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Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited (1947)

by Vladimir Nabokov

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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3,196403,178 (4.19)160
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.… (more)
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38. Speak, Memory : An Autobiography Revisited by Vladimir Nabokov
published: 1966
format: 302-page paperback
acquired: August 2020, from a Goodwill
read: Jul 24 – Aug 2
time reading: 13:15, 2.6 mpp
rating: 4
locations:
about the author: 1899 – 1977. Russia born, educated at Trinity College in Cambridge, 1922. Lived in Berlin (1922-1937), Paris, the US (1941-1961) and Montreux, Switzerland (1961-1977).

This one I was happy to finish. Because it was difficult and slow to work through, and really evasive, although rewarding in its own odd way.

I saw reviewers comment on how self-indulgent this is, and also how evocative it is. It was mainly, for me, impenetrable. I learned a lot about the natural magic of well-maintained wealthy Russia summer estates, of hunting butterflies, of the awkwardness of English and French governesses and the eccentric personal tutors of various backgrounds. Nabokov's family was crazy wealthy, even as his father was politically liberal (and influential). But this left him prominently caught between or outside the Russian red and white forces in the Revolution, and forced the family to flee into a ruined exile. His father was later assassinated, or actually shot while shielding a colleague from an assassin (an assassin who apparently did well later in Nazi Germany). Vladimir Nabokov was left a permanent exile, and caught into a life of before and after. This is mainly about that lost Russian childhood, and his lost summers in the family's country estate.

Nabokov tells us he doesn't regret the loss of that fanciful life and, as he tells us so little about how he feels, I'm tempted to believe him. This is a very frustrated book for anyone looking to learn about the formation of this author. I was looking for that, and found my desperately looking to pin down anything solid. I was grasping at fog. Within this curious atmospheric construction, he reveals nothing.

2021
https://www.librarything.com/topic/333774#7570843 ( )
  dchaikin | Aug 4, 2021 |
This is simply a beautifully-written memoir. I let myself be carried away by the luxurious prose, not stopping to look up the words I didn’t know (the most in any book I’ve read recently). A recurrent theme is homesickness. If you’re even more envious by nature than the rest of us are, you’ll oscillate between outrage at the matter-of-fact way Nabokov recounts his aristocratic childhood or satisfaction when all is swept away by the Russian Revolution. But it’s not the kind of nostalgic yearning that makes one wish things had gone differently and that one were still cushioned in that privileged world. Nabokov is self-aware enough to know that it is that constant sense of loss that made him the writer he became.
The book’s structure is loosely chronological, but each of the fifteen chapters centers on one aspect of the first fifty years of his life. One chapter explores the beginning of Nabokov’s lifelong passion for lepidoptery. He spends another entire chapter describing the composition of his first poem, followed immediately by another on his first romance (the sequence is telling, albeit not unusual).
Despite the political involvement of his father, a hero to Nabokov, there is little political discussion in the book. Like his father, Nabokov was both anti-Tsarist and anti-Bolshevik. In the chapter in which he describes his years at Cambridge, he recounts the fruitless discussions with a classmate whom he calls Nesbit, an English socialist with a romantic view of Lenin. Even worse for Nabokov is that his anti-Bolshevism led to his being taken up by the ultraconservatives.
But literature, not politics, was his calling. I enjoyed his identification of the untrammeled extension of time (in contrast to cramped space) that was the fundamental property of Cambridge. Without being a fetishist about the stones of the pavement or walls, he was conscious of the proximity to Milton, Marvell, and other aspiring writers who had been there before him.
The book is dedicated to his wife, Véra, and in the last chapters, which are set in the time after they married, he addresses remarks to her, such as: “In the spring of 1929, you and I went butterfly hunting in the Pyrenees” (281).
The books ends just as his years in Europe do, on the eve of the fall of France, as he, his wife, and their son are about to board the ship that would take them to America. It felt like an appropriate place to bring this extended meditation on memory to its close. ( )
  HenrySt123 | Jul 19, 2021 |
Speak, Memory is a kind of memoir that is uneven, boring and self-indulgent in large part.
Towards the end, the author does assemble several consecutive paragraphs, then several pages, of good prose.

