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08 JANUARY, 2015

Nabokov Gets Food Poisoning and Flees from the Hospital via Fire Escape: History’s Most Entertaining Account of “Homeric Retching”

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“I returned to my microscope around two. Exactly at 2:30, I suddenly felt an urge to vomit, had barely time to run outside — and there it began.”

Some weeks ago, I found myself wholly incapacitated by my very first experience of food poisoning — a fact heartening in the abstract awareness that I had gone this many decades without enduring such an incapacitating episode, but utterly exasperating in its immediate bodily concreteness. Apart from the obvious gastrointestinal peril one imagines — but always imagines insufficiently in the face of the reality — I also found myself blindsided by the complete mental incapacitation resulting from the extreme physical weakness, as if the gut had somehow colluded with the brain in staunchly defying command and seceding from the rest of the being. Since writing was out of the question — an act that requires, above all, full access to one’s own brain and the seamless firing of the associative chains therein — I decided to distract myself with some light reading from a heavy book resting atop my bedside pile, which happened to be Letters to Véra (public library) — the same volume that gave us Nabokov’s exquisite love letters to his wife and was among the best memoirs, biographies, and history books of 2014. Imagine my utter shock — so much so that I at first considered it a poisoning-induced hallucination — when I split the hefty tome in about half, opening to a random page, on which began Nabokov’s wildly entertaining account of his first food poisoning.

In the late spring of 1944, while serving as a curator of lepidoptery at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology, the beloved author endured his own gastrointestinal nightmare thanks to a lunch of questionable ham at the German eatery Wursthaus — an iconic fixture of Harvard Square between 1917 and 1996. Two years earlier, the restaurant had been bought by Frank N. Cardullo, “the unofficial Mayor of Cambridge,” who turned it into a $3-million-a-year enterprise by the 1980s, only to see the health-conscious 1990s spell its demise. But in Nabokov’s day, that decadent German ham turned out to be unhealthy for far more immediately distressing reasons, which the author came to recount in wildly amusing detail in a letter to his wife — culminating with his flamboyant vamoose from the hospital via the fire-escape, in pajamas.

On June 6, 1944, Nabokov writes to Véra from Cambridge, addressing her by one of his many terms of endearment:

My dear darling,

Yesterday was a day of extraordinary adventures. It started when, in the morning, the minute I was getting ready to go to the museum (with a tennis racket, since I’d arranged to play with Clark at 4:30), T.N. [Nabokov’s friend Tatyana Nikolaevna Karpovich] called, very agitated — she’d driven the sick M. Mikh. [Mikhail Mikhaylovich Karpovich, Tatyana’s husband] down from Vermont, and meanwhile the Dobuzhinskys [the painter Mstislav Dobuzhnisky and his wife] had arrived and couldn’t get into their house, since no one was at home… I agreed with her that after tennis I would drop in to check on M. Mikh., and left for the museum. Around one in the afternoon, still just as healthy and energetic, I had lunch at the Wursthaus, where I had the Virginia ham with spinach and drank a coffee. I returned to my microscope around two. Exactly at 2:30, I suddenly felt an urge to vomit, had barely time to run outside — and there it began: an absolutely Homeric retching, bloody diarrhoea, spasms, weakness. I don’t know how I got back home, where I crawled along the floor and poured myself out in the waste basket.

The iconic Wursthaus restaurant (Cambridge Historical Society)

But it only goes downhill from there — Nabokov’s private pain becomes a public farce as he turns to the healthcare system for help:

Somehow or other I found the strength to call T.N., who summoned an ambulance, which took me to the truly horrendous hospital where you’d been with Mityushen’ka [the Nabokovs’ son Dmitry]. An absolutely helpless brunette tried to pump my stomach through my nose — I’d rather not recall that — in a word, I asked, writing from the spasms and retching, for them to take me quickly somewhere else. T.N., realizing that the doctor was there, drove me to their place. By then I was in a state of complete collapse. This doctor, very sweet (I don’t remember his name), immediately made all the arrangements himself and himself drove, and carried, me to the hospital where you’d been. There they placed me in a ward with a terribly and raucously dying old man — and because of the groans I couldn’t get to sleep. They poured a bottle of salt solution into my veins — and today, although the diarrhoea’s still carrying on this morning, I feel great, am awfully hungry — and want to smoke — but they’re giving me only water. I’m being looked after by a Dr. Cooney.

