Nabokov charmingly remembers and recreates special moments from the first forty years of his life in Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited. Early on, he informs the reader that he seeks to defy and transcend the limitations of linear time and mortality, using artifice to create a delicate and evocative interplay of words on paper. By carefully crafting sentences, paragraphs, and chapters, he is able to create the illusion of having succeeded. Like the magic lantern show concocted by Lenski, Nabokov’s autobiography creates a space for imagination and magic. His strings of words, and the reader’s absorption of them, conjure the lost time of an actual life and its times. As narrator in the present tense Nabokov looks back with gratitude for having survived and retained his freedom to create, to explore, to remember.
Nabokov journeys through the past as if on a magic carpet ride, landing at places within a structure conceived of even before fully lived. One of the more noticeable characteristics about Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited is that it only covers the first forty years of Nabokov’s life and, of that, twelve of its fifteen chapters are devoted mostly to the time before the Russian czar’s downfall. Nabokov clearly appreciated this period as one of protected exploration. He cherished it for understandable reasons. Until the overthrow of the czar, all hopes seemed realizable. Nabokov had a healthy and supportive family life, aristocratic privileges, access to both high society and the educated classes, and a seemingly secure future. He also had the feeling common among young people, especially those who are fortunate enough to be well off and well educated: a sense of invulnerability and immortality. Thus, given his desire to transcend the prison of actual time and to defy the inevitability of physical death, Nabokov as autobiographer prefers to dwell in the happier moments of his youth.
Perhaps because of the eventual loss of nearly everything material, the dispersal of his family, the assassination of his father, and his permanent exile from Russia, Nabokov writes in a thoroughly unapologetic manner. Having suffered these losses and as a Russian émigré having to earn much of his own way in foreign places, he feels perfectly justi- fied in recalling the better times before exile. Once readers appreciate this preoccupation, they can more...
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In Nabokov’s notoriously restricted private canon of great twentieth-century novelists—he admitted only Proust, Joyce, Kafka, and Biely—it is Proust who often seems most intimately allied with his own aims and sensibility. A pursuit of time past is undertaken directly or obliquely in many of his novels, and most centrally in what are probably his two finest books—Lolita and Speak, Memory. The autobiography is as Proustian as anything Nabokov wrote, and it even includes a little homage to Proust: Nabokov’s last vision of Colette, his Riviera childhood sweetheart, rolling a hoop glinting in the autumnal sun through dead leaves in a Parisian park, is a citation, a transposition of pattern from fiction to autobiography, of the scene at the end of Swann’s Way in which the child Marcel beholds the adored figure of Gilberte Swann playing among the leaves in the Champs Elysées.
The special sense of euphoria associated with the recovery of the sensuous fullness of past experience is equally Nabokov’s goal and Proust’s, but the routes they follow toward this end notably diverge. The key concept for Proust is of course involuntary memory. The return of the past is vouchsafed by adventitious circumstances as a moment of grace, an unanticipated epiphany. Some otherwise trivial datum of experience, like the wobbling of uneven pavingstones in a Venetian piazza, jogs slumbering memory, flooding consciousness with a complex of seemingly forgotten, perhaps repressed, perceptions from the past. (The articulation of this experience, to be sure, becomes possible only through the finely attuned artistic discipline of the experiencer.) Nabokov, on the other hand, conceives his relation to the past much more exclusively in volitional terms. He is grateful for the occasional mnemonic clues that circumstances may cast his way, but for him the ability to revisit the past is chiefly a consequence of the imaginative concentration afforded by artful prose. It is only a little overstated to say that for Nabokov the apt manipulation of language makes the past come back.
A seemingly self-indulgent fantasy in the penultimate paragraph of Speak, Memory actually provides a nice definition of the book’s project. Nabokov recalls how his four-year-old son, playing on a French Riviera beach not long before their departure for America, would gather tide-tossed treasures from the sea: ‘‘candy-like blobs of sealicked glass—lemon, cherry, peppermint’’ and ‘‘sometimes small bits of pottery, still beautiful in glaze and color.’’ He then reflects on this collection of fragments:
I do not doubt that among those slightly convex chips of majolica ware found by our child there was one whose border of scrollwork fitted exactly, and continued, the pattern of a fragment I had found in 1903 on the same shore, and that the two tallied with a third my mother had found on that Mentone beach in 1882, and with a fourth piece of the same pottery that had been found by her mother a hundred years ago—and so on, until this assortment of parts, if all had been preserved, might have been put together to make the complete, the absolutely complete, bowl, broken by some Italian child, God knows where and when, and now mended by these rivets of bronze.
The meticulous fitting together of fragments into patterns, as Nabokov announces in the opening pages of the book, is what his autobiography is all about. It is at once a task excitingly imaginable and hopelessly impossible, as the language he chooses to evoke the broken bowl suggests. The crucial verbs are in the conditional tense (‘‘if all had been preserved, might have been put together’’), implying a condition obviously contrary to fact. The wellwrought urn of the past is, after all, irrevocably shattered; only a few of its shards can be gathered by the patient memoirist; and that is what is ultimately so wrenching about this remarkably happy autobiography. The ‘‘rivets of bronze’’ that might mend the assembled fragments are of course the fine linkages of Nabokov’s polished prose. (The association of bronze with poetic art is confirmed earlier in the book in an explicit reference to Horace’s exegi monumentum, ‘‘I have built a monument more lasting than bronze.’’) The image of bronze rivets represents precisely the paradoxical character of Nabokov’s undertaking. A majolica bowl put back together with rivets is no longer what it once was, yet it has a new, if patently composite, wholeness, and the bronze that makes this possible, though superimposed on the original substance of the pottery, is itself a burnished material that contributes to an aesthetic effect. The Horatian background of the bronze metaphor also suggests perdurable strength, a quality that, as we shall see, is repeatedly manifested in the stylistic assurance of Nabokov’s willed recuperation of the past.
