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Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited

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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 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.

316 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1966

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About the author

Vladimir Nabokov

711 books12.6k followers
Russian: Владимир Владимирович Набоков .

Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov, also known by the pen name Vladimir Sirin, was a Russian-American novelist. Nabokov wrote his first nine novels in Russian, then rose to international prominence as a master English prose stylist. He also made significant contributions to lepidoptery, and had a big interest in chess problems.

Nabokov's Lolita (1955) is frequently cited as his most important novel, and is at any rate his most widely known one, exhibiting the love of intricate wordplay and descriptive detail that characterized all his works.

Lolita was ranked fourth in the list of the Modern Library 100 Best Novels; Pale Fire (1962) was ranked 53rd on the same list, and his memoir, Speak, Memory (1951), was listed eighth on the publisher's list of the 20th century's greatest nonfiction. He was also a finalist for the National Book Award for Fiction seven times.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 1,077 reviews
Profile Image for Buck.
158 reviews881 followers
March 31, 2012
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.
Profile Image for Jim Fonseca.
1,084 reviews6,998 followers
September 8, 2019
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
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Profile Image for Fionnuala.
778 reviews
April 19, 2023
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 what's more, 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—plus 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! (well, it is true that I was hard on Kinbote in my review of Pale Fire)

The result of all this is that I no longer feel like commenting on the carefully chosen themes in this memoir, nor do I feel like pointing out the nice balance between the personal and the general, the planned and the accidental, in the teasing out of those memories. And I do not 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 now 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...
Profile Image for Orsodimondo.
2,149 reviews1,681 followers
July 29, 2022

Nabokov e sua moglie Vera con uno degli strumenti più preziosi per lo scrittore, il rettino acchiappa-farfalle, che lo ha accompagnato per tutta la vita.

Richiamare alla mente con immediatezza frammenti del passato è un’azione che mi sembra di aver continuato a compiere con il massimo piacere durante tutta la mia vita, e ho motivo di ritenere che questo affinamento quasi patologico della facoltà retrospettiva sia un tratto ereditario.

Dopo aver dedicato le prime dieci pagine, quelle della prefazione, a mettere ordine e puntualizzare e voler convincere il lettore che sta per leggere una autobiografia accurata e veritiera in fatto di accadimenti, che a parlare, come indicato dal titolo, è l’autorevole Ricordo, Nabokov, pur convinto che lui riveda, ergo ricordi, con una nitidezza non offuscata da sovrapposizioni successive, sgombra presto il campo da patenti di autenticità e veridicità, e passa a raccontare la presa precaria della memoria che tutto plasma e trasfigura, colora e ricostruisce.
Ma, attenzione…

La casa di Nabokov in via Morskaya 47 a San Pietroburgo. Credo che la sua stanza fosse quella sopra il bovindo.

Nabokov va a zonzo nel suo passato annotando date precise fin quasi all’ora del giorno, ma non rispetta le cronologie, salta avanti e indietro nel tempo perfettamente a suo agio e totalmente incurante dell’eventuale fatica del lettore a seguirlo.
I ricordi spesso sembrano affiorare a brandelli: ma con alcuni man mano si costruisce un quadro pressoché completo, che mette insieme un fatto o accadimento con il corredo di colori, luce, odori, suoni, sensazioni tattili, e certo, ovvio, sentimenti ed emozioni.
Il mio preferito è quello serale dell’epoca fino ai suoi 7/8 anni: la mamma lo accompagna a letto spingendolo dolcemente con una pressione sulle reni, su per il grande scalone, e il bambino oppone resistenza per prolungare quel contatto e ritardare la separazione, ma non così tanta resistenza da non procedere avanti o da stancare la madre.
Faccio fatica a credere che simile meraviglia – e le altre sue numerose meraviglie pubblicate – provengano da un uomo che nell’essenza è stato prima di tutto un collezionista di farfalle (è così che avrà vinto il cuore di sua moglie Vera, con la frase più trita, vieni, voglio mostrarti la mia collezione di farfalle?), uno che di sé, senza imbarazzo e senza vergogna, scriveva:
il desiderio di averla per me, quella creatura, fu tra i più intensi che io abbia mai provato.
Dove la creatura era per l’appunto un macaone.
Ma, d’altra parte, non posso non riconciliarmi con la sua morbosa passione per i lepidotteri quando poco più avanti scrive:
Ho scoperto in natura i piaceri non utilitaristici che ceravo nell’arte. erano entrambe una forma di magia, entrambe un gioco intricato di sortilegio e illusione.

