Vladimir Nabokov - Speak, Memory

Review :

"My old (since 1917) quarrel with the Soviet dictatorship is wholly unrelated to any question of property. My contempt for the émigré who 'hates the Reds' because they 'stole' his money and land is complete. The nostalgia I have been cherishing all these years is a hypertrophied sense of lost childhood, not sorrow for lost banknotes."

And that is what this collage of memories is all about. It is not a conventional autobiography. It doesn't present a chronological account of Nabokov's life, nor does it analyse his literary works. In fact there is hardly anything about his novels in this work.* However, there are many memories of a lost childhood.

Typically something he sees triggers a memory, and that in turn may lead to other memories. He states that music doesn't appeal to him much: "Music, I regret to say, affects me merely as an arbitrary succession of more or less irritating sounds.", but what he lacks aurally he more than makes up for visually and he is gifted with synesthesia. "My mother did everything to encourage the general sensitiveness I had to visual stimulation." She taught him to appreciate the beauty of nature: "'Vot zapomni [now remember],' she would say in conspiratorial tones as she drew my attention to this or that loved thing in Vyra - a lark ascending the curds-and-whey sky of a dull spring day, heat lightning taking pictures of a distant line of trees in the night, the palette of maple leaves on brown sand, a small bird's cuneate footprints on new snow." "Thus, in a way, I inherited an exquisite simulacrum - the beauty of intangible property, unreal estate - and this proved a splendid training for the endurance of later losses."

Nostalgically he tells of mushroom gathering, a popular Russian pastime and he remembers the sight and smells: "Its shady recesses would then harbor that special boletic reek which makes a Russian's nostrils dilate - a dark, dank, satisfying blend of damp moss, rich earth, rotting leaves."

Nabokov provides an excellent snapshot of how the Russian aristocracy lived at the start of the twentieth century. He casually mentions that there were 50 servants on their country estate. He speaks with much fondness of some nannies and tutors (of whom he had many) and with contempt of others. There was the joy of learning to read: "I was thrilled by the thought that some day I might attain such proficiency. The magic has endured, and whenever a grammar book comes my way, I instantly turn to the last page to enjoy a forbidden glimpse of the laborious student's future, of that promised land where, at last, words are meant to mean what they mean."

Nabokov remembers: "The sepia gloom of an arctic afternoon in midwinter invaded the rooms and was deepening to an oppressive black. A bronze angle, a surface of glass or polished mahogany here and there in the darkness, reflected the odds and ends of light from the street, where the globes of tall street lamps along its middle line were already diffusing their lunar glow. Gauzy shadows moved on the ceiling. In the stillness, the dry sound of a chrysanthemum petal falling upon the marble of a table made one's nerves twang."

Nabokov, an enthusiastic lepidopterist, talks about butterflies - a lot and enthusiastically! He remembers his first romance and his first attempt at writing poetry. He also discusses time spent composing chess problems. There are memories of his brothers, and of his university years in England at Cambridge. He is amazed at the " astonishing drivel when Russia was being discussed" by otherwise intelligent fellow students. He tells us about his father who was assassinated in Berlin. He writes about exile and being an émigré.


"I have often noticed that after I had bestowed on the characters of my novels some treasured item of my past, it would pine away in the artificial world where I had so abruptly placed it. Although it lingered on in my mind, its personal warmth, its retrospective appeal had gone and, presently, it became more closely identified with my novel than with my former self, where it had seemed to be so safe from the intrusion of the artist."

"I confess I do not believe in time. I like to fold my magic carpet, after use, in such a way as to superimpose one part of the pattern upon another."

"I witness with pleasure the supreme achievement of memory, which is the masterly use it makes of innate harmonies when gathering to its fold the suspended and wandering tonalities of the past."

"Very lovely, very lonesome. But what am I doing in this stereoscopic dreamland How did I get here Somehow, the two sleighs have slipped away, leaving behind a passportless spy standing on the blue-white road in his New England snowboots and stormcoat. The vibration in my ears is no longer their receding bells, but only my old blood singing. All is still, spellbound, enthralled by the moon, fancy's rear-vision mirror. The snow is real, though, and as I bend to it and scoop up a handful, sixty years crumble to glittering frost-dust between my fingers."

*Nabokov initially used the pseudonym "Sirin" and he wittily references himself here: (view spoiler)[
"But the author that interested me most was naturally Sirin. He belonged to my generation. Among the young writers produced in exile he was the loneliest and most arrogant one. Beginning with the appearance of his first novel in 1925 and throughout the next fifteen years, until he vanished as strangely as he had come, his work kept provoking an acute and rather morbid interest on the part of critics. Just as Marxist publicists of the eighties in old Russia would have denounced his lack of concern with the economic structure of society, so the mystagogues of émigré letters deplored his lack of religious insight and of moral preoccupation. Everything about him was bound to offend Russian conventions and especially that Russian sense of decorum which, for example, an American offends so dangerously today, when in the presence of Soviet military men of distinction he happens to lounge with both hands in his trouser pockets. Conversely, Sirin's admirers made much, perhaps too much, of his unusual style, brilliant precision, functional imagery and that sort of thing. Russian readers who had been raised on the sturdy straightforwardness of Russian realism and had called the bluff of decadent cheats, were impressed by the mirror-like angles of his clear but weirdly misleading sentences and by the fact that the real life of his books flowed in his figures of speech, which one critic has compared to 'windows giving upon a contiguous world a rolling corollary, the shadow of a train of thought.' Across the dark sky of exile, Sirin passed, to use a simile of a more conservative nature, like a meteor, and disappeared, leaving nothing much else behind him than a vague sense of uneasiness."
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I loved this book. Nabokov wrote this memoir in English and later translated it into Russian. The writing is exquisite and his English is admirable. My vocabulary is richer for having read this lovely memoir.
A large number of extracts here, but Nabokov says it more eloquently than I ever can.

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