Humbert Humbert at the beginning of his sad narrative cries out to a forever absent Lolita that he has only words to play with. That is also the desperate situation vis-à-vis his Russian past of the narrator of Speak, Memory, but he is able to overcome absence, to surprise himself with felicity, by fashioning the words into intricate configurations that bring back to him a substantial measure of what he has irrevocably lost. A full explanation of how he achieves this end would involve a comprehensive stylistic analysis of the autobiography. But I think we can get a fair sense of what happens in the prose by concentrating on the means employed to realize one of the most salient aspects of the mnemonic process in the book—the special quality of illumination of the remembered scene.
The equation between light and life—or rather, far more specifically, between life and a crack of light, a limited band of illumination against a large background of darkness—is announced in the very first sentence of Speak, Memory, at the begin- ning of that extraordinary preludic evocation of ‘‘chronophobia’’: ‘‘common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.’’ This image becomes an organizing motif for the whole autobiography. Having been introduced as a metaphor, it later resurfaces as literal fact in the opening paragraphs of the butterfly chapter:
On a summer morning, in the legendary Russia of my boyhood, my first glance upon awakening was for the chink between the white inner shutters. If it disclosed a watery pallor, one had better not open them at all, and so be spared the sight of a sullen day sitting for its picture in a puddle. How resentfully one would deduce, from a line of dull light, the leaden sky, the sodden sand, the gruel-like mess of broken brown blossoms under the lilacs—and that flat, fallow leaf (the first casualty of the season) pasted upon a wet garden bench!
But if the chink was a long glint of dewy brilliancy, then I made haste to have the window yield its treasure. With one blow, the room would be cleft into light and shade. The foliage of birches moving in the sun had the translucent green tone of grapes, and in contrast to this there was the dark velvet of fir trees against a blue of extraordinary intensity, the like of which I rediscovered only many years later, in the montane zone of Colorado.
The paired scenes—rainy day and sunny day— are actual recollections of repeated experiences, memory in an iterative tense, but they also offer themselves as a kind of allegory of perception and, by implication, of memory. The window (as often in fiction) is the transparent marker between inner and outer, between perceiver and scene; and the natural scene as a whole can be visually reconstructed from the bar of light emanating from it in through the shutters. Nabokov’s temporal and spatial distance from the lost past is defined by that initial phrase, ‘‘the legendary Russia of my boyhood,’’ but the virtuosity of the prose, moving from the chink of light to the nuanced illumination of the landscape, proceeds to abolish the distance. The ‘‘watery palS lor’’ of the chink of light in the first paragraph leads the imagination of the observer to a witty image that summarizes the scene he prefers not to behold: ‘‘a sullen day sitting for its picture in a puddle.’’ The wit says a good deal about observation and representation in Nabokov’s imaginative world. It is not merely that the rain-puddle reflecting the gloomy sky is a synecdoche for the whole dreary scene but that framing and mirroring are the means of capturing the fleeting moment. It sometimes seems in Nabokov as though the data of experience were no more than the raw material of artistic representation, the majolica shards awaiting the expert hand that will assemble them in the wholeness of a pattern, and this sense is caught in the image of the rainy day posing for its picture in the puddle.
The idea of a careful photographic composition in grays and dingy browns is then carried forward in the patently composed quality of the prose (quite unlike the next paragraph on the sunny day), which locks all the descriptive terms into a network of alliterated l’s and s’s and d’s—‘‘line of dull light,’’ ‘‘leaden sky,’’ ‘‘sodden sand,’’ gruel-like/ lilacs’’—complemented by two subseries of b’s and f’s—‘‘broken brown blossoms,’’ ‘‘flat, fallow leaf.’’ None of this can properly be described as onomatopoeic, but the effect is to proffer an illusion of all the words somehow being contaminated by the bleak light of the scene to which they belong, dissolving into one another in a gray impasto, a ‘‘gruel-like mess.’’ One begins to see why Nabokov can imagine his prose as bronze rivets, holding pieces firmly together.
The paragraph on the bright day puts aside these artifices of phonetic orchestration partly for contrapuntal reasons, in order not to overdo a single device, and partly because, in this full frontal vision of the illuminated scene, the writer now wants to concentrate on the precise visual texture of what the light reveals, stressing painterly words instead of mood-evoking sound-clusters. The suddenness of the invasion of sunlight when the shutters are flung open is realized in a theatrical gesture, the metaphorical blow that cleaves the room into light and shade. Then we are invited by the chromatic specifi- cation of the language to look out the window with the young Vladimir on a visual composition—the delicately defined ‘‘translucent green tone of grapes’’ of the birch leaves set against ‘‘the dark velvet’’ of the fir and the intense blue of the sky. The last of these color-values is given neither a tone nor a texture but an emotive label (‘‘extraordinary intensity’’), perhaps because its...
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I am tempted to say that Speak, Memory is the book on which Vladimir Nabokov has spent his most painstaking care, but that is not so; there are no degrees of attention in his works—no Homais, no nods—and each has been nurtured as thoroughly as possible. But Speak, Memory is the book he has most frequently written, or rewritten, or, as he characterized his last venture into its composition, revisited. No less than all his other books, it is a construction, in his words ‘‘a systematically correlated assemblage of personal recollections.’’ It is an autobiography, but it is not a record, or account, of ‘‘facts’’ (that troublesome curbing one keeps stumbling over). It is imaginative narration in which...
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