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Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited (Modern Classics)

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From one of the 20th century's 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 From one of the 20th century's 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.


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From one of the 20th century's 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 From one of the 20th century's 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.

30 review for Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited (Modern Classics)

  1. 5 out of 5

    Buck

    Vladimir Nabokov was the Niles Crane of 20th-century literature: snooty, fastidious, and comically inept at being a normal guy. (And it’s part of his fastidiousness that he would have despised my handy, pop-culture analogy). Even his ailments had something snobbish about them. I mean, synesthesia? Who has that? And what kind of douche decides that sleep is too plebeian? Would it have been so hard to come down with herpes and depression like everyone else? Needless to say, Speak, Memory is one of Vladimir Nabokov was the Niles Crane of 20th-century literature: snooty, fastidious, and comically inept at being a normal guy. (And it’s part of his fastidiousness that he would have despised my handy, pop-culture analogy). Even his ailments had something snobbish about them. I mean, synesthesia? Who has that? And what kind of douche decides that sleep is too plebeian? Would it have been so hard to come down with herpes and depression like everyone else? Needless to say, Speak, Memory is one of the most brilliant autobiographies ever written, and I’m just delaying the moment when I throw my panties on the stage along with every other reviewer here. But first I need to make fun of Nabokov a bit more. Six pages into his foreword, he tosses off this gag-inducing little metaphor: I hope to write some day a “Speak on, Memory,” covering the years 1940-1960 spent in America: the evaporation of certain volatiles and the melting of certain metals are still going on in my coils and crucibles. That’s a fairly standard trope, I guess: the artist as alchemist. What irritates me about it is the self-complacency it implies: this is the uptown equivalent of hanging a “Genius at Work” sign on your cubicle wall. It’s tacky, not to mention unbearably precious. Also, wasn’t alchemy discredited centuries ago as a bogus pseudo-science? In one sense, though, the metaphor is well-chosen, because Nabokov really did view art as some kind of occult jiggery-pokery: I discovered in nature the non-utilitarian delights that I sought in art. Both were a form of magic, both were a game of intricate enchantment and deception. I dunno. It’s not that I expect every artist to justify the ways of God to man, or forge the conscience of his race in the smithy of his soul (blech), or help me free my mind so that my ass may follow, but that strikes me as a depressingly sterile notion of art. Games, magic, deception: it all sounds like an elaborate Easter egg hunt. Or a Dungeons & Dragons marathon. Either way, it’s something I grew out of a long time ago. And if you point out that Nabokov wrote Lolita, whereas I’ve written a bunch of book reports for a stupid website, I won’t have much of a comeback for you. Except shut up. I clearly have huge problems with some of the assumptions behind Speak, Memory, but the book itself is just so damn beautiful that I can’t stay mad at it for long. People talk about Nabokov’s style as if it were some glittering, rococo gush, but his elaborations are never merely ornamental: they’re in the service of an almost preposterous precision. He wants to get it exactly right, and if that means ransacking the OED and piling up his clauses into syntactical Jenga towers – well, you’ll just have to sit there and take it. Or go play Wii. The fact is, the world is so immeasurably complex, and our perceptions are so deliriously rich that even the most exhaustive representation of one tiny patch of reality can only be a gross simplification – a thing of sticks and squiggles, daubed by a gifted chimpanzee. Nabokov’s prose is a bit less of a simplification than anyone else’s, that’s all. Meaning, he comes as close to honouring the riotous profusion of experience as any human being is likely to get. There. I told you the panties would come off.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Jim Fonseca

    After reading a bit about how excellent and unusual this book is as an autobiography, I was surprised to find it more traditional than I expected --- still excellent, but traditional. It covers the first half of Nabokov’s life (1899-1977) until 1940, when at age 41 he moved the United States. Many of the chapters were published as short stories or memoirs in American magazines such as The New Yorker and the Atlantic. The chapter about his nanny was published as “Mademoiselle O” in the Atlantic i After reading a bit about how excellent and unusual this book is as an autobiography, I was surprised to find it more traditional than I expected --- still excellent, but traditional. It covers the first half of Nabokov’s life (1899-1977) until 1940, when at age 41 he moved the United States. Many of the chapters were published as short stories or memoirs in American magazines such as The New Yorker and the Atlantic. The chapter about his nanny was published as “Mademoiselle O” in the Atlantic in 1943. Another chapter is about his father and there is one about his uncle. His uncle left him a valuable Russian estate but when it was nationalized by the Russian government, as was his family home in St. Petersburg, Nabokov lost his inheritance except for some hidden jewels that his family smuggled out of the country. Did his mansion in St. Petersburg really have 50 servants? There are chapters about puppy love – a girl he roller skated and ice skated with and then a more serious love and his first sexual experience when he was 17 and she was 16. Nabokov talks about having synesthesia through “colored hearing” in associating colors with vowel sounds. Nabokov had a younger brother who was killed in a concentration camp. This was not because he was Jewish, although the family had some minor, distant Jewish ancestry, but because his brother held a minor government position and spoke out against some German bureaucratic policy. He was then accused of being a spy. In one chapter and in several other places he talks about his love – perhaps obsession – with butterfly collecting. He went far beyond amateur collecting by writing articles in scientific journals describing new species, having his specimens displayed in museum collections, and even having some species named after him. He also was a chess fanatic, even creating chess puzzles. There is a very traditional chapter about his distant ancestors that can be skimmed --- mostly educators, government and military officials There are chapters about his first attempts at writing poetry to please his mother and about his time at Cambridge. He writes about how, when he uses a real-life person as a model for someone he wrote about, he ‘loses’ that person in his memory to the story! All in all a good story and a good autobiography although it does not give us a lot of insight into Nabokov’s writing since many of his most famous works were published after this book ends (1940) such as Lolita 1955 and Pale Fire 1962. Photo of the Nabokov family home is St. Petersburg from wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons Photo of the author from s3.amazonaws.com/media.wbur.org/wordp...

  3. 5 out of 5

    Fionnuala

    Nabokov is a joker. If I hadn’t known that already, I’d have learned it when I reached the end of Speak, Memory. I’d begun my review of the book when I was about half way through reading it, something I often do, preferring to jot down thoughts and impressions as I read in case I've forgotten the significance of this or that point by the time I've reached the end. Very soon I have a couple of readymade paragraphs and only need to tidy them up here and there, add a suitable opening and closing lin Nabokov is a joker. If I hadn’t known that already, I’d have learned it when I reached the end of Speak, Memory. I’d begun my review of the book when I was about half way through reading it, something I often do, preferring to jot down thoughts and impressions as I read in case I've forgotten the significance of this or that point by the time I've reached the end. Very soon I have a couple of readymade paragraphs and only need to tidy them up here and there, add a suitable opening and closing line, and voilà! - the review has written itself. So, imagine my surprise yesterday when I got to the end of Speak, Memory and glanced at the Appendix. What have we here, I wondered - for about half a minute. I soon figured out that the Appendix is a review of Speak, Memory, supposedly written by someone other than Nabokov, and many of the points this ‘other’ person makes, in a slightly boring and pedestrian voice compared to the eloquence of the rest of the book, are points I’d already noted in my provisional review - and in some of the other Nabokov reviews I’ve written in the last couple of weeks. Whoosh! All the wind has gone from my sails and an unsettled feeling of having been set up is creeping in. And then today I read this line in The Gift which I've just begun: one hears the flippantly flat little voice of the reviewer (perhaps even of the female sex)... I look around to see if the ghost of Nabokov isn't sniggering at me from a Novemberdim corner of the room, saying, This one’s for Kinbote! The result of all these coincidences is that I no longer feel like commenting on the carefully chosen themes of this memoir, or pointing out the nice balance between the personal and the general, the planned and the accidental, in the teasing out of these memories. Nor do I want to talk about the many interesting references to poetry and parks, chess and fate, art and nature, which fill the pages of Speak, Memory. I had a section on the various heteronyms Nabokov uses throughout his work but that too is now obsolete, as are the thoughts about his brother Sergey, and the strong and unsettling resemblance between Sergey and the nameless narrator of The Real Life of Sebastian Knight. No, there’s no need for any of that as it’s all been analysed in the Appendix, and in a far more erudite and pompous manner than I could ever manage. Nabokov has checkmated me nicely... But I'll get my own back soon. edit: 25th November: On page 196 of The Gift, a character accuses the narrator, Godunov (who resembles Nabokov more than a little), of being...a joker! Let me tell you, my lad, you're quite a joker...

