The Use of Memory and Artifice in Nabokov's Book

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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 easily follow Nabokov as he recreates his various interests and passions, all of them having their genesis in the first seventeen years of his life.

Encouraged by his parents, and particularly inspired by his mother, the young Nabokov becomes enamored of visual images, color, and light. He retains strong memories of images ranging from the brightly illustrated books of Mayne Reid to the various moths and butterflies he pursued on the family estates outside St. Petersburg. Even waking to see the glint of sunlight bestirs his sensitive observations and excitement: These memories make the recovery of time seem palpable and, better yet, they often connect more than one image at a time. ‘‘From the age of seven,’’ Nabokov writes, ‘‘everything I felt in connection with a rectangle of framed sunlight was dominated by a single passion. If my first glance of the morning was for the sun, my first thought was for the butterflies it would engender.’’ Nabokov’s visual sensitivity serves him throughout the autobiography, both as narrator and as the younger self he remembers. His visual sense serves the young Nabokov in his attraction to, and pursuit of, butterflies, members of the opposite sex, and art.

One of Nabokov’s strongly recalled passions is his early romantic interest in girls and young women. Through powerful images,...

(This entire section contains 980 words.)

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he re-imagines his initial visual responses and interactions with Colette at seaside Biarritz in France, the strong and haunting eye contact he had with the peasant girl Polenka, and clandestine meetings with Tamara in the woods near the Vyra estate after dark and in St. Petersburg art museums and galleries.

Through the powers of memory and artifice in Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited, Nabokov recaptures moments of lost time. The sum of these moments represents a personal vision comparable to Marcel Proust’s. Nabokov’s autobiography is like a miniature creative nonfiction version of Proust’s epic autobiography-tinged novel In Search of Lost Time. Besides differences in scale, Nabokov takes a more active role as himself in his autobiography than Proust, who, through Marcel, the narrator of In Search of Lost Time, assumes a more passive observer and intermediary stance for the plethora of characters introduced. In Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited, Nabokov himself is nearly always doing something that furthers his life as an artist and observer even at the time of recalled action. Whereas Marcel holds off plunging into his life’s work, Nabokov plunges in from an early age. Much of the difference may be a matter of fate or luck, since Nabokov through age forty, where his autobiography ends, enjoyed relatively good health, whereas Proust from childhood suffered from a frail constitution and a variety of ailments. Because Proust’s autobiographical material is fictionalized and he uses the device of a fictional narrator, his musings about people, life, and time seem somewhat less egotistical than those of the non-fictional narrator-subject Nabokov.

The use of image to recover lost love is comparable in both Proust and Nabokov. One of the more strikingly similar scenes is young Nabokov’s encounters with Colette at Biarritz and young Marcel’s first encounters with Albertine Simonet at Balbec. Both male narrators fall hopelessly in love with seemingly perfect girls in a shimmering seaside setting, leaving the reader with an empathetic vision of recovered beauty. Both have recovered time through the use of artifice and memory, taking the reader with them on a magical journey outside the now.

Source: Erik France, Critical Essay on Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited, in Nonfiction Classics for Students, The Gale Group, 2002.

Nabokov and Memory

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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 location on the spectrum is to be inferred from its relation to the translucent green and the velvet darkness, perhaps because the intensity, confirmed by the rediscovery in Colorado, is the main point. One might note that the Proustian moment of involuntary memory, the unlooked-for recurrence of the sky over Vyra years later in the Sierras, is not the object of representation but an element in the rhetorical structure that fixes the vividness of the primary memory. Nabokov’s cunning strangeness with English plays a strategic part in putting this final effect into place. An American would not say ‘‘the montane zone’’ but rather something like ‘‘mountain region.’’ The locution, both perfectly correct and oddly foreign, acts to assimilate the mountains of Colorado with the Alps and with Russian topography, just as Nabokov’s English in general flaunts its interlinguistic character, makes itself felt as a vehicle that can cross both geographical and temporal boundaries.