VN era figlio di un ricco nobile, giurista, editore di giornali e liberale politico che fu imprigionato in isolamento per aver incitato alla rivoluzione contro lo zar. Trascorse l'infanzia a San Pietroburgo o nella tenuta di campagna di famiglia, che aveva un personale permanente di circa cinquanta domestici. Fu educato da una serie di eccentriche governanti inglesi e francesi e svizzere, e da tutori russi. Fu spesso portato in Germania, Francia e Italia. Imparò a leggere e scrivere in inglese prima di padroneggiare il russo.
Queste memorie sono dedicate a sua moglie Vera alla quale spesso si rivolge direttamente in cerca di conferma a un ricordo comune.

Io testimonio con soddisfazione la suprema conquista della memoria, che consiste nell’uso magistrale di armonie innate allorché raccoglie tra le sue pieghe le tonalità sospese ed errabonde del passato.

È un mare di felicità che abbracci l’infanzia e l’adolescenza. Interrotto dalla rivoluzione bolscevica che spinge i Nabokov ad abbandonare la madre patria Russia (credo che l’espressione “madre patria” non sia mai stata più calzante, Vladimir si stringe in un abbraccio, peraltro ricambiato, con la sua terra russa).
E se noi mortali più andiamo avanti con gli anni e più sembriamo dimenticare, faticare a ricordare, VN sessantenne dimostra una fantastica capacità di viaggiare a ritroso nel tempo senza trascurare dettagli intimi, atmosfere emotive e impressioni visive, sfoggiando sottigliezza e sensibilità, tenera nostalgia e occasionali guizzi di ironia sempre dispiegata con stile e signorilità. Le sue emozioni passate, rievocate con tranquillità, e le sue emozioni presenti, ispirate dal ricordo delle sue emozioni passate, soffondono le sue pagine di una luce morbida. Il mondo armonioso di un'infanzia perfetta.

April 27, 2019
I never knew this guy had synesthesia...

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)
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)
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)

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)

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)
Profile Image for TBV (on hiatus).
308 reviews75 followers
September 26, 2020
“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.


“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:
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.
Profile Image for Antonomasia.
973 reviews1,194 followers
October 29, 2020
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)
Profile Image for Nastja .
225 reviews1,391 followers
January 31, 2021
Великий русский писатель вспоминает свое великое русское детство.

Прелесть Набокова как стилиста, разумеется, в том, насколько он не боится языка и себя в этом языке, не боится вычурности, нелепости, громоздкого обрусения сухопарых английских слов и нагромождения прилагательных. Его текст не выглядит выстроенным, это плавно и сама собой текущая речь, которая водой огибает все эти неожиданные камешки вроде «побрекфастать» и нежнейших «пятидесятилетних толстяков в трусиках», не теряя внутреннего ручеистого ритма.
Profile Image for LaHaie.
135 reviews11 followers
July 19, 2007
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.
Profile Image for Sue.
1,240 reviews533 followers
December 27, 2012
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).

Profile Image for Georgia Scott.
Author 3 books155 followers
October 9, 2022
Memoirs are like beaches. Best enjoyed with shoes off. How much more we shed depends on the skies and our bravery if the waves are big.

Childhood memoirs are no exception. They drop us on that beach. They call us to build castles or run like Piggy in Lord of the Flies. We are in the hands of those memorists.

I kiss Nabokov's hands. This is a beach I never wanted to leave.

It shimmers with memories pearly as sea shells. One I'll pocket forever is of villagers tossing his father into the air after he solves a dispute which calls him from dinner.

"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 wind-rippled 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 might 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 . . . "

Losses are skimmed over like water. His hand is deft as if his pen were a slim stone. It isn't that he is not bothered. Nabokov simply refuses to be defined by loss. The beach, he is saying, is bigger than either one of us.

