Shriek, Memory

As some of you might have already noticed, I can’t seem to stop involving Vladimir Nabokov’s “Speak, Memory” into every few paragraphs of my writing, these days. It can’t be helped, I seem to have simply stumbled upon a writer which I can heavily relate to. No, I’m not a refugee from a country torn-apart through revolution encircled by (civil) war; neither was I ever part of the social upper class or raised by French governesses – in fact, both my fencing and French skills might result in me getting killed if ever put to the test (make way, Pushkin). If anything, I might have voluntarily exiled myself to a country prone to civil war (the first war to be fought entirely with chips, beer and waffles for weapons), while currently, 27 people are following me on Twitter – not exactly the hallmark of today’s social (media) upper class, either. Luckily, there are a few parallels to hold onto as well.

Obviously, I have to mention the obligatory disclaimer now: in no way am I implying that my talents and resulting works (could ever) match those of Nabokov. It’s just that odd feeling of recognition, as if a writer is speaking on your behalf from out of the depths of a long-gone era; theoretically, it doesn’t make sense. It does tell us a lot about the rigid nature of mankind’s quirks and urges, though: despite the obvious differences (setting, etiquette, language,…) there’s something of a fundamental similarity within human lifeforms that transcends time and space. To find one’s “likeness” in terms of artistic interpretations through his/her artistic expressions is truly a wonderful thing – a way to cheat death really, knowing that others will appreciate the same qualities in the same persons, become inspired by them and (by process of elimination) eventually will give birth to a “polished” version of their source material… after which the process will simply repeat itself.

Now, about those parallels. For one, Nabokov doesn’t shy away from writing in an incredibly descriptive language; I used to do that a lot, with some people heaping praise upon me for unknown reasons. Others, though, couldn’t even get past the first sentence and just gave up altogether after a few pages. I let that get to me, and ever since late-college I’ve been trying to keep things more compact and to-the-point. It took a few years of adapting, and although most of my sentences ran (run) on for eternities still, something of a compromise had been achieved over time. Never again did I bother to look at my old, super-descriptive works through the eyes of an open-minded reader, rather than those of a reviewer confined to his clearly-fenced field of expertise.

And although I’ve come across plenty of enticing literature during the last twelve months or so, “Speak, Memory” came as a revelation to me. Maybe it’s the fact that the material I’m reading is mostly factual (historical) by nature, not meant to overwhelm its readership through the art of writing (rather, through the art of presenting data as precisely-verified as possible). After dozens of voluptuous volumes on World War One and its following fire-storms, Nabokov’s (still fact-based) autobiography appeared to be a breathe of fresh air; as welcome during the summer heat as when emerging from a man-made ice hole, wearing nothing but an oversized Speedo.

Secondly, Vladimir seems to have had multiple personalities guide him through the course of life. As such, his tone can be moralizing, but that’s purely coincidental – he’s not trying to get a political point across so much as trying to flavour certain aspects (sometimes political) of years since long past. In line with this style, mister Nabokov’s not afraid to address his own flaws (mostly past ones, however not excluding “current” imperfections) or pass judgement on the establishment: remarkably, the otherwise garrulous Nabokov smacks several poets, writers, composers and politicians in the face with a short slap of the wrist; the result is a stingy experience, only actually living within the imagination of us mere spectators, though.

And just as easily as Nabokov switches from describing the beloved surroundings in which he spent the warmest seasons of his early childhood – as if it were blueprints to the Garden of Eden – to spitting Lenin in the eye by proxy of his fellow students… well, just as easy as that, he switches between Russian, French and English. Heck, a throat-scraping Vladimir can be heard cursing and wondering throughout the Dutch translation of “Speak, Memory”; almost as if the book had been written by someone exiled from Holland to Russia… or Belgium, for that matter.

Nabokov is aware of us watching from behind his shoulder, as he’s painting some of the most vivid memories ever recorded on paper; memories that somehow become our own, as we try to entangle particularly-encrypted pieces of sub clauses and piece them together into one colourful string of events; a thin rope, dangling to the sound of the wind, enveloped by the smells of a foreign field – its textural composition affected by those smells, perhaps, with tiny bits of fluff softly sliding towards the grass underneath a young Nabokov’s feet. And because of his awareness of our presence, Vladimir feels the need to speak of his musings in terms of truth, half-truths and probable lies – historians would probably find his recollections flawed and incoherent, reducing all of them to a single perhaps a few pages and be done with it; and to this phenomenon, these so-called sub- and side-truths living within our heads, we can all relate. If it were possible to actually relive some of our strongest memories, the factual corrections of there and then would not affect the memory in and by itself – simply because the child remembering these events will still choose to capture such moments from a particular angle, a grey area between factuality and fantasy that need not be distorted through a reconstruction ordered by older, wiser (wo)men from further down the frayed cord of our world’s fourth dimension.