  4. 4 out of 5

    ☘Misericordia☘ ⚡ϟ⚡⛈⚡☁ ❇️❤❣

    I never knew this guy had synesthesia... Q: THE cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness. (c) Q: Nature expects a full-grown man to accept the two black voids, fore and aft, as stolidly as he accepts the extraordinary visions in between. Imagination, the supreme delight of the immortal and the immature, should be limited. In order to enjoy life, we should not enjoy it too much. (c) Q: AS FAR back as I rem I never knew this guy had synesthesia... Q: THE cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness. (c) Q: Nature expects a full-grown man to accept the two black voids, fore and aft, as stolidly as he accepts the extraordinary visions in between. Imagination, the supreme delight of the immortal and the immature, should be limited. In order to enjoy life, we should not enjoy it too much. (c) Q: AS FAR back as I remember myself (with interest, with amusement, seldom with admiration or disgust), I have been subject to mild hallucinations. Some are aural, others are optical, and by none have I profited much. The fatidic accents that restrained Socrates or egged on Joaneta Darc have degenerated with me to the level of something one happens to hear between lifting and clapping down the receiver of a busy party-line telephone. Just before falling asleep, I often become aware of a kind of one-sided conversation going on in an adjacent section of my mind, quite independently from the actual trend of my thoughts. It is a neutral, detached, anonymous voice, which I catch saying words of no importance to me whatever—an English or a Russian sentence, not even addressed to me, and so trivial that I hardly dare give samples, lest the flatness I wish to convey be marred by a molehill of sense. This silly phenomenon seems to be the auditory counterpart of certain praedormitary visions, which I also know well. What I mean is not the bright mental image (as, for instance, the face of a beloved parent long dead) conjured up by a wing-stroke of the will; that is one of the bravest movements a human spirit can make. Nor am I alluding to the so-called muscae volitantes—shadows cast upon the retinal rods by motes in the vitreous humor, which are seen as transparent threads drifting across the visual field. Perhaps nearer to the hypnagogic mirages I am thinking of is the colored spot, the stab of an afterimage, with which the lamp one has just turned off wounds the palpebral night. ... At times, however, my photisms take on a rather soothing flou quality, and then I see—projected, as it were, upon the inside of the eyelid—gray figures walking between beehives, or small black parrots gradually vanishing among mountain snows, or a mauve remoteness melting beyond moving masts. (c) Q: On top of all this I present a fine case of colored hearing. Perhaps “hearing” is not quite accurate, since the color sensation seems to be produced by the very act of my orally forming a given letter while I imagine its outline. The long a of the English alphabet (and it is this alphabet I have in mind farther on unless otherwise stated) has for me the tint of weathered wood, but a French a evokes polished ebony. This black group also includes hard g (vulcanized rubber) and r (a sooty rag being ripped). Oatmeal n, noodle-limp l, and the ivory-backed hand mirror of o take care of the whites. I am puzzled by my French on which I see as the brimming tension-surface of alcohol in a small glass. Passing on to the blue group, there is steely x, thundercloud z, and huckleberry k. Since a subtle interaction exists between sound and shape, I see q as browner than k, while s is not the light blue of c, but a curious mixture of azure and mother-of-pearl. Adjacent tints do not merge, and diphthongs do not have special colors of their own, unless represented by a single character in some other language (thus the fluffy-gray, three-stemmed Russian letter that stands for sh, a letter as old as the rushes of the Nile, influences its English representation). I hasten to complete my list before I am interrupted. In the green group, there are alder-leaf f, the unripe apple of p, and pistachio t. Dull green, combined somehow with violet, is the best I can do for w. The yellows comprise various e’s and i’s, creamy d, bright-golden y, and u, whose alphabetical value I can express only by “brassy with an olive sheen.” In the brown group, there are the rich rubbery tone of soft g, paler j, and the drab shoelace of h. Finally, among the reds, b has the tone called burnt sienna by painters, m is a fold of pink flannel, and today I have at last perfectly matched v with “Rose Quartz” in Maerz and Paul’s Dictionary of Color. The word for rainbow, a primary, but decidedly muddy, rainbow, is in my private language the hardly pronounceable: kzspygv. The first author to discuss audition colorée was, as far as I know, an albino physician in 1812, in Erlangen. The confessions of a synesthete must sound tedious and pretentious to those who are protected from such leakings and drafts by more solid walls than mine are. To my mother, though, this all seemed quite normal. The matter came up, one day in my seventh year, as I was using a heap of old alphabet blocks to build a tower. I casually remarked to her that their colors were all wrong. We discovered then that some of her letters had the same tint as mine and that, besides, she was optically affected by musical notes. These evoked no chromatisms in me whatsoever. Music, I regret to say, affects me merely as an arbitrary succession of more or less irritating sounds. (c) Q: One day, after a long illness, as I lay in bed still very weak, I found myself basking in an unusual euphoria of lightness and repose. I knew my mother had gone to buy me the daily present that made those convalescences so delightful. (c) Q:

  5. 4 out of 5

    TBV (on semi-hiatus)

    “My old (since 1917) quarrel with the Soviet dictatorship is wholly unrelated to any question of property. My contempt for the émigré who ‘hates the Reds’ because they ‘stole’ his money and land is complete. The nostalgia I have been cherishing all these years is a hypertrophied sense of lost childhood, not sorrow for lost banknotes.” And that is what this collage of memories is all about. It is not a conventional autobiography. It doesn't present a chronological account of Nabokov's life, nor do “My old (since 1917) quarrel with the Soviet dictatorship is wholly unrelated to any question of property. My contempt for the émigré who ‘hates the Reds’ because they ‘stole’ his money and land is complete. The nostalgia I have been cherishing all these years is a hypertrophied sense of lost childhood, not sorrow for lost banknotes.” And that is what this collage of memories is all about. It is not a conventional autobiography. It doesn't present a chronological account of Nabokov's life, nor does it analyse his literary works. In fact there is hardly anything about his novels in this work.* However, there are many memories of a lost childhood. Typically something he sees triggers a memory, and that in turn may lead to other memories. He states that music doesn't appeal to him much: “Music, I regret to say, affects me merely as an arbitrary succession of more or less irritating sounds.”, but what he lacks aurally he more than makes up for visually and he is gifted with synesthesia. “My mother did everything to encourage the general sensitiveness I had to visual stimulation.” She taught him to appreciate the beauty of nature: "‘Vot zapomni [now remember],’ she would say in conspiratorial tones as she drew my attention to this or that loved thing in Vyra – a lark ascending the curds-and-whey sky of a dull spring day, heat lightning taking pictures of a distant line of trees in the night, the palette of maple leaves on brown sand, a small bird’s cuneate footprints on new snow.” “Thus, in a way, I inherited an exquisite simulacrum – the beauty of intangible property, unreal estate – and this proved a splendid training for the endurance of later losses.” Nostalgically he tells of mushroom gathering, a popular Russian pastime and he remembers the sight and smells: “Its shady recesses would then harbor that special boletic reek which makes a Russian’s nostrils dilate – a dark, dank, satisfying blend of damp moss, rich earth, rotting leaves.” Nabokov provides an excellent snapshot of how the Russian aristocracy lived at the start of the twentieth century. He casually mentions that there were 50 servants on their country estate. He speaks with much fondness of some nannies and tutors (of whom he had many) and with contempt of others. There was the joy of learning to read: “I was thrilled by the thought that some day I might attain such proficiency. The magic has endured, and whenever a grammar book comes my way, I instantly turn to the last page to enjoy a forbidden glimpse of the laborious student’s future, of that promised land where, at last, words are meant to mean what they mean.” Nabokov remembers: “The sepia gloom of an arctic afternoon in midwinter invaded the rooms and was deepening to an oppressive black. A bronze angle, a surface of glass or polished mahogany here and there in the darkness, reflected the odds and ends of light from the street, where the globes of tall street lamps along its middle line were already diffusing their lunar glow. Gauzy shadows moved on the ceiling. In the stillness, the dry sound of a chrysanthemum petal falling upon the marble of a table made one’s nerves twang.” Nabokov, an enthusiastic lepidopterist, talks about butterflies - a lot and enthusiastically! He remembers his first romance and his first attempt at writing poetry. He also discusses time spent composing chess problems. There are memories of his brothers, and of his university years in England at Cambridge. He is amazed at the “… astonishing drivel when Russia was being discussed” by otherwise intelligent fellow students. He tells us about his father who was assassinated in Berlin. He writes about exile and being an émigré. And.. “I have often noticed that after I had bestowed on the characters of my novels some treasured item of my past, it would pine away in the artificial world where I had so abruptly placed it. Although it lingered on in my mind, its personal warmth, its retrospective appeal had gone and, presently, it became more closely identified with my novel than with my former self, where it had seemed to be so safe from the intrusion of the artist." "I confess I do not believe in time. I like to fold my magic carpet, after use, in such a way as to superimpose one part of the pattern upon another." "I witness with pleasure the supreme achievement of memory, which is the masterly use it makes of innate harmonies when gathering to its fold the suspended and wandering tonalities of the past." "Very lovely, very lonesome. But what am I doing in this stereoscopic dreamland? How did I get here? Somehow, the two sleighs have slipped away, leaving behind a passportless spy standing on the blue-white road in his New England snowboots and stormcoat. The vibration in my ears is no longer their receding bells, but only my old blood singing. All is still, spellbound, enthralled by the moon, fancy’s rear-vision mirror. The snow is real, though, and as I bend to it and scoop up a handful, sixty years crumble to glittering frost-dust between my fingers.” # *Nabokov initially used the pseudonym “Sirin” and he wittily references himself here: (view spoiler)[ “But the author that interested me most was naturally Sirin. He belonged to my generation. Among the young writers produced in exile he was the loneliest and most arrogant one. Beginning with the appearance of his first novel in 1925 and throughout the next fifteen years, until he vanished as strangely as he had come, his work kept provoking an acute and rather morbid interest on the part of critics. Just as Marxist publicists of the eighties in old Russia would have denounced his lack of concern with the economic structure of society, so the mystagogues of émigré letters deplored his lack of religious insight and of moral preoccupation. Everything about him was bound to offend Russian conventions and especially that Russian sense of decorum which, for example, an American offends so dangerously today, when in the presence of Soviet military men of distinction he happens to lounge with both hands in his trouser pockets. Conversely, Sirin’s admirers made much, perhaps too much, of his unusual style, brilliant precision, functional imagery and that sort of thing. Russian readers who had been raised on the sturdy straightforwardness of Russian realism and had called the bluff of decadent cheats, were impressed by the mirror-like angles of his clear but weirdly misleading sentences and by the fact that the real life of his books flowed in his figures of speech, which one critic has compared to ‘windows giving upon a contiguous world … a rolling corollary, the shadow of a train of thought.’ Across the dark sky of exile, Sirin passed, to use a simile of a more conservative nature, like a meteor, and disappeared, leaving nothing much else behind him than a vague sense of uneasiness.” (hide spoiler)] # I loved this book. Nabokov wrote this memoir in English and later translated it into Russian. The writing is exquisite and his English is admirable. My vocabulary is richer for having read this lovely memoir. # A large number of extracts here, but Nabokov says it more eloquently than I ever can.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Antonomasia