Where does the light come from that informs these scenes of memory? The example we have just considered might tempt us into a facile response, namely, that the distinctive quality of light was simply present in the original experience, to be recalled in its peculiar vividness by the lexically fortunate memoirist. Such recollection might follow the Proustian path of consciousness suddenly and happily invaded by the past. For Nabokov, however, the real light that once shone leaves only shadowy traces in the storehouse of memory. It can be recovered not through some spontaneous resurgence but through a careful formal reconstitution in another medium, that of art. It is instructive that light in Speak, Memory should be not only a defining presence in remembered scene but also a recurrent image for art. In the first chapter, Nabokov, puzzling over the enigma of his own identity, speaks of ‘‘a certain intricate watermark whose unique design becomes visible when the lamp of art is made to shine through life’s foolscap.’’ This image of art as the illuminator of otherwise hidden patterns dovetails with the repeated representation of memory in the figure of the magic-lantern, as when Nabokov notes that the sundry tutors of his boyhood ‘‘appear within memory’s luminous disc as so many magic-lantern projections.’’ A magic-lantern, by putting light behind a colored transparency, transforms it into a larger illuminated image that, even in its necessary two-dimensionality, may seem enchantingly lifelike. Let us look briefly at a few selected slides from Speak, Memory to see how Nabokov performs this trick by a delicate positioning of the lamp of his art.

One of the oddest images conjured up in the autobiography is the view from the dining room at the Vyra manor of Nabokov’s father being tossed in a blanket outside by his servants. It is not sufficient to pigeonhole this moment as an instance of the technique of defamiliarization of which Nabokov was pastmaster, because the arabesque movement of the prose also leads to a perception of the intimate and paradoxical liaison between presence and absence, life and death, reality and art.

Thrice, to the mighty heave-ho of his invisible tossers, he would fly up in this fashion, and the second time he would go higher than the first and then there he would be, on his last and loftiest flight, reclining, as if for good, against the cobalt blue of the summer noon, like one of those paradisiac personages who comfortably soar, with such a wealth of folds in their garments, on the vaulted ceiling of a church while below, one by one, the wax tapers in mortal hands light up to make a swarm of minute flames of incense, and the priest chants of eternal repose, and funeral lilies conceal the face of whoever lies there, among the swimming lights, in the open coffin.

Nabokov’s prose often has the look of working out carefully calculated effects, but here, one may venture to guess, he seems to have given himself over to the free-associative momentum of metaphor, and with startling consequences. The narration of the father tossed in a blanket by boisterous peasants ends—it is also the chapter-ending—in a kind of freeze-frame that stresses the timeless thereness (‘‘there he would be’’) of the horizontal figure ‘‘reclining’’ against the summer sky ‘‘as if for good.’’ Father, day, and year, are all at a lofty stillpoint (it is noon, and close to the summer solstice). Characteristically, Nabokov realizes this moment in part through recourse to a painterly term, ‘‘the cobalt blue of the summer noon.’’ This immediately leads associatively to the elaborate simile of the painted image of the divine or saintly figures on the church ceiling. That simile is ‘‘Homeric’’ not merely in its length but in its power to effect a large movement between two disparate realms. The living image of the father in midair is transposed into painting on plaster, the painted figures linked with a more ecclesiastic paradise than the boy experienced in his childhood world. In a macabre turn of wit, the wonderful suspension on air turns into the ‘‘eternal repose’’ of the priestly chant, and with the rightness of dream-logic, the dead person’s face is concealed. As the perspective moves from life to iconography and from outside to inside, the lighting appropriately switches from solar brilliance to flickering wax tapers that cast their faint gleam, as we spiral down through the last clause from ceiling to ground, on an open coffin. This concluding image of a body recumbent in death does not, I think, subvert or cancel the image of a splendidly living body recumbent in air, as one school of contemporary criticism would automatically conclude. What it seems to me to do is to add a dimension of terrible poignancy to the captured timeless moment of the soaring father. As surely as the memoirist is aware that his father was cut down by an assassin’s bullet in 1922, he knows, and his figurative language dramatizes visually, that the cobalt blue of the remembered summer sky is drawn against a shadowy background of extinction—precisely like the crack of light at the beginning of the book set between two eternities of darkness.

Memories of a happy, forever lost childhood can easily decline into the cheap coin of nostalgia. What partly makes, Speak, Memory one of the most remarkable of modern autobiographies is Nabokov’s ability to etch in prose the precious vividness of his past while keeping steadily in mind the necessary fate it shares with every human past of being swallowed up by oblivion. Only the intervention of art grants it the grace of a radiant afterlife, but that is, ineluctably, different in kind from the first life. Instructively, at the end of Chapter Three, Nabokov fleetingly evokes an infinite regress of adults remembering childhood. Rereading the sentimental juvenile fiction of a certain Mme de Ségur, née Rostopchine, he relives his own boyhood when he first read these books, and in a painful doubling, he remembers his Uncle Ruka reading Mme de Ségur back in 1908 and reliving his boyhood.

