on July 19, 2005
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. While reading the book, it seems, all the facts, images, feelings and evocations are concrete things stored at some place well known to the author and he simply picks them up as he pleases and serves them to the reader after dressing them up in his delicate prose. But of course it is not so easy. And anyone who has tried to remember and recreate his childhood and past time (as perhaps all of us have) and managed only hazy uncertainties will attest to it. I think that's why most of us, even those who are otherwise totally unsympathetic to Nabokov as a writer and person, will find in the book parallels to our own attempts to figure out where we came from and who we are. And for those of us who are cursed with defective or selective memories (or should I say blessed?) this book offers a poignant reminder of how much we have irretrievably lost and teaches us to see and notice things as if we are noticing own future recollection because that's the only way to regain all lost paradises (to use a Proustian phrase). I think the impulse to rediscover and reclaim childhood is deep in human nature and is present in all of us, and thus the chord "Speak, Memory" touches is truly universal and makes it a great book.
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.
The crimes of the commissars are without number and most are far greater than this, but this richly textured, impossibly specific and deeply moving memoir so brilliantly transports the reader to what seems to have been a wonderful and altogether innocent existence that to that list of crimes must be added the Bolsheviks utter destruction of this world. Even if you've never liked any of his other books, do yourself a favor and read this one. Even the passages that defy comprehension are beautiful.
on April 24, 2008
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). Take, for example, this one:
One summer afternoon, in 1911, Mademoiselle [my favorite along with Nabokov's father] came into my room, book in hand, started to say she wanted to show me how wittily Rousseau denounced zoology (in favor of botany), and by then was too far gone in the gravitational process of lowering her bulk into an armchair to be stopped by my howl of anguish: on that seat I had happened to leave a glass-lidded cabinet tray with long, lovely series of the Large White. Her first reaction was one of stung vanity: her weight, surely, could not be accused of damaging what in fact it had demolished; her second was to console me: Allons donc, ce ne sont que des papillons de potager! - which only made matters worse. (127)
Funny, incisive, and lyrical, the book is a great read especially if you're a writer. Like some reviewer has written, "time with Nabokov is invariably time well spent." And it is true. He shows us the secret passageways and hidden nooks of the English language that other writers have completely overlooked. Although the book lacks unity and there are episodes I couldn't care less about, it is simply delightful to follow his prose, stumble over obscure charming words, and be surprised, accompanied by that guttural groan of awe and satisfaction at witnessing the magician of words at work.
on September 1, 1999
I have spent the summer drowning in Nabokovian puddles, but this autobiography is the least satisfactory yet. On the plus side it (naturally) contains some of the most beautiful sentences I've ever read. The seamless flow from concrete detail, scrupulous description, misty nostalgia to philosophical speculation is dizzying and inspired. The chapter on the author's mother is quite possibly the most gorgeous piece of writing in the language, but my favorite is the melancholy portrait of his uncle, a fascinating, loveable, moving character who might have enriched a novel. The battle between the natural and the human worlds are convincingly balanced, with history swooping in for final victory.
And yet Speak, Memory is fundamentally dislikeable. The tone grates: imagine a whole book written in the style of Nabokov's forewards - arrogant, didactic, humorless. That's what nearly kills it - the lack of Nabokovian playfulness. There are a couple of real-life events that are so shocking that they verge on farce, but in general the tone is reverent and uncritical, and the madness of Nabokov's greatest narrators has no place here.
The young Nabokov is thoroughly dislikeable (but then so is the Nab of the forewards), 'something of a bully' as he admits, but the episode with his brother was shameful, disgusting, and made me not want to read one of his books again. I'll get over that, but it's says something that one finds that monster Humbert more sympathetic than his creator. Of course, the narrator here isn't unadulterated Nab; he's as much a creation as any of his characters. He's just not a very interesting one, neither insane nor funny. As Michael Wood suggests, the absences in this very word-, idea-, people- and event-heavy book are some kind of a failure. What we're left with is literature's most stunning prose poem since Woolf's To The Lighthouse, with a big black hole in the centre.
on July 29, 2006
It is known that the great author worked on this project for many years, collecting photographs, letters, scraps of unfinished poetry, searching his past in order to write a close to accurate account of his early life. In fact this autobiography is atypical, similar to a wandering mind, grasping at images, sights and smells, recollections, reminisces, rather than a chronological,'factual' version of a life lived.
