This past week I introduced one of my classes to the first few pages of Vladimir Nabokov’s Speak, Memory—not an easy read for experienced readers, much less engineering students who, with only one week left before final exams, are buried chin deep in calculus problems and AutoCAD projects. One section, however, seemed to speak to them more than others: Nabokov’s description of the “primordial cave” games of his four-year-old self. Here he is hiding in a narrow passage between wall and sofa, the top and sides closed in by cushions:

photo of fort building

Photo credit: Grace Fell

“I then had the fantastic pleasure of creeping through that pitch-dark tunnel, where I lingered a little to listen to the singing in my ears—that lonesome vibration so familiar to small boys in dusty hiding places—and then, in a burst of delicious panic, on rapidly thudding hands and knees I would read the tunnel’s far end, push its cushion away, and be welcomed by a mesh of sunshine on the parquet under the canework of a Viennese chair and two gamesome flies settling by turns. A dreamier and more delicate sensation was provided by another cave game, when upon awakening in the early morning I made a tent of my bed-clothes and let my imagination play in a thousand dim ways with the shadowy snowslides of linen and with the faint light that seemed to penetrate my prenumbral covert from some immense distance, where I fancied that strange, pale animals roamed in a landscape of lakes.”

We had previously read Plato’s allegory of the cave, so they could make that connection, but the power of the passage lies in something simpler, more sensual, less intellectual. Each one of us was taken back to a time when we played cave games by creating enclosed spaces for ourselves, whether with living room furniture or “shadowy snowslides of linen,” cardboard boxes or, if we were outside, leafy branches, letting our “imagination play in a thousand dim ways.”

The chance to relive these memories almost allowed them to forgive me for waxing on about the 120+ word sentence at the end of the passage we read, in which Nabokov keeps his father in the air with the sheer power of prose.

In the diaries I am transcribing, Aunt Hattie at age 75 describes the afternoon cave play of two neighborhood children:

August 9, 1956: Jack and Cherrie played camping with quilt and chairs for a tent, a stage coach on Will’s chair with table leaves for a high seat across the arms and double on leaves…Cherrie was on the arms on the table leaves, she would stretch out. Was a lot of fun.

Did you play cave games as a child?

Do you still?

Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, Animated: