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Speak, Memory. An Autobiography Revisited Relié – 1966
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.