by Vladimir Nabokov
Paperback, 316 pages
Vintage International, 1989
When novelist Vladimir Nabokov lectured on European literature at Cornell University, he taught his students that, "In reading, one should notice and fondle details. There is nothing wrong about the moonshine of generalization when it comes after the sunny trifles of the book have been lovingly collected."1
Nabokov certainly followed his own lesson plan when it came time to write his autobiography. Speak, Memory is a slim volume that would burst its seams with detail if Nabokov were a sloppier writer. Fortunately, his lyrical prose fits comfortably between the covers.
Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov (April 23, 1900 - July 2, 1977) became (in)famous worldwide for his authorship of Lolita, the scandalous novel about a pedophile and his nymphet lover. The Russian-born author, however, had written many excellent novels in his native tongue before Lolita, which was one of his first English-language books. Nabokov is known as "one of the twentieth century's master prose stylists,"2 an author whose novels enchant readers with their detailed backdrops, complexely layered themes and precisely descriptive language.
It is no surprise, then, that Nabokov would approach his autobiography as he would approach a novel. However, there is no deception in Speak, Memory. The title itself implores Mnemosyne, the Muse of memory, to speak. To paraphrase Brian Boyd, Nabokov's most recent biographer, Nabokov manages to find a design in his life story as rich as the ones in his fiction, without changing or inventing a detail. Speak, Memory is more than just a simple summary of facts or a fleshy chronology, but a work of true literature that happens to be factual. The book is a philosophical musing, an attempt by Nabokov to find some underlying pattern to his own life and unravel it.
Speak, Memory primarily covers the European portion of Nabokov's life, before he emigrated to America in 1940. The book is divided into fifteen roughly chronological chapters, each developing a theme important in Nabokov's life. Each chapter was originally published in magazines as a stand-alone piece.
Chapter One, "Perfect Past," introduces the book with a philosophical bent, as Nabokov probes his earliest childhood memories to understand the "brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness"3 that is life. Chapter Two, "A Portrait of My Mother," is a tenderly-told tribute to the first woman in Nabokov's life, one who encouraged her son's sensitiveness to the world. Chapter Three, "A Portrait of My Uncle," discusses the extended Nabokov family, especially Uncle "Ruka," whose favorite nephew was young Vladimir.
It may seem unusual that Nabokov would not devote a chapter to his father, but it is clear that his father's spirit pervades the entire book. Nabokov held his father in the highest esteem, as a man of great justice and humanity.
Chapter Four, "My English Education," explores in charming detail the Anglophilic streak of the Nabokov family and the English governesses who cared for him in his early childhood. Chapter Five, "Mademoiselle O," is a sketch of the French governess that looked after the Nabokov children for years. Chapter Six, "Butterflies," explains his fascination with the insects and the beginnings of his lepidoptery.
Chapters Seven, "Colette," Eight, "Lantern Slides," Nine, "My Russian Education," and Ten, "Curtain-Raiser," detail Nabokov's adolescence, from his first childhood love, through Russian tutors, up to his schoolboy days. Chapter Eleven, "First Poem," describes his early, somewhat miserable attempts at poetry.
Chapter Twelve, "Tamara," marks the transition from adolescence to adulthood, when Nabokov describes his first adult love. Chapter Thirteen, "Lodgings in Trinity Lane," is about his university days. Chapter Fourteen, "Exile," is a remembrance of the difficult days after the Bolshevik revolution, when Nabokov and his family fled to Germany and France.
Chapter Fifteen, "Gardens and Parks," concludes Speak, Memory, when Nabokov addresses his wife, Vera, and touchingly talks to her about their son, Dmitri and all their shared memories.
But that short summary of the book's contents is devoid of the detail and style that makes Speak, Memory a wonderful book. The prose is some of Nabokov's best. His descriptions his experiences sparkle with a exactness that would be hard to believe if it were anyone but Nabokov. For example, Chapter Three of Speak, Memory begins with:
The kind of Russian family to which I belonged--a kind now extinct--had, among other virtues, a traditional leaning toward the comfortable produces of Anglo-Saxon civilization. Pears' Soap, tar-black when dry, topaz-like when held to the light between wet fingers, took care of one's morning bath. Pleasant was the decreasing weight of the English collapsible tub when it was made to protrude a rubber underlip and disgorge its frothy contents to the slop pail. 'We could not improve the cream, so we improved the tube,' said the English toothpaste. At breakfast, Golden Syrup imported from London would entwist with its glowing coils the revolving spoon from which enough of it had slithered onto a piece of Russian bread and butter. All sorts of snug, mellow things came in a steady procession from the English Shop on Nevski Avenue: fruitcakes, smelling salts, playing cards, picture puzzles, striped blazers, talcum-white tennis balls.4
This level of detail not only lets the reader vicariously experience Nabokov's childhood, but also informs his work. He was a man of observation, collecting experiences to give real life to fiction. Like the novels he read, taught and wrote, his life and its book are worlds that require exploration. Speak, Memory is not a quick read, being dense with details that must be slowly absorbed and enjoyed, but it is well worth the effort.
Particularly striking is how much Nabokov, a famously aloof and often standoffish man, cherished the people in his life. Nabokov, who was forced to spend most of his life in exile from his beloved Russia, mourned the loss of his native country not for the loss of his family fortune, but for the loss of his childhood happiness, surrounded by family. His mother, father, wife and son, along with his brothers and sisters, governesses, family friends and the like, are treasured in this book. Especially poignant are his recollections of his father, who was killed by the Bolsheviks, and his younger brother Sergey, who lived in the shadow of his older brother.
There's a certain satisfaction to reading the autobiography of a writer as talented as Nabokov, comparing the worlds he created in fiction to the worlds he experienced in fact. For a biography of Nabokov's life, Brian Boyd's two volumes, Vladimir Nabokov: The Russian Years and Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years, are much more comprehensive. However, Speak, Memory offers a first-hand glimpse into Nabokov's personal philosophies that not only illuminate his life, but his work as well. Speak, Memory should be read by anyone who is interested in the literature and life of Vladimir Nabokov.
1. Vladimir Nabokov. Lectures on Literature, ed. Fredson Bowers. (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich/Bruccoli Clark, 1980), 1.
2. Vladimir Nabokov. Speak, Memory. (New York: Vintage International, 1989), back cover.
3. Idem, 19.
4. Idem, 79.
This review was written for The Bookworm Turns: An Everything Literary Quest.