Speak, Memory, by Vladimir Nabokov

Rereading this remarkable memoir has been even more delightful than the first time. And more awe-inspiring. From the poetic beauty of his sentences to the intricate structure of the book, Nabokov's consummate writing skills are on display.

The memoir covers his youth and young adulthood, up to the age of 40 when he and his wife, Vera, emigrated to the U.S. The chapters are arranged thematically rather than strictly chronologically. So, for example, one chapter is the story of the most memorable of his nannies, Mademoiselle, while another is about his first attempts at poetry.

All of the chapters are suffused with nostalgia for the lost world of his youth, a golden time as the favored eldest son in a wealthy, aristocratic family in Tsarist Russia. Nabokov maintains that our understanding of that time has been colored by Soviet propaganda, and that it was in fact a time when Russians enjoyed a great deal of freedom of speech and press.

His parents moved between a large house in St. Petersburg, made of pink granite with frescoes just under the roofline, and Vyra, the enchanted country estate whose loss he most mourns, with vacations in Biarritz. Nabokov evokes these very personal recollections with an emotional intensity that leaves me feeling that I too made a house behind the sofa and watched in mortification and pity as my tutor gave a thoroughly pedantic and boring talk with lantern slides to the sons of neighboring landowners. He accomplishes this through the specificity and relevance of his details and the resonant beauty of his prose.

I see again my schoolroom in Vyra, the blue roses of the wallpaper, the open window. Its reflection fills the oval mirror above the leathern couch where my uncle sits, gloating over a tattered book. A sense of security, of well-being, of summer warmth pervades my memory. That robust reality makes a ghost of the present. The mirror brims with brightness; a bumble bee has entered the room and bumps against the ceiling. Everything is as it should be, nothing will ever change, nobody will ever die.

Though of course they do. Another resonance is historical. Approximately the same age as the 20th century, Nabokov's loss of his golden childhood world with the Russian Revolution in 1919 coincides with the western world's loss of a way of life. The Great War ended England's long Edwardian afternoon; the countries on both sides were never the same after the loss of a generation and the economic destruction of the war.

The intensity also comes from his surprising and piercing images. For example, he ends one chapter recalling how his father used to be summoned from the dinner table to mediate some local disagreement. The gratitude of the peasants tended to take the form of tossing him up in the air three times, like the old woman of song tossed up in a blanket. Nabokov sees him through the window:

There, for an instant, the figure of my father in his wind-rippled white summer suit would be displayed, gloriously sprawling in midair, his limbs in a curiously casual attitude, his handsome, imperturbable features turned to the sky.

Note the unexpected, yet perfect word choices: “sprawling”, “imperturbable”.

These incidents remind me of the advice from noted memoirist, William Zinsser, whom I often quote in my workshops: “ Look for small self-contained incidents that are still vivid in your memory. If you still remember them it’s because they contain a universal truth that your readers will recognize from their own life.” It's up to you to delve into them to discover that truth.

I wanted to talk more about the structure. Each chapter is a perfect circle, ending where it began. Or perhaps a spiral: “In the spiral form, the circle, uncoiled, unwound, has ceased to be vicious; it has been set free.” After all, we arrive at the end with a deeper understanding, a more intense experience. The book as a whole follows the same pattern, with a most satisfying ending that pulls together unexpected pieces.

In this book Nabokov is concerned with the workings of time and memory and loss. He uses certain themes or threads to stitch together his thoughts. Some are obvious like his Lepidoptera adventures, and some more subtle, such as the rainbow theme.

Speak, Memory is on a couple of lists of best nonfiction books, one of the 20th century and one of all time. It is a true masterpiece, stunning on every level.

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