Book Review: Speak, Memory

Speak, Memory, by Vladimir Nabokov

Although for fairly obvious reasons, I have not read a great deal of Nabokov’s work, namely that his most famous novel is one that deeply disturbs me on several levels, this memoir was a surprising treat, and the sort of work that deserves emulation for other writers who turn to penning their own memoirs. A few qualities make this a particularly appealing work, most notably that Nabokov avoids telling a straight chronological story, instead organizing his chapters in a thematic way that emphasizes the way that memories are connected in threads and stories. The second achievement is that Nabokov openly questions the veracity of his memory, and deliberately seeks out evidence rather than relying on his own reminisces. What this does is cast an ironic look on memoirs as a whole, given that they are often very dishonest in that they are written to burnish or protect a reputation and often omit particularly painful or private areas of life [1]. Those autobiographies that speak honestly and candidly and that openly question their authoritative status are therefore to be particularly treasured.

In terms of its contents, this book is divided into fifteen numbered chapters taking up slightly more than 300 pages of material. The chapters are roughly, but not strictly, chronologically, full of witty anecdotes about the author’s family background, his own delicate health as a cossetted lad, his travels as a member of a liberal princely family of vaguely Tartar-Russian ancestry, the bitterness of exile as an emigre vagabond searching for home, as well as his love of butterfly catching, his shy flirtations of youth, and his love of chess. In fact, one of his novels is about a chess defense created by an insane person, which sounds like a very Nathanish novel to read, and one to add to my collection of books from the library, if it is available. Any book that inspires me to read other books by the same author can be considered a success, especially so where the author’s work is of a fictional nature. This is an autobiography that combines diligent fact-checking with gorgeous prose, full of compassion, righteous anger, and a fair amount of regret and sadness, especially over the death of so many family members [2].

Given his somewhat scandalous reputation as a writer, it is noteworthy that Nabokov here claims no particularly skill with the ladies, only a few chaste and shy efforts at romance which, in his youth, were rather unsuccessful. He married well and had a happy son, despite all of the troubles and insecurity of life as a stateless political refugee. Perhaps it is those who are the shiest and most timid about conducting romance in person that write the most frustratingly passionate literature about love and romance out of their shyness and anxiety, the words pouring out where one’s actions are immensely restrained. For example, about a lengthy and unsuccessful romance in his late teens and early adulthood, he writes: “Still, I was never quite sure when she was serious and when she was not. The rippling of her ready laughter, the roll of her very uvular r, the tender, most gleam on her lower eyelid–indeed, all her features were ecstatically fascinating to me, but somehow or another, instead of divulging her person, they tended to form a brilliant veil in which I got entangled every time I tried to learn more about her (231).” It is a shame that the author’s witty quotations in Russian, French, and German, among other languages, make this memoir one that can only be read by someone with a wide breadth of familiar with world literature, and a great deal of appreciation for the author’s sparkling and sometimes self-effacing wit. This book is, although aimed at a fairly high level, a model of a literary autobiography for those who combine great erudition with a high level of honesty and even humility.

[1] See, for example:

[2] His writing about his family members is particularly poignant. For example, about his father, he writes: “His drafts were the fair copies of immediate thought. In this manner, he wrote, with phenomenal ease and rapidity (sitting uncomfortably at a child’s desk in the classroom of a mournful palace) the text of the abdication of Grand Duke Mihail (next in line of succession after the Tsar had renounced his and his son’s throne). No wonder he was also an admirable speaker, an “English style” cool orator, who eschewed the meat-chopping gesture and rhetorical bark of the demagogue, and here too, the ridiculous cacologists I am, when not having a typed sheet before me, has inherited nothing (178).”

About his cousin Yuri, he writes: “Had I been competent to write his epitaph, I might have summed up matters by saying–in richer words than I can muster here–that all his emotions, all thoughts, were governed in Yuri by one gift: a sense of honor equivalent, morally, to absolute pitch (200).”

About his brother, he writes the following painful lines: “I know little of his life during the war. At one time he was employed as translator at an office in Berlin. A frank and fearless man, he criticized the regime in front of colleagues, who denounced him. He was arrested, accused of being a “British spy” and sent to a Hamburg concentration camp where he died of inanition, on January 10, 1945. It is one of those lives that hopelessly claim a belated something–compassion, understanding, no matter what–which the mere recognition of such a want can neither replace nor redeem (258).”

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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