Literary artistry and a chilly persona imbue this classic memoir.

Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited by Vladimir Nabokov. Knopf, 268 pages.

“There is, it would seem, in the dimensional scale of the world a kind of delicate meeting place between imagination and knowledge, a point, arrived at by diminishing large things and enlarging small ones, that is intrinsically artistic.”

Vladimir Nabokov follows this intriguing precept, which he announces in Speak, Memory, with vigor in the book, fondling the minute sensory and surface details of what he loved as a boy (especially butterflies, on which he became a renowned expert) while skimming over the particulars of major events, such as the exile from Russia of his liberal, reformist family. The memoir embodies the writer’s conviction that “this world is not as bad as it seems.”

Published first as a series of essays over many years in The New Yorker, and compiled as a book in 1947 after “more or less thorough rewriting,” in Nabokov’s phrase, Speak, Memory seems less cohesive than the great novelist’s fiction. (In the middle of it he begins to refer to “you,” and I realized he was addressing his wife, to whom the book is dedicated.)

Nabokov’s fine prose calls attention to the writer and exacerbates—or strengthens, if you please—the author’s choosing, in the memoiristic mix of scene, summary, and reflection, to lean heavily on the latter two and especially on reflection. The memoir’s downplaying of events, and the writer’s cool eye, distanced me emotionally from the story and its characters and, again, swiveled the spotlight back on the writer making baubles at his desk from his childhood memories. The book relies on your knowing about Nabokov. Often I found Speak, Memory tedious, especially the long genealogical histories (odd, given his philosophy), because they are poorly linked to his parents and himself, though surely they’re a gold mine for biographers. Better are his detailed portraits of his many tutors, whether admired or hated.

What I keep thinking about, not exactly fondling, more like worrying over, is Nabokov’s portrait, consisting of about four sentences in the book, of the unfortunate boy who was born less than a year after him. He never mentions his two sisters and youngest brother, but notes that the role of this number two kid, Sergei, was to watch him, the young genius named after his father, be coddled and favored. Nabokov admits to bullying Sergei, and I sensed that Nabokov dominated the entire family—or at least its offspring—as some smart, strong-willed firstborns can. Sergei grew into a hapless, passive young man, in Nabokov’s telling, who lingered too long in Berlin and the Nazis killed him. Nabokov bravely distills his own cruel, childish role in shaping this victim, but he doesn’t pretend to guilt he doesn’t feel. His own childhood was as happy as happy could be. He asks for not a whit of sympathy—quite the contrary—when his idyllic world is shattered, first when his wealthy parents lose everything, then when his beloved father is, by the way, assassinated.

The message in Speak, Memory is in the words themselves, in the nature of memory, and in the meaning given to life by aesthetic passions. The literary world instantly hailed the book as a masterpiece, though Nabokov never forgot his bruising encounter with the New Yorker’s copy desk over the years of its serialization. While grateful for the editors’ “minor improvements” to the grammar of this non-native writer, Nabokov skirmished to preserve his rhythms, allusions, dry jokes, and artifice. In places his writing ability astonished me. One example:

“Before leaving for Basle and Berlin, I happened to be walking along the lake in the cold, misty night. At one spot a lone light dimly diluted the darkness and transformed the mist into a visible drizzle. . . . Below, a wide ripple, almost a wave, and something vaguely white attracted my eye. As I came quite close to the lapping water, I saw what it was—an aged swan, a large, uncouth, dodo-like creature, making ridiculous efforts to hoist himself onto a moored boat. He could not do it. The heavy, impotent flapping of his wings, their slippery sound against the rocking and plashing boat, the gluey glistening of the dark swell where it caught the light—all seemed for a moment laden with that strange significance which sometimes in dreams is attached to a finger pressed to mute lips and then pointed at something the dreamer has no time to distinguish before waking with a start.”

There’s so much going right there. What thrills me isn’t the easy alliteration that Nabokov loved—so do I: how that “lone light dimly diluted the darkness”—or the pleasing rhyme of “visible drizzle,” but his use of “uncouth” to describe the swan, which nails the malevolent stupidity that sets apart swans from their cousins, ducks and geese. Not to mention his noting its “ridiculous efforts,” followed by this perfection: the “slippery sound” of the bird’s wings against the wooden gunwales. That “wide ripple” and “gluey” “dark swell” are pretty darn good, too. He piled on adjectives, but they were the perfect adjectives.

