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77 of 78 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Greatest Autobiography of Twentieth Century
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...
Published on July 19, 2005 by Alok Ranjan

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14 of 16 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Memory Well Spoken
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...
Published on April 24, 2008 by Taka


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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "...our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.", October 5, 2009
This review is from: Speak, Memory (Everyman's Library) (Hardcover)
So starts Nabokov in this excellent, impressionistic, nostalgic, deeply reflective memoir; an idyll to a privileged childhood in the last days of Czarist Russia. He goes on to say that: "...this darkness is caused merely by the walls of time separating me and my bruised fists from the free world of timelessness is a belief I gladly share with the most gaudily painted savage." Having recently lost a friend to the eternal darkness, re-reading Nabokov, who made the most of that brief period of light, is cathartic.

Nabokov was born in 1899, and raised on an estate outside St. Petersburg, before it became Leningrad, and even longer before it reverted to its original name. He chased butterflies as a boy, which turned into a lifetime avocation as a renown lepidopterist. Like all of us, he is an exile from his youth, and wears it more than most, but he was twice exiled more: first from Russia as the Bolsheviks seized power, and then from Europe, when the Nazis were ascendant, finally finding an accommodating life in America. His family was part of the tiniest sliver of the Russian population, the very elite; the ones who are the subject of so many books, and the fantasies that the readers include themselves in. He learned to speak English before Russian, and his family would "winter" in Biarritz. He makes clear, in a reasonably convincing way the basis for his nostalgia: "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... to yearn...beneath the sky of my America to sigh for one locality in Russia."

Many of the other reviewers praised the incisive originality of his prose, and I am clearly in that camp; a few criticized him for "showing off," alas, perhaps, but his candle should not be hidden under the bushel basket. Consider: "The sepia gloom of an arctic afternoon in midwinter invaded the rooms and was deepening to an oppressive black." Or, "Huddled together in a constant seething of competitive reminiscences..." Or, "I recall one particular sunset. It lent an ember to my bicycle bell." Or even: "The spiral is a spiritualized circle." And in America he learned to "cease barring my sevens."

Also consider his critique of Darwin's theory of "natural selection": "...when a protective device was carried to a point of mimetic subtlety, exuberance, and luxury far in excess of a predator's power of appreciation. I discovered in nature the nonutilitarian delights that I sought in art. Both were a form of magic, both were a game of intricate enchantment and deception."

There are a number of other excellent reviews of this book posted at Amazon, including a couple which highlight my subject line. It may not be THE autobiography of the 20th Century, but it is an essential read, particularly for those still trying to make the most of their time in that brief crack of time.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Worth reading, February 26, 2000
I had real trouble with the first 50 or so pages of 'Speak, Memory'. Contrary to what the official reviews say, I found that this book contained much recitation of dates, names, places etc, and then a whole heap of very boring passages about politics, history and butterflies to boot. Such passages pepper the book, but they are very easy to skip - and at the risk of seeming a philistine, I did indeed skip most of them, or at least only skim read them.
However I skipped them to get to what lay waiting on the pages that followed: this book has in it the most breathtakingly beautiful and achingly perfect prose I've every read. Words that sweep over you and leave your heart beating a little faster. Descriptions so vivid you can feel, see, smell, hear them. Childhood episodes so familiar and so neatly presented that you'll be removed to your own childhood again, only to be brought back with a bump when the chapter ends.
Although I found great expanses of the novel tedious, after reading each of those jewel-like passages of prose, I ached to read more Nabokov, an author I never thought I would read. "Speak, Memory" has left me amazed - I never knew that the English Language could be so moving, perfect and beautiful. I'm so very glad I persevered and read it to the end!
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9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Perhaps The Greatest Autobiography You'll Ever Read, September 18, 2006
By 
David Alston (Chapel Hill, NC, USA) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
I re-read SPEAK, MEMORY once a year or so; on every occasion I am left in awe of Nabokov's skill as a prose stylist, and am dazzled by the memories he re-creates here.

This is notable as the work of a writer of astounding technical skill and erudition, but also the work of someone who has a well-formed regard for his audience. At the very least, Nabokov expects that his audience will also be very intelligent.

Thus, what we are left with here is something far beyond a typical "self-portrait at 20," instead we are left with recollections reframed, recalled and rendered with an adamantine clarity that shimmers and dazzles - after reading the descriptions of a youth spent on a Russian estate one can smell the frost in the air, note the detail on the wings of the butterflies oft referenced, or almost see the long, northern latitude sunsets for yourself.

