Why Nabokov’s Speak, Memory Still Speaks to Us

Earlier this year, when the New York Times asked novelist and essayist Roger Rosenblatt to name the best memoir he’d read recently, he was unequivocal in his reply. “Speak, Memory, recently or ever,” Rosenblatt told the Times.

He was referring to the classic account by Vladimir Nabokov (1899–1977) of his idyllic Russian childhood in a family of colorful aristocrats, the 1917 Bolshevik revolution that banished him to exile, and the path that would eventually lead him to live in the United States.

Rosenblatt is far from alone in hailing Speak, Memory as a gem. “To write superior autobiography one requires not only literary gifts, which are obtainable with effort, but an intrinsically interesting life, which is less frequently available,” literary critic Joseph Epstein once observed. “Those who possess the one are frequently devoid of the other, and vice versa. Only a fortunate few are able to reimagine their lives, to find themes and patterns that explain a life, in the way successful autobiography requires. Vladimir Nabokov was among them.” After closing the pages of Speak, Memory, John Updike, no slouch himself as a prose stylist, was carried away. “Nabokov has never written English better than in these reminiscences; never has he written so sweetly,” he declared. “With tender precision and copious wit . . . inspired by an atheist’s faith in the magic of simile and the sacredness of lost time, Nabokov makes of his past a brilliant icon—bejewelled, perspectiveless, untouchable.”

Updike was writing in 1966, the year that the definitive version of Speak, Memory, subtitled An Autobiography Revisited, was published. That edition is 50 years old this year, still in print after half a century, and still attracting new readers. Perhaps no one would be more surprised at the book’s longevity than Nabokov himself. He pronounced the memoir “a dismal flop” after its release, lamenting that it brought him “fame but little money.”

The work that had made Nabokov a lucrative author and ensured his financial security was—you guessed it—his controversial novel Lolita, which became an international sensation in 1955 with its tale of a shrewd pedophile’s relationship with his 12-year-old stepdaughter.

Lolita looms so largely over Nabokov’s literary legacy that the more quietly observed Speak, Memory is destined to lie in its shadow. But if Nabokov had never written Lolita —indeed, if he had never written the novels Mary, or Pnin, or The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, or Pale Fire, or any of the poems or works of criticism that won him an international audience—then he would still deserve to be remembered for Speak, Memory, his exquisite paean to memory itself.

The sly illusion in Nabokov’s memoir resides in the very title, Speak, Memory, which evokes the idea of an earnest scribe waiting for the mythical Greek goddess Mnemosyne to talk so that he can scrupulously transcribe the past. But Speak, Memory, we learn in Nabokov’s foreword, wasn’t the book’s first name. His memoir was initially published in 1951 as Conclusive Evidence, though that choice proved problematic. “Unfortunately, the phrase suggested a mystery story,” Nabokov explained, “and I planned to entitle the British edition Speak, Mnemosyne but was told that ‘little old ladies would not want to ask for a book whose name they could not pronounce’ . . . so finally we settled for Speak, Memory.”

Yet the declarative certainty within the premise—Mnemosyne as an infallible arbiter of one’s personal history—is quickly betrayed by the interior logic of the narrative. Nabokov’s 1966 version of the book, we learn, was intended as a corrective to the earlier work, a revision meant to clean up flawed recollections in the first edition. “I revised many passages and tried to do something about the amnesic defects of the original—blank spots, blurry areas, domains of dimness,” he reports. “I discovered that sometimes, by means of intense concentration, the neutral smudge might be forced to come into beautiful focus so that the sudden view could be identified, and the anonymous servant named.”

Some of Nabokov’s revisions occurred after he returned to Europe following a 20-year absence, connecting with relatives who helped him realize that “I had erred, or had not examined deeply enough an obscure but fathomable recollection.”

Therein lies the central tension of Speak, Memory. Its prose is meticulous, suggesting memory as an exercise in exacting dictation from an omniscient oracle, yet its message points to memory as mutable, prone to the passage of time and the vagaries of imagination. “Fairly early in the book Nabokov spends pages and pages creating an exquisite picture of the vast figure of Mademoiselle, his childhood nanny, everything detailed, from her voice to her chins,” Rosenblatt notes. “Then he reverses course and says: Did I get her all wrong? Is she a fiction? Who but Nabokov could get away with a stunt like that—to make us believe all he has written about the woman, and doubt every word, and not care.”

This delicious ambiguity starts right away, in Nabokov’s reference to his birth, which was April 10, 1899, according to the Old Style calendar, largely derived from the Julian calendar, used in Russia at the time. It was generally 12 days behind the Gregorian calendar in widespread use outside Russia, which would make Nabokov’s birthday April 22 once he left his homeland. But “with diminishing pomp, in the twentieth century, everybody, including myself, upon being shifted by revolution and expatriation from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian, used to add thirteen, instead of twelve days to the tenth of April,” he confesses.

It’s a seemingly small point, yet a profound one. Without self-pity or bitterness, Nabokov reveals how exile can disrupt the underlying realities of personal identity—even something as basic as one’s birthday.

The theme of dislocation subtly informs the rest of Speak, Memory. In a particularly lovely passage, Nabokov fondly recalls his mother’s return from hunting mushrooms, when she would lay out her trophies on a garden table to sort them:
As often happened at the end of a rainy day, the sun might cast a lurid gleam just before setting, and there, on the damp round table, her mushrooms would lie, very colorful, some bearing traces of extraneous vegetation—a grass blade sticking to a viscid fawn cap, or moss still clothing the bulbous base of a dark-stippled stem. And a tiny looper caterpillar would be there, too, measuring, like a child’s finger and thumb, the rim of the table, and every now and then stretching upward to grope, in vain, for the shrub from which it had been dislodged. This is vintage Nabokov: everything bright and beautiful, then the sudden lurch of disruption—in this instance, as an innocent creature struggles valiantly to reclaim the familiar home from which it’s been so casually uprooted, inviting an obvious comparison to Nabokov’s own exile.
Born at the dawn of the twentieth century, Nabokov encountered a life that seemed destined to register, as vividly as a seismograph, the titanic political and social upheavals of his age.

After Vladimir Lenin came to power in Russia, Nabokov’s family escaped to Europe in 1919. In subsequent years, Nabokov would study at Cambridge and live in Berlin and Paris. He met his wife, Vera, a fellow Russian émigré, during his Berlin period, and a shared love of literature grounded their relationship. Their son, Dmitri, was born in 1934. Nabokov struggled to support himself as a writer, and his life became more complicated when the family’s presence in France coincided with the Nazi advance. They fled to America in 1940, just in time to escape danger.

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