I grew up in a family that disapproved of education for girls. Although it turned out that I was the brightest, outshining my three brothers, my parents didn’t alter their stand that boys had brains and girls had wombs. Boys went out into the world with their brains. Girls stayed at home with their wombs.
I was a great reader, and throughout my childhood and teens, the story was everything to me. I failed dismally at school, preferring to read a novel than listen to my teachers. By the end of high school, I hardly went at all, and when I did, I hid a book under my desk and read that while the teacher spoke.
I had been streamed into the top level at school, where the students were being groomed for university. I didn’t go. I failed my final exams. After a year in the workforce, I retreated to my room and closed the door, too scared to go out. My parents couldn’t understand what was wrong with me. I didn’t understand myself. Fear spoke to me every second of the day.
But though all I wanted to do was say in my bedroom and never leave it, I was forced to go out from time to time. I needed books to read. The only books in the house were my childhood novels and the romances my mother borrowed or bought every Friday night, a ritual she had conducted since her children were small. I needed something more demanding than romances.
Taking my courage in both my trembling hands, I dressed and stepped out into the world. Terrified of people, I avoided them as long as I could by walking to the big central library in Wellington. I walked through the town belt, a cordon of indigenous vegetation that looped inner-city Wellington. It was dangerous for women to walk there. Rapists and killers lurked among the bushes, we were warned. I never met anyone. I travelled along clearly defined paths, my breath stolen by views of the sea which sparkled in summer sunlight.
Wellington Public Library was a record of trends in fiction since its inception. Every book it had ever bought was kept either on the public shelves or in the stacks. Unless it had been stolen, that was.
I read fiction and non-fiction with equal avidity. I found a copy of The Second Sex, by Simone de Beauvoir, and after reading it with the aid of a dictionary, I went through the book list at the back and read as many titles as the Wellington Public Library could give me.
And so I discovered Vladimir Nabokov. I combed the shelves for the library’s copy of Lolita. It was never there. It had probably been stolen. In the end, I bought a copy, which I still own, dog-eared, much-read, bound by a rubber band to keep the unanchored pages from skating away and getting lost.
Before I bought Lolita, though, I read The Defense, and loved it. Luzhin is a chess champion who goes mad when his skill abandons him. I read Despair as well and loved that. I connected with the world of madness that Nabokov described.
Some time in my mid-20s, I discovered Speak, Memory. By this time, I was a Nabokov addict. That meant I had learned to be curious and not to take the narrator’s word for what he said. Curiosity is probably the best lesson Nabokov taught me. It’s one of the qualities he prized in himself and others.
I read Speak, Memory, his account of growing up in Russia, the eldest son of wealthy, educated, much-travelled, land-owning parents, the Revolution that robbed him of everything material but which pressed into his hand a passion for his past and a sense of nostalgia he found crippling at times, ending with his escape from Nazi Europe with Vera, his Jewish wife, and their small son Dmitri.
The world he described was nothing like mine. In every way it was the opposite. And yet I loved this memoir, and still cherish it as my favourite in the genre.
After reading it a few times, I opened it one day, intending to embark on that journey of enchantment yet again. I read the preface, as I always did. Here, Nabokov tells the reader that the order in which the chapters are laid out is not the order in which he wrote them. He gives us that other order, and out of curiosity, I read the chapters that way. In so doing, I received the gift he had hidden inside his memoir for readers like me. It was like finding a jewelled necklace inside a Christmas pudding.
One of my favourite of Nabokov’s novels is The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, the first novel he wrote in English. The nameless narrator is searching for his missing half-brother, Sebastian Knight, tracking through the evidence of what went wrong for Sebastian and interviewing witnesses to the drama that preceded his disappearance.
When I read Speak, Memory in the order in which the chapters had been written, I found a version of Sebastian Knight, one seen in a carnival’s hall of mirrors.
Nabokov was my first real teacher, the one who opened my mind to the possibilities of the imagination, the one who lived in exile from his idealised childhood and returned to it again and again in his fiction. I felt he was always my companion, teaching me to pay attention, always pay attention, even to the insignificant and unprepossessing. Most of all, he taught me that reading stories is a way of dissolving the distance created by death and meeting other minds.