Profile Image for Brodolomi.
210 reviews94 followers
February 24, 2023
Nabokov je zanimljiv leptir ruske književnosti jer nije lepršao nijednim od dva osnovna toka ruske književnosti prve polovine dvadestog veka – nije tragao za novim herojskim čovekom komunizma, niti novim mističkim čovekom pravoslavlja. Nije tragao za novim i “boljim” čovekom, možda, jer je bio dovoljno samodopadljiv sam sebi. Da bi svoju posebnost i dokazao, brušio je stil do granice kriminaliteta jer kod Nabokova mi uvek ima nečeg ilegalnog u sposobnosti da piše razljubičanstveno, a da opet ubedi da je čovek od strogog ukusa.

“Pričaj, sećanje” su Nabokovljevi memoari sačinjeni od 15 poglavlja sećanja na detinsjtvo provedeno u carskoj Rusiji i nešto manje o izbeglištvu u Evropi pre odlaska za Ameriku. Vlado je svestan da se Mnemosina, ipak, ispostavlja kao devojka sumnjivog pamćenja, i da je njen zaziv pomalo komunikacija sa smetnjama na vezama, stoga, svoje memoare svesno oblikuje nalik na raskošnu mehaničku kuću za lutke u kojoj je sve unapred nadsmišljeno ta se nakon navijanja, sve odvija u artificijelnom maniru prelepih detalja. Naposletku, Nabokov je prvu polovinu prvog toma Prustovog Traganja nazivao bajkom, a to je ono što želi da učini i sa svojim sećanjima - da čitaocima predstavi bajku svog izgubljenog detinjstva.

Nesumnjivo da je ovo jedna od najlepše napisanih knjiga koje sam pročitao u životu. Dok je pisao poeziju Nabokov je verovao u strogi formalizam pesničkog iskaza (rime, slogovi, poseban jezik). Dok piše prozu i dalje veruje u strogi formalizam; svako poglavlje ima svoj kljun i rep, ukrase, lajtmotive a preciznost izraza se nikada ne tupi ma koliko bila “ometana” ukrasima. A ti ukrasi… pa Nabokov zna da prevaziđe i samog Nabokova kao, recimo, u trenutku kada pojam sećanja u čoveku ostvari u vidu metafore osinih jaja položenih u telo gusenice.

I da, i pored humora, raskoši, sitnih otrovnih strelica prema svemu i svačemu (posebno Frojdu), ironije i dendističkog joie de vivre gde su radost i prezir srasli u jedno, Nabokovljevi memoari imaju volšebnu notu poput neke strašne priče o duhovima (Zebald je tvrdio u eseju da je čak i Nabokovljeva opsesija leptirima bila, zapravo, opsesija avetima). Personalni Hauntology pre same Hauntology.

Patila je celog života; ta patnja je predstavljala njeno prirodno okruženje; samo su joj kolebanja te nesreća, njena različita dubina, davale utisak da se kreće I živi. Zabrinjava me što ojađenost, sama po sebi, nije dovoljna da sazda besmrtnu dušu. Moja ogromna i mrzovoljna Madmoazel posve je prihvatljiva na zemlji, ali u večnosti je nemoguća. Jesam li je uistinu spasao od domaštavanja?
Profile Image for Numidica.
371 reviews8 followers
July 4, 2021
This is a beautiful, luminous evocation of a lost time and place as much as it is an autobiography. Nabokov's tales of the Russia and Europe of his youth reminds me a bit of Robert Graves' description of his youth visiting aunts and uncles in Germany before the Great War. Nabokov lived an extraordinary, privileged life in pre-Soviet Russia, and then was plunged into genteel poverty for twenty years after his graduation from Cambridge by his parents' loss during the Revolution of all their property except a handful of jewels smuggled out of Russia. The prose is amazing, especially from one for whom English was not a second language, but a third. His love of his parents, and later of Vera and his son, shines in his paragraphs. His love of Russia and his feeling of loss for his country, not money or houses, is just as clear. What was lost in the Russian Revolution were men like his father who were trying to steer the country toward Western democracy; they were replaced by the unquestioning minions of Stalin and Lenin. Nabokov understood nature, not just butterflies, but trees and host plants for moths and butterflies, and this understanding continued in his later works. As an undergraduate, Nab tries to convince an English intellectual at Cambridge of the essential viciousness of the Soviets and of Lenin personally, and is rebuffed or dismissed as a bitter "White Russian". His frustration with the British intelligentsia's idealization of the Russian Revolution in the 1920's was complete. It's a shame that he never moved forward with his oft-discussed second volume of autobiography covering his life in the US, but possibly he could not summon the required level of passion for his adopted country as he could draw from when writing about Russia.

