In Speak, Memory, the five-year-old Nabokov is led down from the nursery in 1904 to meet a friend of the family, General Kuropatkin.
To amuse me, he spread out a handful of matches on the divan where he was sitting, placed ten of them end to end to make a horizontal line and said: ‘This is the sea in calm weather.’ Then he tipped up each pair so as to turn the straight line into a zigzag – and that was ‘a stormy sea’. He scrambled the matches and was about to do, I hoped, a better trick when we were interrupted. His aide-de-camp was shown in and said something to him. With a Russian, flustered grunt, Kuropatkin immediately rose from his seat, the loose matches jumping up on the divan as his weight left it. That day, he had been ordered to assume supreme command of the Russian army in the Far East.
And there the incident might satisfactorily end, with the ten matches in immortal disarray – a slow freeze of sudden technicolour from the sepia past.
But it doesn’t. There is a sequel, an historical rhyme. Fifteen years later, Nabokov’s father, in flight from the Bolsheviks, is accosted on a bridge ‘by an old man who looked like a peasant in his sheepskin coat’. The old man, Kuropatkin, asks for a light, and the artist comments: ‘Whether or not old Kuropatkin, in his rustic disguise, managed to evade Soviet imprisonment, is immaterial. What pleases me is the evolution of the match theme ... The following of such thematic designs through one’s life should be, I think, the true purpose of autobiography.’
Dan Jacobson would agree. In his foreword to these 13 austerely beautiful recollections, he commits himself not only to the truth but also to shapeliness, to design, to form, to narratives ‘which would appear to begin naturally, develop in a surprising and persuasive manner, and come to an end no sooner or later than they should’. It looks like an impossible prescription – the writer as servant of two mistresses, the homely familiar, and the shapely piece on the side. Indeed, brilliant though Speak, Memory is, Nabokov never again achieves a moment comparable to the Kuropatkin incident, where Dichtung and Wahrheit embrace so closely and satisfyingly. His chapters have their rough unities – a chapter arranged around his mother, a chapter touching on English themes from Pears soap to imported tutors, a lepidoptery chapter, another about journeys abroad, and so on – but the Kuropatkin interlude serves only to show how difficult it is to achieve such perfect symmetry. And perhaps also how undesirable this might be on a large scale since, in the end, Nabokov’s subject is memory itself – a genre in which details carry with them their own validity. Those aerobatic matches, a bathroom thermometer ‘with a bit of damp string in the eye of the handle’, a candle whose ‘groggy flame squirms and ducks’, a senile grandfather who, when shown a pretty pebble by the infant author, examines it and slowly puts it into his mouth, ‘a silvery rustle spelling “Suchard” ’ – these details, gold-plated by the act of remembrance, are the treasures one takes away from Speak, Memory.
For when memory speaks, it is in a voice burdened with emotion, as Maupassant realised when he had Jeanne return to the lost house of her childhood in Une Vie: ‘In Mamma’s room she found, stuck behind a door in a dark corner by the bed, a slim gold-headed pin she had put there long ago (she remembered it now) and for which she had searched for years. No one had been able to find it. She took it as a priceless relic and kissed it.’ Dan Jacobson’s tone is cooler but just as intent: ‘nothing is more mysterious to us than the processes which suddenly present to our awareness a long-forgotten face or phrase from childhood.’ And there are moments of piercing recollection throughout Time and Time Again: just as Nabokov can picture his son’s ‘bare back crisscrossed by the shoulder-straps of his knitted navy-blue shorts’, so Dan Jacobson rediscovers his son ‘wearing a green knitted jersey with a stand-up collar and buttons at its neck, and a pair of orange pants of a coarsely woven material that seemed to come no more than about two inches down his thighs’. Again, he is able to reconstitute his English master’s wardrobe: ‘he had three suits woven in hopsack, in improbable colours – one in green, one in purple, and one in a kind of mauve. Each of these suits had a matching pair of suede shoes. They would have made him an extravagant figure almost anywhere, let alone in a drab, dusty mining town like Kimberley.’ One of his childhood neighbours, Jamie Dalhousie, a victim of Down’s syndrome, ‘invariably wore on his close-cropped head the cap of the local high school – which he would never be able to attend’.
