Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited, a careful and uncompromising reworking of its 1951 incarnation, is widely embraced as one of the best memoirs of the twentieth century. Nabokov, highly praised for his English and Russian language stories, novels, and poetry, proves his skill and talent as a creative nonfiction writer with this work. In it, he achieves two major feats. First, the evocation of Nabokov’s happy childhood in a liberal aristocratic family during the last years of the Russian czar is made poignant by contrasting this childhood with his subsequent exile and the assassination of his father. Second, aesthetically, words, images, and memories take the writer and his readers on magical little voyages that transcend the limitations of ordinary time and its daily burdens.
Nabokov conceived of the basic structure for what eventually became Speak, Memory as early as 1936, and early versions of some chapters were published in magazines during the 1940s. With the help of his wife Véra, Nabokov completed the first book-length version that was published in the United States in 1951 as Conclusive Evidence. Because he was not so well known at that time, the memoir did not produce a major stir among the reading public. However, after his best-selling novel Lolita (1955) made him world famous, he and Véra had enough financial resources to move to Switzerland, where there was also ample time to revise and improve the autobiography. One of the more helpful additions is a detailed index. A 1966 edition of Speak, Memory underscores what a prankster Nabokov liked to be by including a fictitious review of his own work that was originally to be included with Conclusive Evidence. Such pranks and deliberate red herrings from an author who adored chess, elaborate puns, and artifice have provided biographers and literary critics with challenging puzzles.