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 . . .”