The Use of Memory and Artifice in Nabokov's Book

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Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 980

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.

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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, he re-imagines his initial visual responses and...

(The entire section contains 9005 words.)

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