A Russian Soul Rooted in New York
IN an essay, Primo Levi writes: "I believe that I represent an extreme case of the sedentary person, comparable to certain mollusks, limpets, for example, which, after a brief larval stage during which they swim about freely, attach themselves to a sea rock, secrete an outer shell, and stay put for the rest of their lives." The rock to which I have attached myself is Manhattan Island. Indeed, I have lived almost my entire life in a 32-block area.
Born at 105th Street and Fifth Avenue; raised at 98th and 96th Streets; living now at 73rd Street. I can, with ease, on a Sunday afternoon walk, cover the geographic boundaries of my life.
How different from my mother's life which was deeply affected by the Russian Revolution. At age 16, she was uprooted and forced to leave St. Petersburg, the city of her birth and childhood, and her country. During the remaining 53 years of her life, she returned only twice for brief visits.
The life of an exile is difficult. I never appreciated the full extent of her losses. She lost her city, a beautiful place of canals, bridges and palaces, and her homeland. All that remained was "un-real estate those memories of the past no one can take away - to use Nabokov's felicitous expression.
Her family life was shattered. After saying farewell to her father in Copenhagen, from where in 1919 she traveled by ship to Boston, she never saw him again. He died in London, as did her brother, whom she also never again saw, in Vienna. She did not see her mother and sister for more than a decade.
She lost the opportunity, living in an English-speaking land, to use her mother tongue. Among the few times I heard Mother speak Russian was when she read to my sister and me in the evening from Pushkin's "Eugene Onegin"; usually the letter-writing scene, the most famous passage in the poem when Tatiana declares her love for Onegin.
Russians are very emotional people. Mother had to make the difficult adjustment to an Anglo-Saxon society where "the whirlwinds of the soul natural to a Russian provoked incomprehension," as biographer, Brian Boyd, describes the same experience Nabokov underwent in England.