Analysis

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1496

The clue to Nabokov’s autobiographical method is contained in the first chapter. General Aleksey Nikolaevich Kuropatkin, a friend of the family, amuses the five-year-old Nabokov with match sticks arranged to represent the sea in calm and then in stormy weather. Fifteen years later the general, now aged and impoverished, asks...

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The clue to Nabokov’s autobiographical method is contained in the first chapter. General Aleksey Nikolaevich Kuropatkin, a friend of the family, amuses the five-year-old Nabokov with match sticks arranged to represent the sea in calm and then in stormy weather. Fifteen years later the general, now aged and impoverished, asks Nabokov’s father for a light. Nabokov calls this twofold incidence of the use of matches “the match theme” and observes that the “following of such thematic designs through one’s life should be, I think, the true purpose of autobiography.”

Of the many themes woven into the design of this autobiography two have particularly sinuous threads, the light-and-darkness theme and the death theme; furthermore, the two themes are frequently intertwined so as to become one. In the first sentence of chapter 1 human existence is defined in metaphor as “a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness” and the two eternities are “identical twins.” The movement from the darkness before birth to the darkness after death is variegated by shadows, which are constant intimations of the two eternities, across the crack of light. The image of the variegation is the chiaroscuro, as in “a mesh of sunshine on the parquet under the canework of a Viennese chair,” “the shadow . . . undulated in the warm candlelight,” “the morning twilight of the nursery,” “the changeable twinkle of remote village lights,” “the room would be cleft into light and shade,” “sun-flecked trails,” and many similar phrases in which the image may be as patent as these examples or subtle, as in “an albino physician.” Chiaroscuro flourishes in Nabokov’s fiction and serves along with other constants of his style to preclude any partition between his fiction and his autobiography, both of which, he claims, are products of the imagination; memory is for him a subsumption of the imagination. The best study of Nabokov’s chiaroscuro, indeed the best study of Nabokov’s art, is Nabokov’s Dark Cinema (1974), by Alfred Appel, Jr., in which Nabokov’s theme of light and darkness is studied in conjunction with and as culturally coextensive with the film technique that came to be called film noir.

In the crack of light between his two eternities Nabokov’s birthday coincides with those of William Shakespeare, Vladimir Sikorski, Shirley Temple, and Hazel Brown; Sikorski is his nephew, and “Hazel Brown” is the color of the author’s eyes. Sharing a natal day amounts to sharing the two eternities and, in corollary, the crack of light, thereby negating differences in time. “I confess I do not believe in time,” Nabokov writes; “I like to fold my magic carpet, after use, in such a way as to superimpose one part of the pattern upon another.” He holds to the same superimposition in the matter of a coincidence of decease: His uncle Dmitri and his father died in, respectively, 1904 and 1922 on the same day, March 28, and the identicalness of the day eliminates the distance of the years, just as a sameness of circumstances nullifies temporality in the case of Nabokov’s brother Sergei and a family friend, I.I. Fondaminski, both of whom died in Nazi death camps. Such examples of coincidence as design are detailed by Carol Shloss, who concludes:Though it may seem that the autobiographer is exploiting random coincidence for the purposes of composition, artificially grouping events in the same plane of vision, Nabokov would argue that this technique is not only the prerogative of art—which constructs artifices—but also the procedure of nature. . . .

For example, as Shloss points out, camouflage “challenges us to exercise the discernment that enabled . . . the young Nabokov to see butterflies disguised against their backgrounds.” Like a fold of space-time in Nabokov’s Ada, or Ardor: A Family Chronicle (1969), coincidence eliminates the temporal space between events as camouflage eliminates the spatial separation of entity and background. That each elimination is a semblance, challenging discernment in the same way that an artwork does, amounts to the equation of semblance and reality.

“Hazel Brown,” the personification of the autobiographer’s eye color, is camouflage that challenges the reader to discern, from the writer’s perspective, the background that is both concealed by and equated with the foreground. Similarly, against the background of emigre writers, such as Vladimir Hodasevich, Ivan Bunin, and I.I. Fondaminski, Nabokov places Vladimir Sirin, without informing the reader that V. Sirin was his own pen name from 1925 to 1940, just as the earliest readers of “Mademoiselle O,” published as a short story and subsequently included in Nabokov’s Nine Stories (1947) and Nabokov’s Dozen (1958), were given no indication whatsoever that the story was actually autobiography.

