As failures go; attempting to recall the past is like claiming to grasp the meaning of existence. Both make one feel like a baby clutching at a basketball: one’s palms keep sliding off.
I remember rather little of my life and what I do remember is of small consequence. Most of the thoughts I now recall as having been interesting to me owe their significance to the time when they occurred. If any do not, they have no doubt been expressed much better by someone else. A writer’s biography is in his twists of language. I remember, for instance, that when I was about ten or eleven it occurred to me that Marx’s dictum that “being determines consciousness” was true only for as long as it takes consciousness to acquire the art of estrangement; thereafter, consciousness is on its own and can both determine or ignore being. At that age, this was surely a discovery—but one hardly worth recording, and surely it had been better stated by others. And does it really matter who first cracked the mental cuneiform of which “being determines consciousness” is a perfect example?
So I am writing all this not in order to set the record straight (there is no such record, and even if there is, it is an insignificant one and thus not yet distorted), but mostly for the usual reason why a writer writes—to give or get a boost from the language, this time, from a foreign one. The little I remember becomes even more diminished by being recollected in English.
For the beginning I had better trust my birth certificate, which states that I was born on May 24, 1940, in Leningrad, Russia, much as I abhor this name for the city which long ago the ordinary people nicknamed simply “Peter”—from Petersburg. There is an old two-liner:
The people’s sides
Are rubbed by Old Peter.
In the national experience, the city is definitely Leningrad; in the growing vulgarity of its content, it becomes Leningrad more and more. Besides, as a word, “Leningrad” to a Russian ear already sounds as neutral as the word “construction” or “sausage.” And yet I’d rather call it “Peter,” for I remember this city at a time when it didn’t look like “Leningrad”—right after the war. Gray, pale-green façades with bullet and shrapnel caverns; endless, empty streets, with few passers-by and light traffic; almost a starved look with, as a result, more definite and, if you wish, nobler features. A lean, hard face with the abstract glitter of its river reflected in the eyes of its hollow windows. A survivor cannot be named after Lenin.
Those magnificent pock-marked façades behind which—among old pianos, worn-out rugs, dusty paintings in heavy bronze frames, leftovers of furniture (chairs least of all) consumed by the iron stoves during the siege—a faint life was beginning to glimmer. And I remember, as I passed these façades on my way to school …