Modern Non-Fiction: Speak, Memory, by Vladimir Nabokov

Vladimir Dimitrievich Nabokov (1870-1922) was a wealthy barin and a good and courageous man, a member of parliament in Tsarist Russia, briefly imprisoned for attempting to reform that régime, and briefly Minister of Justice in a short-lived post-Tsarist and anti-Bolshevik government. He escaped abroad, following his family to Western Europe, and was murdered in Berlin in 1922 by a Russian Nazi, having heroically interposed himself between the assassin and his intended target.

His eldest son, Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov (1899-1977), was the greatest novelist of the 20th century. The junior Vladimir (henceforth our principal Nabokov) represents the last generation of intact pre-Soviet-era childhoods. He learned English and French before he learned Russian, and all but his early novels were written in English. The Tsarist aristocracy was astonishingly and obsessively cultured (and also wanted to carry on pas devant les domestiques discussions). Nabokov’s childhood had a princely sheen, fairytale flakes of which clearly rubbed off on Pale Fire and especially Ada. (Ada is essentially a female Nabokov, and the leading man, Van, a reflection of that reflection.)

Nabokov’s depth of reading and an unparalleled clarity in visual imagination yielded greatest command of English by any writer this side of Joyce. Readers will understand his style is lyrical, not narrative. His scenes are quiet, but they glow like stained glass. Certain passages recur frequently in my mind not as words but as images: the giant Faber pencil his mother bought from an art shop display window to cheer him up when he was sick; his bicycle light zig-zagging up a hill in the dark; his synesthetic alphabet. (Like his mother, he naturally associated colors and textures with particular letters.)

But I like Nabokov less, personally, than I did before I’d read Speak, Memory. Perhaps most honest memoirs produce a similar effect. In 1939, his mother expired alone and in greatly straitened circumstances in Prague. His younger brother Sergey figures so often in early stories that one is jarred by the bizarre nonchalance with which Nabokov mentions Sergey’s having died in 1945 in a Nazi concentration camp “of inanition.” (That is, he starved to death.) His first great love, “Tamara,” to whom he swore undying fealty, he left in Soviet Russia – leaving us to wonder what became of her. (He never found out.) These little items make an odd contrast to his unrelenting cross-continental obsession with chasing butterflies. At points, his sense of self-satisfaction, even his satisfaction at his ruthless self-honesty, make him sound like the sort of guy who could eventually be your good friend, but only after you’d had a serious fistfight. So it’s not surprising that Nabokov regarded writing as a chess-like battle of wits between author and audience.   If you just sit back and let his prose wash over you, you’ll miss most of it. Nabokov wants to be unlocked as much as read.

Prose: 10/10

Engagingness: 8/10

Beauty: 9/10

Overall Goodness Rating (OGR): 9/10

Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited.  First published 1951.  This edition: Library of America, 1996. 270 pages.

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