What a wonderful book, and thanks to Lori for encouraging me to undertake it.
Profile Image for FotisK.
355 reviews157 followers
June 12, 2018
Οι αυτοβιογραφίες λογοτεχνών δεν με ενθουσιάζουν ως είδος. Σύμφωνα με τη δική μου οπτική, αυτό που έχει σημασία είναι πάντα και πρώτιστα το έργο και όχι οι απόψεις, οι προσωπικότητες ή τα πεπραγμένα τους. Δεδομένου μάλιστα πως πλήττω αφόρητα ιδίως με την παράθεση στιγμών από την παιδική ηλικία, αποφεύγω να αναλώνω πολύτιμο χρόνο σε κάτι που εκ προοιμίου θεωρώ ανούσιο.
Οφείλω όμως να τονίσω πως τα προηγηθέντα δεν ισχύουν στην περίπτωση του "Μίλησε μνήμη", καθότι πρόκειται για μια αμιγώς λογοτεχνική αυτοβιογραφία, πιστή στο πνεύμα του μεγάλου αγαπημένου λογοτέχνη. Ως εκ τούτου, όλα όσα παρατίθενται έχουν φιλτραριστεί μέσα από την οπτική του, υπό την ενοποιητική "σκέπη" του λογοτεχνικού Ύφους του. Το αποτέλεσμα είναι πως το κείμενο που διαβάζουμε περισσότερο αποτελεί ένα ακόμα σημαντικό έργο του Nabokov και λιγότερο μια επιλεκτική αιτιολόγηση παρελθουσών καταστάσεων και εκ των υστέρων σκέψεων όσον αφορά τα πεπραγμένα.
Ένα ακόμα στοιχείο, το οποίο αφορά όμως περισσότερο τους οδεύοντες προς τη μέση ηλικία (δεν ξέρω γιατί θα μπορούσε να αφορά τους νεότερους, πλην μόνο από εγκυκλοπαιδικής απόψεως) είναι εκείνο της σημασίας της Μνήμης, άρα και του Χρόνου, του οποίου το πέρασμα βιώνουμε ως ανάμνηση. Δεν νομίζω πως υπάρχει κάτι σημαντικότερο όσον αφορά την ατομική μας μοίρα και επ' αυτού δεν απαιτούνται επιπλέον λόγια. Ο ίδιος ο Nabokov το έθεσε μοναδικά: "Πατρίδα μας, είναι το παρελθόν μας!"
Profile Image for Jeena Mary Chacko.
32 reviews30 followers
July 28, 2014
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.
Profile Image for Mariel.
667 reviews1,053 followers
December 3, 2012
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.
Profile Image for Sanjeev.
27 reviews7 followers
September 9, 2020
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."
Profile Image for مروان البلوشي.
295 reviews593 followers
December 6, 2014
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”
Profile Image for Raul.
282 reviews202 followers
July 29, 2019
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.
Profile Image for Tom Stewart.
Author 4 books124 followers
June 14, 2022
Speak, Memory is a book I read slowly, necessitated both by his intricate sentences, as well to savor their richness. This will one day be a reread, and not the library book I have now returned, but of the hardcover I just ordered.

He sinks then rises the reader, from the past to the present, with his dilations of time. Like a light being intermittently shined on an eye and the pupil expanding and contracting. In real-writing-time, he tries to recall lost and minute details from his self-confessed flawed memory bank, and so both reader and writer discover his lost gems simultaneously. It’s nice.

Nabokov is one of the rare writers who might be able to write about anything and render it to those without a prior interest in the subject, interesting. He proves my point by spending a considerable amount of time reflecting on moths and insufferable governesses—as if somehow he knew my two least favourite subjects. Then he goes on to dazzle me; of course in part just because he knows he can. Vlad, you wry Russian, I am entertained. (Just now I’m wondering to myself if revealing to your audience beauty in the mundane—moths, governesses—is perhaps a good definition of an artist. I’m thinking so. Tell me otherwise.)

I too, like VN, am not a great sleeper and in part because of my eagerness for the next day. I love the hilarity of his dramatic revolt on sleep: I simply cannot get used to the nightly betrayal of reason, humanity, genius.

