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Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited by…
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Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited (1947)

by Vladimir Nabokov

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Showing 1-5 of 24 (next | show all)
I had real hope for this book after its first sentence, which started it off at 5 stars:
“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.”

Nabokov’s language in his autobiography is sometimes exquisite, but unfortunately, he’s not for me. His focus always seems to center on form as opposed to content, and I’m left thinking, oh, if only he had even a teaspoon of passion!

Nabokov was the son of affluence whose family lost everything fleeing the Bolsheviks, and later he had to flee the Nazis, though neither of these events are described in much detail here. He had private tutors and learned multiple languages at an early age. Perhaps his position in society is best captured in this line: “I would ascertain which of our two cars, the Benz or the Wolseley, was there to take me to school.” Or in another part of the book, when he describes the daughter of the coachman: “I was even more afraid of being revolted by her dirt-caked feet and stale-smelling clothes than of insulting her by the triteness of quasi-seignioral advances.” Ah, such a romantic devil, and man of the people.

I liked the photographs sprinkled throughout the book, and it’s certainly a good-looking family - the one of his 35 year old father holding him at age 7, the shot of his brothers and sisters when he was 19 (and Olga was 15), and the passport photo of his wife Vera, and son Dimitri at 5 are all quite nice.

I did not like his rambling about his family tree – chapter 3 is a complete snooze, until he delivers this 5 star passage at the very end:
“I see again my schoolroom in Vyra, the blue roses of the wallpaper, the open window. Its reflection fills the oval mirror above the leathern couch where my uncle sits, gloating over a tattered book. A sense of security, of well-being, of summer warmth pervades my memory. That robust reality makes a ghost of the present. The mirror brims with brightness; a bumblebee has entered the room and bumps against the ceiling. Everything is as it should be, nothing will ever change, nobody will ever die.”

Wow. And that’s what’s maddening to me about Nabokov. Such talent, such gifts. He occasionally produces brilliant description of ordinary events, such as this one of his rotund governess sitting down:
“And now she sits down, or rather she tackles the job of sitting down, the jelly of her jowl quaking, her prodigious posterior, with the three buttons on the side, lowering itself warily; then, at the last second, she surrenders her bulk to the wicker armchair, which, out of sheer fright, bursts into a salvo of crackling.”

Unfortunately, there is just not enough of these to recommend the book. I may be harsh and raise eyebrows to say it, given the book’s immense popularity and standing with both professional critics and readers on LT, but to me these are the musings of a prig. And there’s nothing Nabokov seems to like more than to attack authors whose focus is the reverse, on passion as opposed to literary form, which is another sore point with me. Can’t you just feel the egotistical rising of his voice in his italicization of the word ‘my’ in this line: “…[he] was an authority on Dickens, and besides Flaubert, prized highly Stendhal, Balzac and Zola, three detestable mediocrities from my point of view.”

I smiled at this passage, in which I think he captures the problem himself:
“I used to sit up far into the night, surrounded by an almost Quixotic accumulation of unwieldy volumes, and make polished and rather sterile Russian poems not so much out of the live cells of some compelling emotion as around a vivid term or a verbal image that I wanted to use for its own sake.”

Yep. ( )
5 vote gbill | Jun 13, 2014 |
I found this book changed my reading habits entirely - slowing me right down. I often put it aside, sometimes for weeks, yet still I was engaged with it. Nabokov's style is so beautifully considered and playful that it was just more satisfying than other books - like chocolate mousse!
There are typical Nabokov surprises and omissions. He portrays his parents, tutors, brother and servants in great detail, butterflies and chess at length. So I was not prepared for the sudden appearance of sisters, speeding down a country lane in a motor car - this was three quarters of the way through the book (almost) without any previous mention. But they roar past and are gone for good.
Speak, memory has cast a lasting spell on me it seems. A year since finishing it, I remember much more about it than books I read last week. Delicious! ( )
1 vote cherry_red186 | Apr 12, 2014 |
Beautiful language. This book is many short vignettes. Some really swept me away others were just okay. Nabokov has a huge vocabulary and I wished that I had this on my Kindle where the dictionary is just a touch away. Overall kind of up and down. ( )
  njcur | Feb 13, 2014 |
I love Nabokov's writing (like everyone). I don't know why I stopped reading this one. . .
  allisonneke | Dec 17, 2013 |
3.5 stars.

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?

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. ( )
1 vote JimmyChanga | Sep 11, 2013 |
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The cradle rocks above the abyss and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness; altho the two two are identical twins, man as a rule views the prenatal abyss with more calm than the one he is heading for at some 4500 heartbeats an hour.
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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.
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This is the 1966 "autobiography revisited". Please do not combine with the early autobiography published as Conclusive evidence.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0679723390, Paperback)

The late Vladimir Nabokov always did things his way, and his classic autobiography is no exception. No dry recital of dates, names, and addresses for this linguistic magician--instead, Speak, Memory is a succession of lapidary episodes, in which the factoids play second fiddle to the development of Nabokov's sensibility. There is, to be sure, an impressionistic whirl through the author's family history (including a gallery of Tartar princes and fin-de-siècle oddities). And Nabokov's account of his tenure at St. Petersburg's famous Tenishev School--where he counted Osip Mandelstam among his schoolmates--offers a lovely glimpse into the heart of Russia's silver age. Still, Nabokov is much too artful an autobiographer to present Speak, Memory as a slice of reality--a word, by the way, that he insisted must always be surrounded by quotation marks.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:23:01 -0400)

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The author recounts his Russian childhood, his family's flight to England in 1919, and emigre life in Paris and Berlin.

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