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Speak, Memory an Autobiography Revisited (original 1947; edition 1966)

by Vladimir Nabokov

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2,516292,408 (4.22)141
Member:bookworm12
Title:Speak, Memory an Autobiography Revisited
Authors:Vladimir Nabokov
Info:G. P. Putnam's Sons (1966), Hardcover
Collections:Your library
Rating:****
Tags:read, nonfiction, 2012, Nov.

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Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited by Vladimir Nabokov (1947)

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Showing 1-5 of 28 (next | show all)
You will never read a better memoir in your life. I've read it three times and I'm still not satisfied that I've read it enough.

From the text:

"I would moreover submit that, in regard to the power of hoarding up impressions, Russian children of my generation passed through a period of genius, as if destiny were loyally trying what it could for them by giving them more than their share, in view of the cataclysm that was to remove completely the world they had known."

Nabokov is referring here to the 1917 and 1918 revolutions that effectively evicted his and many other wealthy families from the country -- if they were lucky enough not to have been shot (Sadly, Nabokov's father was shot through the heart in 1922, while foiling an assassination attempt on his friend, in Berlin). What follows the prior paragraph is one of the funnier lines in the book:

"Genius disappeared when everything had been stored, just as it does with those other, more specialized child prodigies -- pretty, curly-headed youngsters waving batons or taming enormous pianos, who eventually turn into second-rate musicians with sad eyes and obscure ailments and something vaguely misshapen about their eunuchoid hindquarters."

I love this because I remember meeting at Day's Murray Music music store one of the original "Spanky's Gang" TV show cast members when I was a young boy, which would put him about sixty- or seventy-years old at the time. What's funny is that he was everything thing Nabokov described: a second-rate violinist playing second- or third chair in the Murray municipal symphony; He was a neck-brace-wearing, lumpy- and sexlessly-rumped sad-sack of a man, with very sad eyes. Now I know that he is a type: the Prodigy in Decline.

I could go on and on for hours quoting "Speak, Memory" and in the end I'd have typed out the entire book. I'll leave you with these little bookends:

From the introductory paragraph: "The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternitiues of darkness."

Which sounds kind of nihilistic until you get to this little line: "Neither in environment nor in heredity can I find the exact instrument that fashioned me, the anonymous roller that pressed upon my life a certain intricate watermark whose unique design becomes visible when the lamp of art is made to shine through life's foolscap."

And even though Nabokov didn't subscribe to religion at all, and wouldn't claim belief in an "anthropomorphic deity", he did believe in a kind of intelligent design, although not of the brand we're familiar with today. No, he felt that this was an artistic kind of deity, a benevolent mind; Nabokov believed that one's life purpose was to discover "Its" unique design in, on or with one's life. Thus we get to this concluding paragraph:

"The following of such thematic designs through one's life should be, I think, the true purpose of autobiography."

That, in a nutshell, is the subject matter of "Speak, Memory": a man's search for the personality or soul of his maker. ( )
  evamat72 | Mar 31, 2016 |
This version is identical to the other version on my list except that it has one additional chapter. Chapter 16, 'On Conclusive Evidence' (which is the original name of the memoir; i.e., conclusive evidence that Nabokov existed), is a pseudo-review that Nabokov planned to use but then later abandoned.

A few bon-mots from the text:

"[Nabokov] is out to prove that his childhood contained, on a much reduced scale, the main components of his creative maturity; thus, through the thin sheath of a ripe chyrysalis one can see, in its small wing cases, the dawning of color and pattern, a miniature revelation of the butterfly that will soon emerge and let its flushed and diced wings expand to many times their pupal size."

"I would moreover submit that, in regard to the power of hoarding up impressions, Russian children of my generation passed through a period of genius, as if destiny were loyally trying what it could for them by giving them more than their share, in view of the cataclysm that was to remove completely the world they had known."

Nabokov is referring here to the 1917 and 1918 revolutions that effectively evicted Nabokov's family and many other wealthy families from the country -- if they were lucky enough not to have been shot. What follows the prior paragraph is one of the funniest lines in the entire book:

"Genius disappeared when everything had been stored, just as it does with those other, more specialized child prodigies -- pretty, curly-headed youngsters waving batons or taming enormous pianos, who eventually turn into second-rate musicians with sad eyes and obscure ailments and something vaguely misshapen about their eunuchoid hindquarters."

I remember meeting at Day's Murray Music music store one of the original "Spanky's Gang" TV show cast members when I was a young boy, which would put him about sixty- or seventy-years old. What's funny is that he was everything thing Nabokov described: a second-rate violinist playing second- or third-chair in the Murray municipal symphony; a sad-eyed, neck-brace-wearing, lumpy- and sexlessly-rumped sad-sack of a man. Now I know that he is a type: the Former Prodigy in Decline.

I could go on and on for hours quoting "Speak, Memory" and in the end I'd have typed out the entire book. I'll leave you with these little bookends:

From the introductory paragraph: "The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternitiues of darkness."

Which sounds kind of nihilistic until you get to this little line: "Neither in environment nor in heredity can I find the exact instrument that fashioned me, the anonymous roller that pressed upon my life a certain intricate watermark whose unique design becomes visible when the lamp of art is made to shine thorugh life's foolscap."

And even though Nabokov didn't subscribe to religion at all, and wouldn't claim belief in an "anthropomorphic deity", he did believe in a kind of intelligent design, although not of the brand we're familiar with today. No, he felt that this was an artistic kind of deity, a benevolent mind, and that one's life purpose was to discover "Its" unique design in, on or with one's life. Thus we get to this concluding paragrpah:

"The following of such thematic designs through one's life should be, I think, the true purpose of autobiography."

That, in a nutshell, is the subject matter of "Speak, Memory": a man's search for the personality or soul of his maker. ( )
  evamat72 | Mar 31, 2016 |
Nabokov writes an excellent memoir that plays with time just as his _Ada_ does. Gives one insight into his writing, his fascination with butterflies/chess. ( )
  dbsovereign | Jan 26, 2016 |
Audible. Childhood memory. Before the revolution. Most of the focus there. Gets weird w address to wife and child. The really interesting chapter is the last one that talks about the history of the book. Layer upon layer of artifice w memory. Especially intrigued by the final sentence about the index. I'll have to "read" rather than "listen" to the book I guess. Intriguing take on memory. Definitely recommend. ( )
  idiotgirl | Dec 25, 2015 |
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. ( )
4 vote gbill | Jun 13, 2014 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Nabokov, Vladimirprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Boyd, BrianIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Jaskari, JuhaniTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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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.
Quotations
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 Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:04:39 -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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