It bears mentioning that Vladimir Nabokov has in less than a year's time become one of my top five favorite authors. Honestly, I couldn't imagine listing my favorites without his inclusion. He's just that good, that indefinable. He's a historical weirdo (in the best sense). He wrote things that a man of his ostensible literary decorum should never have written (of which "Lolita" is merely the best known example, and a strange novel to be sure). Also, to begin, this post will be riddled with excerpts and, so, oodles of spoilers. You have been warned.
"Speak, Memory" is more a memoir than a work of fiction. I welcomed the opportunity to get a clearer glimpse of the personal life of this preeminent and unusual 20th century author, however fleeting a glimpse his "Speak, Memory" affords. And though not terribly long, a mere 240 pages, it turned out to be loaded with memory gems, even if one must wonder how possibly those gems were embellished by poetic license and the need to fill in gaps of time obscured. Although Nabokov does end his memoir with a rather poetic epitaph, which runs both contrary to my considered opinion and, to a certain extent, in concert with it (as such will be the case with writers, romantically capricious writers):
The garden was what the French call, phonetically, skwarr and the Russians skver, perhaps because it is the kind of thing usually found in or near public squares in England. Laid out on the last limit of the past and on the verge of the present, it remains in my memory merely as a geometrical design which no doubt I could easily fill in with the colors of plausible flowers, if I were careless enough to break the hush of pure memory that (except, perhaps, from some chance tinnitus due to the pressure of my own tired blood) I have left undisturbed, and humbly listened to, from the beginning.
I might also mention that my copy of "Speak, Memory" literally fell apart as I read it, which I decided was completely appropriate given the subject matter. I feel Nabokov would have wanted it that way. Like the beliefs of many east Asian traditions, Nabokov seems with his anecdotes to repeatedly suggest nothing lasts forever, no matter how "good" or "valuable" it may be. Certainly, it was a worthy tangible adjutant to his telling of losing Russia, following the revolution and the fall of interim liberal government of Kerensky and the duma, in which Russian government his father was active.
Brian Boyd's very good "Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years" has rapidly proven a great companion piece to "Speak, Memory," in which biography Boyd notes, ". . . unlike his egomaniacal narrators, his Hermanns and his Kinbotes, he does not assume that his life, because it is his, ought to be of interest or concern to others." Boyd also seems comfortable enough assuming the veracity of Nabokov's memories, which I like this tack as another way of interpreting the text, taking its truth on a kind of aesthetic faith that transcends what might be knowable. Certain biographical notes about Nabokov are extant in public record, especially those concerning his father, Vladimir Dimitrievich Nabokov, the Russian liberal politician, who was an outspoken critic of both the Czar and Bolshevism. And, for the sake of argument and a complete disinclination to get into the finer points of New Historicism, I will join Boyd in accepting "the truth" of Nabokov's memoir and his recollections. A better way of putting it is, I believe the memoir comprises events Nabokov believed happened as he remembered them. There was no purposeful
Nabokov devotes an entire chapter to his governess, Mademoiselle, a Swiss woman who spoke only French. He prefaces the chapter with exposition like, "I have often noticed that after I had bestowed on the characters of my novels some treasured item of my past, it would pine away in the artificial world where I had so abruptly placed it." He goes on to then note, ". . . the portrait of my old French governess, whom I once lent to a boy in one of my books, is fading fast, now that it is engulfed in the description of a childhood entirely unrelated to my own." -- which I think that's an especially fascinating depiction of how an author culls from his personal experiences, and how those lived experiences, in transference to fiction, lose something of their personal authenticity, are thus rendered distant and intangible, emigres of consciousness. He concludes his preface deftly, I think: "The man in me revolts against the fictionist, and here is my desperate attempt to save what is left of poor Mademoiselle."
Here's one particularly humorous anecdote concerning the French -- and only French -- speaking Mademoiselle at the dinner table, who labors to get a French word in edgewise amidst the cacophony of indecipherable Russian (apparently it was a common problem, but should not have been entirely surprising considering she lived in Russia and worked for Russians):
Little by little the truth would come out. The general talk had turned, say, on the subject of the warship my uncle commanded, and she had perceived in this a sly dig at her Switzerland that had no navy.