The half-page segment on V. Sirin begins, “[T]he author that interested me most was naturally Sirin. He belonged to my generation. Among the young writers produced in exile he was the loneliest and most arrogant one.” Field ties the pseudonym to the “siren” of Slavic mythology and applauds the choice as a good one “for a writer such as he became because the creature is connected with the idea of metamorphosis.” Nabokov objected to this tie-in, perhaps because “Sirin” carries an echo of siriy (orphaned), an intonation appropriate to what the writer was, paternally at least, at the time he adopted the name. Another possibility is that “sirin” is an anagram of “iris”: He relates that on the night of his father’s assassination he was reading to his mother a poem in which the city of Florence is likened to “an iris” and his mother agreed that the city did look like a dymniy iris (smoky iris), just before receiving a telephone call announcing his father’s death. The anagrammatization would be consistent with Nabokov’s concealing the name of the cartoonist Otto Soglow in the phrase “so glowing,” as he informs the reader in his 1966 foreword.

The arrogance to which Nabokov confesses in the Sirin passage is ingrained in the final version of his autobiography. He classifies “peasant girls” as objectively as he speaks of the classification of butterflies. He laments the lost greatness and glamour of the Nord-Express “when its elegant brown became a nouveau-riche blue.” He labels certain Russian writers, among them Ivan Goncharov, “stupefying bores (comparable to American ‘regional writers’).” He dismisses Stendhal, Honore de Balzac, and Emile Zola as “destestable mediocrities.” Maxim Gorky is “a regional mediocrity.” He refers to Sigmund Freud as “Sigismond Lejoyeux, a local aeronaut” and “the Viennese Quack.” Much of this arrogance is tolerable within the context of strong opinions. There is, however, one instance of arrogant spite that fails as humor and does not befit an aristocrat, even the liberal one that he claimed he, like his father, was. Learning that a subspecies of butterfly which he thought to be his discovery had already been classified by a lepidopterist named Kretschmar, he took petty revenge: “I got even with the first discoverer of my moth by giving his own name to a blind man in a novel.” The novel was Kamera Obskura (1932, in which the character is Bruno Krechmar; Camera Obscura, 1936, in which the name becomes Albinus Kretschmar; revised as Laughter in the Dark, 1938, in which the name is finally changed to Albert Albinus).

The Kretschmar incident, creditably admitted if ingloriously concluded, does illustrate the depth of his subjective devotion to lepidopterology. His passion for the collection and study of butterflies enlivens many pages of his narrative and is the topic of chapter 6. His passion for chess is only slightly less keen than that for butterflies, and he delights in chess problems which camouflage a sophisticated solution by a less satisfying simple one. His third great passion, for the beauties and intricacies of language, is explicit in his comments on Russian and English and pervades his autobiography, as it does his novels, in the forms of euphuism, chiasmus, punning, alliteration, anagrammatization, archaism, coinage, and many other configurations of orthography, rhetoric, and syntax. The lengths to which he will go to compose, for example, an alliterative chiasmus is evident in a clause such as “Dostoevskian drisk could not compete with neo-Thomist thought.” The construction hangs upon the rarely used word “drisk,” which compels many, perhaps most, readers, even after they have learned from an unabridged dictionary that it means “a drizzling mist,” to give ample thought to it. He contrives numerous melodic, if sometimes ostentatious, phrases such as “marvelous melting fata morgana effects” and “proposed imitations of supposed intonations.” The linguistic cleverness and playfulness that color his fiction do the same for his autobiography and contribute both to the modernism which eliminates barriers between literary genres and to a polished lyricism that can be moving as well as mocking.

Speak, Memory in its final form is a series of verbal gesticulations intended to recapitulate “the supreme achievement of memory, which is the masterly use it makes of innate harmonies when gathering to its fold the suspended and wandering tonalities of the past.” Nabokov’s achievement is his emulation of memory’s achievement.

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Critical Context