Saturday, January 30, 2010

John F Kennedy Library on a Snowy January Day

Last Thursday after my Nabokov class I took a short journey on the "Redline" to the John F Kennedy Library, near the University of Massachusetts Boston campus. I'd been to the LBJ Library in Austin, so I was curious to see what this library was like.

Since the primary purpose of a Presidential Library is scholarly research, sometimes the portion that is open to the public seems almost like an after-thought. But the museum portion of the Kennedy library was very well done.

To begin with, the building is beautiful! You can see that the entrance was elegant and inviting. The museum is constructed like a journey, with sections on his family and his early years, the campaign, the White House, the assassination and finally his legacy leading from one to another.

There were very few people there since I went on a weekday. There were a few tourists like me, and a small Japanese tour group, acting like Japanese tourists do everywhere they go, taking hundreds of pictures of themselves in front of every conceivable artifact.

But for me the best part was at the very end. As one leaves the museum, one is led into a large room. The walls are all glass and girders. You are standing in a huge airy empty space, with the sea on three sides, a quote from his inaugural address on one wall and a magnificent American Flag hanging from the ceiling. The room was peaceful and calming.

The Pavilion's glass walls and ceiling gave the room a sense of airy openness.

Outside the beginnings of a snowstorm made the grey sea blend into the sky.

The American Flag hanging in the center of the room was heartbreakingly beautiful.

"....Let us Begin...."

Friday, January 29, 2010

Nabokov Class in Cambridge

The past three Thursdays I have taken the bus and then the “T” to the Cambridge Center for Adult Education. I am taking a class on the novels of Nabokov. I love Lolita; I’ve read it twice, and each time it seemed like a completely different book. It seemed to change along with me. The first time I read it I was in my mid-twenties and it seemed part of the general sexual and cultural revolution that was grinding to a halt in the mid-seventies. Where does sexual freedom become sexual abuse and perversion? What are the limits on personal freedom? I was completely persuaded by Humbert Humbert’s version of events and had no trouble seeing Lolita as a little temptress; as complicit in the series of events as HH himself.

The second time I read it was about ten years ago. As a mother with young teenagers I again read the story of Lolita but this time I was horrified. Why my God! Humbert Humbert was a child molester! He was a criminal! A pervert! How could I possibly have been duped by him the first time I read this book? I read it in a state of fascination and horror, once again both repulsed and attracted by the story.

Now here I am again, reading Nabokov. But I’m in my late fifties, slowly settling into a new environment, retired, searching for worthwhile occupations and needing order in my life. This class sounded intriguing. We’re working our way up to Lolita. The class is eight weeks long. In the first class we talked about Nabokov’s roots and early life. He was of course a Russian √©migr√©, a refugee from the Bolshevik revolution and the subsequent civil war. A member of the nobility, his father was an anglophile and Nabokov grew up speaking Russian, English and French, which cleared up one mystery for me. I always wondered how someone could write so eloquently in what was not their first language.

Nabokov went to school in Cambridge, England and majored in French and Russian Literature. We talked about his roots and influences and slowly I’m learning that the story and beautiful prose are not all that’s going on in his writing. Last week we read one of his early novels, The Eye. Until the early fifties Nabokov wrote in Russian and his early novels were translated to English by his son in the nineteen sixties.

So far I have read The Eye, Glory, and now I’m starting on a novel called Invitation to a Beheading. I can see the influences of Joyce and Kafka on his writing no matter how much he wants to protest that his writing sprung uninfluenced from his own mind. He plays with time and space. He transitions cleverly from one scene to another, much like thoughts drift around in one’s brain. I have a tendency to read too fast and miss things so I’m forcing myself to slow down so I can really appreciate his writing style. I’m beginning to realize that the end of Lolita, which I have always found confusing, will be the accumulation of his work on shifting time and space within one’s writing.

The teacher of this class is herself a classic Russian character. A novelist and poet in her own right, she sits with the six class members and directs our discussions, running her hands through her hair dramatically. She asks us questions and then gently (or not so gently) leads us in the direction she wants the class to go.

The other class members all seem to be about my age. Everyone is obviously smart, but nobody is insecure about their intelligence, so we all just express our thoughts and opinions without trying to impress each other with our erudition. Each week however the class has shrunk, and this week there were only three of us, so perhaps other members have been more intimidated by the subject matter than I thought, or maybe they are just bored! I’m fascinated, and I’m learning a lot. I’m trying very hard to understand what Nabokov was attempting to do with his writing. He wants his readers to focus on “imagination, memory and an artistic sense”, to quote an essay he wrote on “What Makes a Good Reader”, instead of simply identifying with a character, or getting lost in the fantasy world of a novel. This is hard for me; I WANT to get lost in books, and staying conscious of the author’s intent while I read is a constant struggle. But I’m starting to picture Nabokov watching me as I read. He sits a little off to one side, impatiently tapping his food when my attention wanders or I start identifying too closely with a character. He laughs at me when I become irritated with the absurdities and intentional confusion he has implanted in the story being told in “Invitation to a Beheading”. He is not at all a kind or generous author, and he is a little jealous too. He doesn’t seem to think that everyone should read his books. Am I worthy of him? He’s not sure yet, and neither am I.