I see again my schoolroom in Vyra, the blue roses of the wallpaper, the open window. Its reflection fills the oval mirror above the leathern couch where my uncle sits, gloating over a tattered book. A sense of security, of well-being, of summer warmth pervades my memory. That robust reality makes a ghost of the present. The mirror brims with brightness; a bumblebee has entered the room and bumps against the ceiling. Everything is as it should be, nothing will ever change, nobody will ever die.

Again, a window, light from the outside, and a mirror—this last, a Nabokov trademark—make the scene cohere. As in our previous illustration, the power of the memory is brought out in a play between presence and absence, life and death, but the rhetorical balance here is quite different. The sheer happiness of the remembered experience is explicitly announced, and the memoirist goes as far as to reverse the usual categories of presence and absence: ‘‘That robust reality makes a ghost of the present.’’ The robustness is mysteriously reinforced by the alliterated r’s, while the assimilation through near-rhyme of ‘‘robust’’ and ‘‘ghost’’ draws us into a somewhat disorienting semantic shell game: it is the past, after all, that is a ghost, but a robust one that makes what we usually call reality seem spectral.

The final focus on the paired images of the sun- flooded mirror and the bumblebee is articulated with a Tennysonian musicality, emphatically clustering m’s and b’s and r’s in a pattern of sound that turns into an onomatopoeic evocation of the buzzing, bumping bumblebee. The more important effect, however, of the phonetic interfusion of words in this penultimate sentence is to convey in the bronze rivets of prose a sense of all the elements of an experienced moment beautifully, timelessly locked together. But the last sentence—‘‘Everything is as it should be, nothing will ever change, nobody will ever die’’—is disquietingly double-edged. It hovers precariously between a rapturous proclamation and an anguished cri de coeur. On one level, it is a true declaration—on the level every reader can experience in the stylistic success of an undying memory crystallized in language that makes the wallpaper, the uncle, the book, and the mirror brimming with brightness live on. But both narrator and reader are also acutely aware that the final sentence is flagrantly contrary to existential fact: each of these affirmations is necessarily shadowed by a negation, for nothing remains as it should be, everything always changes, everyone dies.

The more one ponders this enchanting book, the more evident it becomes that Nabokov’s conception of memory is profoundly—and appropriately— ambiguous. In the same breath, he intimates that he has recovered or somehow reconstituted the past in his prose, and that he has rather reinvented a past forever lost in the vanishing perspective of time. To affirm merely the former would be to succumb to self-indulgent delusion; to affirm merely the latter would be to concede that autobiography is impossible because it must always turn into fiction. He defines ‘‘the supreme achievement of memory’’ as ‘‘the masterly use it makes of innate harmonies when gathering to its fold the suspended and wandering tonalities of the past.’’ The adjective ‘‘innate’’ here hovers indeterminately. The structure of experience may involve innate harmonies, as Nabokov seems to propose in his sundry remarks on pattern. Alternately, there may be an aesthetic order, distinct from experience as such, which has its intrinsic harmonies—the consonance of images, the pleasing recurrences of sound—and these may be exploited by artful consciousness to pull together the disparate fragments of experience. He tends toward the first alternative, which makes the act of autobiographical recovery a triumphant reality, but he repeatedly allows for the second alternative as well, in which autobiography is perforce an artifice offering a kind of luminous compensation for the unrecoverable past.

Nabokov’s evocation of the initial trip of his Swiss governess, ‘‘Mademoiselle,’’ from the rural train station to the family estate vividly illustrates this delicate ambiguity. It contains features shared by most of the examples we have considered—an emphatically defined source of natural illumination, mirror imagery, painterly elements of composition— and provides a nice nocturnal complement to the sunlit scenes we have looked at:

Every now and then, she looks back to make sure that a second sleigh, bearing her trunk and hatbox, is following—always at the same distance, like those companionable phantoms of ships in polar waters which explorers have described. And let me not leave out the moon—for surely there must be a moon, the full, incredibly clear disc that goes so well with Russian lusty frosts. So there it comes, steering out of a flock of small dappled clouds, which it tinges with a vague iridescence; and, as it sails higher, it glazes the runner tracks left on the road, where every sparkling lump of snow is emphasized by a swollen shadow.

