Saturday, October 24, 2015

My review of Vladimir Nabokov's memoir, Speak, Memory

Charles Dickens’ “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” notwithstanding, Vladimir Nabokov’s “The cradle rocks above an abyss” may be the best opening line ever. Nabokov explains his desire to write his memoir, Speak, Memory, is to prove his having existed between the dark abysses of life before his birth and life continuing after his death.

I’m not sure he—or we—really needed proof of his existence, but I’m glad to have read Speak, Memory for other reasons.  Nabokov’s memoir, roughly covering August 1903 to May 1940, has historical value, as he recounts his childhood in Russian aristocracy through exile during the 1917 Russian Revolution until his emigration to the United States in 1940.

Childhood memories include vivid pictures of his mother’s devotion and a series of tutors and governesses with all their colorful quirks. Young Vladimir’s education in the classics, literature, sciences, and languages was formidable. This memoir is, in fact, written in three languages—mainly English with Russian and French expressions interspersed and usually explained. His references to insects are in Latin, for example, tabanid for horsefly, and catocala adultera, for one of many butterflies he was so passionate about discovering and collecting.

Nabokov also speaks of the Russian politics in which his father was so embroiled and of his own writing career, but the childhood memories most enchanted me. That he could recall so many tiny details and articulate impressions astonished me. For example, he remembered his mother urging him to appreciate intangibles in his life. “‘Vot zapomni [now remember],’ she would say in conspiratorial tones as she drew my attention to this or that loved thing in Vyra [the family’s country estate]—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. As if feeling that in a few years the tangible part of her world would perish, she cultivated an extraordinary consciousness of the various time marks distributed throughout our country place. She cherished her own past with the same retrospective fervor that I now do her image and my past. Thus, in a way, I inherited an exquisite simulacrum—the beauty of intangible property, un-real estate—and this proved splendid training for the endurance of later losses.” [page 40 in my edition]

That quote is also a good example of Nabokov’s lovely descriptions. I also liked the way some of his descriptions incorporated feelings—how the object hit him. “The monastery … dutifully appeared.” [page 164] “… meek folds at the back of his shaven head.” [page 165]

I found Speak, Memory to be a challenging read that often sent me to the dictionary for vocabulary and Google for historical background. But Nabokov’s memoir also rewarded me with new understandings and observations. The content is supported by photographs and an index.

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