He has just been here, the diarrhoea has stopped, he said I can be discharged the day after tomorrow, on Friday. They have just given me food for the first time (5:30) — and rather strange, at that (but you know this): risotto, bacon, canned pears. I didn’t eat the bacon… A silly story, but all in all I am absolutely healthy now. I won’t mention the living conditions here. Clean, but terribly noisy. I have been transferred to a public ward. Enfin. I dined in a very pleasant open gallery where they rolled me out and where I smoked my first cigarette.

The doctor says it was bloody colitis caused by food poisoning… In short, the bacilli had taken me for the invasion beach.

Before ending the letter with his usual expressions of adoration, Nabokov instructs Véra with affectionate firmness, even underlining his directive:

Don’t come here under any circumstances: I’ve recovered.

Three days later, while still in the hospital, he writes to Véra again:

I feel unbearably bored without you and my little one. These few days have completely exhausted me physically, but in terms of i n s p i r a t i o n everything is going very well. Today’s the first time my stomach has really worked properly, and if it weren’t for the weakness in my loins, I’d feel excellent.

Ever the wry humorist in these private letters, he offers a florid — if somewhat uncompassionate — taxonomy of auditory discomforts:

The public ward was utter bedlam. There was an endless unruly din consisting of the following elements:

  1. the zoological sounds of an incessant radio set
  2. the wheezes, groans, and roaring of the seriously ill
  3. conversations across the whole enormous ward by the healthier, with guffawing and strolling around
  4. the incredible noise produced by a sixteen-year-old idiot helping the nurses, the institutional fool. He grimaced, stomped, howled, deliberately banged every dish, cracked jokes — and imitated the moans of some of the old men who were in particular anguish, thereby arousing general goodhearted laughter

The nurses constantly tried to pull open the curtains of my coop and got angry saying that since all the other curtains were pulled, my poor tabernacle was spoiling the general look of the ward.

Eventually, Nabokov can’t take any more of this institutional charade. He relays his picturesque escape via dramatic acrobatics:

By the end of my stay I was in such a state of exasperation that when on Saturday morning I saw from the gallery (where I had gone out for a smoke) T.N., who’d come for me, I jumped out through the fire-escape and I was, in pyjamas and a dressing-gown, rushed to the car — and we were already moving off, when the absolutely enraged nurses ran out — but they couldn’t stop me.

As if the deliberate comedy of his account weren’t enough, he adds a mischievous marital jab at the end:

I love you very much. I must confess there was a minute when I was lying there with no pulse thinking some rather funny thoughts. I wish you had seen the burly policemen summoned to Cragie by T.N. and wanting to know “who is this woman?” and “what poison did you take?” When do you get back? I adore you.

Exactly a week after ingesting the unfortunate ham, Nabokov drops a matter-of-factly lamentation in an aside in another letter:

I did stop by at the Wursthaus yesterday, and although I didn’t intend to say to them anything offensive or damaging, a row erupted from the first words, thanks to the owner’s rudeness, since, apparently, this was not the first complaint about his wretched ham.

The Wursthaus in the 1950s (Cambridge Historical Society)

But this was far from the end of Nabokov’s hospital misadventures and only the beginning of his understandable mistrust of the healthcare system. In a 2003 email archived by the University of California Santa Barbara, Dmitry Nabokov recounts his father’s escalating medical misfortunes, strung together by a common thread of the tragicomic:

In the forties, while my mother and I were visiting a relative in New York and my father was busy with students in Wellesley and butterflies in Cambridge, he collapsed with acute food poisoning after a meal at a Cambridge restaurant called the Wursthaus. He was hospitalized, and then shown a routine chest Xray that revealed a dark mass in one lung. He was told it was cancer. He stopped smoking cold turkey, started eating molasses candy as a surrogate, and gained some 30 pounds. It turned out later that the Xray had not been his at all.

Letters to Véra is a treasure trove in its entirety. Complement it with Nabokov on inspiration, censorship and solidarity, what makes a great storyteller, and the attributes of a good reader.

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07 JANUARY, 2015

The Pleasure of Practicing: A Musician’s Assuring Account of Creative Homecoming and Overcoming Impostor Syndrome

By:

“Limitation is the condition of our lives. What matters — what allows us to reach beyond ourselves, as we are, and push at the boundaries of our ability — is that we continue. But then everything depends on how we practice, what we practice.”

