Saturday, December 18, 2010

Girl on Book Action: Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited by Vladimir Nabokov

Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited by Vladimir Nabokov
ISBN: 0-679-72339-0


Speak, Memory, first published in 1951 as Conclusive Evidence and then assiduously revised in 1966, is an elegant and rich evocation of Nabokov’s life and times, even as it offers incisive insights into his major works, including Lolita, Pnin, Despair, The Gift, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight and The Defense.


My Thoughts:

Some years ago in an English class, I read Nabokov’s Pale Fire and I instantly fell in love with his use of language and the multi-layered story he wove.  Naturally, I crammed my Amazon wish list full of his other works and promptly neglected to buy any of them in the haze of undergraduate life, where, fickle as butterflies, students flits from literary flower to literary flower.  An apt simile considering Nabokov was an avid butterfly hunter and spends a significant portion of the book discussing this habit!

I have to admit, I’m somewhat wary of reviewing a piece of non-fiction, and especially an autobiography.  It presents the danger of sitting in judgment of the life portrayed on the page, which is not at all my purpose here.  Luckily, Nabokov’s autobiography is so inundated with his prose-style that it feels more like a novel than an account of his early years.  Really, though, Speak, Memory is a meditation on memory, on the past and on piecing oneself together bit by bit.  And, as any unreliable narrator in a first person narrative, Nabokov will focus on the tiniest detail of his childhood for pages on end, dwelling on it with some hidden significance in mind, while, on the other hand, he doesn't discuss meeting his wife or their wedding at all.  Events which I feel are significant and deserve mention, but then, through not discussing them he is able to maintain privacy in the midst of offering an autobiography.  At the same time, these choices cunningly play on the vagaries of memory.  Our minds cling to certain sights, sounds, smells and completely elide others, leaving us with this strange mosaic of a past.

Now, being a lazy reader there were some sections I skimmed – for instance when he describes in detail the positions of chess pieces in a chess problem he created.  I read the account of how he came up with the problem, how he constructed it within his mind and how it was solved, but the actual list of positions was too much for me.  Also, the inclusion of rather seamless French sentences made me acutely aware of my lack of knowledge when it comes to anything beyond English and German.  Actually, the whole book left me with a sense of inadequacy – in a good way, not in a depressing way, making me want to apply myself with a little more rigor to my studies, in particular my bilingualism.

The book also has value as a historical document, in a sense.  It brought out an aspect of Russia, the Revolution and Communism that we don’t often think about – or at least it appears that we don’t.  While much has been written about the persecution of artists and the re-appropriation of land under the Communist regime, the human toll of these practices is not as easily portrayed.  Nabokov's remembrance makes these events real and shows some of the darker undercurrents of the Revolution's aftermath through a sensitive, personal story of flight.  The image that the villainous landed gentry were overthrown due to their ruthless abuse of the peasants is one that lingers in the West despite everything that's come to light about the regimes of Lenin and Stalin.  This idea is beautifully countered in Nabokov's work.

Last, let me say that the feeling of longing for his homeland is palpable and really spoke to the immigrant in me.  While not exiled and certainly able to return at any time to the place from whence I came, I could relate to the mixture of longing and dread that Nabokov talked about when he discussed going back to Russia.  Things will invariably be not as they are remembered and sometimes nostalgia is better than its attempted alleviation.

I think that if you’re interested in Nabokov’s work there are better places to start than with this autobiography.  Personally, I would recommend Pale Fire since it seems a little more approachable than the famous Lolita, which might be the next novel of his that I seek out in the hopefully not-too-distant future.

Postscript:  As next weekend marks this Xmas holiday thing, I will not be posting a review, but I will regale you once more on the first day of the New Year to give you something to read while you nurse your hangovers, my pets.

No comments:

Post a Comment