    To me, this was always the Nabokov book. An old hardback of Speak Memory was on one of the bookcases at home when I was growing up, probably in the study - on a shelf low enough, as a small child, to become as familiar with the spine's unmistakable heavy block capitals, for them to seem as permanent an installation as any item of furniture that was older than I was. Lolita belonged to a later, outside world, of cult books and lists of modern classics that became increasingly familiar through my To me, this was always the Nabokov book. An old hardback of Speak Memory was on one of the bookcases at home when I was growing up, probably in the study - on a shelf low enough, as a small child, to become as familiar with the spine's unmistakable heavy block capitals, for them to seem as permanent an installation as any item of furniture that was older than I was. Lolita belonged to a later, outside world, of cult books and lists of modern classics that became increasingly familiar through my teens. I somehow felt as if it were by another author altogether. Lolita wasn't the sort of book that would have been in the house. This early instinct about the difference between the two books as worlds was borne out in the reading far more than I, middle aged and, finally, about to start Speak Memory, had figured it would be. Several years after having read Lolita, and familiar with blurbs and reviews of other Nabokov books, there were things I expected from his work: intellectual, creepy, detached; makes one more aware of unpleasant sides of oneself. Beautifully written, which in combination with the subject matter, messes with my head in a way that is not fun and not welcome. Anything but comfortable. (The apotheosis of that mind-twisting beautiful/horrific combination, for me, has to be visual though, and it's why I never managed to watch more than three or four episodes of Mads Mikkelsen's Hannibal.) I never expected something that, when I asked myself how I'd describe Speak Memory to someone who only knew of Nabokov because of Lolita, and was a bit uncomfortable with him because of that, brought to mind Downton Abbey. How else to communicate to the average Anglo reader this magical mingling of cosiness and grandeur? (But that comparison could still sound a little too mundane and plasticky, and may be heresy to the true Nabokov devotee, there being many among friends and friends-of-friends on GR.) Nor a narrative voice I would bond with, to the extent that, looking through highlights a few weeks after reading, I felt as if I were reading lines from a character I'd once read and rehearsed for a term to act in a play. Or as if it were notes made just after a vivid dream, that - along with that idyllic bit of summer between sixth form and university when I'd gone to a summer school and got to know, for the first time, people my age who were intimidatingly clever and entertaining, like people in books - there had been something similar when I was a pre-teen, when I'd met this other brilliant child who was obsessed with chess and butterflies. It felt as if we had bonded over the experience of being looked after by an unusually rapid succession of employees (nannies in my case, governesses and tutors in his) that had provided something of a social panorama within an ostensibly sheltered life, and via a tendency towards intensively obsessive interests, a drive to collect and collate things and information - and odd intellectual losses; I used to be able to 'see through' anagrams, he had lost some preternatural ability with maths after a fever. I don't have synaesthesia, but it has always made perfect sense to me and sounds like it's a dial turned up a little further on something I already experience. But I was overawed by what I heard about his family's house. Never mind the houses of a few people from school who lived in mini-mansions on a prestigious development and that itself seemed to be another tier of existence (an where footballers would later live, when that became a yardstick), these people lived in an actual stately home. Servants rushed outside with jackets when they were caught in the rain playing tennis; to go to school, there were two different chauffeur-driven cars. When he was little had been given gigantic display toys from shops as presents, which seemed like something that happened to the rich children from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The collecting. Reading about it initially, I felt only sadness at all the dead butterflies. (At one point I was moved to say to a butterfly sitting on the window - probably a small tortoiseshell, but its wings were closed so it was harder to tell for sure - "enjoy being alive".) Why did they have to collect living creatures, why did every collector have to have examples? But that particular angry point made wires in my head spark and connect and then of course I understood. Twitching - merely making lists - had somehow never felt like enough (as a preteen birdwatcher I wondered how adults didn't get bored doing that for so many years) and it all fell into place, what he would have got from the butterfly collecting. The tangible, visible items to keep as badge of attainment and reminder of experience; the classification; their ultimate but unattainable finity, but possibility of completism in subcategories. Their special connection with place; a reason for purposeful wandering and exploring outdoors; the thrill that items pertaining to the collection were out there for the taking if one could find them. Indoors, the hoovering of complex factual information which also fits neat categories, and the satisfaction of using it later. A pursuit that can be entirely satisfying alone, but also, if desired, makes one part of a community where one can partake in the drug of relevant information with others and potentially acquire prestige. Of course. I understood to the point of having a craving. It even sprang on me early one morning when I was unloading the dishwasher - the strongest impulse to go and do something as similar as possible (that didn't involve killing anything). And where did this impulse lead? A Pokémon game, dammit! I can't be the first person to name a Beautifly 'Vladimir'. (And this, the first time I'd played Pokémon, led to an understanding I'd never really sought of the phenomenon: collecting and detailed information as per previous, plus quest, plus fighting, sanitised bloodsports, and given the protagonists' age, a virtual, kawaii, individualist update of something like the ancient koryos youth war-bands, and no doubt equivalents in Japanese - samurai? - history whose names I don't know. With so many hooks, and introduced just as gaming was going mainstream, no wonder it became massive.) I could understand exactly why a geeky kid had got into butterfly collecting in the days when it was an activity as acceptable as stamp collecting was when I was a preteen. For a couple of weeks afterwards, even just writing about it conjured up the same set of cravings. Curious to experience this intensely strong drive and understanding at the same time as being so sad about all the things that were killed by collectors for a couple of centuries or so, and find it appalling, in our fauna-depleted world, that something being rare was a particular reason to kill one. (Yet: got it!!!) Speak Memory is a memoir of imaginings and tangents of mind almost as much as of things that happened - so why not take recursive licence to write more in response? Especially in British culture, there is an association between being rich and being stupid, as exemplified by Monty Python's Upper Class Twit of the Year sketch, and Harry Enfield's Tim Nice But Dim. So when reading Speak Memory from a marginally more detached and less dreamlike viewpoint, I had a sense of "does not compute": despite the well-known concept of the Russian and Central European intelligentsia, it seemed incongruous that razor-sharp intellect Vladimir Nabokov and his equally clever parents could have come from any sort of hereditary aristocracy, even one relatively recent compared with Anglo-Normans. (And before I started this book, I'd always assumed his family must have been professionals from the petty gentry / upper middle class, though I'd barely thought about it. The sort of people, who, in an English inter-war novel, have a village manor house whose roof they can never quite afford to repair properly, financially on a par with doctors and lawyers of their day.) The book got me thinking about class and relatability in literature. I had an epiphany about one reason why the middle classes may be held responsible for idealising the aristocracy as characters. (Even if a lot of middle-class contemporary literature is about other middle-class people and a lot of popular entertainment focuses on rich celebrities.) The gap between, in today's money, a household income of £20k and one of £90k, is a lot less in monetary terms than the gap between the £90k and Nabokov's inheritance from an uncle, aged seventeen, "what would amount nowadays to a couple of million dollars and his country estate" (assuming he was quoting 1950s-1960s dollar values, that would be $16-19m in 2019 money). But the kid growing up in the £90k household with a nanny and a weekly cleaner and gardener will grok the aristocratic child's experience of servants in a way in a way that the one from the £20k household won't, where there's never been anyone paid regularly to do chores. I say literature because on film and TV, the surroundings remind the well-off middle-class kid how different the aristocracy still are, whereas in a book that can seem less emphatic at times. And whilst in a British memoir of this vintage there would be that great divide of boarding school, that appears not to have been a phenomenon in early 20th century Russia; the Nabokov boys get driven to a day school, which makes it seem a little closer to modern life. (I can only assume that this book, with its tales of the Nabokov family's many governesses and tutors, many of whom only stayed for a few months each, was why my mother thought it so amusing and interesting that nannies never stayed long, and she saw it as a sort of adventure and anecdote-fodder, rather than a negative reflection on herself and on me, as would be the usual modern middle class perspective.) Anyway, I hope I've adequately warned readers who may be disgusted by the Nabokovs' pre-revolutionary wealth and staff. Many people love this memoir, but not everyone would. Stories of fallen Imperial Russian aristocracy often have a sense of shock and personal calamity to them. Under every pretty reminiscence lurks the writer's darkness of trauma and loss. Not so here; it doesn't feel anywhere near so seismic, so unprocessed; no wailing and rending of garments. Of course there was a huge change to the Nabokovs' lives , but in tone it feels much closer to a memoir of England before the First World War. As if not quite so much was lost; that the writer is fully able to appreciate and feel how (excessively) lucky they were and fully inhabit the idyllic stories of the old days; and just not as emotional. Nabokov grew up speaking English, with an admiration for the British that was common for rich people of his day - and one could read into Speak Memory a certain amount of traditionally British diffidence in his character, whether learned or inherent, who knows. And it's as if his psyche absorbed all the luck and good parenting of his upbringing, and the resilience one is supposed to get from that is playing out in the way he writes about what happened. He doesn't sound traumatised. There are some unpleasant things that happened to him and his family, but they never feel like the centre of his mental world. Rather, one is left with vignettes of that glittering veneer of old Russian-ness which Christmas productions of The Nutcracker trade on. The vast countryside, small boys riding a dog in the snow, casual mentions of Fabergé eggs; beautiful peasant girls and gnarly old gardeners; the intelligentsia that seems such a wonderful tradition to those who decry the anti-intellectualism of Anglo-American culture. When I was younger I loved stories about being at the centre of things, which often meant, unironically, areas of London like Hampstead; often now I scoff and think that's all terribly overrated and tiring. But Nabokov's tales of the days when his father was a liberal government minister under Kerensky, and there were "meetings of national importance" in their house, made me feel that rush again. Even if the Nabokov family's pre-revolutionary lifestyle is almost comically opulent and makes most North London champagne socialists look like the epitome of thrift. The most direct commentary we get on his change in fortune from super-rich to merely comfortable professional is this: "The following passage is not for the general reader, but for the particular idiot who, because he lost a fortune in some crash, thinks he understands me. My contempt for the émigré who “hates the Reds” because they “stole” his money and land is complete. The nostalgia I have been cherishing all these years is a hypertrophied sense of lost childhood, not sorrow for lost banknotes … I reserve for myself the right to yearn after an ecological niche: … For one locality in Russia." But anyone who hopes for Nabokov the Marxist (Is there anyone?) will be disappointed. He makes little direct comment on it except for this, near the end, now a young father: "there is in every child the essentially human urge to reshape the earth, to act upon a friable environment (unless he is a born Marxist or a corpse and meekly waits for the environment to fashion him)." Those seem so very much the words of an influential man of the twentieth century, someone who grew up seeing his own ancestors' names on plaques in museums - and of a moment in time when human supremacy over nature seemed strongest and least controversial. I had thought that, through a sense of continued connection to Russia, he was disowning and othering some of the worst episodes of the Second World War "early in 1946, to be exact—a sudden crop of infants with Turkic or Mongol blood in their innocent veins". (This was in Berlin.) But a few weeks later, an argument elsewhere on GR with a Russian, and then something elsewhere was a reminder of the composite way in which Russians see their identity, and Turkic/Mongol is part of that. Yes, the ascription of war rape to that aspect of the Russian identity does still look very suspect from the Western intersectional perspective, but I think he means a part of the Russian collective/historical self, much like the id is still part of the self in the Freudian schema. (Nabokov hated Freud.) Continued in comment 3 below. (Read August, reviewed Oct 2020)