In her sublime memoir of the writing life, Dani Shapiro wrote: “The job — as well as the plight, and the unexpected joy — of the artist is to embrace uncertainty, to be sharpened and honed by it.” But the sharpening-and-honing itself rarely feels like a joy when you are mid-leap into the unknown, with no guarantee of whether your daily act of showing up — of practice and perseverance — will ever amount to the development of greatness. After all, Oscar Wilde famously quipped that “only mediocrities develop.” And yet here we are a century later, heeding psychologists’ growing body of evidence that “grit” is far more important than “talent” and that practice with a feedback loop is the surest road to success. Even so, the cult of inborn talent endures — after all, it is hard-baked into our cultural mythology of genius — and continues to oppress aspiring artists. “In every musician’s mind lurks the fear that practicing is merely busywork, that you are either born to your instrument or you are an impostor,” writes Glenn Kurtz in Practicing: A Musician’s Return to Music (public library) — his spectacular memoir of creative homecoming, brimming with vital and poetically articulated wisdom on the artist’s life, deeply resonant for every field of creative endeavor.

Having grown up playing guitar and working to become a professional musician as a young adult, studying at a conservatory and winning some competitions along the way, Kurtz found himself disillusioned and exasperated with his progress, with the disheartening sense that “ambition and expectation are sometimes not enough.” So he gave up the dream of becoming an artist, borrowed a book from the New York Public Library to learn typing, and got himself a “real” job as an editorial assistant in New York, to which he walked twenty blocks to work every morning, “stunned and heartbroken, a sleepwalker.”

Illustration from 'About Time' by Vahram Muratyan. Click image for more.

Kurtz writes:

Every day felt like the waste of my entire life. For fifteen years I had practiced to become an artist. But I’d misunderstood what that meant… Most people give up their fantasies of art, exploration, and invention. I was furious at myself for having believed I was different, and even more furious that I wasn’t.

That anguishing personal emptiness was only compounded by New York’s merciless collective cult of self-actualization, which left Kurtz even more crestfallen about the trajectory of his life:

There was more movement, more intense ambition and envy in one block of New York City than in all of Vienna. But I had no part in it. There was nothing here that I wanted. I was walking home from a boring job, lost in a crowd of blue, gray, and brown business suits, skirting oncoming cars like a scuttling pigeon, because I had given up. My fingers were not to blame; nor were my parents, my teachers, music history, or my instrument. With every step I felt more harshly how I had failed, how fundamentally I had betrayed myself. Out of fear of being mediocre, I’d listened to the wrong voices. I’d been practicing all the wrong things.

[…]

Everyone who gives up a serious childhood dream — of becoming an artist, a doctor, an engineer, an athlete — lives the rest of their life with a sense of loss, with nagging what ifs.

[…]

Only a very few loves can disappoint you so fundamentally that you feel you’ve lost yourself when they’re gone. Quitting music wounded me as deeply as any relationship in my life. It was my first great loss, this innocent, awkward failure to live with what I heard and felt. For more than ten years I avoided music. It hurt too much. My anger went as deep as my love had gone. I suppose this is natural. In the aftermath of something so painful, we subsist on bitterness, which sustains us against even greater loss.

So he did something few have the courage to do — after a fifteen-year detour from his true calling, he decided to let his life speak and face that menacing what-if head on by returning to his great love. That homecoming to music was made possible by his deep commitment to practicing — “a process of continual reevaluation, an attempt to bring growth to repetition,” a delicate act that “teaches us the sweet, bittersweet joy of development, of growth, of change” — day in and day out.

Indeed, anyone who has ever experienced the “spiritual electricity” of creative flow can relate to Kurtz’s electrifying account of this transcendent process-state and easily substitute his or her instrument of choice — the pen, the camera, the keyboard — for his guitar:

Each note rubs the others just right, and the instrument shivers with delight. The feeling is unmistakable, intoxicating. When a guitar is perfectly in tune, its strings, its whole body will resonate in sympathetic vibration, the true concord of well-tuned sounds. It is an ancient, hopeful metaphor, an instrument in tune, speaking of pleasure on earth and order in the cosmos, the fragility of beauty, and the quiver in our longing for love.

Illustration from 'Herman and Rosie' by Gus Gordon. Click image for more.