Though there is no shortage of detail in Time and Time Again, there is no profusion either. Dan Jacobson is not a helpless genius of memory like Nabokov or Saul Bellow: his details strike deeply home, but they are St Sebastians, martyrs to detail. Bellow, characterising Herzog, also delineates himself: ‘Almost certainly, Nachman ran away from the power of his old friend’s memory. Herzog persecuted everyone with it. It was like a terrible engine.’ Jacobson has no such headlong retrieval system. But he is therefore able to fulfil the promise of his foreword. His essays are more shapely than Nabokov or Bellow because he is not at the mercy of his memory to the same extent. Patterns present themselves: one could add to the clothing above the odd vivid accessory, like school cricket pads with string instead of buckles, or a colleague’s umbrella which is always firmly clutched ‘half way down its length, in his right hand’. These are not the author’s shapes and designs, yet one makes them because one is not overwhelmed – Jacobson isn’t drunk on detail, so his reader stays sober.
If that sounds drab, it isn’t meant to. The pleasure offered by Time and Time Again is different from that offered by Speak, Memory. Though these memoirs have been widely praised, their autobiographical slant prevents a just appreciation of their art. With fiction, the reader constantly asks why? Autobiography apparently answers this question before it can be asked: incidents, details, are included because they happened. Yet take the essay ‘Fate, Art, Love, and George’, which is an account of how Dan Jacobson came to marry his wife. It was, you could say, an accident. In bald summary, George, a virtual stranger to the author, by making an enquiry about economics in the smoking-room of Kimberley library, effectively introduced Dan Jacobson to another person – who became a friend and subsequently introduced him to his future wife. The story is a story of fate – and of how, but for this intervention, Jacobson’s life might have been utterly different. Though everything in ‘Fate, Art, Love, and George’ is true, it is only by reading it as fiction that the artistry of the telling becomes visible: alternative lives – a theme with variations.
Consider the sentence: ‘Not only was I never to speak to him again, I was never to see him thereafter, never to hear anything about him in any context whatever.’ Surely the slight tinge of contractual legalese here is deliberate? Jacobson’s pact with fate is already signed, sealed, delivered and signalled in the prose. Throughout, one encounters subtle, calculated linguistic effects. The title itself marvellously encapsulates the Jacobson journey through time – which begins tenderly with a small boy being handed through a train window from mother to father, and ends with the author in hospital, seeing not himself in the mirror but his father. Time, and time again, has passed. And yet more time. At one point he gently shows himself as a callow, would-be writer merely by referring to ‘John Keats and Alfred Tennyson’ – two real writers sporting their Christian names like new ties.
The landlady in ‘Fate, Art, Love, and George’ is named from Oscar Wilde. She is Miss Bunbury and keeps old personal columns with certain appointments encircled in red. For some reason, too, Miss Bunbury refers to Dan Jacobson as ‘David’ – an odd, striking detail, which, in addition to being true, contributes to the theme of alternative existences. By contrast, Jacobson’s wife is not named in the memoir: she is ‘the young woman’, another gesture, it seems to me, towards what Stephen Dedalus calls ‘the room of the infinite possibilities’ that events have ousted. Jacobson and his future wife later watch Miss Bunbury from their rented window:
She puts down her bags. Exhausted already? No, she has something else in mind. She proceeds to rummage in her bags, first in the one, then in the other. Evidently she believes herself to be unobserved. It turns out that what she has been looking for is a bottle of milk. She puts the bottle to her lips, tilts her head back, and drinks ravenously from it.
Why is this included? Simply because it happened? Again, Jacobson touches his theme: this old spinster, the owner of property in Highgate and in Swiss Cottage, is seen for a moment in a convincing, hypothetical role – that of a bag-lady.