  7. 4 out of 5

    Sue

    Finis! There are parts of this memoir that I absolutely loved and there are parts, mostly later in the memoir and in Nabokov's life, that I found more difficult to embrace as a reader. The Everyman's Library Edition I read also has an excellent introduction by Brian Boyd which offers great insights into the book, especially for a reader like me who has no background in Nabokov. To outline the task he had set before him, Nabokov writes in his Foreward "This re-Englishing of a Russian re-version of Finis! There are parts of this memoir that I absolutely loved and there are parts, mostly later in the memoir and in Nabokov's life, that I found more difficult to embrace as a reader. The Everyman's Library Edition I read also has an excellent introduction by Brian Boyd which offers great insights into the book, especially for a reader like me who has no background in Nabokov. To outline the task he had set before him, Nabokov writes in his Foreward "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." (p 6) This mention of butterflies is but an early allusion to what will be a life-long hobby pursued in Russia and every county Nabokov lived in exile. Nabokov is a man between worlds, of a patrician background lost in the Russian Revolution, but he does not appear to live with regret. Instead he clings to the memories of the Russia he has loved, the Russia he knew as a much loved child, and provides wonderful descriptions of the sights and people of that world. In one descriptive passage of the arrival of a new tutor coming to the estate by sleigh in the winter, Nabokov's worlds collide. "Very lovely, very lonesome. but what am I doing in this dreamland? How did I get here? Somehow the two sleighs have slipped away leaving behind a passportless spy standing on the blue-white road in his New England snowboots and stormcoat. The vibration in my ears is no longer their receding bells, but only my old blood singing. All is still, spellbound, enthralled by the moon, fancy's rear-vision mirror. The snow is real, though, and as I bend to it and scoop up a handful, sixty years crumble to glittering frost-dust between my fingers" (pp 73-74) There are many delightful sections in this overall wonderful memoir. At times it can become obscure and pedantic---Nabokov's language is not that of most authors I read. but the emotional content is accessible. In the chapter dealing with his burgeoning fascination with butterflies, he states "I found the nonutilitarian delights that I sought in art. Both were a form of magic, both were a game of intricate enchantment and deception." p 95 Among my favorite chapters are those dealing with the multiple tutors/mentor/governesses he and his closest brother had in Russia, the chapter about his mother, that chapter that describes his "discovery" of poetry, and the descriptions of his teenage loves. He gives little away here but there is a sense of loss. Some of the later chapters I found rougher going as VN travels in Europe and settles into a course of life. Perhaps the emotional level was not the same? The emotion rushes back with the birth of his son Dimitri. All in all I enjoyed this memoir while recognizing I was in the presence of someone who does not think as I do, who creates and writes on a different plane with a use of English (even as a second language) that is far more extensive than mine. With that caveat, I recommend it to others who enjoy reading memoirs. This is a strong 4 (possibly a 5 but for a few chapters I found less compelling).

  8. 4 out of 5

    Alex

    This is, in my opinion, Nabokov's best work. The autobiography as a form suits Nabokov perfectly, as his novels are never so much about plot or 'big ideas,' just the intense poetic possibilities of language itself. So be forewarned, there is almost no useful information here. You may learn a thing or two about pre-Revolution Russia, a scrap of detail about his encounters with Joyce in Paris, or some tidbits about butterfly hunting, but really there's nothing to be learned, no story, no clues to This is, in my opinion, Nabokov's best work. The autobiography as a form suits Nabokov perfectly, as his novels are never so much about plot or 'big ideas,' just the intense poetic possibilities of language itself. So be forewarned, there is almost no useful information here. You may learn a thing or two about pre-Revolution Russia, a scrap of detail about his encounters with Joyce in Paris, or some tidbits about butterfly hunting, but really there's nothing to be learned, no story, no clues to why he wrote 'Lolita' or whatever. What you get is the greatest prose artist of the 20th Century at his finest. Nabokov takes the mildly interesting raw material of his own life and transforms it into luminous art.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Mariel

    I have often noticed that after I had bestowed on the characters of my novels some treasured item of my past, it would pine away in the artificial world where I had so abruptly placed it. Although it lingered on in my mind, its personal warmth, its retrospective appeal had gone and, presently, it became more closely identified with my novel than with my former self, where it had seemed to be so safe from the intrusion of the artist. Please disregard the three stars above. There is no dark lined s I have often noticed that after I had bestowed on the characters of my novels some treasured item of my past, it would pine away in the artificial world where I had so abruptly placed it. Although it lingered on in my mind, its personal warmth, its retrospective appeal had gone and, presently, it became more closely identified with my novel than with my former self, where it had seemed to be so safe from the intrusion of the artist. Please disregard the three stars above. There is no dark lined silvery cloud rating system in my unguarded border between love and hate. If you read quotes from Speak, Memory you will know that it has words of sublimity, knowing truth about beauty and art. Here is one that I have loved for years: But then, in a sense, all poetry is positional: to try to express one's position in regard to the universe embraced by consciousness, is an immemorial urge. The arms of consciousness reach out and grope, and the longer they are the better. Tentacles, not wings, are Apollo's natural members. I have thought about that quote often (the first part is often left off. I can't understand why). I know what he is talking about. I would think that I can't relate to this man who must've sprung from his mother's loving womb into a world opened to other worlds that could be imprinted on the insides of eyelids like the too perfect to be anything but miraculous mimicry of his camouflaged moths to flame. This was a perfect realization from Nabokov that I don't think I would have done on my own. The smallest detail birthed just right on those wings (I wonder how many beats per second they need to sustain, if their flight manages to beat the necessity and work). It couldn't have been only for survival. I will think of his beautiful prose like those moths that were making themselves more than what they merely had to be survive. I love that he saw them that way. I don't know how many reviews of his works I've read over the years that were almost too jealous to be admiring that he could write as he does in his second language. The truth is that he had three first languages. English wasn't my first language. Mine was a made-up secret twin language that I didn't give up until I was three. I hate language because I have to give it up to have new words. His are worlds at once, with portals. If asked to explain the most basic English grammar like what is a noun or an adjective I could sweat like those times I panicked and couldn't remember my own ATM code or phone number. I admire and envy his visual ecstasy, where he wills to go. I love it, really. He did, however, hate music. In the most extreme emotional times he could tolerate the violin (my reason for living) and he hated the piano. I could never make myself into what I feel for music the way that Nabokov does his pleasures in his words. It is his own language. I know what he is talking about, though. He is looking too. I can't go where he went but he wanted to go somewhere else too. So there were times when I absolutely hated reading this book. I squirmed in my seat as if I were the victim of multiple courses of Green Eggs and Ham. Reading in all of my favorite reading places of my car, bed and empty bathtub I would feel at once desperate to be done already and dog-earing pages to my memory as if his beautiful words could be butterflies pinned to delicate pages. My private Mariel time was intruded upon with some of the most boring times I have had all year (and that is saying something). A friend of mine on goodreads, Kristen, and myself have a longstanding argument/discussion about my criteria for what a memoir should be. I've consistently not explained myself very well. My twin also took me as expecting the person to take themselves with absolute truth, no attempts to make themselves look good, etc, denying understanding of how hard it would be to live with yourself if you gave up the constant wing beating. I want a portal into their lives. I want to be allowed entry, to pass between their shoulders and have room for me, Mariel, where I would never be allowed anywhere else. I want to learn the same rhythms. That world must contain the others in their lives, the look extending beyond corner of their eyes. I could ideally step out without them and look at others. A lot of Speak, Memory is about servants in the Nabokov family. I liked his mother's former nurse who they give keys to a different food larder so that they won't starve to death and her feelings won't be hurt. Did she ever think about being born a slave? I liked that he tried to save Mademoiselle from his own use of her in his fictional work by writing about his memories of her in this book. It is interesting that he felt he lost his own memories once they were given to fiction. But I couldn't get past this feeling of them as servants. Maybe the fiction is more generous because it would give of yourself to the image of them in your mind. Who were they when they went home? Maybe they thought that young Vladimir was a nancy boy lolling about on a Turkish sofa to read War and Peace at the age of eleven (I was reading The Silence of the Lambs when I was eleven). I couldn't help but think about the governess who was sent away for seemingly no reason (my guess is that she had the young master help her search for the missing glove) while he was consoled with hot chocolate and drawings. I was reminded of reading Natasha's Dance (a very good book about the cultural history of Russia I read earlier this year. Umm, reconciling Tolstoy's noble peasants with how much their lives must have truly sucked so hard, yeah?). There came a point when I was bored to tears reading about how many thousands of servants (coughs slaves coughs) each nobleman had to their name. "Not again!" I love reading about the very Russian practice of hunting for mushrooms in the forest. I wanted very much to go on one of those hunts with Nabokov's beloved mum. I don't know, I was bothered by it all because it is so one-sided. I loved that he felt guilty about ditching his friend (who biked all the way to their home because his recently bankrupted family couldn't afford the train fare) to hunt for his butterflies in secret. But it's all about him and it is dull to force my brain edges into a one-sided affair. The butterflies. I kind of get it and... Well, he was killing them to collect them in those books. I find it curious that he didn't once mention any conflicting feelings about this aspect of his obsession. He does about his own memory and using it in writing, but not about the lives of these creatures. I had also read about this a long time before I read this book that he waits a long time to leave Nazi Germany even though his wife was Jewish. I guess this is why Kristen had suggested reading this memoir to prepare for Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter (I might get pissed about proclamations of Sartre love and ignoring realities of abusing teenaged girls she had a position of power over, yeah). I don't want to sound judgmental because that is not how I feel in my heart. I have pets. Some of my pets are birds. It is something that I stab my mind with out of the dark at any time. I think if they could talk my dogs wouldn't tell the judge that they want to live with me instead of running wild (tell that to the dog catcher, guys!). (Speaking of dogs: Something the Nabokov family and my family have in common is the recurrence of dachshunds. I think they had twelve? My memory could be lying about this. Anyway, it was a lot. Mine had eight altogether.) I can imagine how it felt to find the longed for rare butterfly to add to his collection. He might have missed that longing and replaced it with another quest. My life needs something to long for and think about to slow down time and make it faster. I know that Nabokov was like that. But my mind goes "But..." and the passion can be cruel. I wonder too much about what I killed to feed the fumbled love I invented for myself. What do they kill, in these memoirs? But what if they didn't want to be in a book? What if these people in his life didn't want to be in position to Vladimir Nabokov? (I guess they could write their own memoirs, if they didn't die under Leninism. I can't help but wonder why he wrote about this one tutor that much. It became like picking on someone behind their back...) He writes in his fiction and in Speak, Memory about the expatriates who miss their Scrooge McDuck luxuries to swim in. Nabokov misses his childhood. And I know I'm being a jerk and kind of deliberately missing the point because I can't sidestep that trapped sick/boredom feeling I used to get so often in my own childhood. He was the center of the world in his childhood. He didn't have to think about his father's foot stabbing political sympathies for revolutionaries. His mother got his synesthesia because she had it too (although hers was for musical notes while he saw words in colors. I liked how he had only placed one of the rose pink colors to its living counterpart days before writing about it in his memoir). I loved how he could still feel the handle of his son's pram. But what about the girls who would smiles appeared only as he was approaching and departing? I want to know how he looked to them. My memoir criteria may be impossible. I want to be let in and I don't want to have to make it for myself. A moment later my first poem began. What touched it off? I think I know. Without any wind blowing, the sheer weight of a raindrop, shining in parasitic luxury on a cordate leaf, caused its tip to dip, and what looked like a globule of quicksilver performed a sudden glissando down the center vein, and then, having shed its bright load, the relieved leaf unbent. Tip, leap, dip, relief- the instant it all took to happen seemed to me not so much a fraction of time as a fissure in it, a missed heartbeat, which was refunded at once by a patter of rhymes: I say "patter" intentionally, for when a gust of wind did come, the trees would briskly start to drip all together in as crude an imitation of the recent downpour as the stanza I was already muttering resembled the shock of wonder I had experienced when for a moment heart and leaf had been one. Nabokov's poetry was my favorite part of Speak, Memory. How to write poetry is to be able to notice all kinds of things that are happening all at once, all at once. Janet Frame's beginnings as a poet was also my favorite about her memoir To the Is-Land. I love to know how others reach out. I want to reach out too. I want to be let in more than anything. I feel if I could be let in then maybe I could reach something that has always been denied me. Like when you try to remember something and you can't.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Jeena Mary Chacko

