Speak, Memory

Hermetic Library fellow John Eberly reviews Speak, Memory by Vladimir Nabokov.

With neither time nor space to spend dissecting the many novels of the innovative prose stylist Vladimir Nabokov—famous for the beautifully written, provocative work Lolita (1955)—in order to extract from them the multiple pearls of great price that invariably will be found in each, I will instead focus on a touchstone for the fiction, Speak, Memory, (first published in the U.S. under the title Conclusive Evidence, in 1951) regarded as “the finest autobiography written in our time” by The New Republic. Listed as #8 on the Modern Library list of 100 best works of non-fiction, Speak, Memory examines the period of time in the author’s life between August 1903 and May 1940, from childhood into adulthood and exile. Born into Tsarist Russian aristocracy, Nabokov witnessed the oncoming revolution and the rise of Nazi Germany. But this memoir does not dwell on the enormity of these world shaping events, rather, it takes a close and intimate look at the mundane as well as the extraordinary that fascinates a boy, and then, a man, including: profound love for family—the descriptions of his mother and father are heartbreakingly evocative; the eccentricities, failures, and successes of various governesses and tutors; family pets; the game of chess; and an enduring romance with etymology, particularly lepidoptery, the study of butterflies and moths. Indeed, aside from his fame as an author, Nabokov is nowadays considered to have been a serious taxonomist: the Nabokovia genus and the genera Madeleinea and Pseudolucia allude to names from his novels and, of course, to Nabokov himself.

Looking back on one’s life and writing about it is actually a process of (re)searching within oneself for clues to how experience is recalled by intellect and reduced to narrative for examination. Nabokov observed that in his fiction he repeatedly plundered his past, using various real life characters and events to infuse those he constructed fictitiously out of prose, and how this has in fact at times robbed reality’s memory of its tang, its sharpness, its flavor. The ghost of the past rendered as such becomes a flimsy affair, floating as it were, above and often out of reach, until a certain part of it is revealed elsewhere, in a gesture, or some other interrelated phenomena, as the subsequent flood of light returns the color, evoking a pastiche with its near-resemblance to a self-disclosed truth, supplying an armature upon which the master might hang more art. In the end, then, we must ask, would the artist willfully, knowingly, plunder the cherished and dear memories of those he loved most for the sake of art? The conclusion, as evidenced by this wonderful book must be an unequivocal yes, as above all else, Nabokov was in awe of the creation of great literature, “This capacity to wonder at trifles—no matter the imminent peril—these asides of the spirit, these footnotes in the volume of life are the highest form of consciousness.” [via]