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Speak, Memory (Everyman's Library) Hardcover – March 23, 1999

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Editorial Reviews Review

Even if you already own Nabokov's earthy, otherworldly account of his astounding life, you must buy this 1999 edition. And if you've never read Speak, Memory, you must do so at once. This volume is essential because it includes the unpublished last chapter, a pseudo-review comparing Speak, Memory with another, nonexistent memoir called When Lilacs Last. (That title refers to Whitman's poem on Lincoln's assassination and to the lilacs of Nabokov's childhood home) Chapter 16 is a key to what the imaginary reviewer accurately calls a "unique freak as autobiographies go," revealing its novel-like nature and unifying themes and images (chess, puzzles, spirals, jewels, rainbows, exile, the stained-glass shadow patterns that the future casts on the present). Maybe Nabokov thought he gave too much away, and one sees the formal superiority of ending the book with chapter 15. But the added essay is a gem that dazzles and illuminates.

You have to consult biographies like Brian Boyd's for the full, remarkable facts of Nabokov's life. A millionaire at 17 (his sister danced in Diaghilev gowns with Fabergé gems at the Winter Palace), repeatedly exiled, forced to bust out of one chrysalis after another into new lives, the writer retained only the infinite wealth of his memory and art. This book is a mosaic shaped by a mind so metaphorical that, as a babe, Nabokov perceived letters as colors, the alphabet as a rainbow.

The loss of his father is at Speak, Memory's core. This memoir is worth owning for a single paragraph alone, about the sight of Nabokov senior being tossed aloft by grateful peasants he'd been generous to--a dozen or so with locked arms flinging him up in a hip-hip-hooray ritual.

There, for an instant, the figure of my father in his wind-rippled white summer suit would be displayed, gloriously sprawled in midair.... Thrice, to the mighty heave-ho of his invisible tossers, he would fly up ... and then there he would be, on his last and loftiest flight, reclining, as if for good, against the cobalt blue of the summer noon, like one of those paradisiac personages who comfortably soar, with such a wealth of folds in their garments, on the vaulted ceiling of a church while below, one by one, the wax tapers in mortal hands light up to make a swarm of minute flames in the mist of incense, and the priest chants of eternal repose, and funeral lilies conceal the face of whoever lies there, among the swimming lights, in the open coffin.
Nabokov recaptures the paradise of his youth, and acquits himself of the coldness of which some accuse him. He plays literary games, but he plays for keeps. --Tim Appelo

From Library Journal

Published as Conclusive Evidence in 1951 and later revised in 1966, Nabokov's title has been further updated with an additional, previously unseen chapter. Considering his profile in world literature, this is essential for public and academic libraries.
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 344 pages
  • Publisher: Everyman's Library; First Edition edition (March 23, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375405534
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375405532
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 1 x 8.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (106 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #173,073 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov was born on April 23, 1899, in St. Petersburg, Russia. The Nabokov household was trilingual, and as a young man, he studied Slavic and romance languages at Trinity College, Cambridge, taking his honors degree in 1922. For the next eighteen years he lived in Berlin and Paris, writing prolifically in Russian under the pseudonym Sirin and supporting himself through translations, lessons in English and tennis, and by composing the first crossword puzzles in Russian. In 1925 he married Vera Slonim, with whom he had one child, a son, Dmitri. Having already fled Russia and Germany, Nabokov became a refugee once more in 1940, when he was forced to leave France for the United States. There he taught at Wellesley, Harvard, and Cornell. He also gave up writing in Russian and began composing ficticvbn ral books of criticism. Vladimir Nabokov died in Montreux, Switzerland, in 1977.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

87 of 88 people found the following review helpful By Alok Ranjan on July 19, 2005
Format: Paperback
Speak, Memory is primarily concerned with Nabokov's life prior to his emigration to America in 1940. Unlike regular autobiographies it is not a traditional chronological sequence of dates and facts, but, rather, Nabokov's memory of certain events thematically linked to the creation of himself as an artist and as the person that he himself is, at present moment of time when he is writing the book. Basically, I think he must have asked himself the question - "Where did I come from and how did I become who I am?" as perhaps all of us have asked ourselves at some point in time and then set out to answer the question using the two rare tools he had at his disposal - memory and imagination. As he says somewhere in the book when he manages to link some event in the childhood to something that happened to him in later years - "The following of such thematic designs through one's life should be, I think, the true purpose of autobiography." This idea of defining the Self through a narrative, that is life, is the central aesthetic idea of the book. This also explains the structure of the book and for an autobiography, it's structure is quite complex. Perhaps that's why it is also called by critics the "most artistic of autobiographies". Nabokov starts off each chapter with a theme, generally with the help of some evocative image and pursues it through different phases of his life. And in this way he is able to delineate the various fragments of his personality and self in detail so that everything starts making sense as a whole.

Everything, of course, looks easy and effortless in Nabokov's hands.
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64 of 72 people found the following review helpful By Orrin C. Judd VINE VOICE on October 21, 2000
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I honestly don't consider myself competent to judge whether Nabokov is one of the century's greatest writers. Like many of his contemporaries, much of his work is so obscure as to defy my comprehension, but I do very much like what I understand in Pale Fire and Lolita, both of which made the Modern Library Top 100 Novels of the Century, and, of course, to read him is to be exposed to an English language and a prose style that one little knew existed. So I am more than willing to acknowledge that he was a singular and immense talent. It is altogether fitting then that his memoirs too should be unique.
For the most part, Nabokov's mission here is literally to let his memory speak. In so doing he recreates late czarist Russia in loving, painstaking detail. While to the best of my knowledge Nabokov was never particularly identified with the anti-Communist émigré movement, this book is its own kind of indictment of the USSR. The case it lays out is not the political or the economic one but the historical and cultural one. As he says:
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 finally: I reserve for myself the right to yearn after an ecological niche:
...Beneath the sky Of my America to sigh For one locality in Russia.
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19 of 21 people found the following review helpful By Taka on April 24, 2008
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
3 starts for "I liked it" --

Thought not the best of the stories I've read (literary-autobiography-wise, nothing I've read surpasses Bruno Schulz's The Street of Crocodiles), this charming, rather haphazardly collated collection of Nabokov's autobiographical episodes is certainly worth reading for its breathtaking prose, unique and incisive ruminations on various subjects, and revealing, behind-the-scenes vignettes and thoughts of one of the most fascinating writers of the 20th century.

The only major misgiving I had was the bland, woolgathering reveries I had to trudge through. But then there are these passages that soar into the Unreal and leave me gasping for breath. From the very first sentence ( "The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness"), Nabokov proves himself again and again to be the master prose stylist that he was. Just read this description of the moon:

So there it comes, steering out of a flock of small dappled clouds, which it tinges with a vague iridescence; and, as it sails higher, it glazes the runner tracks left on the road, where every sparkling lump of snow is emphasized by a swollen shadow (p.99).

In these instances, I simply must surrender, prostrate, to Nabokov with my humble hat off. I was also pleasantly surprised to find myself laughing over some of the vignettes (esp. in Chapter 6).
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