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Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited Paperback – August 28, 1989
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The late Vladimir Nabokov always did things his way, and his classic autobiography is no exception. No dry recital of dates, names, and addresses for this linguistic magician--instead, Speak, Memory is a succession of lapidary episodes, in which the factoids play second fiddle to the development of Nabokov's sensibility. There is, to be sure, an impressionistic whirl through the author's family history (including a gallery of Tartar princes and fin-de-siècle oddities). And Nabokov's account of his tenure at St. Petersburg's famous Tenishev School--where he counted Osip Mandelstam among his schoolmates--offers a lovely glimpse into the heart of Russia's silver age. Still, Nabokov is much too artful an autobiographer to present Speak, Memory as a slice of reality--a word, by the way, that he insisted must always be surrounded by quotation marks.
"When he is writing about someone or something he loves, he is irresistible; when he is writing about someone or something he despises, he can manage to enlist one's sympathies, if only momentarily, for the object of his contempt." --The New York Review of Books
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Speak, Memory is a loose collection of correlated and somewhat chronological personal short story memoirs by Vladimir Nabokov. These cover approximately the first forty years of his life, though they mostly focus on his childhood years growing up in Russia and Europe. The fifteen chapters each stood on their own at one time or another, most published in popular magazines, including The Atlantic Monthly, The New Yorker, Partisan Review, and Harper’s Magazine, before they were brought together in this collection when he was in his late sixties. Many of these were translated and re-edited by Nabokov from stories he originally wrote in French or Russian and they were revisited again when published together in this format in 1967.
There were three areas that especially impacted me as a new writer. The memoir is rich in word choice and the images created in my head cemented his story in a memorable way. I loved the analogies Nabokov used to paint a picture of his early life. These original analogies brought his story to life in a fresh way. Finally, his use of leading comments to foreshadow future events was creative and impactful and I hope to replicate some of these techniques in my own stories.
The deep images where usually created with small powerful statements – demonstrating to me that with the right words you do not have to explain an entire backstory – the language itself will capture it without it the need for long descriptive paragraphs. One example was how he portrays his parents as having a deep love and respect for each other throughout the book. The sentence, “The double gleam on her fourth finger is two marriage rings – her own and my father’s, which, being too large for her, is fastened to hers by a bit of black thread” (50) speaks volumes, yet it is simple and powerful in its imagery. He does the same throughout the book when speaking of his father and their relationship of love and respect.
Nabokov’s use of original analogies is something I would love to do and it inspired me to begin thinking about analogies and writing them down, as I have a tendency to go to well-worn and overused analogies that have lost their original thought provoking power to native English speakers. One example in his introduction is when he informs us he will not be rehashing summaries of his novel in this book, stating, “I felt that the trouble of writing them had been enough and that they should remain in the first stomach.” (14); Other examples speak for themselves, “It was the primordial cave that lay behind the games I played when I was four.” (22); “To fix correctly, in terms of time, some of my childhood recollections, I have to go by comets and eclipses, as historians do when they tackle the fragments of a saga.” (25); “…by the time I was ten, nature had effaced with the thoroughness of a felt eraser wiping out a geometrical problem.” (40); “Not only were the kitchen and the servants’ hall never visited by my mother, but they stood as far removed from her consciousness as if they were the corresponding quarters in a hotel.” (45); “Apart from the lips, one of her chins, the smallest but true one, was the only mobile detail of her Buddha-like bulk.” (105); “The rain, which has been a mass of violently descending water wherein the trees writhed and rolled, was reduced all at once to oblique lines of silent gold breaking into short and long dashes against a background of subsiding vegetable agitation.” (216) “Seen through the carefully wiped lenses of time, the beauty of her face is as near and as glowing as ever.” (230); “Of the games I played at Cambridge, soccer has remained a wind-swept clearing in the middle of a rather muddled period.” (267); “Leftist groups of sparrows were holding loud morning sessions in lilacs and limes.” (295). His use of analogy is not exaggerated; instead it is simple and easy to follow and captures in a fresh way the moment he is trying to portray.
Lastly, I was impressed by his use of leading sentences foreshadowing events in a powerful and simple way. Some examples include; “But that was not yet the closest I got to feeding upon beauty.” (24); “The other police story involves a less dramatic masquerade.” (56); “…had I been a better crystal-gazer, I might have seen a room, people, lights, trees in the rain – a whole period of émigré life for which that ring was to pay.” (81) “…and ten years were to pass before a certain night in 1922, at a public lecture in Berlin, when my father shielded the lecturer from the bullets of two Russian Fascists...” (193)
As a memoirist, I took a number of other things from his writing, including the way he visualizes and describes events as young as four (31) and seven (53) without it feeling inauthentic to the reader; the way he jumps from memory to memory in each chapter and doesn’t follow a strict chronological sequence; and the way he goes deep when sharing his passions, including using the actual names of the butterflies he catches – give us detailed descriptions of the differences between an Oak Egger or Large Emerald butterfly or a Goat moth and a Silvius Skippe moth.
Lastly, his book is packed with memorable quotes and wisdom and I will end with some of those that jumped out at me.
“Our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.” (19)
“To love with all one’s soul and leave the rest to fate, was the simple rule she heeded.” (40)
“One is always at home in one’s past…” (116)
“I discovered in nature the non-utilitarian delights that I sought in art. Both were a form of magic, both were a game of intricate enchantment and deception.” (125)
“…a person hoping to become a poet must have the capacity of thinking of several things at a time.” (218)
“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. Let visitors trip. And the highest enjoyment of timelessness – in a landscape selected at random – is when I stand among rare butterflies…this is ecstasy, and behind the ecstasy is something else…It is like a momentary vacuum into which rushes all that I love. A sense of oneness with sun and stone. A thrill of gratitude to whom it may concern – to the contrapuntal genius of human fate or to tender ghosts humoring a lucky mortal.” (139)
Speak Memory is a stunning recreation of a very special childhood. But this book cannot be judged by its content, it is Nabokov's prose that elevates this work to the forefront of autobiographies.
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.