Letter from London: Air Today, Gone Tomorrow

Cover art for the first edition of Laughter in the Dark by Vladimir Nabokov – Public Domain

I picked up a paperback copy of Vladimir Nabokov’s Laughter in the Dark in a charity shop last week. I’ve been reading it ever since. I didn’t know that the Russian writer — when a penniless thirty-one-year-old living in Berlin — first called it Camera Obscura. Nor that he retranslated it himself retitling it in 1938 Laughter in the Dark. An American former editor tells me people rate it more highly than Lolita. I can now see why. For those new to this, as I was, it is a compact tale about someone falling prey to their desires. Because the ending is given at the beginning, it doesn’t try to live on mere titillation — something deeper and more troubling is going on. (‘Although there is plenty of space on a gravestone to contain, bound in moss, the abridged version of a man’s life, detail is always welcome.’) Like others, I have marveled at how the likes of Nabokov and Joseph Conrad (not fictitious writer Udo Conrad in the book) wrote such beautiful English when a second language. (‘Baum, the author,’ Nabokov writes tightly, ‘a stout, red-faced, fussy individual with strong Communistic leanings and a comfortable income.’) It is incredible. The Russian makes it seem only outsiders can unlock the true magic of English. ‘He did us all an honor by electing to use, and transform, our language,’ said Anthony Burgess.

Today, instead of down to the river — that was yesterday — it was down to Lewisham market on a busy 89 red double-decker bus we went. This was a trip accompanied by panoramic views over the heath beneath what I always consider the biggest sky in London. In Lewisham itself, the open market was so honestly priced it made the major food chains look ridiculous. Close your eyes and the voices intimated or insinuated Dickens. Open them and you were reminded not only of London’s immeasurable diversity but its ability to stick together. (As Dickens himself once wrote to London novelist and playwright Wilkie Collins in 1858, ‘Everything that happens […] shows beyond mistake that you can’t shut out the world; that you are in it, to be of it; that you get yourself into a false position the moment you try to sever yourself from it; that you must mingle with it, and make the best of it, and make the best of yourself into the bargain.’) Presently, the fractious picture of this city that a number of politicians like to paint is such a dangerously negative one. Why do their words always end up sounding like a chant for law and order? No, it is remarkable how even with nothing, people are there for each other. We purchased delicious blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, bananas, coriander, green chillis, red peppery tongues, tomatoes, and aubergines for a quarter of the price at our local supermarket, though we knew even this can be tough for some.

‘Genius is non-conformity,’ Nabokov wrote elsewhere. I must confess, I still grapple with the issue of conformity. Isn’t this what usually happens when people are born into stable or untroubled backgrounds? The route ahead seems predictable and well-defined in such cases. You go this way or that but tend always to benefit from help, which is no bad thing. No wonder the pressure to conform is so enormous. People who work hard often do well. Before they know it, they have reached the apex of their career and are suitably rewarded. While they may dally with one or two extra-curricular activities, a terrible ending has thus been avoided. So, too, perhaps, a terrible truth? Have not some crushed the poetry within? ‘I think cultures of conformity produce vast quantities of shame,’ wrote Jonathan Franzen, ‘both in people who simply can’t conform and people who do conform, but underneath, they’re not feeling conformist.’

Still no news on a date for my operation but I continue mostly virtual meetings about my African film project. Bad logistics and poor funding remain my two bugbears. I returned from my most recent conversation with the crew to read a few more pages of Nabokov, wishing my country’s relations with Russia were as good as mine with the book. ‘Death’ writes Nabokov through one of his characters, ‘seems to be merely a bad habit, which nature is at present powerless to overcome. I once had a dear friend — a beautiful boy full of life, with the face of an angel and the muscles of a panther. He cut himself while opening a tin of preserved peaches — you know, the large, soft, slippery kind that plap in the mouth and slither down. He died a few days later of blood poisoning. Fatuous, isn’t it? And yet… Yes, it is strange, but true, that, viewed as a work of art, the shape of his life would not have been so perfect had he been left to grow old. Death often is the point of life’s joke.’

What is no joke is the continued darkness out of Gaza. Deaths from malnutrition have now joined numbers killed by missile strikes, including a reported 45 in one recent strike alone. Here in London, more and more fresh faces are joining the protests while ceasefire talks splutter and tease. A few streets away during one protest last weekend, all-white English nationalists, anti-lockdown protesters, and so-called anti-jihadists shouting ‘who the f – – – is Allah’, came together as if under one broken umbrella. Protests in other European camps looked similar: white nationalists often missing their Saturday football on the one hand and largely non-Islamist pro-Palestinian protestors on the other, which is to say not Islamic militancy or fundamentalism but simple pain over the repeated loss of civilian life. Some may have seen that high-profile figures in the music business over here are also growing bolder. Not just Surrey’s very own 79-year-old Eric Clapton performing with a slick Palestinian flag painted on the face of his gently weeping guitar, but Dua Lipa calling for an end to ‘Israeli genocide’ in a post to her mere 88 million followers.

Our week ended on a musical note. This was thanks to the generous invitation of a hearteningly worldly friend now fully settled back in Blighty. She invited the artist and me to see the French duo Air at the Royal Albert Hall, including their full 25th-anniversary rendition of debut album Moon Safari. Musicians Nicolas Godin and Jean-Benoît Dunckel were impressively fresh considering they had performed in Sidney only a few days earlier. As the two former architecture and astrophysics students both stood in a rectangular white box accompanied by their affable long-haired drummer, all three in white, I was thinking back to how much I missed those many Europeans who before Brexit used to thrive here in our capital in far larger numbers than they do today. Moon Safari was written at a time when lounge-side electronica suited well the many professional and non-professional classes living and working here, especially with its slick promise of freedom, comfort, and occasional sensuality. Today, however, confusingly at first, it seemed very different to me. Intriguingly, its largely instrumentalist content now felt like the soundtrack for something much deeper and darker. The impossibility of perpetual bliss? A lot has happened in the world over the course of the past 25 years or so since they first wrote Moon Safari. Arguably, and given what I have said perhaps ironically, it is only music in today’s withdrawing world that has remained a true refuge.

As Nabkov’s book began its slow descent towards its grand finale, I was made to feel restless as hell — just like its rich art critic Albert Albinus. (‘Everything was too quiet to be natural. It seemed as if the silence was rising, rising — would suddenly brim over and break into laughter.’) But there was more groping still to come. This was along long cool and patted walls past deliberately cluttered doorways. The nakedness of the truth could not even be seen. Frustration was all. Then — as far as endings go — this one was off the scale.

Peter Bach lives in London.