To be sure, Nabokov candid is a strange reading experience. His lamentations of his early writing (akin to Thomas Pynchon disparaging his own apprentice efforts in "Slow Learner") are often hilariously self-deprecating, as I think is well evidenced with this following excerpt and the analogy therein:
It did not occur to me then that far from being a veil, those poor words were so opaque that, in fact, they formed a wall in which all one could distinguish were the well-worn bits of the major and minor poets I imitated. Years later, in the squalid suburb of a foreign town, I remember seeing a paling, the boards of which had been brought from some other place where they had been used, apparently, as the inclosure of an itinerant circus. Animals had been painted on it by a versatile barker; but whoever had removed the boards, and then knocked them together again, must have been blind or insane, for now the fence showed only disjointed parts of animals ( some of them, moreover, upside down) -- a tawny haunch, a zebra's head, the leg of an elephant.
And, with his jejune Petrarchen fixation:
It seems hardly worth while to add that, as themes go, my elegy dealt with the loss of a beloved mistress -- Delia, Tamara or Lenore -- whom I had never lost, never loved, never met but was all set to meet, love, lose.Or recalling his experiences at Cambridge, playing soccer with his Cambridge compatriots, but all the while musing on something very different, and, self-indulgent:
. . . [T]hink[ing] of my self as of a fabulous exotic being in an English footballer's disguise, composing verse in a tongue nobody understood about a remote country nobody knew. Small wonder I was not very popular with my teammates.
His eventual forced exile from Russia, which was pretty heavy with harrowing experiences that mottled the trek to western Europe.
We had a shotgun and a Belgian automatic; and did our best to pooh-pooh the decree which said that anyone unlawfully possessing firearms would be executed on the spot.
Still, once again he finds good ways to describe the naive and inchoate figure he cut in humorous ways, with for example the following (describing his wandering a train station platform at one of its stops on his voyage to Crimea, which had not yet fallen to Soviet hands after the October coup):
Had I been one of the tragic bums who lurked in the mist of that station platform where a brittle young fop [i.e. Nabokov] was pacing back and forth, I would not have withstood the temptations to destroy him.
But the memoir gets particularly strange when Nabokov references Sirin, and "Among the young writers produced in exile he turned out to be the only major one." Sirin's earliest works were forgettable, according to Nabokov, only getting truly worthy of reading at "Invitation to a Beheading" and "Luzhin's Defense" but then ". . . Sirin passed, to use a simile of a more conservative nature, like a meteor, and disappeared, leaving nothing much else behind him than a vague sense of uneasiness." Never heard of Sirin the major author? Well, he was Nabokov and Nabokov was he. "Sirin" was Nabokov's nom de plume in the European literary world (Berlin and France), or "V. Sirin" more precisely. You might call this a pretentious scene, then, self-indulgent to say the least. And in that you might be correct, but I think Nabokov's pretentiousness or maybe, more fairly said, elitism is a part of his incongruous writer-aspect that makes him so enjoyable to read. Certainly, it's entertaining to hear what he thinks of other writers both of the past and contemporaneous to himself, but it's further entertaining to see how he views (even past incarnations of) his authorial persona.
As Boyd notes:
Nabokov describes his life in terms of his helical version of Hegel's triad, as "a colored spiral in a small ball of glass": his first twenty years in Russia form the thesis, the next twenty-one of emigration the antithesis, his years in America the synthesis (and, as he would later add in the revised Speak, Memory, a new thesis).
So pretentious though it may well be (and how many great writers / artists other than George Saunders are at least a smidge pretentious?), it also makes sense in the context of this greater notion of how his life has been broken into discrete sections of three a la Hegel's triad (apparently more accurately attributed to Fichte, so says wiki). Who doesn't feel like a vastly different person than the one they were ten years ago or fifteen or twenty or more? (I confess I haven't lived quite long enough to make this as compelling as it could be.) If you don't, you probably should, just saying (especially true as I continue my observation of high school students, on my path to becoming a teacher).
Thus my love for Nabokov, again, a strange figure, only grows fuller with this read. More needs to be said of him, and all in due time. Adieu for the meanwhile. Adieu, adieu for now and auf wiedersehen, Nabokov.