Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 891
Vladimir Nabokov was one of the many aristocrats and intellectuals who emigrated from Russia as the Bolsheviks rose to power during the revolution of 1917. Nabokov’s family moved, first, some fifty miles north from their estate to St. Petersburg, then to the vicinity of Yalta in the southern Crimea, and finally in 1919, by way of Greece, to London. Nabokov’s parents, along with his two sisters (Olga and Elena) and youngest brother (Kirill), left London to take up residence in Berlin, where on March 28, 1922, his father was shot to death by right-wing Russians. Nabokov and his younger brother Sergei, who was to die of starvation in a Nazi concentration camp in 1945, matriculated at the University of Cambridge. Nabokov, upon graduating from Cambridge, went to live in Berlin in 1923 and there, two years later, was married to Vera Evseevna Slonim, who would bear his only child, Dmitri, in 1934. After Adolf Hitler had established his dictatorship and had begun his persecution of German Jews, Nabokov and his wife, who was Jewish, moved to Paris. This was in 1937. A year earlier “Mademoiselle O,” written in French and the first part of what would become Speak, Memory, had been published in Paris.
Nabokov, his wife, and their son embarked at Saint-Nazaire, France, for the United States on May 28, 1940. This is the event with which Speak, Memory ends, although the final form of the work, published in 1966, includes references to many events occurring between 1940 and 1966. In the United States Nabokov saw his first publication of an English-language novel, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (1941), taught Russian grammar and literature at Wellesley College from 1941 to 1948, concurrently holding a research fellowship with the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University, during which time he became an American citizen (in 1945) and taught Russian and European literature at Cornell University from 1948 to 1959. After the great critical and commercial success of his novel Lolita (1955), Nabokov maintained financial independence through his writing. Retaining his much-prized American citizenship, he moved with his wife to Montreux, Switzerland, in 1960; he died there in 1977.
After his arrival in the United States, Nabokov’s “Mademoiselle O” was translated into English by Hilda Ward, revised by himself, and then published in The Atlantic Monthly (January, 1943). Ultimately it became chapter 5 of Speak, Memory. Edmund Wilson, a literary ally who would later challenge Nabokov’s competence as a translator, brought him into association with The New Yorker, in which, from 1948 through 1950, eleven autobiographical reminiscences, each to become a chapter in Speak, Memory, were published. These were “Portrait of My Uncle” (January 3, 1948; chapter 3), “My English Education” (March 27, 1948; chapter 4), “Butterflies” (June 12, 1948; chapter 6), “Colette” (July 31, 1948; chapter 7), “My Russian Education” (September 18, 1948; chapter 9), “Curtain-Raiser” (January 1, 1949; chapter 10), “Portrait of My Mother” (April 9, 1949; chapter 2), “Tamara” (December 10, 1949; chapter 12), “Lantern Slides” (February 11, 1950; chapter 8), “Perfect Past” (April 15, 1950; chapter 1), and “Gardens and Parks” (June 17, 1950; chapter 15). Chapter 11 appeared initially as “First Poem” in Partisan Review (September, 1949), which later included “Exile” (January/February, 1951; chapter 14). Chapter 13 first appeared in Harper’s Magazine (January, 1951) as “Lodgings in Trinity Lane.” Accordingly, the order of the original composition and publication of the individual fifteen chapters in Speak, Memory is 5, 3, 4, 6, 7, 9, 10, 2, 11, 12, 8, 1, 15, 13, 14.
The autobiographical pieces were substantially revised, given a generally chronological...
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