Seriously, I used to write stuff like this all the time, and then fear no-one would ever read it, or even try to read it – let alone try to understand or even actually understand it as a whole. And while “Speak, Memory” already managed to completely captivate me from the get-go, there is one chapter sticking out like a sore thumb, pulsating and changing colour every few lines as if it’s trying to make me relive my own memories, turning the main storyline into some sort of accompanying side-plot. It’s where I’m reading a variation on my own words, wondering whomever would read such nonsense – therefore knowing the answer, realizing I wasn’t alone after all. Not at all.

I’m talking about the part where Vladimir Nabokov recounts the writing of his first poem, his clumsy body hovering in mid-air, leaning in its entirety on just a pair of fingers – while his mind is out on a bear-hunt, settling for a large hare instead; carefully skinned and gutted afterwards, but still just a “hare“: the shell of a word just happening to resemble the word “bear” in tone (full and thick as its furs) and length (compressed into a collection of powerful legs and paws and teeth) – even rhyme with it, oh joyous occasion. And that’s all it takes. In your first poem, it doesn’t matter whether something has been done to death already: you’ve just invented all of it yourself, shot that hare right in between the eyes – not realizing there’s nothing romantic or nutritious about the dangling insides of an opponent outgunned and under-equipped.

A verse, consisting of two or four words basically meaning the same thing, doesn’t seem futile or tiresome when it’s your first verse. Those two words are everything you have to cling onto; two escapees from a prison built inside your head, chained-together and undoubtedly doomed to get caught, tortured and thrown back into oblivion – until someone offered you “Speak, Memory”, making you smell the rusty shackles, taste the soaked loafs of blackened bread again like it was last year’s Christmas dinner. Then you’ll remember the insane situation where you’d actually run towards the authorities and confess to your meaningless sins; bloodhounds then chewed and nibbled on your verse, coughed up its individual letters and symbols, re-using those a thousand times to howl at you in coherent sentences (to this day). And everything seemed perfectly clear and totally lost for a time, unworthy of future mentioning.

Today, I went back to dig up my very first poem and smell the clichés, stumble over its horrible rhythm, to follow thick lines of mangled pages within the boundaries of an exercise book, wrapped in a shiny shade of white-turning-yellow; to trace those lines all the way back into my first verse. As I stared the hare in its beady, black, all-knowing eyes, my bedroom expanded into a classroom big enough to fit a whole family of bears. Two blackboard erasers had just collided with each other a number of times; the resulting flakes of chalk floating up and down a small area well to the front and to the left of me. One of the flakes diverged from its original path, prompted to do so by the teacher making flapping movements with his arms (the reason for his actions will forever remain an enigma), this rebellious speck of bitter-tasting snow turning viciously towards its home country, the eraser, in turn safely sleeping within the confinement of its metal ledge in front of the blackboard.

Whether or not the flake made it back home, I’ll never know. For it was that moment, in the middle of my teacher going through some sort of inexplicable seizure, that I decided to shift focus towards the exercise book placed atop an uninspiring, sickly-green (as in: the colour of sick) desktop. No matter how fast one would move one’s head across the borders of that table top, the same image would always pop up – eyes focused or not, dizziness of no importance. Hardly an inspiration to build anything halfway interesting, I instead started to turn my vulture-like neck towards a deliciously-smelling prey nearby. A quick peek over my shoulder confirmed that she was still there, indeed.

Destiny is a cruel mistress – the only one to have never left me, nor will she ever – and quick to address me through pointless taunts such as in the aforementioned situation. For it was the girl that I loved, sitting right behind me with the all-seeing eyes of a hare caught within my headlights. And it was to her that I wrote my first poem. “To” her, not “for” her.

The wicked lady Destiny had deemed it appropriate to name that girl “Jacqueline”; a testament to a cruel and devious kind of plan-making, “Jacqueline” was also the name given to my very own sister, given by that very same wicked lady, subliminally speaking through a pride-riddled voice of newborn father. How I cursed the fact that “my” Jacqueline, a girl formed like the fluid wave suggested by the first syllable of her first name, had to share the burden of possibly being likened to the wretched character that was my sister – snappy and unpredictable like the second syllable of her first name.

Everyday, hope was built up by a simple look over my shoulder – a thousand first syllables, a dance in and by itself – only to be torn down through a single exchange of eye contact across the dinner table – a million “ques”, begs for mercy and pleads for either of these women to have their names changed overnight; preferably my sister, as I saw no justification for that suddenly-beautiful name to be forever associated with her curly, stringy hairs and bleached jeans (or her dimwitted boyfriends, in whose footsteps I was not intending to follow). And finally, at the end of the day, while brushing my teeth: this hopeful whiff of false air slipping across my tongue, down from my throat all the way to my front teeth… “ihhhn.”