Very lovely, very lonesome. But what am I doing in this stereoscopic dreamland? How did I get here? Somehow, the two sleighs have slipped away, leaving behind a passportless spy standing on the blue-white road in his New England snowboots and storm-coat. The vibration in my ears is no longer their receding bells, but only my own blood singing. All is still, spellbound, enthralled by the moon, fancy’s rearvision mirror. The snow is real, though, and as I bend to it and scoop up a handful, sixty years crumble to glittering frost-dust between my fingers.

In this instance, the status of the recalled scene as sheer invention is flaunted from the start. In actuality, the child Vladimir was back at the Vyra manor when this moonlit ride took place, and so Nabokov the memoirist must recreate it as a fiction writer from Mademoiselle’s point of view, to a large extent using the clues of literary convention. The following sleigh is wittily represented as a counterpart to those ‘‘companionable phantoms of ships’’ sighted by polar explorers, and the shimmer of oscillation between phantom or hallucination and real thing runs through the whole scene. The moon cannot be left out, the narrator ostentatiously announces, and it is thus introduced with suitable theatricality (‘‘So there it comes’’), providing iriS descence for the clouds, glitter and melodramatic shadows for the snow.

This magical landscape collapses with the interjection, ‘‘Very lovely, very lonesome.’’ It has all been a ‘‘stereoscopic dreamland,’’ a term that suggests still another guide of artifice for the composition of the scene—the old stereoscopes with their ‘‘picturesque’’ black and white views that were a common home amusement in the world of Nabokov’s childhood. The Russia of 1906, in a kind of cinematic faux raccord (the opposite of a Proustian concordance), disappears into a New England winterscape decades later in which the expatriate writer, ‘‘a passportless spy’’ on the remembered Mademoiselle, is equally exiled from his homeland and his past. But even here, the act of imaginative recollection is dialectic. The New England moon is ‘‘fancy’s rear-vision mirror.’’ As the chronophobic, chronophiliac imagination looks ‘‘back’’ into it, the moon becomes the moon of 1906, no mere mechanism of faux raccord, and, in the last emblematic gesture, sixty years crumble to frost-dust, dreamworld and real world change places.

The obtruded paradox of this extreme instance is submerged but implicit in most of the evoked scenes of Speak, Memory. The memory of Mademoiselle’s sleigh-ride is an invention, directed by the principles of internal coherence and mimetic aptness of literary, painterly, and perhaps photographic artifice. And yet, artifice, whether dealing with past or present, is our principal means of crystallizing experience, making it emotionally and aesthetically assimilable precisely by playing up those ‘‘innate harmonies.’’ The moon is a literary stage-prop and still the real moon seen by a wideeyed child in the winter sky over Vyra in 1906, just as the chill touch of snow is real, then and now.

Few imaginative writers have been so committed as Nabokov to the ideal of conscious control. In his autobiography he often evinces a sense that he can actually stage a return to the past by a suffi- ciently deft and resourceful ordering of his prose medium. But there is also an aspect of Proustian involuntarism stalking this project of artful volition. The scene of memory invoked, whether actual recollection or invention or a subtle compound of the two, picks up an experiential charge from the present, sets up a circulation between past and present that is not strictly determined by artistic calculation. This, indeed, is why Speak, Memory is not simply a series of virtuoso tricks in constructing the past but rather a haunting expression of what it means to live in time, circling back on the past, intimately bound to it, yet also forever exiled in another, later world.

Source: Robert Alter, ‘‘Nabokov and Memory,’’ in Partisan Review, Vol. LVIII, No. 4, 1991, pp. 620–29.