The opening sentence of Speak, Memory, to my mind, is probably one of the most moving and haunting recollections in an autobiography ever read:
"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."
The narrator continues on to describe a young chronophobiac who experienced panic when he viewed an old home movie, seeing his mother wave from an upstairs window and below, a brand-new baby carriage standing alone, realizing that the carriage was his own days before his actual birth. This disturbed him as the feeling of peering at a world days before he came into existence, sort of a reverse course of events, was akin to staring directly into eternity.
Nabokov's childhood and adolescence was an enchanting one, part of an aristocratic family, a beautiful mother and a liberal-minded father who had a vast library, where little Vladimir would arrive home to find him practicing his fencing, the clanging of blades, with a colleague. This was a civilized existence in St. Petersburg before the onslaught of the Russian Revolution. Similar to most aristocratic families at the time, the Bolsheviks seized the family fortune, forcing the family to flee their beloved Russia to Germany. But when Nabokov looks back at this tumultuous period, he says,
"My old (since 1917) quarrel with the Soviet Dictatorship is wholly unrelated to any question of property. The nostalgia I have been cherishing all these years is a hypertrophied sense of lost childhood, not sorrow for lost banknotes."
The book is strewn with old black and white photographs of Nabokov's family. There is one particular photograph of his father and mother taken circa 1900 at their estate at Vrya, which really depicts the aristocratic demeanour and pure strength of the author's father. In the background are the birches and firs of the countryside where Nabokov discovered his life-long passion with butterfly collecting.
Even if the reader is not familiar with the great novels of Nabokov: Lolita, Pale Fire, The Eye and many others, will certainly enjoy this unique and brilliantly written autobiography by one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century.
on June 23, 2003
Even though the narrative spans almost 40 years and many seasons, it reads like a permanent summer. One seems to be following a sun-dappled path of Vyra park, with the author describing in great and florid detail each sunny spot. Seldom any connections are drawn among these illuminated patches of the past. Rather, each of them is made to pulsate to its own inimitable music. Sometimes the book feels like a family photo album, where the photographs, the facts, appear hopelessly black-and-white, while the writer's pencil gradually renders them dancing fountains of colors.
Nabokov's pre-American years comprised two world wars, two Russian revolutions and fascism, but the book is not about historic events. His family and personal circle of friends included many remarkable people of the last century, and yet one does not feel a visitor in a portrait gallery either. The accounts of his supporting actors are sketchy, with the possible exception of his father, whose intellectual and physical presence in the book amounts to a fairly fleshy figure.
The feeling of intensely personal recollections narrated over a cup of tea stays with the reader throughout the book. At the moment of writing, the times described are long gone, but the associated emotion is fresh. It ranges from the cool enumeration of relatives and dates, a cold dismissal of Stendahl, Balsac and Zola as "three detestable mediocrities", to movingly cherished details of his son's childhood.
The enigma of Nabokov's phrasing, his subtle use of several languages and his erudition are as present as ever. And as ever they will reward the faithful with an exquisite linguistic journey.
on May 7, 2015
Nabokov is letting us into his most private early thoughts and upbringing, an experience like few others.
Some reviewers here on Amazon have said that the author is arrogant, etc. Not so in my opinion. Just an extremely sensitive, intelligent and perceptive child brought up in " the lap of luxury" who was plunged into poverty when he was eighteen because the Russian revolution obliterated all of his family's power and wealth.