This week our teacher sent her husband to instruct us instead. She had to return suddenly to Russia because her father, a former dissident and hero of the anti-Stalinist movements of the 50’s and 60’s, was hit by a car and killed as he was crossing the street in Moscow. Although this is a very sad story the irony of the situation struck me; that someone that survived the gulag and oppression under the Communists should meet his end in such a mundane manner.

Her husband is a Russian historian. He’s not a literary expert but simply a lover of Nabokov. He reiterated a couple of things that our teacher had touched upon, including the idea of the unreliable narrator, and the concept of Poshlost, which translates roughly from Russian as “banality and vulgarity”. The unreliable narrator I understand…the idea that you can’t trust the veracity of the person telling the story in a Nabokov novel was a new idea at the time that he was writing, but now doesn’t seem that revolutionary. Many writers since then have taken the idea of a fallible narrator, twisting the truth for his own devices, to heart and run with it in the sixty years since Nabokov published Lolita. But I’m still a little uncertain about this idea of vulgarity…did Nabokov see it judgmentally in popular culture? Did he see his writing an antidote to vulgarity? I don’t know yet, but I may find out in the next five weeks!

Monday, January 18, 2010

The Office

Okay let’s clear one thing up right now; this is not a blog post about a popular TV show. It’s about a real office…the one belonging to my parents and now to my mother. For the past several months I’ve made it my project to get this room in order. I think the archeologist in me is coming out, as I get a strange thrill from uncovering one artifact after another in this room.

My parents were not tidy people. My grandmother was a very tidy German house-keeper, of the sort that chased pigeons off the front steps, muttering in German about their filthy ways. My mother has plenty of stories of her mother’s obsession with cleanliness, and many a Saturday that she was forced to stay home and clean instead of going out to play with her friends.

So once my mom had her own home tidiness was never a high priority. Our house was always CLEAN, don’t get me wrong, and I was taught at an early age how to make a bed, scrub a bathroom, or vacuum a floor. But a place for everything and everything in its place? Nah.

We lived in a state of barely contained chaos when I was growing up. It never bothered me, because it was normal to me. And really, it wasn’t that bad. We were no different than many Americans, with basements full of mysterious boxes, drawers filled with old coupons, paper clips, broken rubber bands, discarded grocery lists, and expired telephone books; closets filled with old books, papers, orphan mittens and hats long out of style; and always an office with an overflowing desk and documents that no one had examined for the past decade.

In one of those little jokes that life likes to play on us, I married a man that can’t bear disorder and in the course of our lives together I’ve learned to keep things tidy, and in fact have become more organized than he is in some ways. When I would go back to St. Louis to visit my parents the chaos that I never even noticed when I was growing up would frustrate and alarm me. If something should happen, could I find important papers? I worried, but there wasn’t much I could do about it.

When my father went into the nursing home my mother would periodically “hire” one of her grandchildren to clean out the office. They would take the stacks of old papers and magazines and haul them out to the trashcans. It would make a definite difference in the look of the office, but never for very long. In six month that room would be right back to its former state.

Then this fall my mother became ill and spent several months in and out of the hospital and in rehab. On my visits I decided it was time to finally REALLY get the office in shape.

Filing cabinets, drawers, bookshelves and ultimately the closet fell to my merciless axe. I filed the bills; I threw away stacks of ancient paperwork; I discovered missing pictures, wills, documents. And, I found letters from my father to my mother written in various states of sanity. I found letters from my sister and from myself to my parents. I found charming cards from grandchildren and friends. And as I dug deeper I found even more amazing things.

I found my mother’s high school diploma. I found her picture from school in Trier, Germany. I found a series of old passports for both my parents. I found letters that my father wrote to the German government trying to get reparations (unsuccessfully because she was too young when they emigrated) for my mother. And I found even more.

I found a huge stack of documents about my father’s successful quest for a patent on his “Grippem” machine tool invention. I couldn’t bear to throw these away, so back into the closet they went. Heartbreakingly, I found a document from 2003 which was an offer from my mother’s Long Term Care Insurance to update her policy to include in-home care. Sadly, this offer was never acted upon so her LTC policy only covers care in a skilled nursing facility.

So now my parent’s office is a paragon of orderliness. I have a place for my mother to put things that need to be filed and I file them for her when I am in town. I have hanging folders labeled for all of her important papers and I know where to find things if they need to be found. The bookcase contains cook books and magazines and old picture albums. The closet contains the papers and other artifacts of which although obsolete I can’t bear to dispose. There is a large plastic bin containing letters, cards and pictures documenting my parent’s lives.

It was a big project and it’s a relief to have it completed. I feel like I really did dig through two lives. In a strange way I enjoyed imposing my order on something that was so overwhelmingly confused at first. I feel like I know my parents a little better now too, seeing all the little pieces of their life together and spreading it out for examination only made me love them more. Funny how that works.


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