The Use of Memory and Artifice in Nabokov's Book
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...
(The entire section is 980 words.)