For the exquisiteness of prose, the immersive imagery, as well the analogy deepened with his many years of reflecting on a particular idea, I started copying out for this review the first sentence of the hardcover’s page 88. But to do it justice, the fair stopping point would be the last sentence of page 88. So, just read page 88—but first, read 1-87; then read those that follow.

As in Lolita, there is a scene of an underage girl playing on the beach. But this time the male protagonist joining her is his own underage self from his memories. I wonder, whether acknowledged or not, whether conscious or subconscious, he was righting a wrong (by writing a right—spot me one wordplay.)

I want to read authors that push. Similar to the line in Blow where Depp says In the end, my ambition exceeded my talents. That’s laudable. Who I am to critique one of the great prose writers, but I do think Nabokov, who often in this memoir as well in Lolita, most definitely and routinely leaves the page smoking, occasionally oversaturates an idea by pouring it on a little thick. And that’s fine by me. What writer can walk that perfect line for the entirety of a novel? Prose will inevitably at times be either slightly bland or slightly too rich. I’ll take the latter.

Myself as an author was heartened to hear how long it often takes VN to compose his sentences: “the massacrous revisions and rewritings, and new revisions, of the very lines in which I am taking two hours to describe a two-minute run of my father’s flawless handwriting.” I did not want to read that this legend just sat down at the typewriter and outpoured mastery. He labored too. Good.

A significant part of why I read is to be schooled as an author. I only want to spend my time with great books that may elevate my own efforts. The vast majority of my time is spent writing or trying to improve the craft. I believe this book is one. So in the future, after a third of the way through a mediocre book, I’ll drop it and pick this one back up.
Profile Image for Hakan.
206 reviews158 followers
August 17, 2018
çok şık, çok asil, çok zarif, çok incelikli, çok estetik, çok…bir otobiyografi. ve özgün, nabokov’un eşsiz üslubuyla işlenmiş: nabokovca.

övgüler düzmek dışında, yazarın ilk hatırlarından yaklaşık kırk yaşına kadar olan hayatından izler, daha doğrusu tablolar-sahneler taşıdığını söyleyeyim bu otobiyografinin. geçmişe bakmanın, geçmişi canlandırmanın yolu, hemen herkeste olduğu gibi, nabokov’da da küçük sahnelerden geçiyor. unutulan, unutulduğu sanılan zaman dilimleri ve nice olaylar, insanlar bu küçük sahneler içinde şaşırtacak kadar detayla kendilerini gösteriyorlar. ancak ve ancak nabokov sürgünle yitirdiği vatanıyla, çocukluğum dediği vatanıyla, vatanı-çocukluğunu sadece hafızasında yaşatmak durumunda-zorunda kalmasıyla herkesten ayırlıyor. “zamana inanmıyorum,” diyen nabokov, belki inanamayan nabokov, böyle büyük bir kırılmayla bakıyor geçmişe ve “sanatın lambasıyla” elbette. “beni biçimlendiren aygıtı ne çevremde, ne de ırsiyetimde bulabiliyorum,” diyor tam olarak, “ömrüme karışık bir filigran basıp geçen meçhul merdanenin eşsiz tasarımı, ancak, yaşam kağıdı sanatın lambasıyla aydınlatılırsa fark edilebiliyor.”