Knopf’s “Everyman’s Library” edition of Speak, Memory is elegant but features a criminally tight, dense design; though I own it, I checked out an older, more readable version from the library. Knopf’s does include a never-before-published final chapter, Nabokov’s pseudo-review of the book. In it he explains his overlooking his siblings as stemming from “the powerful concentration on one’s own personality, the act of an artist’s indefatigable and invincible will.” Interestingly, similar to Updike in his great memoir Self-Consciousness, reviewed previously, Nabokov says he takes nonfiction’s pledge literally and seriously, which perhaps helps explain the book’s sparing dramatization:

“Obviously Nabokov’s method would lose all sense unless the material were as true an account of personal experience as memory could possibly make it. The selective apparatus pertains to art; but the parts selected belong to unadulterated life. Nabokov’s memory, especially in regard to the first twenty years of his life, is almost abnormally strong, and probably he had less difficulty than most memoirists would have had in following the plan he set himself: to stick to the truth through thick and thin and not be tempted to fill gaps with logical verisimilitudes posing as preciously preserved recollections. In one or two cases research may have proved that something was incorrectly remembered . . . ”

Nabokov says the “permanent importance” of Speak, Memory is as a “meeting point of an impersonal art form and a very personal life story” that traces certain “themes” from early life—including jigsaw puzzles, chess, colors, hikes, exile—into new realms and toward creative maturity. In other words, he aimed to write a sensory, artistic memoir, not a gassy autobiography; he succeeded, according to his own ruthless standards. If I found the result less charming than he intended, I admire and take instruction from the depth of this mandarin’s effort to honor and to link elemental experiences. It gives me more respect for my own.

Per his “review”:

“The unraveling of a riddle is the purest and most basic act of the human mind. All thematic lines mentioned are gradually brought together, are seen to interweave or converge, in a subtle but natural form of contact which is as much a function of art, as it is a discoverable process in the evolution of a personal destiny. Thus, toward the end of the book, the theme of mimicry, of the ‘cryptic disguise’ studied by Nabokov in his entomological pursuits, comes to a punctual rendezvous with the ‘riddle’ theme, with the camouflaged solution of a chess problem, with the piecing together of a design on bits of broken pottery, and with a picture puzzle wherein the eye makes out the contours of a new country. To the same point of convergence other thematic lines arrive in haste . . .”

11 Comments

  • John says:

    Really enjoyed this, Richard. It sounds like “Speak Memory” reveals Nabokov as a wonderfully talented cold fish. -John

  • Thanks, John. That pretty well sums up my feeling, as a reader, to be honest. But there’s a lot of beauty there, too. And his point, worth making, was that life isn’t defined by big dramatic things, or shouldn’t be.

  • […] Review: Nabokov's 'Speak, Memory' « NARRATIVE Vladimir Nabokov follows this intriguing precept, which he announces in Speak Memory with vigor in the book, fondling the minute sensory and surface details of what he loved as a boy (especially butterflies, on which he became a . […]

  • Daiva Markelis says:

    Speak, Memory is one of my favorite memoirs. I love the way that Nabokov captures the Russia of his time. My grandfather lived in St. Petersburg around the time that Nabokov did, so perhaps for me reading the book was partly a way to get to know my family’s past. I think it’s still one of the great memoirs–it would make my top 25 list.

  • John Branch says:

    I enjoyed and admired Speak, Memory even more than you did, Mr. Gilbert. None of what you felt to be shortcomings felt that way to me.

