International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies

Trauma and World Literature

Posted 1 May 2008 in StressPoints by ISTSS

Vladimir Nabokov was a refugee, or as he seemed to prefer, exile, of both the Russian Revolution (his father was a prominent aristocrat and liberal) and western Europe of the 1930’s. So, he knows what he is talking about when, in his novel Pnin, he tells the story of an academic Russian immigrant, Pnin, in the US in the 1950s. The similarities end in that Pnin stumbles through the English language while Nabokov was one of its most admired practitioners. Toward the end of the novel, Professor Pnin has contact with some fellow immigrants, and is prompted to think about a lost love who did not escape the war. In this passage Nabokov helps make clear part of what might be sought when the term “closure” is invoked.
“One had to forget- because one could not live with the thought that this graceful, fragile, tender young woman with those eyes, that smile, those gardens and snows in the background had been brought in a cattle car to an extermination camp and killed by an injection of phenol into the heart, into the gentle heart one had heard beating under one’s lips in the dusk of the past. And since the exact form of her death had not been recorded, Mira kept dying a great number of deaths in one’s mind, and undergoing resurrections, only to die again and again, led away by a trained nurse, inoculated with filth, tetanus bacilli, broken glass, gassed in a sham shower bath with prussic acid, burned alive in a pit of a gasoline-soaked pile of beechwood. (p. 134)”
Nabokov, V. (1953). Pnin. New York:Avon
Nabokov, V. (1967). Speak memory, an autobiography revisited. New York: Vintage International.
Passages from literature can capture truths about trauma and its survivors which might be difficult to glean from years of clinical or research work. ISTSS members are invited to share a favorite passage or quote from literature that might not be well known, but which offers insight about the psychological effects of trauma or path of healing. Send submissions to Harold Kudler or Howard Lipke.
Erratum: In the March issue of StressPoints, the authorship of the column on the work of Kate Chopin was not correct. The column was submitted by Carole Koepke Brown. We apologize for this mistake.