    Sometimes a book just happens to you, it finds you, popping up from an exhibition that you almost didn't go to, from a dusty corner of a college library or a tiny book shop. The flirting is momentary, you know this is the real thing; there is no hesitation. You take it home, its love at first sight ("and ever and ever sight"). Suddenly all your life so far seem so mundane and banal, a new world of tender mellowness opens - you assimilate it, drown and resurrect in it, live its sublimity, you bec Sometimes a book just happens to you, it finds you, popping up from an exhibition that you almost didn't go to, from a dusty corner of a college library or a tiny book shop. The flirting is momentary, you know this is the real thing; there is no hesitation. You take it home, its love at first sight ("and ever and ever sight"). Suddenly all your life so far seem so mundane and banal, a new world of tender mellowness opens - you assimilate it, drown and resurrect in it, live its sublimity, you become the book. Curled up, sprawled over a bed, by the window, under a sheet in torch light, you meet; the book and you. You can’t help it, it is an inevitability. Every time a guest drops in, or you have to leave for work, you swear horribly, because all you want to do is be with it, to be locked in an eternal read with it, a passion that you have never felt for anything else, anyone else. It seems as though you were waiting all your life for this moment, this juncture, this awakening, it is the beginning of a new journey. You realise you can still be happy reading and rereading only this one book for the rest of your life. In love with you, Nabokov for Speak, Memory for the universe you showed me, for Ada, for that ardor. I’ve fallen in love with a life I can never possess, with places that I can never see, with feelings that I am struggling to experience.

  11. 4 out of 5

    مروان البلوشي

    من أجمل وأعظم الكتب التي قرأتها في حياتي، وأشعر بأني سأعود لقراءته مرة بعد الأخرى في المستقبل. ولا يحتوي الكتاب فحسب على رؤية ناباكوف حول الذاكرة، والشوق، والحنين، والمنفى، والوطن، واعادة صناعة الماضي والهوية. بل أنه يحتوي على بعض آراء ناباكوف الغريبة والفريدة حول مواضيع مثل فكرة الزمن والوقت والخلود، يقول ناباكوف : “I confess I do not believe in time. I like to fold my magic carpet, after use, in such a way as to superimpose one part of the pattern upon another. Let visitors trip. And the highes من أجمل وأعظم الكتب التي قرأتها في حياتي، وأشعر بأني سأعود لقراءته مرة بعد الأخرى في المستقبل. ولا يحتوي الكتاب فحسب على رؤية ناباكوف حول الذاكرة، والشوق، والحنين، والمنفى، والوطن، واعادة صناعة الماضي والهوية. بل أنه يحتوي على بعض آراء ناباكوف الغريبة والفريدة حول مواضيع مثل فكرة الزمن والوقت والخلود، يقول ناباكوف : “I confess I do not believe in time. I like to fold my magic carpet, after use, in such a way as to superimpose one part of the pattern upon another. Let visitors trip. And the highest enjoyment of timelessness -- in a landscape selected at random -- is when I stand among rare butterflies and their food plants. This is ecstasy, and behind the ecstasy is something else, which is hard to explain. It is like a momentary vacuum into which rushes all that I love. A sense of oneness with sun and stone. A thrill of gratitude to whom it may concern -- to the contrapuntal genius of human fate or to tender ghosts humoring a lucky mortal.” ولا أشعر شخصيا بالملل من قراءة الفقرة الأولى من الكتاب والتي تبدأ بهذا السطر البديع والجامع لمعاني عديدة : “The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness”

  12. 5 out of 5

    Sanjeev

    Disgusting that somebody could be such an amazing writer. (And this is a person born in Russia, writing in English!) The word "genius" seems to come up a lot when people speak of Nabokov. Having read this, I now understand. It took me some time to become used to the way he writes. Nabokov often does not seem to care if his point is immediately clear to the reader. Some of the gems I found in this book I could just as easily have missed in a quicker read. So close attention is rewarded. Also recom Disgusting that somebody could be such an amazing writer. (And this is a person born in Russia, writing in English!) The word "genius" seems to come up a lot when people speak of Nabokov. Having read this, I now understand. It took me some time to become used to the way he writes. Nabokov often does not seem to care if his point is immediately clear to the reader. Some of the gems I found in this book I could just as easily have missed in a quicker read. So close attention is rewarded. Also recommended is a dictionary since his vocabulary is...good. Knowledge of French does not hurt either (possibly an offshoot of his indifference to making his point accessible are the many untranslated French sentences). I found the discussion of his aristocratic pedigree a bit taxing at times, but he treats it all somewhat lightly so it is manageable. In all, I really could not ask for more from a book. His insights, observations, ideas voiced, etc...they are worthwhile, priceless. Describing the writing does not do it any justice, so here are some examples of what I liked: Of the nothings he hears before falling asleep as a child "It is a neutral, detached, anonymous voice, which I catch saying words of no importance to me whatever - an English or a Russian sentence, not even addressed to me, and so trivial that I hardly dare give samples, lest the flatness I wish to convey be marred by a molehill of sense." (emphasis added, by me) About his love for a person: "I have to have all space and all time participate in my emotion, in my mortal love, so that the edge of its mortality is taken off, thus helping me fight the utter degradation, ridicule, and horror of having developed an infinity of sensation and thought within a finite existence." Other random selections: "...when one is wide awake, at moments of robust joy and achievement, on the highest terrace of consciousness, that mortality has a chance to peer beyond its own limits...And although nothing much can be seen through the mist, there is somehow the blissful feeling that one is looking in the right direction." "The lilac shrubs in full bloom...displayed clusters of a fluffy gray in the dusk - the ghost of purple."

  13. 5 out of 5

    Raul Bimenyimana

    After reading the personal experiences of a writer, normally I like the writer more than I did before. This wasn't the case with this book. My admiration for Nabokov's talent, intelligence and sense of humour increased, but I ended up annoyed with Nabokov as a person. Born into an aristocratic and wealthy family, fifty servants, French and English governesses, Russian tutors, grand estates, limousines, Vladimir Nabokov's childhood was spent in a state of comfort at the very least. The child Vladi After reading the personal experiences of a writer, normally I like the writer more than I did before. This wasn't the case with this book. My admiration for Nabokov's talent, intelligence and sense of humour increased, but I ended up annoyed with Nabokov as a person. Born into an aristocratic and wealthy family, fifty servants, French and English governesses, Russian tutors, grand estates, limousines, Vladimir Nabokov's childhood was spent in a state of comfort at the very least. The child Vladimir was a domineering older brother, a snob, a spoilt precocious child. Still Nabokov's prose was entrancing as always, and not just one passage per chapter but passage after passage of brilliant recollections. When tracing his ancestry to writing of his childhood, and later exile, after his world is cast away by the Bolshevik revolution. This was just an incredible book.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Riku Sayuj

    Remember Those Evenings Reading tonight, he remembers those evenings, Walking together in the endless estates, Where the sun poured over shining green leaves. No hint of shades. Again in this room, with the screen-light hiding the night, Look back to those mountains where our walking sticks are hid; See him turn to the window, thinking his last Of faraway climes. Now nights come bringing only doubts, and the dead howl Of half-formed thoughts, in their windy dwelling Inside his mind, too full of easy Remember Those Evenings Reading tonight, he remembers those evenings, Walking together in the endless estates, Where the sun poured over shining green leaves. No hint of shades. Again in this room, with the screen-light hiding the night, Look back to those mountains where our walking sticks are hid; See him turn to the window, thinking his last Of faraway climes. Now nights come bringing only doubts, and the dead howl Of half-formed thoughts, in their windy dwelling Inside his mind, too full of easy questions; Such lonely roads. Oh, my long distance companion, my muse, remember: How we saw that sudden lighting of the valley; As we stood alone in the lonely darkening roads, watching As men went home. Remember all this, though no nearer each other. As the night is ending, and the dawn will bring Dreams and sleep for some, but no peace to me; Only more dread reading.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Manny

    One of the greatest literary autobiographies ever - a model for how to do it. My favourite anecdote: when he talks about how cold it was in his student room, he denies the rumour that the water in his toothmug froze solid during the night. Just a crisp layer of ice on the top, that he broke with his toothbrush...