Technically formidable, engrossing and magical - this is one of very few books that I think everyone should read once.

-David Alston
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Great book, August 23, 2000
By 
Paul Siemering (cambridge, ma United States) - See all my reviews
If you are a fan of Nabokov, you just have to read this. If you are not, this is as good a place to start as any. Anyway what is extra special about it is this: Everybody knows that Nabokov is a fabulous prosateur, a master magician with language. But here we have on display, along with the language, and he's never been better, a truly incredible memory. It's like he told his memory to speak, and it did. There is very little he can not remember, and talk about, in that fine, exquisite detail we expect. When you read Nabokov, you always experience this thing where he is writing about some kind of event you have known or seen yourself and he dazzles you with the way he gets it so exactly right and you know you cannot do this. So for this reason it is not a great surprise to discover, as we do here, that he has been logging all that stuff in his memory since he was a baby. A wonderful book!
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A spiral of life recalled and transformed, September 24, 2000
Like some of the other reviewers who have posted here, tackling Vladimir Nabokov's autobiography is a daunting proposal. Yet, while Nabokov was no teacher in the conventional sense, I think he would have encouraged readers of this book to mull it over after completing it and find threads that tallied with the sensibilities of their own lives.
This is a literary autobiography, which means its ultimate goals are elucidating the author's character, emotional construction and artistic development -- not communicating a straightforward story from birth forward. One of the major themes of Nabokov's life is the malleability of time itself in the grasp of human memory. He concedes at the outset that several episodes he relates in the book have had their particular details -- and Nabokov is almost Proustian when it comes to detail -- challenged by his sisters. What he is trying to establish is how memory can distort time by re-ordering, supressing and even enhancing important personal events of long ago. He makes no authorial claim to perfect recall. We are, in fact, forewarned that what follows may not be factually reliable. What we can rely on are the emotions those memories evoke in an older Nabokov and how they have shaped his perception of the world around him and sculpted the artistic sensibilities which guide his writing.
Late in the book, Nabokov observes at length how a spiral resembles Hegel's model of historical dialectic -- thesis, anti-thesis and synthesis or, more simply put: point, counterpoint and a blending of the two which creates a new thesis and keeps the eternal dialogue spiraling into the future. Nabokov adopts the spiral as a model for his own dialectic of event, remembrance and incorporation of the combination of the two into his artistic being. It is as clear an explanation of how memory shapes art as you will ever likely find.
The book is organized around Nabokov's memories of his boyhood and young adulthood. We see the Russian boy's enthusiasm for collecting butterflies and moths develop into a life's passion (Nabokov dedicated much of his adult life to lepidoptera studies and was a recognized expert in the field). We also see how this passion opens up the natural world to him and how it stirs the first thoughts of something greater underlying that observable universe.
There are some unpleasant aspects to Nabokov's autobiography. The privileged son of Russian nobility and a graduate of Cambridge University, Nabokov radiates a haughty aristocratic sneer at times, an attitude certain to grate on American sensibilities (in Nabokov's defense, he loved his adopted homeland, the U.S.A., with unbridled passion and some of its democratic sensibilities in turn ultimately rubbed off on him). He summarily dismisses writers such as Gorky, Bulgakov and what he deems "regional" American writers (undoubtedly William Faulkner among them) who certainly equalled or surpassed his own merit as a writer. No one could ever accuse Nabokov of being a writer of "the people," which certainly sets him at odds with the intellectual milieu in which he lived and worked.
I've made "Speak, Memory" sound far more rarified than it is. Nabokov has an earthy sense of humor and never takes himself too seriously. This is an excellent book for those struggling to find the elements of their own artistic vision among the scattered shards of their life's memories. It is a graceful, fluttering flight between light and shadow, fact and memory, artistic conformism and personal authenticity. In the end, any of us who aspire to create must choose and choose wisely. Nabokov did and this book is a living example of how we, as artists, as those who would remember with passion for a truth beyond fact, must make our own choices.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Nabokov's genius, October 28, 2009
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This review is from: Speak, Memory (Everyman's Library) (Hardcover)
I have recently read Speak, Memory and I am in awe of Nabokov's writing.
Nabokov collected butterflies throughout his life, and enjoyed the quest for rare specimen. This book is that very thing, a specimen fit for framing and mounting.
Net a copy,place it on the shelf and admire Nabokov's skill.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The lepidopterist shoots... and scores, December 23, 1998
By A Customer
Turning to a writer's autobiography after adoring many of his works of fiction carries disastrous potential, and so I began Speak, Memory nervously, hoping not to lose my trust in Nabokov. I should not have doubted the man. He approaches the first two decades of his life with such an engaging mixture of nostalgic curiosity and bemused cynicism that the characters--the infinite chain of nannies and headmasters, the relatives, the compatriots--come marching out of the exile of the past and into the present embrace of his words. He does not sidestep issues of memory and accuracy with a glossed-over surface of fact-checking; rather, he admits the role of imagination in recalling and deftly handles the problem of time, avoiding phrases and metaphors even remotely reminiscent of song lyrics. Speak, Memory is as fun and as involved a read as Pale Fire or Laughter in the Dark. Don't be discouraged by its classification as "non-fiction," for Nabokov can handle reality as well as the non-real.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Celebration, April 18, 2003
It's hard to decide where to begin with - describing this 'autobiography' by Nabokov. I'd first say something about Nabokov beautifying his past - that a lot of the passages in this book read more like fiction than autobiography. Nabokov makes the purpose of his autobiography very clear: it is to trace the 'thematic design' of one's life - which is what seems to him to give autobiography meaning. If one reads this book carefully enough one sees how one image/incident/detail, etc. echoing one another throughout the book, in the lives of different individuals. In a way one should see it as a book of memoirs of Nabokov's family - how lives intersect and influence one another, and finally how we all seem to live under the same forces that dominate our lives - as much as his autobiography.
There's a couple of details that one cannot miss about the relationship between thematic design and memory: at the very end of the book Nabokov describes his wife, him and his son walking into a garden. Every detail is described as a part of the thematic design of the garden and finally, 'something in a scrambled picture--Find What the Sailor Has Hidden--that the finder cannot unsee once it has been seen'. It's all a discovery, through intense concentration, imagination, and artistic decisions. This summarizes Nabokov's method in perceiving and portraying his past. 'Speak, Memory' is also a celebration of the power of memory - of how it conjures the beauties of the past as a performance that ends in wild applause.
It might help if one recalls the original title of 'Speak, Memory' -- 'Conclusive Evidence' -- it is a collection of evidence for one's existence, instead of a recrod. I would not agree the narration is didatic or humorless - a careful look at the inter-illumination of details would very subtly suggest the opposite. Again I believed the readers have to pay close attention to the artistic statments in this book (even if they have not read any Nabokov - I hadnt when I read this book) before judging it. It's an enjoyable book at any rate and those who love beautiful writing will not be disappointed.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Essential, June 2, 2010
This review is from: Speak, Memory (Everyman's Library) (Hardcover)
This is an essential work by a master of English letters, and contains so many remarkable passages and turns of phrase that the entire work should be underlined.