The Novelist’s Composure: Speak, Memory as Fiction

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Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3572

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 events, actions, and details of landscape (both indoors and out), in themselves neutral, are formed, shaped, and rendered significant by a single, ordering consciousness. It is, in short, fiction, a molding (fingere), not opposed to ‘‘fact,’’ the popular distinction we have been numbed into accepting as a habit of daily perception, but the way ‘‘fact’’ is born. The opposite of fiction is Nothing, the famous void, rien, nada, The Big Blank. Facts are raw material, like the letters of the alphabet, the building blocks we put together one way and another to invent ourselves and the worlds we people. Although many of their makers assume otherwise and would disagree. I think that all autobiography is fiction (a complimentary, not a pejorative, assertion); in Speak, Memory, however, Nabokov encourages the perspective I have chosen to emphasize. To assemble and correlate systematically is to make fiction, neither a surprising nor a very profound critical observation when applied to a novel, but to have that mode of arrangement consciously inform an autobiography is unusual at least, and to find it done as well as Nabokov does it is remarkable.

In the third section of chapter 1 (‘‘Perfect Past’’). General Kuropatkin, while visiting the Nabokovs (in 1904), is informed that he has been made commander of the Russian army in the Far East. The particular activity that this announcement interrupts is the General’s performing for young Vladimir a simple ‘‘trick’’ with matchsticks (straight line=calm sea; zig-zag=stormy sea). Fifteen years later, Vladimir’s father, fleeing St. Petersburg, gives a light to a stranger on a bridge in southern Russia. In the glare of the match the stranger turns out to be Kuropatkin, disguised, himself in flight. Nabokov comments: ‘‘What pleases me is the evolution of the match theme: those magic ones he had shown me had been trifled with and mislaid, and his armies had also vanished . . .’’ He concludes the section by declaring, ‘‘The following of such thematic designs through one’s life should be, I think, the true purpose of autobiography.’’

Very straightforward and explicit: the general rule, the specific instance illustrating it. Another instance, however, is being carried on at the same time, without comment. Just prior to presenting Kuropatkin. Nabokov has shown us some war pictures (1904) by Japanese artists ‘‘that showed how the Russian locomotives—made singularly toylike by the Japanese pictorial style—would drown if our Army tried to lay rails across the treacherous ice of Lake Baikal.’’ Kuropatkin intervenes with his matches, then in disguise, as if to replace the toylike trains, but then image is simply deferred. The sentence in which the ‘‘match theme’’ is explicitly mentioned goes on, ‘‘and everything had fallen through, like my toy trains that, in the winter of 1904–05, in Wiesbaden, I tried to run over the frozen puddles in the grounds of the Hotel Oranien.’’

This is a rather noticeable instance of Nabokov doing more than he calls one’s attention to; its purpose here is at least to alert his reader to the nature of the book as a whole: not only will he follow ‘‘thematic designs,’’ he will also not point them all out. Moreover, the one he does not point out here is the more poignant of the two, is complementary to the first and therefore deepens its emotional effect, and, finally, reveals what is basic to the design of both: the theme of exile, of it ‘‘all falling through,’’ one of the basic perspectives from which the autobiography is constructed.

It should not be surprising that another such perspective is art itself, surfacing naturally as a theme in the life of a writer, but present everywhere as the indispensable mode through which all other themes and objects are rendered. The subject or chapter 2, for instance, is Nabokov’s mother. Among other subtleties (to which I will return in a later context) he makes the theme of verbal composition pulse constantly through the chapter’s first two sections, without speaking explicitly of it until he has nearly finished. He accomplishes this through the alphabet blocks which he mentions while discussing his audition colorée, and through the gigantic Faber pencil his mother brings him while he is ill. When he receives the pencil he checks to make sure the point is real graphite (it is). ‘‘And some years later I satisfied myself, by drilling a hole in the side, that the lead went right through the whole length—a perfect case of art for art’s sake . . .’’ Up until that explicit acknowledgment, however, he has presented both experiences so that the form of their presentation mirrors the form of recollection: that is, the blocks and the pencil are singled out because they are significant, bearing the suggestion of the beginnings of a line of experience that will be central to the autobiographer’s life, yet the child who played with the blocks and received the pencil was not aware of any such significance at the time. Both the adult’s consciousness at the time of writing and the child’s consciousness at the time of playing coexist in the assembly of the recollection. Because of Nabokov’s skill one experiences this dramatically, rather than being told about it.

Chapter 4 focuses its attention on the various aspects of Anglo-Saxon culture that influenced aristocratic Russian families at the turn of the century and therefore helped compose what Nabokov calls ‘‘my English education.’’ There were soaps and tub baths and halberdiers and a series of nurses, governesses, and tutors, a wealth of detail, all of which, however eclectically it may seem to be gathered, is being aimed carefully. Here are two targets.

