Thursday, April 19, 2012

Nostalgia: The Immigrants' Curse

Nabokov pictures in very emotional way nostalgia among a group of Russian economic and political emigrants who now reside in a run-down pension in Berlin, Germany.  Although this group is very diverse in terms of their age, occupation, and even social status they had in pre-Revolution Russia (e.g., Lev Ganin, Podtyagin, and Klara), most of them share this longing for times past and their homeland. Nowadays, and especially in Western culture tradition, there is this enthusiasm for the “global village” and the related ideal of cosmopolitism. This enthusiasm makes us more eager to focus on adjustment and assimilation. Nabokov reminds us that stepping outside the boundaries of one’s culture is a complex and challenging experience, one that involves a loss of familiarity, of confidence, of spontaneity, and often a destruction (temporary or not) of private lives.
All immigrants typically lost their homes in their homeland, which means the familiarity of their daily life. To compensate for it, or simply to feel more secure, they often live in ethnic ghettos similar to the pension described in the novel that is owned by another Russian √©migr√©,  Lydia Nikolaevna (married Dorn).  They also lost their occupation, which means the confidence that they are of some use in this world. This, in the novel, is especially apparent in the case of old poet Podtyagin. They also lost their language which means the naturalness of reactions, the simplicity of gestures, and the spontaneous expression of their sentiments. Finally, their loved ones, relatives and friends, are left behind which means the rupture of their private lives. This is, for example, illustrated with Mary being left behind in the new Soviet state by her husband Alfyorov.
The book raises many interesting questions: Does attachment to one's native culture preclude or merely influence adaptation into a new culture? Do we fashion our identity in interdependence with others, or do we shape it in a non-contingent frame? Is it possible to assimilate in an unfamiliar world without risking self-alienation? My view is that the cultural adjustment of immigrants can only happen when personal identity is understood as a quest for continuity in one's life story, even alongside the most radical cultural rupture. What do you think?


  1. While I agree that it is a continuous search because I can't imagine new settings not influencing an identity, I'm not sure that Nabokov cares for retaining the past. Meaning, I'm not sure that the idea of Russia is something he really would advocate for of his characters. Through their comments, my sense is that Nabokov would like to look elsewhere (anywhere but Russia) for the near future.

    1. I agree, Gabe, that Nabokov would like to look elsewhere for the near future. But, he also seems to recognize that not everyone is able to do it, unlike Ganin. At the end Nabokov states, "... and the image of Mary, together with that of the old dying poet, now remained in the house of ghosts, which itself was already a memory." (p. 114) Ganin does look forward to going to Provence, France; but the rest of the group seems to be trapped in the past, with no clear vision for their future.