- The Art of Memory in Exile: Vladimir Nabokov & Milan Kundera
The Czech twentieth-century novel has a canon of well-translated, widely known classics—but for some reason, comparative studies bringing these masterworks into the European mainstream have been few. Hana Píchová makes a good start with these two celebrated writers. Each is an exile from Communism, each clung lovingly for decades to his native Slavic tongue and then, after protracted translation scandals, began writing in the adopted language (English for Nabokov, French for Kundera); each dwelt on displacement and on possible ways to survive it with one's creativity intact, which in both cases entailed a disciplining of memory, both personal and cultural. Píchová adopts a rough chronological scheme, contrasting the first novel that each wrote in exile (Mary; The Book of Laughter and Forgetting) with a more complex, mature exilic work (The Gift; The Unbearable Lightness of Being). She discovers intriguing differences as well as distinctive invariants.
Nabokov's heroes travel light. Their transitory boarding-houses are way-stations where the literary gift is nurtured, and where the enabling girlfriend enters noiselessly, with modesty and tact. Remedying an error in perception can change everything in a minute for the perspicacious Nabokovian hero, who understands "the importance of the unexpected and the beauty of mimicry" (38). Perseverence and a careful, almost chaste peeling-back of surfaces is the secret to those successive portraits in prose (first of his father, then of Chernyshevsky) that Fyodor creates, and then abandons like so many gorgeous but inadequate drafts, on the pages of The Gift. Kundera's heroes—despite that celebrated lightness of being—are heavier, more grabby and grabbed at. They are needy lovers and thirsters first, creators only second. Their lightness has to be learned. "Voluntary forgetting" and "involuntary memory lapses" (63) do not liberate them but cause them to "fade out of the text" just about the time we get to know them. Why, we [End Page 94] might ask, is this trajectory so unproductive? One is tempted to say that Kundera's characters are more dependent on bodily proof, on the recurrent image, on the photograph and the graphic symbol than they are on the word, to which Nabokov is so deeply loyal. Píchová's tracing of the bulky and opaque bowler hat through Sabina's sexy but progressively emptied-out life is in nice counterpoint with Fyodor's adored disappeared father, who, via his son's biography, became his own translucent butterfly, and is unforgettable.
These two gifted creators-in-exile differ strikingly in the fate they award their creatures. Kundera's heroes all fail, or else "win" only by some sort of pathetic default. (Of the Kunderan heroine, the less said the better: almost always terminally humiliated, jealous, helpless, she might come to life as a recorder of history, as does Tereza while bravely photographing Prague '68, but not as a genuine Muse.) The self-absorbed heroes of Kundera's fantasy are just too full of themselves, their prowess, their bitterness, to care much about the women who love them. The women have nowhere to go with their wares. Even the pictorial record of the Soviet invasion that Tereza smuggles out is subject to "brisk forgetting" (99) on the far side of danger. Píchová intimates that this continual voyeuristic photography is more ambiguous, aesthetically as well as morally, than the straightforward word-castles of Nabokov, and she is right. For Nabokov's heroes are winners. They draw on memory in productive ways, they create value (in the first place poems, but even the income from a hot day's typing in an office) and what they work toward eventually works out. They're not always satisfied, of course, but they have moments that are mysterious, selfless, joyous. Even the crippled ones, like Ganin or Chernyshevsky, grow in our minds and warm us. Kundera's earlier heroine Tamina flutters away; his later one Tereza is exploded.
But the problem, it would seem, is larger than merely...