We hear fantastic descriptions before this of his lands (estates) around St. Petersburg. These are told with complete love and nostalgia---not just the love of butterflies. We hear about the servants ( fifty indoor servants), the peasants on his estate and most importantly his parents, family and brothers. We hear of his first love affair. (I do not remember reading anything nasty or acrimonious that Nabokov had to say about his childhood-- even with all the trauma going on.)
Yes, Nabokov's writing is jammed with words that we may not know in English,in French and Russian. This is just the man he was, who was brought up by exceptional parents who spoke almost as many languages as he did later in life--a very cosmopolitan life from 1899 until the revoluion and the end of the first world war.
This is memory like none other I've read. A definite must read in literature of the twentieth century.
on July 16, 2008
I read "Speak Memory" over a series of sun-shiny days, sitting in my back yard garden with twenty-six species of flowers blooming around me, in a neighborhood of Victorian houses with 100-year old back yard gardens. My flowers include mallows, zinnias, beebalm, cosmos, snapdragons, and other nectar producers. Over the whole week, I saw just one butterfly, a simple Cabbage White.
I don't think Vladimir Nabokov would write so approvingly of America today as he did of America in the 40s and 50s. I think he'd be disappointed. He'd find it barren and ugly, a casualty of the artless modernism he raged against all his life. Nabokov was a fervid conservative in most things, a man committed to his own memories of a more gracious past, his own childhood in pre-Bolshevik Russia. But don't get the idea that Nabokov was the ultra-capitalist curmudgeonly ranting style of conservative that one hears all too often today; here's what he wrote about that sort of conservative, who "rallied close to my side but did so from such crude reactionary motivation that I was only embarrassed by their despicable support. Indeed, I pride myself with having discerned even then the symptoms of what is so clear today, when a kind of family circle has gradually formed, linking representatives of all nations, jolly empire builders in the jungle clearings, French policemen, the unmentionable German product, the good old churchgoing Russian or Polish Pogromshchik, the lean American lyncher, the man with bad teeth who squirts antiminority stories in the bar or the lavatory..."
Like almost everything Nabokov wrote, these memoirs pivot around the Bolshevik Revolution. Talking about the spiral as a clearer signifier than the circle, he explicitly describes his own life as consisting of a first curl of the spiral, his childhood, ending with his family's flight from the Revolution; a second curl, his twenty years as an emigre in Europe, a grim and self-enclosed time; and his later life in America, a relaxed time of blooming friendships.
More than half the book recaptures the fluttering beauties of his highly privileged and cultured childhood. These chapters are essentially just like the childhood chapters of any memoirist who had a happy youth; they depict his growing self-discovery, his awareness of life in its larval and pupal stages, his acquisition of a sense of having a life cycle to fulfill. "All of this is as it should be according to the theory of recapitulation; the beginning of reflexive consciousness in the brain of our remotest ancestor must surely have coincided with the dawning of the sense of time," he meditates, and in another passage, speaking of coincidences and chance encounters, he declares; "The following of such thematic designs through one's life should be, I think, the true purpose of autobiography." But what distinguishes Nabokov's clearly nostalgic memoirs from those of other writers is the splendor of his language. The moths and butterflies in his display cases are so beautiful and rare that the reader scarcely dares breathe on them. One can read Nabokov's tales of his Tsarist playland for simple verbal pleasure, without much bothering over their significance or reality.
Alas, I find the reality dubious. Tsarist Russia was not that cultured, that gradually progressive, that tolerant and susceptible to self-regeneration. Vlady is mythologizing, friends, painting his lost childhood idyll with acrylics in primary colors! There WERE serfs. There were pogroms, racial barriers and suppression of customs, grinding poverty, and rural neglect tempered only with exploitation. The Bolsheviks were thugs, yes indeed, but they couldn't have triumphed without the mastication of the masses by the upper classes.