Kurtz captures beautifully the enchanting absorption and tactile immediacy of this creative flow:

I concentrate on the simplest task, to play all the notes at precisely the same moment, with one thought, one motion. It takes a few minutes; sometimes, on bad days, it takes all morning. I take my time. But I cannot proceed without this unity of thought, motion, and sound.

[…]

I play deliberately, building a triangle of sound — fingertip, ear, fingertip — until my hands become aware of each other.

In a sentiment that calls to mind young Virginia Woolf’s memorable meditation on the bodily ecstasy of music, he adds:

My attention warms and sharpens, and I shape the notes more carefully. I remember now that music is vibration, a disturbance in the air. I remember that music is a kind of breathing, an exchange of energy and excitement. I remember that music is physical, not just in the production of sounds, in the instrumentalist’s technique, but as an experience. Making music changes my body, eliciting shivers, sobs, or the desire to dance. I become aware of myself, of these sensations that lie dormant until music brings them out. And in an instant the pleasure, the effort, the ambition and intensity of playing grip me and shake me awake. I feel as if I’ve been wandering aimlessly until now, as if all the time I’m not practicing, I’m a sleepwalker.

[…]

Listening, drawing sound, motion, and thought together, I find my concentration. My imagination opens and reaches out. And in that reaching I begin to recognize myself.

Practicing in such a way, Kurtz points out, is an embodied experience rather than one that takes place in the mind’s maze of abstraction — it makes the “whole body alive with aspiration.” Indeed, these two modalities are often in conflict — in one of his many insightful asides, Kurtz issues an admonition that, like the book itself, applies with equal precision to all creative endeavors:

It’s dangerous for a musician to philosophize instead of practicing. The grandeur of music, to be heard, must be played.

And in the playing — as in the writing, or the painting, or the knitting — is where we find the gateway to mastery:

Each day … practicing is the same task, this essential human gesture — reaching out for an ideal, for the grandeur of what you desire, and feeling it slip through your fingers.

The daily showing up and reaching out is, indeed, where the crucial difference between success and mastery lies, as does Lewis Hyde’s essential dichotomy between work and creative labor. Kurtz captures this elegantly:

Together this pleasure in music and the discipline of practice engage in an endless tussle, a kind of romance. The sense of joy justifies the labor; the labor, I hope, leads to joy. This, at least, is the bargain I quietly make with myself each morning as I sit down. If I just do my work, then pleasure, mastery will follow. Even the greatest artists must make the same bargain.

[…]

Practicing is striving; practicing is a romance. But practicing is also a risk, a test of character, a threat of deeply personal failure… Every day I collide with my limits, the constraints of my hands, my instrument, and my imagination. Each morning when I sit down, I’m bewildered by a cacophony of voices, encouraging and dismissive, joyous and harsh, each one a little tyrant, each one insisting on its own direction. And I struggle to harmonize them, to find my way between them, uncertain whether this work is worth it or a waste of my time.

Illustration from 'The Fantastic Jungles of Henri Rousseau,' the heartening story of how the iconic painter attained creative success in his later years, after a lifetime of hard work and rejection. Click image for more.

Quoting harpsichordist Wanda Landowska — “If everyone knew how to work, everyone would be a genius!” — Kurtz writes:

Practicing is training; practicing is meditation and therapy. But before any of these, practicing is a story you tell yourself, a bildungsroman, a tale of education and self-realization. For the fingers as for the mind, practicing is an imaginative, imaginary arc, a journey, a voyage. You must feel you are moving forward. But it is the story that leads you on.

[…]

From the outside, practicing may not seem like much of a story… Yet practicing is the fundamental story. Whether as a musician, as an athlete, at your job, or in love, practice gives direction to your longing, gives substance to your labor.

Indeed, this fundamental story of practicing is what lies beneath our culture’s fascination with daily routines, which always harbor the question of what propels the impulse to show up day after day after day in the service of one’s private creative enterprise. Kurtz offers a compelling answer:

Every day you go to the gym or sit down at your desk. The work is not always interesting, not always fun. Sometimes it is tedious. Sometimes it is infuriating. Why do you continue? Why did you start in the first place? You must have an answer that helps you persevere… Without telling yourself some story of practicing, without imagining a path to your goal, the aggravation and effort seem pointless. And without faith in the story you create, the hours of doubt and struggle and the endless repetition feel like torture.

