Form and Content

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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...

(This entire section contains 891 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

chronological arrangement, and published in 1951 under the titleConclusive Evidence (“of my having existed,” Nabokov later explained) in the United States and as Speak, Memory in England. Nabokov revised the autobiography in 1954 when he translated it into Russian as Drugie Berega (other shores). Revisions and amplifications of both the English and Russian versions resulted in Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited, the final form of the work, the sequel to which, although planned, was never completed.

The final form of the work is in the nature of an apostrophe to his wife, Vera, to whom the book is dedicated but who is mentioned in it not once by name. In the 1951 edition of the work, only the last chapter includes repeated addresses to “you.” In the 1966 version, this second-person address to his wife in increased in the last chapter and is inserted into chapters 6, 10, 13, and 14.

The biography of his father in chapter 9 was considerably enlarged for its final version. Andrew Field calls this segment “wooden and constrained” and notes that the new material had been rejected by The New Yorker in 1966. Others, who are not conditioned to the sophisticated tone of The New Yorker, may accept the portrait of his father as actually the least pretentious and the most profoundly restrained and moving passage of the entire book. The portrait of his mother is filled with implicit endearment and gratitude but is unmarked by such depth of admiration and love as that which he expresses with quiet reserve in the chapter on his father.

In addition to the portraits of his parents, his uncle Dmitri, and his French governess (Mademoiselle O)—the last presented humorously and almost larger than life—the other major focuses in the autobiography are on Nabokov’s two young loves (“Colette” and “Tamara”), his enthusiasm for collecting butterflies (and his erudition in lepidopterology), the character sketches of his successive tutors in Russia (a Greek, a Ukrainian, a Lett, a Pole, “a Lutheran of Jewish extraction,” a Swiss, and “a young man from a Volgan province”), and his Cambridge education. The autobiography is not so much chronological or capitular as it is serial, a series of vignettes bound, not by transitions, but by thematic and imagistic variations.

Historical Context

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Nabokov composed and published early versions of most of the chapters in Speak, Memory as selfcontained essays in various magazines and journals over a fourteen-year period beginning in Paris in 1936 and ending in 1950 in Ithaca, New York, while he was teaching at Cornell University. Responding to the outbreak of World War II in Europe, he moved with his immediate family to the United States and established himself, at middle age, as an important English language writer during this same interval. Nabokov’s survival instinct, plus the instrumental assistance of his wife Véra, helped him negotiate the complex and changing American cultural and political climate without losing his bearings. An avid anticommunist, Nabokov had to tread carefully during the first years of U.S. participation in World War II. Wartime propaganda initially presented the Soviets in a positive light because of their coalition partnership at war with common foes Germany and Japan. Nabokov was also at odds with writers who idealized communism.

By the 1950s, many younger Americans were happy to take advantage, as much as they could, of a new economic prosperity and opportunity, pursuing education, jobs, houses, and the creation of new families. Older Americans, tired of the lean years of the Great Depression and war, also became accustomed to the economic boom. Soon, however, an undercurrent of experimentation and a zest for new fashions and trends manifested themselves through the arts and intelligentsia as a rambling counterculture. Rock and roll, epitomized by Elvis Presley, alarmed some of the more conformist elements of society but channeled excess youthful energies. Existentialism, a loose philosophy of life that argued for an active dynamic of individual freedom and responsibility, took hold in some places and influenced many educated Americans. Some writers challenged the notion of conformity and complacency at a time when corporate America was producing vast riches through production, marketing, and sales. J. D. Salinger exposed seediness and phoniness in The Catcher in the Rye (1951), Sloan Wilson examined the effects of war and peace on the corporation man in The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1955), while Grace Metalious exposed the darker secrets of small-time America in her 1956 novel Peyton Place. The Beat Generation found expression in Allen Ginsberg’s angry ‘‘Howl’’ (1955) and Jack Kerouac’s youth-inspiring On the Road (1957). In the middle of this mix of new literary publications came Nabokov’s 1955 novel Lolita.

Against the backdrop of war, recovery, and counterculture, Nabokov kept his aspirations, focusing on basic economic needs and developing his writing and reputation. Lolita provided, with one fell swoop, a worldwide reputation and, eventually, enough financial wherewithal to quit teaching and leave the United States. Such a feat, a writer’s dream come true, enabled him to devote more time to writing. The Nabokovs escaped the United States just before it began a careening decade that included the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War, assassinations, riots, and a dramatically burgeoning counterculture. Once ensconced in Switzerland, Nabokov was able to rework his 1951 Conclusive Evidence as Speak, Memory. Unlike many writers at the time, Nabokov generally supported the U.S. intervention in Vietnam because of its stand against communism. Even in neutral Switzerland, Nabokov remained staunchly and, by then among artists, somewhat unfashionably anticommunist.

Literary Style

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Individual figures play important roles in Speak, Memory but not necessarily commensurate to the number of pages devoted to them or to the chronological span they spent with Nabokov. Individual family members, passing acquaintances, temporary lovers and love objects, tutors and governesses, occasional artists, all contribute to Nabokov’s recreation of lost time and place.

Nabokov employs episodes and anecdotes to shed insight on individual figures, to make general observations, and to recapture lost time. Individual episodes, such as his first meeting on a beach at Biarritz with the little girl who grows up to use the pseudonym Colette and General Kuropatkin’s card trick at his parents’ Vyra estate, provide vivid images and recovery of lost time.