But much of the book is overwritten and constipated.

There are too many gratuitous details thrown in; two telephone numbers of his boyhood home in Russia, the colors of the squares on his chess board and which pieces were chipped, and so on and on, apropos of nothing. As if he were trying to be Proust, but Proust could make details interesting or find the telling detail. Did Nabokov have a schizophrenia gene, unable to ignore noise? Some important events go mentioned, such as a broken engagement in his early 20s. Nazism in Berlin, where he lived about 1922-1937, seems to have passed him by aside from Fuhrer posters.

Perhaps he was writing a journal for enjoyment solely of himself and his family and a Russian friend or two. In a published book this is disrespectful and annoying.

Nabokov used some big words. That's fine if they are among those you might see several times in a lifetime. But a number of his are seen but once in a lifetime: in this book. It suggests that he did not quite master English and that he had his dictionary too close at hand . Of course, he was Russian, but then English was his first reading and writing language (yes), and he lived in London and the United States for a good part of his life. (And no issue with the technical lepidopteran terms; he's entitled.)

So he seems to have been indifferent to the general reader. Further indication that he was writing for family or friends is that he oddly lets in several "you"s. (Chapter 13, Section 2, page 258 of my Vintage International Edition; Chapter 14, Section 2, page 281; Chapter 14, Section 3, page 292) Then the last chapter is directed to "you" throughout.

Apparently his life was rather Russian-privileged-normal until the Russian revolution, when he was about 18, about ¾ through the book. He acknowledges that he had been pampered; one might suspect, spoiled. He and his family lost most of their wealth and had to leave Russia or be squashed under the big red thumb. He began writing and translating in order to earn a living.

Perhaps he should have had someone (competent) review his prose before publication or, which he acknowledges, have paid more attention to critics. He claims he ignored them.

Nabokov translated Pushkin's Eugene Onegin into English. I have not read his translation, and now I am glad his was not the translation I happened upon, because Eugene Onegin is one of the finest poems I have read. (I don't recall whose translation I read, but a solid recommendation might be James Falen.) I suspect that Nabokov incorrectly supposed he was uniquely qualified for the job and took liberties. And he didn't ignore his critics; he is reputed to have terminated a friendship with the incomparable Edmund Wilson over Wilson's criticism of his Onegin.

Absent Nabokov's reputation and goodreads ratings I would not have bothered to write a review. Maybe I have read the wrong (highly rated) stuff. The man could write when he tried, but he didn't often enough try. That is what is most annoying.

The third star is in sympathy. Writing is a difficult and generally unrewarding career. Anyone who speaks even two languages has one more than I, and Nabokov spoke three plus some German. He was a lifelong involuntary exile from his motherland. His father was killed in 1922. And (naturally enough) he never had or pretended any love for Lenin or Stalin, apparently an oddity in late 1930s literary Paris, where he lived for a while. Species of butterflies and moths share his name; his love of detail did assist his fine scientific work. And maybe he had that schizophrenia gene. Ultimately he did well for himself.

Speak, Memory is the third of Nabokov's books I have read and must be the last. Lolita is too slow. Ada is too self-indulgent. I guess I'll remove Pale Fire from my to-read list. It's rated in goodreads the same as this. ( )
1 vote KENNERLYDAN | Jul 11, 2021 |
Slow in spots, but where Nabakov engages you, he can be quite compelling and interesting. It's not necessary to know Russian history to read this, though some of the allusions will become a bit clearer if you do. I would recommend this. ( )
  EricCostello | Apr 21, 2021 |
When it is good, it is very, very, good; but when it is bad, it is boring. ( )
  TanteLeonie | Jan 28, 2021 |
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» Add other authors (18 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Nabokov, Vladimirprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Boyd, BrianIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Jaskari, JuhaniTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Epigraph
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To Vera
First words
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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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
Disambiguation notice
This is the 1966 "autobiography revisited". Please do not combine with the early autobiography published as Conclusive evidence.
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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.

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Penguin Australia

2 editions of this book were published by Penguin Australia.

Editions: 0141183225, 0141197188

 

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