Critical Context

Nabokov’s Russian-language novels, written between 1925 and 1940 and eventually translated into English with the sometime collaboration of his son, fall short of the greatness of his major English-language novels—Lolita, Pnin (1957), Pale Fire (1962), and Ada. Speak, Memory antedates these masterworks; Speak, Memory, the 1966 version of which adds references to Lolita and Pnin, antedates Nabokov’s masterpiece, Ada. Autobiographies ordinarily follow the literary successes of their subjects. Nabokov, like Robert Graves (who wrote his autobiography at age thirty-five and published I, Claudius four years later in 1934), confounds custom but confirms his own sense of his worth.

The autobiography, although most closely akin to Nabokov’s fiction, has much in common with his essays, criticism, and interviews. In Strong Opinions (1973), he mentions “the melodramatic muddle and phony mysticism of Dostoevski,” which phrase could serve as a gloss on “Dostoevskian drisk.” The phrase appears in a long defense of his 1964 translation of Alexander Pushkin’s Evgeny Onegin (1825-1833; Eugene Onegin) against Edmund Wilson’s charges of, among other faults, mistranslations and an “addiction to rare and unfamiliar words” (for example, rummer, dit, gloam, scrab, mollitude, stuss). Nabokov defends his work ably, although with some unpleasant arrogance and with occasional lack of convincingness.

If Nabokov’s works were to be listed in two columns, the first comprising fiction, poetry, drama, and translations, and the second comprising essays, criticism, interviews, and lectures, Speak, Memory, in its final revision, would be the link belonging to and connecting both columns. The posthumous publication of his Lectures on Literature (1980), Lectures on Russian Literature (1981)—in which he rails at length at Fyodor Dostoevski and Gorky—and Lectures on Don Quixote (1983) offer readers the opportunity to appreciate Nabokov’s literary criticism and to see it as an extension of the attitudes expressed in Speak, Memory. These attitudes are summed up on his anti-Dostoevski lecture with the statement that “art is a divine game”— divine because the artist is creator, and a game because “it is all make-believe”; for Nabokov there is no access to true creation other than that afforded by the camouflage of make-believe and there is no divine gamester more productive of this access than he himself.