentine attack, but here today they’ve reappeared, on the ceiling, from where they will, at night, like larks, fall onto those asleep—onto Kirill and me. I told him that twelve (it is more correct to spell it with an “e”) bed-bugs would be enough to kill a man, but having remembered how charmingly you say: “But he’s so small!” I took, as they say, my words back. Add to this the furious cold in the rooms and the two tiled stoves’ unwillingness to give off warmth (which, of course, would be unpleasant for them), and you get the picture of our life here. No money at all, no forks either—so we have to subsist on sandwiches. At the first opportunity I’ll bring Mother back to Berlin, where I’ll arrive myself on April 5th—minus eighty-five days (have you worked this out?). I have not seen Prague yet—and generally we’re on bad terms with each other.
Listen: as soon as I have a chance, I will call you on the only telephone to be found in this city: in Kramář’s house. I will try it on the twenty-third (old style), at seven o’clock.
I love you very much. Love you in a bad way (don’t be angry, my happiness). Love you in a good way. Love your teeth. I have been working, Morn sat down here with me. He asks me to send you his “cordial greetings.” My love, you know, I’m simply very bored without you. I have a feeling you’re still standing at the station as I saw you at that last moment—just as you, probably, still think I’m standing at the carriage window, in my bowler. Till the court scene, your Spanish novel is enchanting; after that, it’s bad. I will give them the package tomorrow.
How I wish you were saying, right now, with feeling: “But you promised me!?. . .” I love you, my sun, my life, I love your eyes—closed— all the little tails of your thoughts, your stretchy vowels, your whole soul from head to heels. I’m tired, off to bed. I love you.
[postmarked 2 January 1924]
To: 41 Landhausstr., Berlin W. 15
Trida Svornosty, 37
Not a word from you yet, my love—probably, tomorrow. But if not? You know, I didn’t think I’d miss you so much (“Ah, you didn’t think! . . .”). No—it’s just a turn of phrase—to tell you, my lovely, my happiness, how I long for you (how I need you). Meanwhile, I’ll get out of here only on the 17th—I want to finish my Morn—If there were yet another move, he’d fall apart. He’s a man who absolutely cannot bear the feeling of relocation. Yesterday I wrote only two lines all day, and even those I crossed out today. Now it’s been going unexpectedly well, so tomorrow I’ll finish the first scene of the third act. For some reason I am very touchy about this thing. And yet, what a pleasure it’s been to read it to two people—to you and, the other day, to Mother. The third person who understood every comma and appreciated the trifles dear to me was my father. Mother always recalls this when I read her something— and it hurts.
I have just written to Tatarinov, asking him to place an announcement on the 6th or the 7th, in Rul’, that I (name given) am looking for a room with board in a Russian family. Otherwise it would work out too expensive. Unfortunately I left your package on the train. I am “in total despair”! In fact, two days ago I took it to the address—which you wrote in a barely audible whisper . . . You know what I’d like to do now? To watch you slightly curtsy when stepping up from the street to the sidewalk (“Stop it! . . .”). I love you so much today that I seem to be writing nonsense.
And here’s what I have noticed so far in Prague: a huge number of cart-horses, and in the shops, signs like when a Frenchman, wanting to show off, puts Russian words in his novel—and shows off illiterately. There’s also a wide river here—under the ice. Here and there areas have been cleared for skating. On each of these ice squares a single boy skates, falling down every minute. Idle passers-by look down at him from the huge ancient bridge, along which horses drag their carts, one after the other. A fat man in a uniform stands at one end of the bridge, and every passer-by must pay him a copper coin for the right to cross to the other side. The custom is old, feudal. The trams are small, russet-flanked, and inside the latest magazines hanging on hooks—for general consumption. Great city?
Copyright © 2017 by Vladimir Nabokov. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.