  16. 4 out of 5

    Darwin8u

    Speak, Mnemosyne! Probably one of my favorite autobiographies to date (beaten only perhaps by the Education of Henry Adams). Realistically, it is 4.56 stars given the narrative gaps (most were written as individual pieces for Atlantic Monthly, the New Yorker and Harpers). The section on butterflies (Chapter 6), his Russian education (Chapter 9), and his portrait of his mother (Chapter 2) were absolutely AMAZING. Other chapters were just as good, and only a couple were less than what I hoped. It Speak, Mnemosyne! Probably one of my favorite autobiographies to date (beaten only perhaps by the Education of Henry Adams). Realistically, it is 4.56 stars given the narrative gaps (most were written as individual pieces for Atlantic Monthly, the New Yorker and Harpers). The section on butterflies (Chapter 6), his Russian education (Chapter 9), and his portrait of his mother (Chapter 2) were absolutely AMAZING. Other chapters were just as good, and only a couple were less than what I hoped. It is interesting to think of Nabokov writing these in English in Massachusetts from his Russian memories and then translating them in the 1950s back into Russian and then using the Russian version to edit a new edition in 1966. The human mind, with all its varieties, is an phenomenal thing...but Nabokov's mind and the prose it produces makes me want to just lay down and lick the back of my own head in jealousy.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Jonfaith

    She had spent all her life in feeling miserable; this misery was her native element; its fluctuations, its varying depths, alone save her the impression of moving and living. What bothers me is that a sense of misery, and nothing else, is not enough to make a permanent soul. My enormous and morose Mademoiselle is all right on earth but impossible in eternity. Nabokov's autobiography is an uneven lot. Distinguished into thematic chapters, certain motifs link the sections in almost agonizing detail She had spent all her life in feeling miserable; this misery was her native element; its fluctuations, its varying depths, alone save her the impression of moving and living. What bothers me is that a sense of misery, and nothing else, is not enough to make a permanent soul. My enormous and morose Mademoiselle is all right on earth but impossible in eternity. Nabokov's autobiography is an uneven lot. Distinguished into thematic chapters, certain motifs link the sections in almost agonizing detail. I read the concluding two hundred pages today, feeling inspired to continue this trek, but sufficiently vigilant that much of the attendant charm might simply be a rhetorical or an illusion from perspective. His parents are richly depicted, but not his siblings. One might surmise that he feared offending them. Governesses and tutors are sketched and often judged. Love interests are obliquely described but other matters remain as silent as the proverbial grave. Lepidopterology and chess are dominant interests in Nabokov and thus form the structural cadence of this work. My interest would have been enhanced had I a care in the world for either.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Susan

    This is a beautifully evocative memoir, consisting of the personal recollections of Nabakov, recalling his childhood in Imperial Russia . Nabakov was born in 1899 to a family who were not only members of the aristocracy, but heavily involved in politics. His father was a liberal, who opposed the Tsar and, in fact, as his grandmother wryly pointed out, was working to bring down the way of life which would eventually see him exiled and virtually penniless… However, this is certainly not a memoir fi This is a beautifully evocative memoir, consisting of the personal recollections of Nabakov, recalling his childhood in Imperial Russia . Nabakov was born in 1899 to a family who were not only members of the aristocracy, but heavily involved in politics. His father was a liberal, who opposed the Tsar and, in fact, as his grandmother wryly pointed out, was working to bring down the way of life which would eventually see him exiled and virtually penniless… However, this is certainly not a memoir filled with sorrow or bitterness. Instead, the author recreates his privileged childhood, with its recurring pattern of winter in St Petersburg, the spring and summer spent at the family’s country estate and the autumn in foreign resorts. We read of the many tutors and governesses who came and went, the author and his brother’s many escapades (including boarding a ferry and leaving their nanny wringing her hands on the quay as her charges floated away and an attempted elopement with a French playmate). There is the horror of hearing his father might have died in a duel, the joy of butterfly collecting - always a passion throughout his life – his early attempts at writing poetry and his final leaving of Russia after the revolution. Mostly, though, what we get are little snippets – beautifully written – of a world that has long gone, but which can see through the eyes of our narrator. Places, people, a way of life long since vanished, are recreated. You can almost feel the cold on carriage drives through the snow, or imagine walks in the countryside, so vivid are the descriptions. As such, it is almost not what is written, but how it is written, that is important here. The eye for detail; of the memory of a room, books on a shelf, or how it felt to wake in the morning, is what makes the book come alive. I think it is an important memoir and one which paints a portrait of a certain era and way of life which the author obviously missed, but recalled with love.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Claire Olivarez-Day

    I just prefer his fiction. I understand that this is one of the most important autobiographies/memoirs ever written, but I fail to see why. I admit that Nabokov's "poetic prose" really shines through, at certain times; however, on the whole, I found the narrative voice to be frustrating, pompous, and oppressive. I just prefer his fiction. I understand that this is one of the most important autobiographies/memoirs ever written, but I fail to see why. I admit that Nabokov's "poetic prose" really shines through, at certain times; however, on the whole, I found the narrative voice to be frustrating, pompous, and oppressive.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Auguste

    How wrong Nabokov was in claiming that the music gene had skipped him! His prose is nothing if not music.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Chrissie

    This book is amazing, not for the story it tells but for how that story is written. It consists of essays written and published at different times and places, but it all holds together. Each chapter follows the other in basically chronological order. Let the author speak for himself: 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 Russ This book is amazing, not for the story it tells but for how that story is written. It consists of essays written and published at different times and places, but it all holds together. Each chapter follows the other in basically chronological order. Let the author speak for himself: 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 reversion 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 metamorphoses, familiar to butterflies, had not been tried by any human before. The book covers the years from his birth in 1899 to 1940, when he, his wife and son immigrated to the US. It begins with his Russian boyhood, followed by his émigré years in Europe. It covers his tutors, his passion for butterflies, a bit about his synesthesia, his coming-of –age, his first girlfriends, his writing and poetry. You clearly understand where he came from, but that is NOT the glory of the book. What is astonishingly good is how he describes memories. What a vocabulary! Words, words and more words. Adjectives and unusual verbal constructions. It is magical. If you want simple wording, I guess this is not for you though. Since what is so stupendous about the book is the writing, I must offer you another sample. It is at the end of the book when he is soon off to America on an ocean liner. He is walking with his wife and six year-old son up a path in a park in Paris, and they spot the boat: What I really remember about this neutrally blooming design (the park) is its clever thematic connection with transatlantic gardens and parks. For suddenly as we came to the end of its path you and I (his wife) saw something that we did not immediately point out to our child, so as to enjoy in full the blissful shock the enchantment and glee he would experience on discovering ahead the ungenuinely gigantic, the unrealistically real prototype of the various toy vessels he dottled about in his bath. There in front of us, where a broken row of house stood between us and the harbor and where the eye encountered all sorts of stratagems, such as pale blue and pink underwear cake-walking on a clothesline or a ladies bicycle and a striped cat oddly sharing a rudimentary balcony of cast iron, it was most satisfying to make out among the jumbled angles of roofs and walls a splendid ship’s funnel showing from behind the clothesline as something in a scrambled picture. Find what the sailor has hidden that the finder cannot un-see once it has been seen. I am writing what I have listened to in the audiobook version of this book, which is well narrated by Stefan Rudnicki, in a deep tone perfect for Nabokov’s words. The narration has just the right pomp! I LOVED the book, but it might not be for everyone.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Jimmy

    Many years ago, I had read about half of Lolita before putting it down. I don’t remember why, since I enjoyed the extremely pleasing sentences at the time. Nevertheless, I have not read any Nabokov since then, and everyone seems to be personally insulted by this omission. What is it that inspires Nabokov fans to froth at the mouth so violently when it comes to this topic? (update: I have now re-read Lolita, and my review can be found here) I was promised that this book will let me into the secret Many years ago, I had read about half of Lolita before putting it down. I don’t remember why, since I enjoyed the extremely pleasing sentences at the time. Nevertheless, I have not read any Nabokov since then, and everyone seems to be personally insulted by this omission. What is it that inspires Nabokov fans to froth at the mouth so violently when it comes to this topic? (update: I have now re-read Lolita, and my review can be found here) I was promised that this book will let me into the secret. So I feel like even though 3.5 stars is not a bad score, anything less than 5 stars is an insult to the incredible reputation this has built up in my mind (as well as the formidable expectations of said recommenders). In a way, I can totally see why people love him so much. It is hard not to be floored by the considerable talents of this prose. The sentences, at their best, are indeed delicious. Nabokov seems to me all about the sensual enjoyment of language, within a certain framework of description: Closed inside shutters, a lighted candle, Gentle Jesus, meek and mild, something-something little child, the child kneeling on the pillow that presently would engulf his humming head. -- p. 86But he isn’t always as good when it comes to bigger ideas or psychology. In fact, he has little interest in either, and when he attempts them, it often has the scent of obvious melodramatic effort to it, like bad poetry:All is still, spellbound, enthralled by the moon, fancy’s rearvision mirror. The snow is real, though, and as I bend to it and scoop up a handful, sixty years crumble to glittering frost-dust between my fingers. --p.100Like a butterfly’s unintuitively wild flight, his sentences go all over the place, and beautifully so. But his is almost the opposite of another sentence-master: Beckett. Whereas Beckett’s sentences can float like a butterfly, they also know how to sting like a bee. It can be beautiful or ugly, long or short, totally taking you off guard with its uncompromising and singular vision. Nabokov is never cruel enough in his economy, his flourishes take too long, and by the time he lands that final punch, it feels overdone, like a rubbery egg. Yes, beautiful, but heavy with labor, dripping with intention. Perhaps it is unfair to compare him to Beckett, who afterall, has no aesthetic similarities to Nabokov. Maybe Flaubert, then, whose sentences are also beautiful in a certain traditional way, but whose economy and clarity constantly stuns and surprises with layer upon layer of psychological subtlety and humor. Clearly painstaking effort was put in the writing, and yet this effort is also hidden from the reader, so that it looks easy... natural, even. Or maybe we should bring in someone who is equally enamoured by the beauty and playful potential of language, someone like Wallace Stevens, whose words have a certain surface sheen, yet hold so many more implications beneath their enticing veneers, so much philosophical depth. Nabokov’s strength is in impressionistic description, and in evocation. When he tries to do more, it is very hit and miss. He is like one of those guitar virtuosos getting carried away by their own flashy fingerwork, capable and impressive, but rarely are their technical skills used with the kind of artistic restraint that creates truly great songs. Of course, I am only basing this on this one book alone, so upon further reading, revisions may be in order. That said, there were many memorable moments in this book. I didn’t truly get into it until Chapter 4, but boy was that chapter good. Chapter 5 was also great, about Mademoiselle. Chapter 14, about emigrant life, and chess puzzles, and where the stylization seemed less pronounced, was also interesting. Most of the book concerns itself with the many tutors, servants and other people who worked for and revolved around his aristocratic family; his interest in butterflies, writing poems, and wooing girls comes up later. Then social upheaval and fleeing the country. I found his voice a bit snobby and egotistical at times, which was also a turn-off. But most of the book was enjoyable enough, though nowhere near the heights they reached in my hype-induced imagination.