    Its episodic nature, for instance, its heavy leaning on “summary and reflection” and its “downplaying of events”: the book is so artful a thing that I’m not sure whether it reveals more about the workings of Nabokov’s memory or about his chosen methods, but I feel there’s a good deal of the former in it. There are certainly events in his tale–the doings of some of Nabokov’s tutors, for instance, or the uncanny episode in which he sees as if in a dream his mother emerging from a shop with a large pencil, which she then enters his room carrying, or the outline, precise as a silhouette, of the dark, rainy evenings in which he would bicycle to meet Tamara at his uncle’s shuttered house–but there are also, as he sometimes admits, lapses in his recollection when he does try to recount a scene, and as you and others have pointed out the book is less a straight narrative than an episodic and thematic excursion. I suspect that what interests him, what has most impressed itself upon his memory, is not events per se but other aspects of lived experience, more complicated and harder to characterize: colors, and pictures, and puzzles, and the relations among things.

    I marveled at Nabokov’s genealogical history too, unlike you. It’s telling that he came from a family in which such things were known, and that he remembered them, and that he was able to distinguish and describe the physical features of various antecedents (such as the difference in noses and eyebrows between the Nabokovs and the Korffs). All of that, I can assure you, is not true for me or my family, and so reading it had an exotic and enchanted flavor.

    Regarding the use of “you” (about which I was unsure of your opinion), which appears only occasionally until the 15th chapter, I eventually grasped, as you did, to whom it refers. In my case, I was already aware that most of Nabokov’s books were dedicated to his wife, Vera. What’s more, I had chosen to read the book because of a short, extraordinary passage employing that “you,” which I had found quoted in a Mary Karr memoir: “They are passing, posthaste, posthaste, the gliding years–to use a soul-rending Horatian inflection. The years are passing, my dear, and presently nobody will know what you and I know.” So from the outset I was looking for that note, and before I reached the passage itself, which begins chapter 15, I had begun to suspect that it was Vera. Incidentally, my admiration for that quotation was almost entirely unaffected by learning the answer to my question. The attempt to record what one knows (which for Nabokov is narrowed, in chapter 15, to what he and Vera know), so that others can know it, or even so that one can grapple alone with it, is surely one of the foundational impulses behind writing. Answering that impulse in an exemplary way is what Speak, Memory does.

    I was glad to find your review, because pondering it helped me work out my thoughts on the book. Thank you.

    • Thanks, John. My tart response to the book (really to Nabokov himself) has sure provoked interesting responses. I felt my rather personal reaction to him was aesthetically invalid—one should review the the work of art, not its creator—but I indulged in it because it seemed to reflect a rather human situation, especially regarding memoir: we constantly evaluate—judge—an author, as we do with real people we encounter. This seems to me a difference between the way most of us read novels.

      I suspect my views of Speak, Memory will continue to change. But my initial pique can’t hurt a genius like Nabokov—the idea is laughable—so I’ll probably let it stand.

  • Olga Khotiashova says:

    Dear Mr. Gilbert, I came across your review just when I had finished writing my “Reflections on Vladimir Nabokov’s Speak, Memory by a Russian native speaker recently immigrated to the USA” and could not help posting it although it is probably too long. Thank you.

    I read famous “Lolita” by V. Nabokov in mid-1980s. The book, a Russian translation copied from the original printed in the West and hand-bound, was secretly given to me by a friend with a comment, “If anybody asks you where you got it, answer that you found it in a dumpster.” I’m not sure if the original was smuggled through the Iron Curtain, probably the friend just wanted to heat my interest. Anyway, although it was mid-1980s, not mid-1930s, it was safer not to ask too many questions about the book: “The less you know, the better you sleep,” as the Russian saying says. I read Lolita quickly, liked it partially because of the romantic flavor of forbidden reading, and forgot about Nabokov for years.

    The next encounter with the writer happened ten years later when the works by Nabokov were widely published in the former Soviet Union. I liked his novels especially those written in Russian a lot, and “Drugie Berega” (Other Shores) has become one of my favorite books. No wonder that having moved to the US, I was interested in the English version of the book – “Speak, Memory”.

    Well, it appeared to be not an easy reading. Nabokov’s vocabulary is enormous and peculiar. I had to read sitting at my desk and checking up to 10 words per page in the dictionary, and some of the words needed even a deeper research. I even wrote down the new words first but gave up shortly as it became clear that I would unlikely ever use them. For me, with my freshly learned English, Nabokov’s prose seemed kind of staged: stylish and exquisite as his unique Russian but a little tied up in the limits of English grammar.