The shorter and less lovely chapters of Speak Memory that retell Nabokov's years as an emigre also reveal a kind of display case glass between the author and reality: "As I look back at those years of exile, I see myself, and thousands of other Russians, leading an odd but by no means unpleasant existence, in material indigence and intellectual luxury, among perfectly unimportant strangers, spectral Germans and Frenchmen in whose more or less illusory cities we, emigres, happened to dwell. ...no real communication, of the rich human sort so widespread in our own midst, existed between us and them." Well, well! Having been an emigre myself, on both sides of the Atlantic, I can certainly recognize this state of things. Old Vlad is certainly being honest and implicitly self-derogatory. Once again, however, he mythologizes: following the Bolshevik calamity, he says "With very few exceptions, all liberal-minded creative forces -- poets, novelists, critics, historians, philosophers and so on -- had left Lenin's and Stalin's Russia. Those who had not were either withering away there or adulterating their gifts by complying with the political demands of the state." Thereafter he continues through a full chapter discussing the works of his fellow emigres, all but his own justly forgotten or repudiated by now, while however tenuously and in whatever peril, the writers and composers who stood their ground under Lenin, Stalin, and their troll-hearted successors -- Shostakovich, Prokofieff, Schnittke, Mayakovsky, Yevtushenko, Vosnezhensky, Ahkmatova, Solzhentitsyn, and others -- have bequeathed post-communist Russia a heritage of masterpieces.
What saved Nabokov, I think, was his passage from the pupa stage of an emigre to the winged maturity of being an immigrant. That metamorphosis is not recounted in Speak Memory, which ends cleanly in 1939 with the Nabokov family's departure for America.
Such beautiful language! Such wit! Nabokov is a show-off, no doubt, an exotic hand-sized tropical moth of a writer, the only author whose books ever send me to a dictionary. Hey, that's what I enjoy about him.
on January 14, 2007
Personally, I like everything Nabokov did if only because reading him makes me a better writer. He is a "master stylist" cut from the cloth of James Joyce (in terms of his innovation and talent) who challenges his audience at every turn. When devouring his fiction, I am sure that there are many things I miss due to my being no great genius of literary analysis, but time with Nabokov is invariably time well spent. I make a point of circling those lines and turns of phrase which are strikingly original in the hopes that my own skills improve via his brilliant examples. I do the same thing with vocabulary words which was particularly the case with Speak, Memory as I bracketed off those terms with which I am not familiar. Thus, it seems that studying Nabokov is an essential tutorial for the aspiring writer. This, his autobiography, is absolutely charming and easily accessible for those readers intimidated by his other works. The author describes his early life in Russia--and vicariously, life in Tsarist Russia in general--and provides us with a captivating history of his family. Unfortunately, I found that it ended too soon. I longed for another 200 pages so his development as a novelist could be more fully explored. Nabokov, like so many writers, appears to have been the quintessential introvert and his environmental struggles are quite compelling. This is an astounding work that should be consulted repeatedly.
on July 23, 2004
"Speak Memory" is an autobiography, but it's an autobiography like none other. Although it does include factual information about the writer, it is mostly an account of how Nabokov has made sense of his life. His interpretation of his life has left him without bitterness or blame...or even disappointment at having lost everything as a young man when his world was turned upside down by the Russian revolution. Nabokov treats his own life as a work of art. The writing is so graceful it is soothing to read.
I first read this book in 1971 when I was an 18 year old college freshmen, and I loved it then. I was inspired to read it again after recently reading Azar Nafisi's "Reading Lolita in Tehran." Although Nafisi claims to be a Nabokov scholar, she seems to have learned nothing from him. Like Nabokov, Nafisi was born into a privileged life which was turned upside down when her native country undergoes revolution. Nabokov tells us that his losses made it possible to have a richer, more meaningful life. Nafisi cannot stop whining about her losses, even though they are far less severe than Nabokov's. She is overwhelmed by self-pity and bitterness. She expresses contempt toward her less "sophisticated" countrymen and their vulnerablity to the appeal of the Ayatollah, but she fails to see the failures of her own economic and social class. I'd choose Nabokov over reading about Nabokov anyday.