Ivan Alekseevich Bunin Winner of a Nobel prize for literature in 1933, poet and writer Bunin tries to engage and befriend Nabokov in Paris in the 1930s but attains only superficial success. In describing his response to Bunin, Nabokov reveals a ‘‘morbid dislike for restaurants and cafés’’ and an aversion to confessional conversation.
Colette See Claude Deprès
Claude Deprès Claude Deprès is the nine-year-old girl with whom the ten-year-old Nabokov falls in love while on summer holiday at Biarritz, France, in 1909. As Nabokov biographer Brian Boyd points out in his introduction to the 1999 Everyman’s Library edition of Speak, Memory, the image of Claude ‘‘prefigures and clearly inspires Lolita,’’ the character in the novel of the same name that made Nabokov a celebrity. Colette is the adult pseudonym of Claude Deprès.
Mstislav Valerianovich Dobuzhinski Dobuzhinski is a painter and art tutor during the period just prior to World War I. Nabokov credits Dobuzhinski with teaching him the basics of memory- based artwork, reinforcing his visual sense and retention of detail in his mind’s eye.
General Aleksey Nokolaevich Kuropatkin Kuropatkin, a veteran Imperial Russian army officer and friend of the Nabokov family, impresses Nabokov on two occasions. In 1904, the day he was ordered to take command of the Russian forces in Manchuria at the outset of the Russo-Japanese War, Kuropatkin shows the five-year-old Nabokov a match trick, and about 1919 Nabokov sees Kuropatkin in peasant garb while fleeing from the Bolsheviks.
Lenski See Filip Zelenski
Mademoiselle See Cécile Miauton
Max See Boris Okolokulak
Cécile Miauton The Nabokov family’s high-strung French governess from 1905 until 1912, Cécile Miauton, who is called Mademoiselle, impresses Nabokov as a sentimental and lost soul, inspiring a mixture of compassion and derision. Chapter five of Speak, Memory is largely devoted to her. The original version of this chapter appeared as an essay in 1943 in the Atlantic. Through remembrances of her, Nabokov reveals much about his mordant and scathing sense of humor. ‘‘And, really,’’ he writes, ‘‘her French was so lovely! Ought one to have minded the shallowness of her culture, the bitterness of her temper, the banality of her mind, when that pearly language of hers purled and scintillated?’’ It is largely through memories of her and his later descriptions of Paris that Nabokov’s mocking attitude toward French culture—which to him is not as serious as anything Russian—emerges.
Dmitri Vladimirovich Nabokov Dmitri, the son of Nabokov and his wife Vera, provides much of the background theme for chapter fifteen of Speak, Memory. He is only five years old when the Nabokovs leave France for the United States, fleeing the Nazis. Dmitri is presented as a sweet boy and the parental excuse for many walks in parks and much train-watching from bridge overpasses. Dmitri’s early childhood in pre-World War II France provides a delicately described parallel and sequel to Nabokov’s in pre-World War I Russia.
Elena Ivanovna (Rukavishnokov) Nabokov Elena, Nabokov’s mother, supports and nurtures him in a healthy manner. She encourages his visual and artistic education, his independent exploration and lepidoptera (butterfly and moth) collecting, and his gradual development through adolescence and young manhood. Her cosmopolitan outlook permits him the freedom for roaming and romance, yet she also takes care of him when he is homesick. For a person like Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov, Elena is the prefect mother; she also seems to be an excellent match for his father.
Sergey Vladimirovich Nabokov Less than a year younger than Nabokov, Sergey lives in his brother’s shadow for most of the memoir. Occasionally a sidekick in pranks played on servants, governesses, and tutors,...
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he attends different schools and, besides enjoying tennis together and studying literature in England, has different passions from his brother. Sergey has a speech problem described as stammering, which makes discussion difficult. He remains in Europe during World War II and, after criticizing the Nazis, is sent to a Nazi concentration camp, where he dies less than four months before Germany surrenders.
Véra Evseevna (Slonim) Nabokov Véra serves more as a muse and off-stage presence than as an active character. Yet she is very much present. In chapter fifteen, starting immediately after a 1940 passport photograph of her and Nabokov’s five-year-old son Dmitri, Nabokov addresses her, calling her ‘‘my dear’’ as if in a letter addressed to her. As Stacy Schiff, her Pulitzer Prizewinning biographer, notes in Véra (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov), Véra is ‘‘everywhere present and yet nowhere.’’ She provides stability and companionship for Nabokov from 1925 onward, first in Berlin, then in France, and lastly in the United States.
Vladimir Dmitrievich Nabokov Nabokov’s father, an intelligent and compassionate man, remains stubbornly liberal and reformist until assassins cut his life short in 1922 in Berlin. Aristocratic and devoted to both his family and Russia, Vladimir Dmitrievich helps undermine the czar’s autocratic power but cannot stop the Bolsheviks from forcefully displacing him and other moderates once the czar is overthrown. Well liked by peasants in the areas around his St. Petersburg estates, he supports local public works, such as schools, while sponsoring a liberal education for each of his children. In chapter nine of Speak, Memory, Nabokov provides a loving tribute to him.
Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov Nabokov, the primary figure of his memoir, also serves as the central observer of the many other figures encountered in his memory. Nabokov explores the first forty years of his life from a variety of angles and uses a combination of anecdotes, aesthetic musings, observations, and thematic sequences that are purposely not always in chronological order. In using anecdotes, he both characterizes himself and other people. For the most part, the first twelve chapters of the book deal with life, people, and events from the early 1900s through World War I (1914–1918). In these chapters, Nabokov remembers and muses upon the family and its estates and an ever-changing cast of servants, governesses, tutors, acquaintances, connections, and attachments. He recaptures, recreates, and reinvents the world in which he grew up, the special and privileged world of liberal aristocracy that persisted in and around St. Petersburg until the fall of czarist Russia. Within this sphere, Nabokov’s imagination, talent, and passion for intricate and finely wrought aesthetics come to life and take hold, guiding his spirit through the difficult years that come next. Much of the memoir is devoted to probing Nabokov’s childhood because recalling that time seems to him like ‘‘the next best thing to probing one’s eternity.’’ Certainly, Nabokov’s childhood seems far more pleasant and almost carefree compared to the ensuing years in exile.
When the Bolsheviks come to power and Russia degenerates into a bitter and vicious civil war, the Nabokovs depart their native land forever. In a series of revelations made while recalling family and place, the celebration of the earlier part of the book becomes clearer. No subsequent place compares to the earlier joys of a wealthy Russian childhood. Neither England, where Nabokov goes to college, nor Berlin, where Nabokov’s father is assassinated, nor Paris, where the émigré Russian society stays as clear of the French as possible, can provide the solace and peace that Russia had for the young Nabokov. Nonetheless, Nabokov painfully matures and develops as a writer, copes with the upheavals of revolution and the rise of fascism, and begins a family that permits him to begin a new cycle of development across the Atlantic. He leaves the reader with the hopeful image of his son, representing a new generation despite surrounding historical calamity.
Boris Okolokulak Boris Okolokulak, called Max, is a Polish medical student who tutors Nabokov from 1908 to 1910. He impresses himself on Nabokov’s memory because of his handling of pistols, because of his bicycling off to engage in a nighttime affair with a married woman who lives some twelve miles from the Nabokovs’ Vyra estate, and because he courts the Irish governess of Colette (Nabokov’s early love at Biarritz). Max resigns for a hospital job in St. Petersburg and is replaced by Lenski.
Polenka A peasant girl, daughter of the Nabokovs’ head coachman, Polenka is about young Vladimir’s age, and they have a memorably visual connection, or ‘‘ocular relationship.’’ Just coming into her view remains a hauntingly beautiful memory for Nabokov. Their strange connection also underscores class differences, for Nabokov is made to feel intrigued, afraid, and self-conscious all at once, merely by the gaze and demeanor of this pretty peasant girl.
Captain Mayne Reid The illustrated books of Irish-born Mayne Reid (1818–1883), a friend of Edgar Allan Poe (1809–1849), served as a major early literary and visual influence on Nabokov. In Speak, Memory, Nabokov vividly recalls from early childhood the ‘‘unabridged original’’ English language plots and physical specifications of Reid’s American Western adventures. Reid provides the young Nabokov with a yearning for danger, romantic adventure, and America.
Valentina Lyussa Shulgin During World War I, when she is fifteen, Valentina (Lyussa) Shulgin (called Tamara) meets sixteen-year-old Nabokov. Tamara is staying with her mother at a village dachka (a summer cottage) when she and Nabokov meet on August 9, 1915, after he observes her with friends and hears her name mentioned by others. Most of chapter twelve is dedicated to the ensuing ‘‘wreckless romance’’ between him and this ‘‘adorable girl.’’ It gravitates from late night meetings in the woods to more frenzied and complicated trysts at art museums and movie houses in St. Petersburg. Nabokov becomes so enamored of Tamara that he composes and publishes a small book of poetry celebrating their doomed love. They part in 1917, she to find a job, he to write and continue his education. Though she is real, Tamara also represents the many young women with whom Nabokov falls in love after Colette and before Véra (Slonim) Nabokov.
Tamara See Valentina (Lyussa) Shulgin
Filip Zelenski Called Lenski, Filip Zelenski is one of Nabokov’s tutors. The eccentric Lenski leaves Nabokov with many images from 1910 to 1914, most memorably a magic lantern show. Lenski accompanies Nabokov and his brother Sergey on two journeys to Germany. He also detests Mademoiselle, the Nabokovs’ French governess, and eventually drives her away.
Vasiliy Martinovich Zhernosekov Village schoolmaster near the Nabokov estates in the early 1900s, Zhernosekov impresses young Vladimir with his extracurricular teaching methods. ‘‘A firey revolutionary,’’ Nabokov writes, ‘‘he would gesture vehemently on our country rambles and speak of humanity and freedom and the badness of warfare and the sad (but interesting, I thought) necessity of blowing up tyrants.’’ Vladimir, his brother Sergey, and their father are invited, much later (in 1915), to his ‘‘lodgings’’ for food, and there are treated to a pleasant time that emphatically impressed itself on Nabokov’s memory. Zhernosekov’s other noted contribution is that he teaches young Vladimir and Sergey how to spell in Russian, an important feat given that they learned English first.