The Charm before the Storm

Mary-Kay Wilmers

  • Speak, Memory by Vladimir Nabokov
    Penguin, 242 pp, £3.95, May 1987, ISBN 0 14 008623 4
  • The Russian Album by Michael Ignatieff
    Chatto, 191 pp, £12.95, May 1987, ISBN 0 7011 3109 8
  • The Making of a Peacemonger: The Memoirs of George Ignatieff prepared in association with Sonja Sinclair
    Toronto, 265 pp, £15.00, July 1985, ISBN 0 8020 2556 0
  • A Little of All These: An Estonian Childhood by Tania Alexander
    Cape, 165 pp, £12.50, March 1987, ISBN 0 224 02400 0

Stuck in the country, bored and vaguely discontented, with themselves, their lives or the way things are, half the heroes in Russian fiction appear to be waiting for something to happen while the other half, in varying degrees of relief or despair, settle down to the thought that nothing will – not in their lifetime. Tolstoy might not have made so much of Levin’s contentment had contentment not been so hard to find. These are large and uneasy generalisations, but it can sometimes seem as if most of what was written in Russia before 1917 was written in the expectation of upheaval.

Thoughts of this kind are prompted by reading about the lives of some of those who left Russia in the years that followed the Revolution and were sustained in their exile by a sense of fabulous loss. Nabokov, whose account of his Russian childhood, Speak, Memory, must be one of the best books the Revolution produced, sometimes thought in later life of revisiting the places on which his memory fastened, while knowing that to do so would have been preposterous, an indignity. The reasons for not going back had as much to do with art as with politics. His family had always spent time abroad and between 1904 and 1905 were away for nearly a year. In Speak, Memory he writes about the moment in their journey home when the train reached the Russian border: ‘now, sixty years later’, it seems to him ‘a rehearsal – not of the grand homecoming that will never take place, but of its constant dream in my long years of exile’. The upheaval when at last it arrived was so violent, and for those who left the severance so abrupt, that coming home could never be a match for staying away. Inside Nabokov’s head the places he had known as a child had an enchanted existence: to have seen them again would have been pointless.

The analogy that comes to mind is with the First World War and the feverish nostalgia for Edwardian privilege that it set in train; and although one may not have much sympathy for the sound of the upper classes weeping over their losses, it isn’t always easy (or necessary) to resist their sad chronicles of the charm before the storm, with every moment cherished in retrospective anticipation of its loss. Nabokov writes about his mother reading to him at bedtime and recalls the ring on her hand as she turned the pages of the book. He then imagines that he might have seen reflected in its facets ‘a room, people, lights, trees in the rain – a whole period of émigré life for which that ring was to pay’. As the storm approached, his mother, like him, cultivated her memories. It was, he says, a family disease. ‘She cherished her own past with the same retrospective fervour that I now do her image and my past. Thus, in a way, I inherited an exquisite simulacrum – the beauty of intangible property, unreal estate.’

Michael Ignatieff was born in Canada in the 1940s. ‘My friends,’ he remarks a little sheepishly at the start of his book, ‘had suburban pasts or pasts they would rather not talk about. I had a past of Tsarist adventurers, survivors of revolutions, heroic exiles.’ His family, aristocrats like Nabokov’s, had like Nabokov’s served the Tsars for several generations, and left Russia in the wake of the Revolution, disillusioned with the old autocracy and appalled by the new one. The Russian Album is about their memories, a record of what they had and how they lost it, a writer’s tribute to the historical significance of other people’s lives. It is also, as his first chapter carefully explains and his last pages mysteriously deny, a book about himself and his inheritance – even more intangible property, unreal estate.

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