[…]

Practicing is a story, but not one in “square time,” not a simple path to perfection. Instead, it is a myth you weave to draw up the many strands of your doubt and desire… The story you tell yourself … must embrace everything you experience when you sit down in the presence of your ideal.

[…]

When you sit down to practice, however casually, you cast yourself as the hero and victim of your own myth. You will encounter obstacles; you will struggle, succeed, and struggle some more. The story of your practice weaves all this together, absorbing what is within you and making it productive. Because when you truly believe your story of practicing, it has the power to turn routine into a route, to resolve your discordant voices, and to transform the harshest, most intense disappointment into the very reason you continue.

Unflinching belief in that master-story is also what allows us to transcend the daily rebellions of our bodies and minds, and to go on practicing:

Artistry may seem divine, but practicing is always mundane. Practice immerses you in your daily self — this body, these moods… You struggle with mistakes and flaws. The work is physical, intellectual, psychological. It can be exhilarating and aggravating, fulfilling and terribly lonesome. But it is always just you, the instrument, and the music, here, now. Practicing is the truth of who you are, today, as you strive to change, to make yourself better, to become someone new. The goal is always to bring old notes to life. Even so, while you sit down to work every day, it may take years before you know what you’ve practiced.

And therein lies Kurtz’s most assuring wisdom:

Limitation is the condition of our lives. What matters — what allows us to reach beyond ourselves, as we are, and push at the boundaries of our ability — is that we continue. But then everything depends on how we practice, what we practice.

[…]

I sit down to practice the fullness of my doubts and desire, my fantasies and flaws. Each day I follow them as far as I can bear it, for now. This is what teaches me my limits; this is what enables me to improve. I think it is the same with anything you seriously practice, anything you deeply love.

Practicing is an infinitely rewarding and ennobling read in its totality. Complement it with Dani Shapiro on the pleasures and perils of the creative life and Debbie Millman on the courage to choose the uncertain what-if.

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07 JANUARY, 2015

The Greatest Definition of Love

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“Knowledge of each other, not of the flesh but through the flesh, knowledge of self, the real him, the real her, in extremis, the mask slipped from the face…”

Literary history is as strewn with colorful attempts to define love — including some particularly memorable ones — as modern psychology is with attempts to dissect its inner workings. But perhaps the most powerful and profoundly human definition I’ve ever encountered comes from Czech-born British playwright Tom Stoppard’s 1982 play The Real Thing (public library) — a masterwork of insight on the heart’s trials and triumphs in human relationships.

In the second act, when the protagonist’s cynical teenage daughter probes what falling in love is like, he offers a disarmingly raw, earnest, life-earned answer:

It’s to do with knowing and being known. I remember how it stopped seeming odd that in biblical Greek, knowing was used for making love. Whosit knew so-and-so. Carnal knowledge. It’s what lovers trust each other with. Knowledge of each other, not of the flesh but through the flesh, knowledge of self, the real him, the real her, in extremis, the mask slipped from the face. Every other version of oneself is on offer to the public. We share our vivacity, grief, sulks, anger, joy… we hand it out to anybody who happens to be standing around, to friends and family with a momentary sense of indecency perhaps, to strangers without hesitation. Our lovers share us with the passing trade. But in pairs we insist that we give ourselves to each other. What selves? What’s left? What else is there that hasn’t been dealt out like a deck of cards? Carnal knowledge. Personal, final, uncompromised. Knowing, being known. I revere that. Having that is being rich, you can be generous about what’s shared — she walks, she talks, she laughs, she lends a sympathetic ear, she kicks off her shoes and dances on the tables, she’s everybody’s and it don’t mean a thing, let them eat cake; knowledge is something else, the undealt card, and while it’s held it makes you free-and-easy and nice to know, and when it’s gone everything is pain. Every single thing. Every object that meets the eye, a pencil, a tangerine, a travel poster. As if the physical world has been wired up to pass a current back to the part of your brain where imagination glows like a filament in a lobe no bigger than a torch bulb. Pain.

Complement this gem from the altogether brilliant The Real Thing with the stirring 1958 letter of advice on falling in love that John Steinbeck sent to his teenage son, Susan Sontag’s lifetime of reflections on love, and Sherwin Nuland on what everybody needs.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





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Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.