About halfway through chapter 4, young Vladimir’s progress bedward at the end of a day comes to a conclusion simultaneously with the section (3) which presents it. Among the objects in his room is ‘‘a framed aquarelle’’ which ‘‘showed a dusky path winding through one of those eerily dense European beechwoods, where the only undergrowth is bindweed and the only sound one’s thumping heart.’’ He recalls a small boy in an English fairy tale who stepped out of his bed into a picture, and imagines for himself ‘‘the motion of climbing into the picture above my bed and plunging into that enchanted beech wood—which I did visit in due time.’’ ‘‘Due time’’ in this case means roughly eight pages, for the chapter ends with Nabokov and M. V. Dobuzhinski, in the nineteen forties, strolling ‘‘through a beech forest in Vermont.’’ In this instance pictorial art provides the context for the fillip to the theme of imaginative composition.

That short conversation with Dobuzhinski in Vermont, which occupies but two brief paragraphs, affords the other target, too, a further complexity, rounding the chapter back into itself with a tactic similar to the one used earlier with the matches and trains. The set-up, concerned with three drawing teachers, is carefully done. From the third, Dobuzhinski, who taught him to ‘‘depict from memory, in the greatest possible detail, objects I had certainly seen thousands of times without visualizing them properly.’’ Nabokov concludes that he gained an ability that, though it did not reveal itself in his youth, stood him in good stead later in his drawings of butterfly genitalia and in ‘‘certain camera lucida needs of literary composition.’’ About two other teachers, a Scotsman named Burness, and Mr. Cummings, an illustrator from London, he learns things as an adult that as their pupil he never suspected, and in the learning experiences ‘‘a queer shock; it was as if life had impinged upon my creative rights by wriggling on beyond the subjective limits so elegantly and economically set by childhood memories that I thought I had signed and sealed.’’

What happens then, in the economical that with Dobuzhinski that immediately follows, is that the other ‘‘signed and sealed’’ conclusion about profiting from Dobuzhinski’s teaching is shown to have its subjective limits, too. ‘‘I do know,’’ says the old teacher, ‘‘that you were the most hopeless pupil I ever had’’. What appears, then, to be a haphazard, in fact strange, structural addition—the last two paragraphs of the chapter, tacked on, it seems at first, for no earthly reason—is in fact the stroke that makes the chapter whole and purposeful instead of random, and reminds us by making us experience it that what we are reading has been composed, and is neither accidental nor an amanuensis slavish listing of ‘‘what happened.’’

I have selected these representative, or illustrative, instances from the earlier chapters of Speak, Memory because I think Nabokov has had to be more circumspect in their construction than in the making of the last third of the book (chapters 11–18). He has had to make the themes of exile and art present and effectual in these chapters but, as I have suggested, remain ‘‘true’’ to the perspective of his character (himself as a child) as well. This is not to say, however, that he abandons subtlety and circuitousness when he begins to speak of these two themes directly and extensively. Section 2 or chapter 14, for example, begins with the implicit equation of his early novels and the autobiography his reader is engaged with. ‘‘I have sufficiently spoken of the gloom and the glory of exile in my Russian novels, and especially in the best of them, Dar . . .; but a quick recapitulation here may be convenient.’’ The striking word is ‘‘sufficiently’’; the striking effect is the ease with which the author veers away from his initial focus, the end of the sentence being at a significant remove from its beginning. The job is done, however, and though the reader may ignore it if he wishes (or willy nilly), he has been ‘‘told’’ that not only are novel and autobiography brothers under the label but also, in this case anyway, the former is sufficient and the latter adjunctive.

That reversal of a traditional habit of literary perception is followed not long after by, as it were, a short turn on the trapeze. Nabokov concludes his ‘‘recapitulation’’ with a brief commentary on the émigré writers of his two decades in Europe, among whom he lists Sirin, ‘‘the author that interested me most.’’ Sirin is, of course, the pen name Nabokov used during the period, and he thus comments on his own work in the third person, as if it had been done by someone else. As I suppose in a way it had been, the Nabokov writing the autobiography including but not limited to the man he was thirty years previously. The use of the pseudonym is suggestive, too, a nice emblem for the act of making one’s self up, in which process the autobiographer is embroiled. It is also a rather blatant instance of trickery on his part, but by this point in the book one should be ready for that; if one is not, then within three pages one’s elusive guide has confronted him with the particular pleasures of the composition of chess problems and their association with the pleasures of literary composition, stressing ‘‘originality’’ and ‘‘Deceit, to the point of diabolism.’’