Sometimes Dan Jacobson’s attempts to shape his raw material are less successful than this quiet masterpiece. The opening essay, ‘Kimberley’, sketches the town brilliantly – its dust, its racial divisions, ‘the stinging shriek of cicadas’ – but ends like this:
One hears little English in the streets. The trenches dug by the English defenders of the city during the siege, which my brothers and I once combed through for souvenirs, have been covered over and are now the site of a drive-in cinema. At night, from miles away across the veld, one can see the imbecile blinkings and starings of its enormous screen. But no sound comes from it. Instead a multitude of dogs suddenly raise their voices on the outskirts of town. One has only to listen to them for a moment to realise that their language, at least, is unchanged, and that they have nothing new to say for themselves.
I find this last sentence little more than a rhetorical flourish – as if the final paragraph had become a para, face blacked, somehow camouflaged, and dropping into suggestive darkness. ‘The Calling’, on the other hand, is faultless – an account of a writer realising his vocation, thanks to a single word in, of all things, A.W. Kinglake’s Eothen. The word ‘chemise’ crops up in class and even the precocious Jacobson can come no nearer its meaning than ‘obviously it was something that women wore’. The master, a homosexual nicknamed ‘Dainty’ by the boys, writes the word on the blackboard:
then he returned to his chair, which, as always, he had moved away from his desk and put down directly in front of us and on a level with us. He settled himself comfortably in it, legs apart and stretched out before him. His eyes found mine again. He took a fold of the fine cloth of his shirt between thumb and forefinger, at the level of his nipple, and pulled it away from his body, towards us. For a moment he rubbed the cloth backwards and forwards between his fingers. The room was so quiet we could all hear the sound: furtive, dry, tiny, no sooner picked up than lost.
Dan Jacobson’s direct comment on this erotic pantomime is: ‘if you knew a word like that you could use it; if you used it, its power became yours. Words were not signs or posters pointing to meanings outside themselves; they were their meanings.’ Exaltation and vocation follow – but ‘The Calling’ of the title isn’t limited only to art. ‘His eyes found mine again’: in this one sentence, Jacobson conveys to us the forbidden, public yet private appeal of the master to the young boy, which is never repeated. Except in a minor key: going home, Jacobson encounters a gang of convicts, blacks, one of whom meets his eyes. But ‘their gaze told me nothing but that I had passed across it, as close to them and as remote from them as a figure in a dream.’ They are being punished. Mr Dainty is more careful of the law: ‘he did not invite me to join his court or his clique’ but instead leaves presents in the young Jacobson’s desk, nothing too compromising. ‘The Calling’ is a wonderfully restrained, understated narrative, in which the adult forgoes the temptation to spell out what was unclear to his young self. Everything in the story seems merely contingent and circumstantial until the black convicts are introduced – when, like magnets, they gather every detail of the tale and point up its shape.
Like the best fiction, everything in Time and Time Again is carefully and casually arranged – yet there are moments when patterns arise which, you feel, the author has not prepared. The memoir of F.R. Leavis is a case in point. The man is created unforgettably in a rare adjectival burst: ‘it was the most complicated scalp I had ever seen: flecked, freckled, blotched, mottled, pitted, bumpy, bordered at the back and sides by a fringe of long, fine, unkempt, colourless hair.’ The metaphysical man is also captured: Jacobson feels protective because Leavis ‘was as little capable as a child of distancing himself from what he felt about anything or restraining himself from uttering whatever happened to be in his mind’. In the event, however, it is Leavis who protects Jacobson – from Mrs Leavis, who is as little capable as a child of restraining herself. The memoir ends, brilliantly, tenderly: ‘in the years that followed I dreamed about him, improbably and affectionately, several times.’ Reading this piece, I was immediately struck by the theme of protection and reminded of Dan Jacobson’s father, as portrayed in the second essay: ‘once his temper was lost he was quite incapable of controlling himself.’ In fact, Jacobson senior, we learn, was twice formally charged for assault. Could it be that, all these years, he has actually been dreaming about his father, ‘improbably and affectionately’, disguised as Dr Leavis? Perhaps not.