  23. 4 out of 5

    K.D. Absolutely

    Wow! This is one of the best memoirs I've ever read! Prior to this, top in my list were Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes and Harry Bernstein's The Invisible Wall: A Love Story That Broke Barriers. Vladimir Nabokov's Speak, Memory neither has that sorry circumstance of being a born in dirt-poor Irish family nor being a witness to a tragic love story between two people of different religions. Rather, the young Nabokov was the eldest child of a rich political couple residing on a big house (with lots Wow! This is one of the best memoirs I've ever read! Prior to this, top in my list were Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes and Harry Bernstein's The Invisible Wall: A Love Story That Broke Barriers. Vladimir Nabokov's Speak, Memory neither has that sorry circumstance of being a born in dirt-poor Irish family nor being a witness to a tragic love story between two people of different religions. Rather, the young Nabokov was the eldest child of a rich political couple residing on a big house (with lots of servants) alongside a prince house and a German embassy in St. Petersburg, Russia prior to the rise of Lenin and Stalin. As for his love life, being a rich politician son, he started having girlfriends at a young age of 13 or 15 with the girl he referred to as a "nymphet" that reminded me of his Dolores, his Lo-lee-ta. So, why did I like this memoir? It's still the way Nabokov writes. The prose is clear but stylist, straightforward but not boring. His deep English vocabulary is exceptional considering that he lived most of his young life in Russia, Germany and France. Of course, based on the book, he first learned how to speak English than Russian (even if he was born in Russia) because of the many tutors that his father employed to educate him and his four siblings. It seems that in Russia during that time (1899 to 1920's), children of rich Russians were tutored at their homes prior to entering gymnasiums which was the equivalent of American high-school up to 2nd year of college. I also enjoyed looking at the pictures properly interspersed in the right sections of the book. You first see the picture, read its caption. Then after reading the chapter, you have to go back to the picture and imagine how he or she reacted or handled the situation that you just read. Especially if the situation was tragic, you look at his or her eyes and ask the picture: "really? poor soul..." The people in those pictures were not the type that you would pity right away, don't get me wrong. They were the rich capitalist that had to flee Russia or they could have been killed by the Bolshevik armies. In other words, pitying them would only happen after you read their stories. Oh, yes. Surprise. Surprise. Nabokov was also into chess. There is a nice quote about chess and fiction (novel). Here goes: It should be understood that competition in chess problems is not really between White and Black but between the composer and 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), so that a great part of a problem's value is due to the number of "tries"- delusive opening moves, false scents, specious lines of play, astutely and lovingly prepared to lead the would-be solver astray. Being snoopy, I was also hoping to get an answer to these questions: Was Lolita autobiographical with he being Humbert Humbert? Did he fall in love with a 13-year old nymphet when he was already in his middle age? Unfortunately, this memoir only covers up to the time that he was leaving Europe for U.S.A. Nabokov wrote Lolita when he was already in the US (it was published in 1955). He died at the age of 78 in 1977. But he did fall in love to a 13-year old "nymphet" when he was also 13. But he wrote: "Around that time, though, a real romantic adventure did come my way. I am now going to do something quite difficult, a kind of double somersault with a Welsh waggle (old acrobats will know what I mean), and I want complete silence, please." End of the chapter. Let's leave him at that. His personal life, including his true young love, should be respected. But, wow!

  24. 5 out of 5

    Smiley

    3.75 stars Indeed, I have possessed its handsome hardcover copy (Everyman's Library, 1999) since 2010 but I never thought of reading it due to its fonts in which I thought I would prefer their larger ones like those published in Conrad's Victory (Everyman's Library, 1998). Of course it has eventually been the product of its typography so its fonts as such set as the printed standard and it can't be changed overnight, it's just my opinion. One thing is certain, I won't read it for the sake of my e 3.75 stars Indeed, I have possessed its handsome hardcover copy (Everyman's Library, 1999) since 2010 but I never thought of reading it due to its fonts in which I thought I would prefer their larger ones like those published in Conrad's Victory (Everyman's Library, 1998). Of course it has eventually been the product of its typography so its fonts as such set as the printed standard and it can't be changed overnight, it's just my opinion. One thing is certain, I won't read it for the sake of my eyesight; the above Vintage one having then been my better option has satisfied me with its larger fonts and happier reading. Another thing impeding my attempt on this memoir is the way he wrote and how he used English words like native speakers in his short stories and some novels I read with arguable enjoyment and understanding; in short, he has wonderfully penned his works via his unique writing style and typically dramatic vocabulary in which I rarely find in other contemporary writers. Thus it's a bit surprise to me as well as a solution to my wonder when he has divulged his language potential from the early reading lessons that he read English before Russian as ascertained by his father in 1905 (he was six) "that my brother and I could read and write English but not Russian (except KAKAO and MAMA)". (p. 28) I liked how the fifteen-chapter contents have been interestingly readable; each numerical chapter followed by some numerical subsections, more or less. For instance: 1 having subsections 1-5 (pp. 19-32), 2 having subsections 1-4 (pp. 33-50), 3 having subsections 1-7 (pp. 51- 77), and so on. Such different subsections allow its readers to feel relaxed since they can decide to either go on or stop at the end of any subsection; reading such contents is more enjoyable than those ordinary ones without subsections. Nevertheless, we can't help being mildly amused due to his sense of humor amidst his lengthy narratives, for instance: Imagination, the supreme delight of the immoral and the immature, should be limited. In order to enjoy life, we should not enjoy it too much. (p. 20) A foolish tutor had explained logarithms to me much too early, and I had read (. . .) about a certain Hindu calculator who in exactly two seconds could find the seventeenth root of, say, 3529471145760275132301897342055866171392 (I am not sure I have got this right; anyway the root was 212). (p. 37) At this convenient point, I may as well mention my own scientific papers, and especially my three favorite ones, . . ., after which year I found it no longer physically possible to combine scientific research with lectures, belles-lettres, and Lolita (for she was on her way - a painful birth, a difficult baby). (p. 65) A bit similar to George Orwell in terms of unusual vocabulary, Nabokov has sometimes included some adjectives ending with -ish as we can see in the following extracts: One night, during a trip abroad, in the fall of 1903, I recall kneeling on my (flattish) pillow at the window of a sleeping car . . . (p. 28) But one had to poke and peer for a goodish while among the wet underwood before something really nice, . . . (p. 43) I loved the nimble way he had of soaking his paintbrush . . . ; by two or three sweeps of its lush tip, would drench the "Vatmanski" paper with an even spread of orange sky, across which, while the sky was still dampish, . . . (p. 93) To continue . . .

  25. 5 out of 5

    Roy Lotz

    It is a bit disquieting to review an autobiography. The reviewer struggles to shake the uncomfortable (but not untrue) feeling that one is reviewing not only a book, but a being. The substance and style both stem from the same soul; the content and quality come from the identical individual. The temptation is to offer a slight round of applause, a light pat on the back, and then to move on quietly but quickly. So I hope I don't damage my relationship with Vlad if I confess a vague but unmistakab It is a bit disquieting to review an autobiography. The reviewer struggles to shake the uncomfortable (but not untrue) feeling that one is reviewing not only a book, but a being. The substance and style both stem from the same soul; the content and quality come from the identical individual. The temptation is to offer a slight round of applause, a light pat on the back, and then to move on quietly but quickly. So I hope I don't damage my relationship with Vlad if I confess a vague but unmistakable disappointment with this book. I expect only perfection from Nabokov, and I can’t help being dismayed when he doesn’t quite get there. Let me skip the obsequious praise of his beautiful prose style and get to the flaw; then I can backtrack. The main flaw of this work is, I think, the lack of the winsome frankness that makes the autobiographical genre special. The story of a writer’s life can’t compete with the life of his stories; if the autobiography is not to be merely to be uneventful novelistic exercise, it has to make up for its lack of excitement with frankness. I don’t mean to join the contemporary cult of honesty, but I see little value in reading a memoir if it doesn’t shed some light—even if that light is tinted and attenuated—on the writer’s mental makeup. In a word, Nabokov comes across as guarded. Through the narration of events, his privacy is superficially penetrated; yet his prose, so flowing and florid, erects another kind of barrier between us and the man. In his urge to beautify, his writing obscures its object. Reading this book is less like having a chat with him in his living room than sitting down to a magic show. We see only what he wants us to see; through fleet flicks of the wrist, he keeps the strings and springs secret. It is, then, a testament to his tremendous talent that this book still manages to be, at times, breathtaking. When I wasn’t sitting mouth agape, stunned from his skill, I was almost crushed by envy; his eloquence is so far beyond my puny talents that it seems sensible just to quit and hang up the keyboard. Yet, in-between these ecstatic flashes, I must confess I was often found myself wishing the book would end; I realized, to my own amazement and shame, that I was bored. He didn’t manage to interest me in the progression of his life, nor was I drawn in to learn more about the man himself; and this, I think, is because a sensitive reader can learn almost as much about Nabokov from reading Lolita as from reading this book. Speak, Memory is, in short, far more a work of literature than a confessional. Alright, fine; I’m exaggerating a little. There are some fascinating glimpses into his artistic process in this work. I particularly liked his irresistibly dorky interest in butterflies. In fact, butterfly catching—the act of sneaking out of the house, net in hand, to chase flighty fairies through fields, in order to kill them and pin them in a display case—forms a handy metaphor for the artistic process: find the parts of life that are both beautiful and elusive, then capture, kill, and display. Also revealing were Nabokov’s descriptions of composing chess problems. The joy of experiencing a beautiful chess problem reminds me of G.H. Hardy’s descriptions of the joy a mathematician experiences when going through a beautiful proof; it is a purely cerebral joy, born of logic, unmixed with any of the baser human emotions. At this point, I can no longer resist quoting some of Nabokov’s exquisite writing; he is describing the composing process: It is one thing to conceive the main play of a composition and another to construct it. The strain on the mind is formidable; the element of time drops out of one’s consciousness altogether: the building hand gropes for a pawn in the box, holds it, while the mind still ponders the need for a foil or a stopgap, and when the fist opens, a whole hour, perhaps, has gone by, has burned to ashes in the incandescent cerebration of the schemer. The chessboard before him is a magnetic field, a system of stresses and abysses, a starry firmament. The bishops move over it like searchlights. This or that knight is a lever adjusted and tried, and readjusted and tried again, till the problem is tuned up to the necessary level of beauty and surprise. I think I would’ve liked this book much more if its focus was on Nabokov’s adult years rather than his childhood. All children are more or less alike; it is as adults that we become interesting, rather than merely promising. I would’ve loved it if Nabokov included some descriptions of his writing process, of how he liked to work, how he decided on a story, how he developed his prose style. But, as I said before, Nabokov is not here to reveal, but to practice poetic prestidigitation. We're lucky he's such a good magician.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Edward