To the themes—or, as I have been calling them, perspectives—of exile and art, I would add a third, the grand theme, one might say, of all autobiography: time. As with the previous focuses, what I wish to call attention to is how Nabokov leads one to experience his manipulation of time, the instances of time as drama, rather than the commentary on time as an idea which surfaces occasionally. One clear and explicit purpose of Speak, Memory is, of course, to make immortal what might otherwise be totally lost, obliterated by the Paduks and paddocks of history. To set it down, however, is worse than insufficient: the chronologic of a record intensifies the tyranny of time. To overthrow it one must reconstruct according to other principles of order.

Rudimentary, which is to say undisguised, signals of this perspective are dispersed throughout the book. In chapter 2 Vladimir’s mother bursts into tears when her sons, having violated her wishes by going through the contents of their Christmas stockings the night before, fail on the critical morning to reenact convincingly their earlier surprise and pleasure. In the next sentence ‘‘A decade passed.’’ In the next ‘‘World War One started.’’ In the same paragraph Mrs. Nabokov sets up a private hospital for wounded soldiers, and her son remembers her ‘‘denouncing with the same childish tears the impenetrable meekness of those crippled peasants and the ineffectiveness of part-time compassion’’ (my italics). Perspective, the commitment to a particular fiction, determines value: the eye of the author, as opposed, say, to the eye of an ‘‘objective historian,’’ sees those tears in radically different relation to such ‘‘events’’ as a world war, or the passing of ten years.

A similar obviousness pertains in the first section of chapter 5 (‘‘Mademoiselle O’’). Almost ex nihilo (his memory provides only a scrap or two to work with.) Nabokov creates the arrival of his new French governess (winter 1905–1906) at the Siverski railroad station six miles by sleigh from the Nabokov country estate. He has her mount the sleigh; the speed rises, the moon rises, she is cold, the snow bears the tracks of the runners, ‘‘every sparkling lump of snow is emphasized by a swollen shadow.’’ And then this coda:

Very lovely, very lonesome. But what am I doing in this stereoscopic dreamland? How did I get here? Somehow, the two sleighs have slipped away, leaving behind a passportless spy standing on the blue-white road in his New England snowboots and stormcoat . . . All is still, spellbound, enthralled by the moon, fancy’s rear-vision mirror. The snow is real, though, and as I bend to it and scoop up a handful, sixty years crumble to glittering frost-dust between my fingers.

This is similar to stepping into the painting of the beech forest and across thirty years to chat with a former instructor, and in fact occurs in the next section of the book.

If such patterns do not adequately signify the compositional nature of time as it is being structurally defined, then other instances are terminologically more direct. Great-grandfather Nikolay discovered a river in Nova Zembla; greatgrandson Vladimir described a new butterfly in Colorado: thus ‘‘Nabokov’s River’’ (1817) figures ‘‘Nabokov’s Pug’’ (1943), or vice versa. Kin to that is another ancestral echo: a paternal forebear, Baroness von Korff, in 1791 in Paris lent passport and carriage to the royal family ‘‘for their escape to Varennes’’, Nabokov’s father, in 1917, is unable to grant a similar aid to Kerenski because he has no suitable vehicle. Nabokov ‘‘treasure[s] the recollection,’’ he says, ‘‘only from a compositional viewpoint’’ and leaves it to the reader to notice the numerical anagram of the dates. Another explicit acknowledgment of the ‘‘compositional viewpoint’’ that shows how much time Nabokov is manipulating (we measure time: if you can pour a quart of water from one container to another, why not an hour of time?) is the piecing together of shards of majolica less than two pages from the end of the book.

The viewpoint, as my structure implies, is more deviously patterned, however, on other occasions. Notice, for example, the following transition between paragraphs: Vladimir is reading a poem to his mother, in Berlin on the night of March 28, 1922; responding to an image in it, she says,

over her knitting, ‘‘Yes, yes, Florence does look like a dïmnïy iris, how true! I remember—’’ when the telephone rang.

After 1923, when she moved to Prague . . .

