Serendipity: Nabokov’s Mademoiselle

Vladimir Nabokov (L) with Brothers and Sisters

I am in the process of reading one of the greatest biographies ever written: Vladimir Nabokov’s Speak Memory: An Autobiography Revisited (1967). It ranks in my estimation with James Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson and the Journals of Sir Walter Scott. For many years in his childhood, he had had a French-speaking Swiss nurse called, in his autobiography, simply Mademoiselle. Here, years after she had retired, he describes seeing her in her old age:

Before leaving for Basle and Berlin, I happened to be walking along the lake in the cold, misty night. At one spot a lone light dimly diluted the darkness and transformed the mist into a visible drizzle. “Il pleut toujours en Suisse” [“It always rains in Switzerland”] was one of those casual comments which, formerly, had made Mademoiselle weep. Below, a wide ripple, almost a wave, and something vaguely white attracted my eye. As I came quite close to the lapping water, I saw what it was—an aged swan, a large, uncouth, dodo-like creature, making ridiculous efforts to hoist himself into a moored boat. He could not do it. The heavy, impotent flapping of his wings, their slippery sound against the rocking and plashing boat, the gluey glistening of the dark swell where it caught the light—all seemed for a moment laden with that strange significance which sometimes in dreams is attached to a finger pressed to mute lips and then pointed at something the dreamer has no time to distinguish before waking with a start. But although I soon forgot that dismal light, it was, oddly enough, that night, that compound image—shudder and swan and swell—which first came to my mind when a couple of years later I learned that Mademoiselle had died.

She had spent all her life in feeling miserable: this misery was her native element: its fluctuations, its varying depths, alone gave her the impression of moving and living. What bothers me is that a sense of misery, and nothing else, is not enough to make a permanent soul. My enormous and morose Mademoiselle is all right on earth but impossible in eternity. Have I really salvaged her from fiction? Just before the rhythm I hear falters and fades, I catch myself wondering whether, during the years I knew her, I had not kept utterly missing something in her that was far more she than her chins or her ways or even her French—something perhaps akin to that last glimpse of her, to the radiant deceit she had used in order to have me depart pleased with my own kindness,* or to that swan whose agony was so much closer to artistic truth than a drooping dancer’s pale arms; something, in short, that I could appreciate only after the things and beings that I had most loved in the security of my childhood had been turned to ashes or shot through the heart.

* Nabokov had bought her deaf old nurse a hearing aid which she said made it possible to hear her former charge’s voice perfectly, except that Nabokov had not said anything.


Serendipity: Exile on Exile

Writer W. G. Sebald (1944-2001)

If there is a poster boy for exiles, it is W. G. Sebald, who was born in Germany, but spent most of his life in self-exile. In his collection of essays, Campo Santo, he is curiously unable to come to life talking about the ruins of the Second World War. The farther his subject is from Germany, the better his essays are. One of the very best is “Dream Textures: A Brief Note on Nabokov.” Himself an exile from Red Russia, Nabokov became one of the leading lights of American literature. It is from this essay that these selections are taken:

At any rate, the most brilliant passages in his prose often give the impression that our worldly doings are being observed by some other species, not yet known to any system of taxonomy, whose emissaries sometimes assume a guest role in the plays performed by the living. Just as they appear to us, Nabokov conjectures, so we appear to them: fleeting, transparent beings of uncertain provenance and purpose. They are most commonly encountered in dreams, “in surroundings they never visited during their earthly existence,” and are “silent, bothered, strangely depressed,” obviously suffering from their exclusion from society, and for that reason, says Nabokov, “they sit apart, staring at the floor, as if death were a dark taint, a shameful family secret.”

Vladimir Nabokov With His Butterflies

.   .   .   .   .   .

In the fifth chapter of Pnin he speaks at length and in different voices of the price you must pay on going into exile: not least, besides the material goods of life, the certainty of your own reality…. Unexpectedly finding themselves on the wrong side of the frontier, [Nabokov’s young emigrant heroes] are airy beings living a quasi-extraterritorial, somehow unlawful afterlife in rented rooms and boardinghouses, just as their author lived at one remove from the reality of Berlin in the twenties.


Smurov Is Alive—and Dead!

First, You Have to Understand About Schrödinger’s Cat

First, You Have to Understand About Schrödinger’s Cat

Vladimir Nabokov in his 1930 novelette The Eye seems to have anticipated Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger’s famous thought experiment of 1935. According to Wikipedia, it goes as follows:

Schrödinger’s cat: a cat, a flask of poison, and a radioactive source are placed in a sealed box. If an internal monitor detects radioactivity (i.e. a single atom decaying), the flask is shattered, releasing the poison that kills the cat. The Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics implies that after a while, the cat is simultaneously alive and dead. Yet, when one looks in the box, one sees the cat either alive or dead, not both alive and dead. This poses the question of when exactly quantum superposition ends and reality collapses into one possibility or the other.

Naturally, most people do not entertain the notion of being alive and dead at the same time.  Yet in The Eye, the narrator Smurov commits suicide at the very beginning after having been ignominiously caned by the husband of his mistress Matilda. The rest of the story consists of Smurov investigating his own life among the Russian emigré population of Berlin, finding that he is roundly disliked by most everyone.

So, the question arises: Is Smurov alive or dead? Or is Smurov both alive and dead? (Or could the narrator be unreliable, having missed his heart with the revolver bullet?)

In an article in the May 2, 2015, issue of The New Scientist, Douglas Heaven speculates:

For [Physicist John Archibald] Wheeler, this meant the universe couldn’t really exist in any physical sense—even in the past—until we measure it. And what we do in the present affects what happened in the past—in principle, all the way back to the origins of the universe. If he is right, then to all intents and purposes the universe didn’t exist until we and other conscious entities started observing it.

Sound crazy? Then try this one on for size. Another interpretation of quantum mechanics is Hugh Everett’s many worlds hypothesis, which posits that everything that could happen has and does, in an infinite number of universes. Every time you make a decision, the universe splits in two, with you in one branch and an alternative you in the other, living the other possibility. The universe you occupy is, in some sense, an individual universe of your own making.

This idea is enough to give anyone a reality check. “My natural inclination is to be a realist,” says Chris Timpson, a philosopher of physics at the University of Oxford. “But if you’re going to be a realist about the quantum world then you’re left with a world that is very peculiar.” So peculiar, in fact, that the idea that it only exists because of us seems almost sensible.

There now, I’ll leave it up to you to decide whether Smurov is alive or dead or both. It all depends on your understanding of quantum mechanics in any universe you appear to be inhabiting at the moment, whatever THAT means!