Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 295

Critics and literary historians have generally praised Speak, Memory as an excellent twentieth-century autobiography, memoir, and work of creative non- fiction. In a 1967 New York Times review, Eliot Fremont-Smith compared Nabokov’s achievement to the fiction writing of Marcel Proust and James Joyce, recovering ‘‘forgotten feelings and past events from dark corners of the prison of time’’ in ways that allow the ‘‘evidence’’ to be ‘‘reordered, reenergized and expressed, at once transformed and re-created into memory and art.’’ Julian Moynahan similarly compared Nabokov and Proust in a 1971 pamphlet, suggesting that both ‘‘provide elaborate and meticulously drafted maps for their realms of recollection, and carefully choose the . . . privileged moment, at which past and present will be allowed, briefly and dangerously, to meet and commingle.’’ Not all critics think the comparison wholly favorable, however. John Updike, in a critique published as part of a collection of his essays, thought that Proust, by taking a fictional approach to autobiography, ‘‘threw his childhood open to everyone; whereas the Nabokovian memoir is narrowed by its implication that only an expatriate Russian, a well-born and intellectual Russian at that, can know nostalgia so exquisite.’’ Furthermore, after a careful comparison of Conclusive Evidence with Speak, Memory, Updike suggested that the revision, because of its insertion of pedantic and unnecessary details, further narrowed rather than broadened the work’s appeal.

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Overall, Nabokov’s literary reputation is well established. He is lauded for having achieved a dual-language writing career in various genres. Many hold Lolita as his most important contribution to English language literature, apparently judging much of his other work as an ‘‘overelaborate bit of academic funning,’’ as Gore Vidal quipped about Pale Fire in his 1995 Palimpsest: A Memoir. Nabokov has inspired, nonetheless, a myriad of writers, including Thomas Pynchon and Mary Gaitskill.

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