I know she liked me too. The coward confined within my inexperienced and overwhelmed soul waited for her to make the first move – which she did, amazingly so. Lady Destiny had patiently waited in between the paper-thin wall separating my own bedroom from that of my parents, got Jacqueline to call me and arranged for Jacqueline to answer the phone immediately.

“This is Jacqueline speaking.”
“Yeah, I know. But who are you?”

Et cetera, et cetera.

I wasn’t up to this smallest of tests. This type of situation was surely going to happen again and again, with there being only one way of keeping heaven and hell from colliding with each other for every day of every week for the rest of my life (remember: true love lasts forever!). As much as I tried, I couldn’t get my parents to disown “que” and so I had to get rid of “Ja” instead. And I did this, amazingly so, in the most painful way imaginable. Not through a quick stab in the heart, no: I simply placed my knife on top of her heart, waiting for the winter cold to attach itself in between the blade and Ja‘s heart and have it slowly freeze her to death; I got rid of my first love by ignoring her entirely fro weeks on an end. To think back of this past calculating, murderous sang-froid – and the absolute lack of compassion on my behalf – makes it easier to understand from which direction the cold winds must have been blowing.

Something deep down, a petty miniature version of an even-older me perhaps, is trying to convince me of a different truth – of me being too shy, not enough of a man yet to handle women properly; but the strange truth is, that I allowed myself to keep loving her, while forbidding her to return the favour. As the knife had been entirely embedded into a purple pumping artery – that would soon die off to leave an invisible tattoo (“men are never to be trusted”) – fresh layers of thicker tissue worked themselves towards milky rays of light; rays man and woman finds in such meaningless words as “hope” and “Destiny” (eat that, you vile creature). And so she fell in love with my best friend (damn you, vile creature).

All was not lost – on the contrary. This actually proved to be the most workable compromise to our predicament. In the future, I’d be able to send my love for her through my best friend. Initially, they had seemed incompatible with each other – but the cheerful tapping and clicking of Jacqueline’s name (as a whole) resonated in her personality and made her swerve my way again, only to find my friend in her path. And no matter how hard she tried (fresh haircuts, lower-cut dresses), I just kept throwing my pal at her, off of cliffs at first, gentle mountain tops somewhat later; onto railroads and across forest trails; in arts classes as well as during music lessons. And as I had expected – not hoped: expected – she finally fell for the doofus, mistaking his small appearance for my shadow. Now the only thing left to do, was to get my shadow detach itself from my side and get it to love “Ja‘s” shadow instead. For that, poetry was in order.

My exercise book, tilted at a slight angle so as to watch time (mounted on a grey brick wall) pass by at a snail’s crawl, was still empty. Looking at the same bundle of paper now, it seems unbelievable that a mere sixteen years ago, each singular sheet had embraced both of its neighbours; and together, they flipped over to one side collectively every time I tried to get past the slippery jacket, stapled-together with pieces of metal that since have gone missing.

There was a reason for me to persevere, however, despite my morning drowsiness combined with the light yet obnoxious smell of petrol emitted by my maidenly notebook. A cheap, thick fountain pen clipped onto the lower-half of the first and following pages proved sufficient to keep things into place. With a dull pain arising from my thumb (the part just below one’s fingerprint, actually), I placed my index finger on top of an even cheaper pen and started wiggling its nose across this confined area of processed pulpwood – from margin to the edge, making little cha-chas of its own, in between cold gusts of wind dripping in from all the way across our classroom. My best friend, left-handed thus seated to the left of me, thus obstructing my view of his soon-to-be-muse, was barely awake. A clear fluid with tiny dome-like structures in its centre – almost unmistakeably saliva – ran from his chin towards his arm, interrupted and absorbed by the sleeve of his silly sweater carrying complex patterns.

A sigh. An “ihhhn.” And a poem.

Vrede voor ons

Je ogen als parels,
je mond van goud;
Wat is de wereld mooi,
als er iemand van je houdt;
Oorlog bestaat niet –
geweld is uitgesloten;
En van de muziekles op donderdag,
heb ik nog nooit zo genoten.
(Maar niet beter gefloten).

Peace for us

Your eyes look like pearls,
your lips are like gold;
Such a beautiful world,
having someone to hold;
There is no war –
violence out of the question;
And never did I so enjoy before,
those Thursday music lessons
(Never mind the recorder sessions).

A cross-eyed hare at best; one that bled to death and led my friend into loving her; a bear that destroyed my love-by-proxy inevitably, and a memory forever embedded into my own, now-partly-written autobiography.

I wonder if anyone is ever going to fact-check any of this. Or read it, at all. At all.

One Response to “Shriek, Memory”

  1. I read some of your articles and they are all rad. Thankyou. 🙂

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