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Saturday
Jan212017

Beneficence

I only know how to sculpt and how to love. This was not enough for you.

It is exceedingly rare that I will recommend a literary work as wholeheartedly as this one, which, while a survey of fifty years of genius and subject to many rewrites, is staggering in its precision and scope. There is simply no world like Nabokov’s. No prose writer of the twentieth century is so succulently correct about nostalgia, about love, about memory. And his images are repeated and enhanced over time: a violet bulb expands into a lilac curtain; the distant flutter of a cramoisy wing becomes the softest hair on the softest of cheeks. His familiarity with all levels and outlines of nature’s greatness makes his emotional insights far more rewarding than the sloppy generalizations of existentialists who, crippled by their ignorance of the natural world, can only describe their solipsistic (or perhaps "slop-sistic") feelings. So when Nabokov turns his attention to a single person and that person’s private tragedies, we sense a cosmic importance, as in this magnificent story.

Our narrator, a sculptor in Berlin, has spent the whole night without the woman he loves. She has betrayed him with another body, but it seems as if she has been betraying him all along. With his only weapons, “shards of plaster of Paris” and “congealed plasticine,” he tries to combine her swathed image with the unique blue of Berlin’s evening skies (which I, too, once worshiped) and create a refuge from the loneliness of this world. He fails, and awakes the next morning, nervously giggly, filthy, forlorn. He thinks, as all artists do every day, of redemption:

My love for you was the throbbing, welling warmth of tears. That is exactly how I imagined paradise: silence and tears, and the warm silk of your knees. This you could not comprehend.

They are to meet by the symbol of Berlin itself, the same monument that would split the city in halves for forty-four bitter years. The crowd does not share his happiness or anticipation. So many bureaucrats speed on by, all masked by “weary, predatory faces,” all with the same “turbid nausea” in their eyes. But he is free. He can create and shape the world as he sees fit. By a guardhouse window he finds a stand with postcards, maps, photos for hasty tourists. Before all this, on a stool that is too tall for her, sits “a brown little old woman, short-legged, plump, with a round speckled face.” She is waiting just like he is waiting. Except that she is waiting for the whole world and he for only one person, which might mean that she is actually the lonelier, the more desperate of the two.

They wait in tandem; an hour passes. A procession of slow and dulled people, many people, attracted like wild animals to the gaudy colors, approaches the stand but cannot bring themselves to buy. The autumn weather becomes more typically Berliner, spouting and pushing its puny citizens about like the insects we mock and swat with few scruples. Of what did this old woman dream? Of a “rich foreigner … who would buy all her wares, and overpay, and order more, many more picture postcards and guidebooks of all kinds.” This is, we understand, her paradise, relief from subsistence, from the miserable task of depending on the megrims of uncaring strangers. A soldier finally does approach, but the old woman is already in the midst of satisfying her need for happiness in a cup of coffee with milk which she drinks “with such utter, profound, concentrated relish” that our narrator stops thinking about his love. He thinks instead about how much he wants that soldier to buy everything he can from that old woman, how only in that exchange of favors can the most basic necessities of life be procured. And then he thinks:

Here I became aware of the world’s tenderness, the profound beneficence of all that surrounded me, the blissful bond between me and all of creation, and I realized that the joy I had sought in you was not only secreted within you, but breathed around me everywhere, in the speeding street sounds, in the hem of a comically lifted skirt, in the metallic yet tender drone of the wind, in the autumn clouds bloated with rain. I realized that the world does not represent a struggle at all, or a predaceous sequence of chance events, but shimmering bliss, beneficent trepidation, a gift bestowed upon us and unappreciated.

It is here that another couple arrives to the newsstand that reminds our narrator not a little bit of himself and his faithless siren. He smiles upon his gift and does something we could not possibly expect, but which is the most laudable of human actions. And the most laudable of human actions is our gift, especially when its ambit includes us as well.

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