Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1036
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...
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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 his earliest aesthetic experiences: mild synesthetic hallucinations, such as hearing in colors and linking the letters of the alphabet with such textures as vulcanized rubber with the hard g and weathered wood with a.
Such synesthesia has a rich literary heritage, including the work of Symbolist poets and the French novelist Joris-Karl Huysmans. Nabokov regrets that the muse of music never touched his susceptibility: “Music . . . affects me merely as an arbitrary succession of more or less irritating sounds.”
In chapter 9, Nabokov magnificently renders his tall, humane, courageous, and imposing father. A former Guards officer, he was a law lecturer at the Imperial School of Jurisprudence. He was an editor for liberal newspapers, held a seat in Russia’s first parliament, opposed both anti-Semitism and capital punishment, and served a three-month prison term in 1908 for having written articles assailing the czar’s despotism. Vladimir Dmitrievich also knew hundreds of Russian verses, loved Charles Dickens, and “prized highly Stendhal, [Honoré de] Balzac and [Émile] Zola, three detestable mediocrities from my point of view.”
The author climaxes this chapter with an account of a duel his father almost fought against the editor of a right-wing paper that had printed a scurrilous article about him. The possibility of losing his father shocked young Vladimir into awareness of their deep affection for each other. Writing that the editor ended the affair with an abject apology, Nabokov recalls the assassination of his father which would occur ten years later and is grateful that, back in 1912, “several lines of play in a difficult chess composition were not blended yet on the board.” The image is essentially Nabokovian: Exactly as each move on a chessboard affects all subsequent moves, so his father’s reprieve from an encounter with death will cause him to make moves which will finally result in his murder. In Nabokov’s worldview, all events are somehow organically connected.
Speak, Memory re-creates with superlative skill not only the ethos of an idyllic upbringing but also the social upheaval of exile. Nabokov rhapsodically recounts the first creation of his poems and his first pursuits of butterflies. Best of all, he provides a poignant account of adolescent first love between him and the teenage Tamara in 1915. He pictures “the tender, moist gleam on her lower eyelid” but is discreet about describing their sexual union: “In one particular pine grove . . . I parted the fabric of fancy, I tasted reality.” They took to the woods in summer, to museums and cinemas in winter. They parted in 1916—he cannot recall the cause—only to meet by chance on a train in 1917 for a few minutes. When Tamara left him at the station, he recalls, even “today no alien marginalia can dim the purity of the pain.”
In chapter 14, Nabokov deals with the spectral world of émigré society in Europe during the 1920’s and 1930’s. He kept himself too occupied to wallow in self-pity and has only scorn for refugees who chronically lamented their lost wealth and estates. In Conclusive Evidence, Nabokov remarked that, among the younger exiled Russian writers, the only one who turned out to be a major achiever was V. Sirin. In Speak, Memory, Sirin is no longer called a major figure—only “the loneliest and most arrogant one.” The narrator devotes a page to him, citing favorable and unfavorable responses to Sirin’s books, and concludes “Across the dark sky of exile, Sirin passed . . . like a meteor, and disappeared, leaving nothing much else behind him than a vague sense of uneasiness.”
Readers need to know that “Sirin” was the pen name Nabokov himself assumed during this period, at first to avoid confusion with his famous father, and then as an established habit. Such deadpan self-mockery and misleading of his public is characteristic of the games he would play with increasing relish in his later fiction, particularly in Pale Fire and Ada or Ardor.