Speak, Memory by Vladimir NabokovFrom one of the 20th centurys great writers comes one of the finest autobiographies of our time. 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 Luhzin Defense.
One of the 20th century’s master prose stylists, Vladimir Nabokov was born in St. Petersburg in 1899. He studied French and Russian literature at Trinity College, Cambridge, then lived in Berlin and Paris, where he launched a brilliant literary career. In 1940 he moved to the United States, and achieved renown as a novelist, poet, critic, and translator. He taught literature at Wellesley, Stanford, Cornell, and Harvard. In 1961 he moved to Montreux, Switzerland, where he died in 1977.
Speak, Memory – Vladimir Nabokov
These notes were contributed by members of the GradeSaver community. We first meet Vladimir in his natural habitat: sitting in his family's country estate watching old family movies, most of which were filmed before he was born. This is the way in which he comes to understand the passing of time; seeing his parents on film as individual people who existed quite successfully without him before his birth is a jarring experience for him, but it is also a powerful lesson. He also starts to notice the world around him and to understand that he is a small cog in a huge wheel when it comes to his place in the world. Nabokov tells us that even as a small child he was prone to having hallucinations. He also has synesthesia, which is the experience of certain letters of the alphabet being allocated a particular color in his brain.
Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited , a careful and uncompromising reworking of its incarnation, is widely embraced as one of the best memoirs of the twentieth century. Nabokov, highly praised for his English and Russian language stories, novels, and poetry, proves his skill and talent as a creative nonfiction writer with this work. In it, he achieves two major feats. First, the evocation of Nabokov's happy childhood in a liberal aristocratic family during the last years of the Russian czar is made poignant by contrasting this childhood with his subsequent exile and the assassination of his father. Second, aesthetically, words, images, and memories take the writer and his readers on magical little voyages that transcend the limitations of ordinary time and its daily burdens. Nabokov conceived of the basic structure for what eventually became Speak, Memory as early as , and early versions of some chapters were published in magazines during the s. Because he was not so well known at that time, the memoir did not produce a major stir among the reading public.
He has utter faith in his own judgments on these matters, has no doubt that they are intrinsically interesting, and is forthright in his pronouncements. What I really find striking is his insistence on the richness of his interior life as a young child. A description of bedtime turns into an epic as the young boy uses a series of rituals and delaying tactics, remembered nearly 50 years later, down to the detail of the width between particular banister rails and the feel of cold glass through the gauze of a net curtain. I used to encourage students to write about their earliest memories, and was always astonished when some of them swore they could remember nothing before the age of about four. Nabokov describes the nostalgia he could feel at that age for earlier years — and I know exactly what he means, because I can remember doing the same thing.
It seems Nabokov is discovering what is happening as he writes and has not constructed thought, memory or story before sitting down at the page. She is his Mnemosyne. It is when he leaves Russia for England, and then later Berlin and Paris, that he realizes he loves Russia. The Russia that Nabokov knows and remembers is one where he experiences an elite wealth and sheltered entitlement. As an adult in exile he spends his time butterfly hunting, composing chess problems, writing novels and teaching language classes. He enjoys his simple life with his wife and his small son, but he always longs for the Russia of his childhood. He does not go back because he knows that that Russia is gone.