Nabokov fills Speak, Memory with images of verdant pathways, glittering reflections, luminous butterflies, colorful book illustrations, and small intricate oddities such as patterns of match boxes and even a remembered replica of an oversized pencil. Image is used to convey both trans-temporal aesthetic pleasure and time-specific memory recovery.

Nabokov punctuates Speak, Memory with quips about literature and art, most of which are positive ones about Russians. He disdains regional and provincial writers and sentimentalists, yet lauds illustrated adventure books such as those produced by Mayne Reid.

Word Play
Nabokov’s style makes elaborate use of imagery, word play, puns, and pranks. In Speak, Memory, he constructs fictitious names for several figures, ostensibly to protect their privacy but also, probably, to make biographers, literary historians, and critics work harder.

Compare and Contrast

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

1960s: After avoiding a third world war against each other precipitated by the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Soviet Union and United States back opposing sides during the Vietnam War; U.S. forces deploy in large numbers to bolster South Vietnam.

Today: Twelve years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia and the United States cooperate in a war against terrorism in response to the September 11, 2001, hijacking attacks. Vietnam and Cuba remain under independent communist rule, while Korea is still divided.

1960s: Protest movements gather force in the United States and Europe, advocating civil rights and an end to the Vietnam War. Major riots occur in Detroit, Los Angeles, and elsewhere. Soviets are faced with protests in Eastern Europe. In San Francisco in 1967, hippies celebrate the Summer of Love, calling for peace not war.

Today: An upsurge of patriotism occurs in the United States after September 11, 2001. Concerns are raised about balancing internal security with civil liberties. Russians are more concerned, on the whole, with the challenges of obtaining the basics of food, shelter, and clothing.

1960s: Reflected in movies, literature, art, and legal challenges, the sexual revolution in the United States and Europe disrupts the status quo and the idea of the nuclear family.

Today: Changes wrought in attitudes about family structure, gender roles, and sexual orientation, tempered by an awareness of AIDS, permeate television programs that are widely accessible via satellite and cable television.

1960s: Feminists push for reforms in the workplace, particularly for equal pay for equal work and for protection against gender-based discrimination.

Today: Sexual harassment policies are in place in most colleges, universities, and larger businesses. Disparities in pay between men and women narrow.

1960s: Rock music and musicians become a major cultural force. Bob Dylan, the Beatles, and the Rolling Stones have major impacts on youth in the United States and Europe.

Today: Musicians on MTV and radio are part of the status quo. Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones continue to release commercially successful albums forty years after their first efforts.

Media Adaptations

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

An unabridged 1987 audio version of Speak, Memory, read by John MacDonald, is available from Books on Tape, Inc., in seven cassettes.

Bibliography and Further Reading

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Boyd, Brian, Vladimir Nabokov: The Russian Years, Princeton University Press, 1990, pp. 60, 79–80, 97.

Fremont-Smith, Eliot, ‘‘Evidence of the Hunt, Clues of a Past,’’ in the New York Times, January 9, 1967.

Moynahan, Julian, Vladimir Nabokov, University of Minnesota Press, 1971, p. 6.

Nabokov, Vladimir, Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited, with an Introduction by Brian Boyd, Alfred A. Knopf, Everyman’s Library, 1999.

Schiff, Stacy, Vera (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov), The Modern Library, 2000.

Updike, John, ‘‘Nabokov: Mnemosyne Chastened,’’ in Picked- Up Pieces, Alfred A. Knopf, 1975, p. 193.

Vidal, Gore, Palimpsest: A Memoir, Random House, 1995.

Further Reading
Acton, Edward, Rethinking the Russian Revolution, Edward Arnold, 1990. This very useful short history brings together conflicting interpretations of the overthrow of the czar and its aftereffects.

Johnson, Kurt, and Steven L. Coates, Nabokov’s Blues: The Scientific Odyssey of a Literary Genius, Zoland, 1999. This book is a fascinating study of Nabokov’s passion for collecting butterflies.

Lee, L. L., Vladimir Nabokov, G. K. Hall & Co., 1976. Lee’s book is a relatively brief biography with a discussion of Nabokov’s major works.

Volkov, Solomon, St. Petersburg: A Cultural History, translated by Antonina W. Bouis, The Free Press, 1995. This lengthy study contains interesting sections on the changes wrought in the early twentieth century.


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Appel, Alfred, Jr. Nabokov’s Dark Cinema, 1974.

Field, Andrew. VN: The Life and Art of Vladimir Nabokov, 1986.

Lee, L.L. Vladimir Nabokov, 1976.

Quennell, Peter, ed. Vladimir Nabokov: A Tribute, 1979.

Shloss, Carol. “Speak, Memory: The Aristocracy of Art,” in Nabokov’s Fifth Arc: Nabokov and Others on His Life’s Work, 1982. Edited by J.E. Rivers and Charles Nicol.

Stegner, Page. Escape into Aesthetics: The Art of Vladimir Nabokov, 1966.

Stuart, Dabney. “Speak, Memory: Autobiography as Fiction,” in Nabokov: The Dimensions of Parody, 1978.


Critical Essays


Teaching Guide