It took me a little longer than I had expected to finish Vladimir Nabokov’s memoir, Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited, mostly because I needed to slow down my reading to really experience the full impact of Nabokov’s language. Reading this book is like bathing in words. Nabokov writes in such a richly detailed way (how does he remember so much?), and with so many stunningly elegant sentences that seem to empty out the dictionary that it feels totally sacrilegious to attempt to blast through the pages.
The cover itself is a good representation of what is going on in the memoir: a yellow veil seems to obscure the title, leaving only a partial view of the words, just as Nabokov uses memory to connect with what he has lost. The memoir covers the years from 1903 to 1940, from Nabokov’s boyhood in St. Petersburg, growing up in a wealthy and aristocratic Russian family in the tumultuous years leading up to the Bolshevik Revolution, and then his wanderings in Europe before World War II displaced him and his family yet again. The memoir begins with one of the most famous first sentences in literature: “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.” This is the imponderable, the nothingness we come from before birth and go to after death, but it is what comes in between that becomes the art of one’s life.
Nabokov and his wife and son eventually settled in America where he taught at many colleges and universities. In addition to his prolific literary career, he was also a highly regarded lepidopterist, and he amassed one of the world’s most extensive collection of butterflies in the years he was at Harvard, not in the English department, but in the department of Comparative Zoology. In fact, Nabokov has said that if the Bolshevik Revolution had never taken place, he would have been a scientist, and not a writer.
Nabokov is perhaps one of the greatest prose stylists of the twentieth century, and he wrote both in English and Russian. He translated many of his own works from Russian to English, and the suppleness of his language ignites the reader’s imagination, while also requiring many trips to the dictionary to look up the obscure words he loves to sprinkle everywhere. Nabokov also slips between recollection and musing, writing from the perspective of his adult self looking back on the experiences of his youth, while embedding the seeds of his future self in his boyhood remembrances. Here is an example, also of his richly evocative language: “But what am I doing in this stereoscopic dreamland? How did I get here? Somehow, the two sleighs have slipped away, leaving behind a passportless spy standing on the blue-white road in his New England snowboots and storm coat. The vibration in my ears is no longer their receding bells, but only my old blood singing. All is still, spellbound, enthralled by the moon, fancy’s rearview mirror. The snow is real, though, and as I bend to it and scoop up a handful, sixty years crumble to glittering frost-dust between my fingers.”
Self-referentiality is also Nabokov’s big in-joke, and in a section devoted to the difficulties of Russian emigré life especially for artists and writers, he slyly refers to his favorite writer of those years, Sirin. This is actually Nabokov’s nom de plume from the years before he emigrated to America. Here is what he writes about this writer he admires so much: “Russian readers…were impressed by the mirror-like angles of his clear but weirdly misleading sentences and by the fact that the real life of his books flowed in his figures of speech, which one critic has compared to ‘windows giving upon a contiguous world…a rolling corollary, the shadow of a train of thought.'” This is Nabokov writing about Nabokov, and the reader is in on the joke.
There is a great deal of fun in reading Nabokov (even Lolita, if the reader can push aside the surface sordidness of the story and think of it as a grand allegory), and I found myself especially drawn to his early life recollections because there are many similarities between his family’s experiences and those of my own Russian family–both from St. Petersburg, both rendered destitute by the Revolution, and both displaced a second time in 1940. And so reading Speak, Memory has been a way for me to reconnect with my own past–so much of our family lore is eerily similar to Nabokov’s–yet I would highly recommend this memoir to everyone, as an evocative and highly readable (despite all those big words!) work that draws away the veil of the past to reveal the present.