Speak, Memory by Vladimir Nabokov

Speak, Memory

Speak, Memory is a series of essays in roughly chronological order, some written almost as love letters to his wife Vera. They relate to his aristocratic childhood in pre-revolutionary Russia, and then his exile in Europe, culminating in his final escape from the forces of darkness.

Nabokov doesn’t ask for sympathy. When his family loses everything, he bemoans the loss of place, not the fortune that was impounded by the Soviets. (Much like the loss of a loved one.)

Nabokov tackles his autobiography in an odd way by describing what he sees when he thinks back on his life rather than trying to recreate the past. That’s not to say it doesn’t become tedious in places. Memory is a highly selective resource but in the hands of someone like Nabokov it becomes poetic. The reader is brought into close contact to the minute sensory detail of his life, and we come Nabokov. He places little emphasis on events, and the reader is kept emotionally distant from the story and its characters. Instead he polishes his memories into diamonds.

Laid out on the last limit of the past and on the verge of the present..

310 pages

My Kindle Notes From The Book

For the present, final, edition of Speak, Memory I have not only introduced basic changes and copious additions into the initial English text, but have availed myself of the corrections I made while turning it into Russian. This re-Englishing of a Russian re-version of what had been an English re-telling of Russian memories in the first place, proved to be a diabolical task, but some consolation was given me by the thought that such multiple metamorphosis, familiar to butterflies, had not been tried by any human before. – location 109-13

As with smarting eyes I meditated by the fire in my Cambridge room, all the potent banality of embers, solitude and distant chimes pressed against me, contorting the very folds of my face as an airman’s face is disfigured by the fantastic speed of his flight. And I thought of all I had missed in my country, of the things I would not have omitted to note and treasure, had I suspected before that my life was to veer in such a violent way. – location 3220-23

I suppose it would be easy for a detached observer to poke fun at all those hardly palpable people who imitated in foreign cities a dead civilization, the remote, almost legendary, almost Sumerian mirages of St. Petersburg and Moscow, 1900-1916 (which, even then, in the twenties and thirties, sounded like 1916-1900 B.C.). But at least they were rebels as most major Russian writers had been ever since Russian literature had existed, and true to this insurgent condition which their sense of justice and liberty craved for as strongly as it had done under the oppression of the Tsars, emigres regarded as monstrously un-Russian and subhuman the behavior of pampered authors in the Soviet Union, the servile response on the part of those authors to every shade of every governmental decree; for the art of prostration was growing there in exact ratio to the increasing efficiency of first Lenin’s, then Stalin’s political police, and the successful Soviet writer was the one whose fine ear caught the soft whisper of an official suggestion long before it had become a blare. – location 3489-96

It should be understood that competition in chess problems is not really between White and Black but between the composer and the hypothetical solver (just as in a first-rate work of fiction the real clash is not between the characters but between the author and the world), – location 3597-99

the liner Champlain was waiting to take us to New York. That 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, – location 3829-31

Vladimir Nabokov was born in St. Petersburg on April 23, 1899. His family fled to the Crimea in 1917, during the Bolshevik Revolution, then went into exile in Europe. Nabokov studied at Trinity College, Cambridge, earning a degree in French and Russian literature in 1922, and lived in Berlin and Paris for the next two decades, writing prolifically, mainly in Russian, under the pseudonym Sirin. In 1940 he moved to the United States, where he pursued a brilliant literary career (as a poet, novelist, memoirist, critic, and translator) while teaching Russian, creative writing, and literature at Stanford, Wellesley, Cornell, and Harvard. – location 3841-46


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