    While reading “Speak, Memory”, I tried to answer two questions: 1) What may an American reader like about the book? 2) What does the book mean for me in comparison with its Russian vis-à-vis?

    No doubt, “Speak, Memory” may be interesting to an American reader as an exotic butterfly for its unusual and mysterious beauty. But is there anything more? I borrowed the book in the library, and it had some notes and a library receipt which told me about the previous reader. The pencil notes on the margins affirmed that the reader looked for the connections with everything American, was interested in Russian cultural traditions, and was confused by Nabokov’s playing with words. It was funny that sometimes, when the American reader put a bold question mark having not found the word in the dictionary, I could easily guess the meaning based on the rules of word building in Russian. The receipt included two books: Nabokov’s memoir and the biography of Ernest Hemingway, and a DVD with the movie “The Night of the Iguana” based on the play by Tennessee Williams. Interesting! The choice itself may become the topic of a research. Anyway, I would join the same book club as that unknown reader and we would definitely find what to speak about despite obvious cultural difference.

    I can imagine “Speak, Memory” in the reading list of a scholar specializing in 20th century literature. But it arguably may be interesting to a casual reader as well.
    The book gives a private and subtle look at Russian life at the beginning of 20th century. Nabokov shows the best part of Russian society: educated, broadminded, bearing rich cultural traditions. Most of these features were swept away by the October Revolution and were replaced by the fierce image of a hostile Russian which became a cliché. Nabokov reveals his vision of Russia and makes a reader avoid stereotypes and develop his or her own view.

    Nature, landscapes have always been essential for both Russians and Americans. Russian landscapes, as Nabokov pictures them, give a key to the Russian spirituality. The book produces the strongest feeling of home and loving family – the values which cannot be overestimated. Viewed from the point of a boy raised by loving parents in close connection with nature and art, with great respect for the family history going through ages, and admiration of both native and foreign cultures, the picture of “perfect childhood” drawn by Nabokov may appeal to a reader as the source of first-hand information and particular spirituality.

    As for my personal impression of the memoir, it hasn’t changed a lot after reading the English version. It just became more refined as I looked at Russia from the same shore the author did. Only looking from far away one may cherish the native language as the most valuable possession. Only living abroad one may feel the overwhelming beauty of the native land.

    It was also a thrilling experience to observe Nabokov’s famous alliterations and decipher his allusions. “The spiral is a spiritualized circle,” sounds like a poem in English. I wonder how Nabokov said it in Russian; no doubt he found some singing equivalent. Unfortunately, my Russian version of the book was left on the bookshelf in my St. Petersburg apartment. I know exactly where it is: on the right side, between Dostoevsky and Brodsky. The search for the adequate translation haunted me even in a night dream where I could easily reach the book, turn the pages quickly but still could not find the corresponding page. Alas, it was just a dream.

    Writing in English, Nabokov preserved grace and magic epitomized in his Russian prose. “Speak, Memory” works as a magic lantern switching the reader from the narration to his or her own or even ancestral reminiscences. While reading the book, I caught myself several times feeling as if I was looking through the eyes of my Great-Grandmother whose namesake I am and whose youth coincided with the beginning of 20th century. I never met her. But due to Nabokov’s prose, the stories told me thousand times by my Grandmother and stacked somewhere in the depth of the memory miraculously got alive and transformed into the vivid pictures of a sunlit apple orchard, Cossacks suppressing students rally, train tours to the Crimea. I expect even more miracles.

    Vladimir Nabokov wrote his memoir approximately the same time he was working on “Lolita”. He counted on the former to help him make living but it was the latter which turned out to be a great commercial success. Well, the life is all about unexpected things. As for me, I’ll probably never return to “Lolita” and will definitely reread both “Speak, Memory” and “Drugie Berega” which connect distant shores and times and serve as bookmarks in the memory pinpointing treasured places and images.

  • […] Khotiashova responded to my review of Vladimir Nabokov’s memoir Speak, Memory by posting as a comment a lovely essay, which I have […]

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