    Here is Nabokov in full literary flight: beautiful sentences, rich insights, poignant moments. If I were a cynical person, I'd say that Nabokov is at his very best when writing about himself (Sorry, I'm still recovering from my reading of Bend Sinister). Behind the words, however, there persisted in me an intermittent sensation of being slightly repelled by parts of Nabokov's personality. It's hard to say exactly what was the cause: something about his manner of speaking about the people he was Here is Nabokov in full literary flight: beautiful sentences, rich insights, poignant moments. If I were a cynical person, I'd say that Nabokov is at his very best when writing about himself (Sorry, I'm still recovering from my reading of Bend Sinister). Behind the words, however, there persisted in me an intermittent sensation of being slightly repelled by parts of Nabokov's personality. It's hard to say exactly what was the cause: something about his manner of speaking about the people he was writing about, that came through as somehow cold and aloof. As if the world was a spectacle arranged for his benefit, in which other people were simply objects placed for his own amusement. There are causal references to servants and peasants and others, to whom his attitude seems somewhat callous and uncaring. I'm slightly overstating it here and making more of it than necessary, but it's a part of his personality that I definitely felt coming through in the writing, and it prevented me from really connecting with him on a personal level. But let not the above paragraph dissuade you from reading Speak, Memory. It is fascinating, insightful, and a pleasure to read if for no other reason than for appreciation of good writing.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Eric

    Absolutely enchanting. After 'Lolita,' of course, this is where you look see what Nabokov could do with English prose. Absolutely enchanting. After 'Lolita,' of course, this is where you look see what Nabokov could do with English prose.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Inderjit Sanghera

    ‘Speak Memory’ is the second edition of Nabokov’s autobiography, which he initially titled ‘Conclusive Evidence’: a mundane, banal and academic title for a book of such effervescent poetry. Nabokov’s original suggestion of Speak Mnemosyne does the poetry of Nabokov’s prose more justice, however it was deemed unpronounceable and thus unsellable by Nabokov’s publishers. This little snippet of information in many ways sums up Nabokov’s art; Nabokov’s works deal with the quiddity and innate richness ‘Speak Memory’ is the second edition of Nabokov’s autobiography, which he initially titled ‘Conclusive Evidence’: a mundane, banal and academic title for a book of such effervescent poetry. Nabokov’s original suggestion of Speak Mnemosyne does the poetry of Nabokov’s prose more justice, however it was deemed unpronounceable and thus unsellable by Nabokov’s publishers. This little snippet of information in many ways sums up Nabokov’s art; Nabokov’s works deal with the quiddity and innate richness of human existence, the miracle of consciousness and the delirious and deleterious pangs of love, yet for most people, whose palates have been desensitized by the baleful bromides of conventional literature, art and media, Nabokov’s unconventionality renders his poetry unpalatable. The iridesces of a rainbow on a shore-line, the spread of a butterfly’s wings on a morning sparkling with splendorous sunshine, these are the jewels which Nabokov has ensconced within his work, which the careful reader will need dig out; a turn of phrase here, a solecism there, until the reader’s vision is “Nabokovized”, the sun is no longer just yellow, but orange, amber and all sorts of other harlequin colours and in which the simple fall of rain is describe as; “The rain, which had been a mass of violently descending water wherein the trees writhed and rolled, was reduced all at once to oblique lines of silent gold breaking into short and long dashes against a background of subsiding vegetable agitation. Gulfs of voluptuous blue were expanding between great clouds-heap upon heap of pure white and purplish gray…” Nabokov recalls being taught painting by a famous landscape painter, who in later years remarked in Nabokov’s singular lack of talent-in many ways Nabokov’s painterly prose makes up this, as he is, with words, able to give full justice to his vibrant vision of the world in a way that he never could with paint and brush. Nabokov grew up within an intellectually and artistically Russian aristocrat family and the vast and luscious grounds of his family estate developed his keen love of nature, of the brooks, meadows, trees and forests which made up his estate. Not that there was anything especially beautiful about his family estate, it is moreso the case the Nabokov was able to beautify even the most quotidian things, as he world around him shimmers with the splendours of his unimaginable vision; “I remember one particular sunset. It lent an ember to my bicycle bell. Overhead, above the black music of the telegraph wires, a number of long, dark-violet clouds lined with flamingo pink hug motionless in a fan-shaped arrangement: the whole thing was like some prodigious ovation in terms of colour and form!” “And let me not leave out the moon-for surely there must be a moon, the full, incredibly clear disc that goes so well with lusty Russian frosts. So there it comes, steering out a flock of small dappled clouds, which it tinges with a vague iridescence; and, as it sails higher, it grazes the runner tracks left on the road, where every sparkling lump of snow is emphasized by a swollen shadow.” Linked to Nabokov’s love of nature is his interest in lepidoptera and his love for butterflies and their influence on his art. Aside from the very personal pleasures Nabokov gained from hunting butterflies, their sense of mimicry, the multifarity of colours they exuded and their metamorphosis from a commonplace caterpillar to a bewitching butterfly are essential to understanding his works, as Nabokov states; “I discovered in nature the nonutilitarian delights I sought in art. Both were a form of magic, both were a game of intricate enchantment and deception.” Just like a butterfly emerging effulgently out of its chrysalis, so too human perception can emerge outside of the dark cocoon which envelops our minds, if were to only take a moment and observe the endless wonders of life and the world around us; nature and literature are two of the ways in which we can appreciate the beauty of the world, however one can just as easily find meaning in life via love for the people around us. Nabokov had a deliriously happy childhood under his liberal parents, his father a stoic yet sensitive statesman, with a passion for politics, nature and art (Nabokov inherited the latter two), and Nabokov is able to brilliantly bring about the innate moral strength of his father. Yet his descriptions of his father are tinged with a hint of tragedy at his untimely (and accidental) assassination at the hands of a Soviet gunman-Nabokov had a similarly close relationship to his mother and reading ‘Speak, Memory’ the reader begins to understand his dislike of Freud, with his distasteful theories of sexuality in childhood (for Nabokov the most magical period in a person’s life) and its desire to homogenize the experience of each individual human being so that it fitted in with the fantastical fantasies of a neurotic. Despite the sadness which tinges Nabokov’s recollections to his father, he won’t let fate or the assassins’ bullet interfere with his father’s brilliance. One of the most wonderful passages in the book is the description of his father as is being thrown in the air as part of a peasant ritual; “From my place at table I would suddenly see through one of the west windows a marvelous case of levitation. There, for an instant, the figure of my father in his windrippled 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. Thrice, to the mighty heave-ho of his invisible tossers, he would fly up in this fashion, and the second time he would go higher than the first and then there he would be, on his last and loftiest flight, reclining, as if for good, against the cobalt blue of the summer noon, like one of those paradisiac personages who comfortably soar, with such a wealth of folds in their garments, on the vaulted ceiling of a church while below, one by one, the wax tapers in mortal hands light up to make a swarm of minute flames in the mist of incense, and the priest chants of eternal repose, and funeral lilies conceal the face of whoever lies there, among the swimming lights, in the open coffin” Nabokov’s quest is to bring to life the people or places we loved via our memory of them. Nabokov distrusted concepts of linear time-for Nabokov time worked far more flexibly than that and the key to unlocking the straitjacket of linear time was via memory. “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 bumblebee has entered the room and bumps against the ceiling. Everything is as it should be, nothing will ever change, nobody will ever die.” Memory is intrinsic to us understanding the world around us, to remembering the places or people who pierced our hearts with love, to overcoming the innumerable tragedies of life and to igniting the conflagration of consciousness and giving meaning to the universe; “How small the cosmos (a kangaroo’s patch would hold it!) how paltry and puny in comparison to human consciousness, to a single individual recollection, and its expression in words!”

  29. 5 out of 5

    Nick Craske

    Ten stars. A work of art.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Juan

    The embedding of minute details from a world forever gone into the plush, exuberant prose of Nabokov is the closest you will come to literature practiced as jewellery, horology or some combination of the two. Apart from the stuff I mentioned in the reading updates I'd like to bring to the fore, from amongst the embarrassment of riches that is Speak, Memory, the following: In speaking about his love for composing "fairy chess" moves, which he describes as a poethico-mathematical endeavor, Nabokov The embedding of minute details from a world forever gone into the plush, exuberant prose of Nabokov is the closest you will come to literature practiced as jewellery, horology or some combination of the two. Apart from the stuff I mentioned in the reading updates I'd like to bring to the fore, from amongst the embarrassment of riches that is Speak, Memory, the following: In speaking about his love for composing "fairy chess" moves, which he describes as a poethico-mathematical endeavor, Nabokov makes the following description of this cerebral pastime: Deceit, to the point of diabolism, and originality, verging upon the grotesque, were my notions of strategy; and although in matters of construction I tried to conform, whenever possible, to classical rules, such as economy of force, unity, weeding out of loose ends, I was always ready to sacrifice purity of form to the exigencies of fantastic content, causing form to bulge and burst like a sponge-bag containing a small furious devil. This seems to me as good a description as any, not of his strategy in composing chess moves, but of his strategy in composing novels. He continues thus, making the parallel overt: 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), so that a great part of a problem's value is due to the number of "tries" -delusive opening moves, false scents, specious lines of play, astutely and lovingly prepared to lead the would-be solver astray. Nabokov the writer is an aesthete and a riddler. Those are his twin aims. The prefacial mention of Mrs. Richard T. Schiller in Lolita, "The Vane Sisters" acrostical last paragraph, the matter of Pale Fire's true narrator, and even more to the point, the reconstruction of chess moves as theme and metaphor in The Real Life of Sebastian Knight are all good examples of these preoccupations. In support of this speculation I offer what would seem a typical example of this strategy, anteceding by two pages the passages quoted above: when speaking of the authors he met during his exile in Paris in his -and the century's- twenties, he mentions a few obscure and a few notorious (Marina Tsataeva) Russian writers and closes the enumeration mentioning the author that interested him the most -and here he adds a diabolical "naturally" to describe his interest in this author-. Right after mentioning his name (Sirin), Nabokov adds that "He belonged to my generation." This simple and straightforward enough statement in Nabokov is not innocent. He does not mean to say -although it follows that it would be the case- that they are coetaneous. What he means is that Sirin was generated by Nabokov. "V. Sirin" was Nabokov's pen name during the twenties for his publications in Paris. He then proceeds gleefully to describe Sirin's reputation and the reception of his works, mentioning, amongst other things: ...the mirror-like angles of his clear but weirdly misleading sentences and by the fact that the real life of his books flowed in his figures of speech. Be forewarned when approaching his novels: beautiful as they may be, things are not what they seem.

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