A hiatus, yes; incoherence, no. The time that has been omitted will not be poured into the gap all at once, either, nor will it be accompanied by any more fanfare than it is here. In the next chapter, densely populated by ancestors, the stage is occupied a while by Dmitri Nabokov, Vladimir’s paternal grandfather. He devotes a good deal of attention to the rather elaborate illusion (making the old man’s bedroom in St. Petersburg look like the one he had in Nice) practiced by his (V.N.’s) mother during Dmitri’s last days. The artistry succeeds: when the grandfather is awake he believes he is on the Riviera, ‘‘and there,’’ writes the grandson, ‘‘on March 28, 1904, exactly eighteen years, day for day, before my father, he peacefully died.’’ Ten pages later and, as it were, eighteen years earlier, the reason for the telephone’s rude interruption, and for the third person, singular, feminine pronoun in the opening sentence of the following paragraph, is revealed, though the magician is pointing somewhere else.

Such misdirection, though Nabokov makes a stunningly inverted use of it, characterizes the chapter which most delicately and beautifully incarnates the kind of control and drama I have been discussing. It is fitting that butterflies, because of their instaric lives, and their almost timeless association with the soul, are the focus of chapter 6. Although there is much discussion of various catches and caches, the real subject is only one chase and one discovery, the literary creation of which acts as the embodiment of the ecstasy Nabokov finds in butter- fly hunting.

This central experience is alluded to immediately, twice, in fact, in the brief opening section.

The foliage of birches [at Vyra] 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.

On the following morning, however, when she unlocked the wardrobe to take something out, my Swallowtail, with a mighty rustle, flew into her face, then made for the open window, and presently was but a golden fleck dipping and dodging and soaring eastward, over timber and tundra, to Vologda, Viatka and Perm, and beyond the gaunt Ural range to Yakutsk and Verkhne Kolymsk, and from Verkhne Kolymsk, where it lost a tail, to the fair Island of St. Lawrence, and across Alaska to Dawson, and southward along the Rocky Mountains—to be finally overtaken and captured, after a forty-year race, on an immigrant dandelion under an endemic aspen near Boulder.

Both passages seem direct, but they are at least coy. In the first there is nothing (but the meagerly developed context—and even that is not announced yet since the chapters do not bear in the book the titles they did in serial publication) to indicate it refers to hunting butterflies, which we later learn Nabokov was doing in Colorado. And in the second the Swallowtail itself commands the dips and glides of the sentence; by the time it is captured (we learn, by the by, the city in Colorado near which the netting occurred), the agent of its capture is at best in the wings.

A third reference appears six pages later. This time Nabokov through the dates 1910 and 1943 delimits the ‘‘forty-year race’’ more precisely, associates the pursuit with literary activity through the mention of his first American publisher, and extends ‘‘the thematic spiral’’ back to his great-grandfather’s discovery in 1817. At this point one expects the chase and capture, some of whose shadows and highlights have been allusively sketched, to recur, perhaps climactically, in detail subsequently in the chapter. It is certainly being ‘‘announced’’ in Nabokov’s most arch and self-delighting manner.

Well, it does recur, of course, and it is climactic, but it is unannounced after all, except in the terms used already to prepare for it. ‘‘There came a July day—around 1910, I suppose—’’ Nabokov writes, and the chase begins with his ‘‘urge to explore the vast marshland beyond the Oredezh.’’ He does, in minute detail, and a vast marsh it is, for by the time he comes to its end he finds on the rising ground beyond ‘‘a paradise of lupines, columbines, and pentstemons. Mariposa lilies bloomed under Ponderosa pines. In the distance, fleeting cloud shadows dappled the dull green of slopes above timber line, and the gray and white of Longs Peak.’’ We are in Colorado, gentle reader. And having been wafted there surreptitiously, having had, indeed, to compose quite literally our journey there, Nabokov, still not done with his game of What Shade Scumbles the Nymphet, says, ‘‘I confess I do not believe in time. I like to fold my magic carpet, after use, in such a way as to superimpose one part of the pattern upon another. Let visitors trip.’’ Nabokov ‘‘confesses’’ unnecessarily because he has enacted the belief already. But he has also challenged the reader, and the gauntlet of those three sentences makes it official.

Source: Dabney Stuart, ‘‘The Novelist’s Composure: Speak, Memory as Fiction,’’ in Modern Language Quarterly, Vol. 36, No. 2, June 1975, pp. 172–92.


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