not in our stars, but in ourselves
“Severe shellshock. Thinks he’s Ethel Merman.”
You may remember the above from the absurdist classic, Airplane! (1980). In the military hospital where our hero is recovering, post-nervous breakdown, Lieutenant Hurwitz begins moaning, and then belting out “Everything’s Coming Up Roses.” Of course, Hurwitz is indeed played by Ms. Merman – but within the diegesis, such as it is, his is a very sad case.
I offer this little preamble as a way of undercutting what I’m about to say, or at least undercutting the seriousness. It’s all about to sound pretty tragic, probably, but I want to reassure you all that I do not consider myself a tragic case. Don’t worry. Just remember – I think I’m Ethel Merman.
Watching The Grand Budapest Hotel hit me much harder than I expected it would. It’s beautiful, whimsical, and delightful – but also deeply affecting. The more I think about old Zero, utterly alone in his ruined hotel, the greater pity I feel. Pity morphs into empathy, and suddenly I feel that I’m sitting alone in that ruined hotel myself. Perhaps the past was mostly illusion, perhaps all those glimmering lights concealed hideous decay – but there was love, and order, and a sense of belonging.
Because I’ve been so taken with Grand Budapest, I’ve been talking about it a lot, and it led me to describe how I feel as an “émigrée complex.” What in the sam hell do I mean? Let me try to explain: an émigré is someone who’s been forced to leave their home, by political/social/cultural circumstances (maybe not war, per se, but events leading up to war or some other calamity) and go into exile. Some émigrés consider their exile to be voluntary (Vladimir Nabokov, for instance; more from him presently), perhaps to distinguish themselves from refugees. Some, I’m sure, see it as their only option besides death and/or imprisonment. The salient point is this: they were forced out of their homelands, forced to go somewhere else, forced to start all over again. With émigrés, it is usually not a question of impoverished peasants leaving their homelands to seek fortune elsewhere, as immigrants do. An émigré is usually someone from a fairly high social class, well-educated, privileged, and maybe even slightly complacent. When their sturdily built structure collapses around them and they flee elsewhere, they need to figure out not only how to adapt to whatever new land they’ve been thrown into; but also how to begin building a life and a home again, from nothing, with no tools or maps or knowledge.
Back to Nabokov, by far my favorite émigré. As you all should know, he was born in St. Petersburg in 1899, to a noble family. His childhood, as recollected in Speak, Memory, was idyllic. From their beautiful townhouse on Great Morskaya Street to their summer home in the country, Vyra, the Nabokovs lived in luxurious happiness. They were lucky, and they knew it. The family read, spoke, and understood Russian, French, and English. Nabokov’s father, Vladimir Dmitrievich, was a lawyer and criminologist whose unfailing sense of fairness led him into progressive politics as the empire hurtled towards revolution. Unfortunately for everyone, the Bolsheviks won, and the Nabokovs realized they had better get out while they could. They fled to Crimea first, then eventually settled in Berlin – home to a large community of Russian émigrés in the 1920s. During these years of wandering, Nabokov studied Russian literature at Cambridge University and began writing under the name V. Sirin. His father, a democrat to the end, was killed when he shielded a political rival from an assassination attempt in 1922. Nabokov met Véra Slonim in 1923 and married her two years later. They had a son, Dmitri, in 1934 – by which time Berlin had become a very dangerous place for a Russian (Nabokov) and a Jew (Véra). The Nabokov clan moved to Paris; but by 1940, Europe as a whole was in such an advanced state of rot that they were forced to flee the continent as well.
And so to America. Despite his literary career in Europe, he was basically unknown. He fell back on his academic qualifications and taught at Wellesley College, Harvard University, and Cornell University. During the summers, he and his young family traveled the United States, hunting butterflies. These summer road trips led to his writing Lolita; the rest, as they say, etc.
The best source for material about his émigré life is Nabokov’s work itself, of course, so please let the boring summary above lead you into Speak, Memory and Strong Opinions for his own experiences, mostly un-fictionalized; or into Lolita for the futile desire to recapture something that will only ever be lost; or into Pale Fire for the overly grand, romanticized memories of the “good” old days; or into Pnin for the heartbreaking, tragicomic daily life of a great intellectual in his homeland, turned into a lonely little joke in his adopted country.
I hope you understand émigrés better now. Now comes the tricky part: explaining what all of this has to do with me. The obvious reason I refer to my émigrée “complex” is because, of course, none of the above has happened to me. I was born in a very stable place at a very stable time in history. My parents loved me, and still do, as far as I know. I was a happy kid. I moved when I was in kindergarten, but only from one nice suburban town to another. I went to a beautiful college, where I was encouraged and protected during all four years. I graduated at a very bad time (2008), and had to bum around for a few years in retail and customer service jobs; but then, mostly for love but also for myself, I moved to Melbourne, Australia, where I received a master’s degree and a couple of great years with a great guy. For some sad reasons not worth mentioning here, I had to move back to America – but I had a place to live, and I got a job fairly quickly, and here I am: stable as a table.
Despite all of this, I feel that there’s a home I’ve been obligated to leave. This isn’t the place where I belong – this is just where I’ve ended up. It relates to a concept of home, but not simply in terms of a structure that gives me shelter. The only places I’ve considered to be real homes were places full of love, places where people loved me. Everywhere else has felt like someplace foreign; someplace where I’m not really welcome, only tolerated; someplace where I can’t set down any roots; someplace I’ll probably have to leave again soon.
I still remember Home. I still remember feeling loved, secure, comfortable. I carry around that memory with me, everywhere I go, and it’s my own little kingdom. As Nabokov said during an interview with the BBC in 1962, when asked if he would ever go back to Russia: “I will never go back, for the simple reason that all the Russia I need is always with me: literature, language, and my own Russian childhood.” I can never go back Home, really. But I remember it, and I can find some solace in the memory. It’s not enough, though, not yet. Unlike Nabokov, I have not found true happiness and a second Home. I only have my ghosts and my memories, and all I can do is compare my drab little existence to the glorious world I used to inhabit.
Do I conflate my world with the film world, the world of dreams and shadows and flickering light? I’m sure I do. The world was never so lovely as it looks in the movies. My world was never that lovely, certainly. However much I long for the Home I think I used to have, it was never as perfect in the moment as it has become in my mythologizing memory. I’m just a Kinbote, maybe. Or just an Ethel Merman.
Someday, I expect I’ll get over it. I don’t know how or when, but I will, probably. Until then, like Humbert, I will continue to get drunk on the impossible past, to remember, and – in a Chaplinesque twist that Nabokov would probably scorn – to hope for something better tomorrow.