Nabokov's technical mastery is in full flower here, and it is astonishing and delightful.

In addition, his word choice, themes, development, leitmotif, play, and story arc are all in top form. This is a book to re-read semi-annually.

The delightful close "Chapter 16" is a review of a previously published version, which itself contains puzzles and allusions to previous themes, that reseals the breaking of the fourth wall that astonishingly arrives in the work with the use of the word "you" (addressing the reader? addressing his wife? why are they confused? are we secretly sharing an intimacy with the author? no, we are at a distance...it is play yet again).

Highly recommended.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A lyrical, mesmerizing experience, May 12, 2000
By 
Marc A. Jolley (Macon, Georgia USA) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
This review is from: Speak, Memory (Everyman's Library) (Hardcover)
Speak, Memory is one of about five books I could read over and over again. Nabakov's lyrical style is dream-like. His humility is amazing. Most people who had all that he had would be whining and crying, but all that matters to Nabakov is life, not the things of life. One critic said that the death of Nabakov's father luminates over the work, but I see butterfly wings and joy and happiness. Yes, losing his father was a terrible experience, but as Nabakov said, we are caterpillars to the angels. Everyone who considers themselves the least bit literate should read this book, and do so more than once. With Brian Boyd's superb introduction and the richly rewarding chapter 16, this edition is THE edition to buy and read--but don't loan it out, because it may not be returned.
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Speak, Memory (Everyman's Library)
Speak, Memory (Everyman's Library) by Vladimir Nabokov (Hardcover - March 23, 1999)
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