Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited covers thirty-seven of Nabokov’s first forty-one years, from August, 1903, to May, 1940. It is a considerable revision of his first partial autobiography, Conclusive Evidence. Most of the chapters of Conclusive Evidence first appeared in The New Yorker between 1948 and 1950 and were published as a book in 1951. In the foreword, Nabokov states that the book provides conclusive evidence of his existence. He had planned to title its British edition Speak, Mnemosyne, invoking the Greeks’ goddess of memory and mother of the Muses, but the publishing firm of Gollancz vetoed that notion. The references to memory, in whatever language, provide an apt link to Proust: Both writers employ memory as a richly sensuous medium that enables their art to vault over the abysses of time; both practice, as their core credo, the pursuit of aesthetic bliss in their treatment of such experiences as love, grief, rejection, desire, tenderness, loss, and ecstasy.
The first paragraph of Speak, Memory links the narrator/author to another major writer of nuance and scruple: Samuel Beckett. Nabokov recalls his fears when, as a young boy, he saw homemade motion pictures taken by his parents weeks before his birth. They featured the brand-new carriage awaiting him “with the smug, encroaching air of a coffin”—as if he had died before he had been delivered. It is no wonder that Nabokov begins the book with the somber comment, “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.” Beckett’s En attendant Godot (1952; Waiting for Godot, 1954) twice uses the same morbid metaphor: “They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more.”
Most of this work’s fifteen chapters, however, portray a lyrically happy—hence Proustian rather than Beckettian—childhood. With his wealthy, gifted, and adoring family, the firstborn Vladimir lived in a townhouse in prerevolutionary St. Petersburg and at Vyra, an idyllic, rambling country estate. For the author and his two brothers and two sisters, their existence as children was a paradisal lesson in love, order, respect, and responsibility—until the 1917 Revolution. Vladimir’s mother read aloud to him in three languages, encouraged his attempts at poetry, and nourished his delight in sounds and colors.
In chapter 2, Nabokov describes...
(The entire section is 1036 words.)