Monday, October 05, 2020

Time and Ebb of Cold River


The something in nothing

THE GENESIS OF GENIUS: Nothing has value, nothing is something, nothing produces new ideas.



A Special Subject Into Which to Inject His Genius'

Nabokov wrote his story “Time and Ebb” in 1944, four years after arriving in the United States, and published it in the January 1945 issue of The Atlantic Monthly. The unnamed, ninety-year-old narrator is an émigré scientist writing from our age, early in the twenty-first century, reflecting on the nineteen-forties in America. In the wrong hands, such a set-up might descend into soggy nostalgia or cheap social satire. For Nabokov it’s a playful way to deal with his obsessive theme, memory. The virtually plotless story is laced with anachronistic descriptions of commonplace objects. As the reader works out what Nabokov is telling us, he is replicating the process of memory:


“[T]he  drivers of the squat, gaudy, scaraboid motorcabs (generically allied in my mind to certain  equally  gaudy automatic machines upon the musical constipation of which the insertion of a small coin used to act as a miraculous laxative) had their stale photographic pictures affixed to their backs; for we lived in the era of Identification and Tabulation; saw the personalities of men and  things in terms of names and nicknames and did not believe in the existence of anything that was nameless.” 


The costive machines are juke boxes, once ubiquitous in bars and diners. Nabokov recreates a soda fountain, a wholesomely perennial Hollywood setting, as in this scene from “Love Finds Andy Hardy” (1938) and in the 1959 “Walking Distance” episode of The Twilight Zone, which shares its visiting-the-past premise with “Time and Ebb.” Nabokov describes the minor miracle of a chocolate soda:


“I remember the shallow enchantment and the minor poetry of the proceedings: the copious froth engendered above the sunken lump of frozen synthetic cream, or the liquid brown mud of ‘fudge’ sauce poured over its polar pate. Brass and glass surfaces, sterile reflections of electric lamps, the whirr and shimmer of a caged propeller [of a milk-shake machine] . . .”


Among other things, the story celebrates Nabokov’s gratitude and delight to be living in a free, prosperous country after decades of exile from Russia, Germany and France: “[N]o matter how small the town, I was sure to  find a place where bicycle tires were repaired, and a place where ice cream was sold, and a place where cinematographic pictures were shown.” In the subsequent three-quarters of a century, air travel has grown obsolete, though Nabokov supplies no explanation (a narrative tic he uses frequently inAda, or Ardor: A Family Chronicle (1969). Our narrator revels in his memories of aviation. In celebrating airplanes, he off-handedly gives his creator an opportunity to celebrate his art: 


“To those who have been born since the staggering discoveries of the seventies, and who thus have seen nothing in the nature of flying things save perhaps a kite or a toy balloon (still permitted, I understand, in several states in spite of Dr. de Sutton's recent articles on the subject), it is not easy to imagine airplanes, particularly because old photographic pictures of those splendid machines in full flight lack the life which only art could have been capable of retaining -- and oddly enough no great painter ever chose them as a special subject into which to inject his genius and thus preserve their image from deterioration.”