konuş, hafıza’yı okumak için sebepler sıralamaya gerek yok. biyografi-otobiyografi türünden beklenen pratik faydalardan da bahsetmemeli hiç. elbette konuş hafıza okura hayat dersleri vermiyor, yazarın anlaşılması zor eserlerine ışık da tutmuyor. öyle bir kitap değil konuş, hafıza. ama nabokov özelinde söylemek istediğim son bir şey var: konuş, hafıza nabokov’un romanlarının gücünü-güzelliğini-büyüklüğünü tartışmamakla birlikte, genellikle nabokov’un kişiliğine bağlayarak uzak-mesafeli-soğuk ya da suya sabuna dokunmaz bulan, benim de uzun süre aralarında bulunduğum okurlar için bir yanılgıyı fark etme kitabı olabilir. o okurlara özellikle tavsiye ederim.
Profile Image for Asclepiade.
123 reviews57 followers
June 29, 2018
Il ricordo è a volte traditore, a volte saturo e dovizioso all’inverosimile; ci sono casi nei quali getta sul nostro passato sguardi labili e instabili come lacrime nella pioggia, ed altri ove ce ne restituisce una arazzo agucchiato con la più vertiginosa sottigliezza, completo di dettagli e particolari che faticheremmo a discernere ma perfino già solo a percepire in una scena che descrivessimo dal vivo. E un maestro nell’immortalare la memoria è Vladimir Nabokov: nei romanzi, ma anche e soprattutto in questo libro autobiografico; e tuttavia non si tratta mai d’un esercizio autobiografico pacificato e rasserenante come sanno essere, a volte, perfino le nostalgie d’una vita altra serena, evocatrici malinconiche delle neiges d’antan: il fuoco dell’esilio e l’occhio dell’entomologo impregnano le parole d’un’urgenza fredda che emerge in sciabolate di luce: words like violence break the silence. Molti passi mi hanno ricordato la pittura, ma non la pittura classica, nemmeno quella di oggetti, evocatrice fedelissima di metalli trasognati, di carnalità succose, di piumaggi vibratili, di vegetabili turgori, di lucide frenesie floreali: perfino gli strumenti musicali di Evaristo Baschenis, con la propria intatta fedeltà organologica fin nei riverberi della vernice d’un liuto, nello spessore d’una corda di viola, nella rastrematura d’un cavigliere, nella cesellatura d’un pirolo, serbano quello scarto lieve di tinta e luminosità che v’incunea un impalpabile ma deciso stacco dalla visione naturale. A me la prosa memorialistica di Nabokov, nel suo scandagliare allucinato e intenso il ricordo, fa pensare agli scorci urbani di Richard Estes o alle nature morte di Ralph Goings, col loro iperrealismo vetroso, la luce d’un’intensità delirante, così stagliati e a fuoco perfetto da risultare irreali, da ferire lo sguardo: Nabokov possiede un senso tattile della rimembranza, ne restituisce un’immagine che è assieme figura e oggetto da toccare avidamente; tutto in lui è al contempo visione, odore, suono, realtà solida che si avverte presente fra le dita. Nabokov è un incantatore sinestesico. E intanto sa essere, come sempre, anche sfuggente fino all’insolenza, sornione, pungente, beffardo; si diverte col lettore, lo vuole magari ammirato, ma sempre vigile, collaborativo, critico, intelligente: non sa che fare dei lettori pigri. E la Russia, nel mentre, viene a galla fra le nebbie: una Russia eterna e una peculiare, tutta di Nabokov, che con brio malizioso prende a gabbo la Russia eterna degli slavofili e quella dei bolscevichi. Un incantatore sinestesico, ma anche un incantatore acrobata: il Nostro cammina sulle punte tra la fedeltà visionaria verso una concretezza dalla densità quasi insostenibile, fardée et peinte comme au temps des bergeries, e una levità fuggevole come il manto d’una farfalla. E infatti parlare della sua prosa è impossibile senza rievocarla per metafore; ma d’altronde, non è proprio la metafora ciò che rende umano il linguaggio? E così, visioni trapassate feriscono e dileguano. Restano nell’animo concrezioni guizzanti d’esaltazione ammirata, frammiste a un sapore languido, evanescente di salato tout en chantant sur le mode mineur: un brivido rattristato e soave, una pioggerella d’autunno dai sentori vagamente di fougère: e, si sa, rainy days never say goodbye.
Profile Image for Riku Sayuj.
653 reviews7,015 followers
February 28, 2015

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.
Profile Image for Manny.
Author 29 books13.6k followers
November 21, 2008

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...
Profile Image for Bill.
205 reviews42 followers
September 1, 2022
I'm a big fan of memoir and wanted to like this, since it's considered one of the best. What I take away from it, though, is only a handful of memorable images and lines. I found myself indifferent, at best, to Nabokov as a person, at least what he reveals of himself. The book is a collection of articles on specific, limited topics, focusing heavily on his early childhood, and even though the author heavily revised and rewrote them, they didn't cohere into anything more substantive. I'm glad I read it, but it didn't live up to its reputation, for me.
Profile Image for Darwin8u.
1,559 reviews8,685 followers
August 9, 2012
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.
Profile Image for Ray.
Author 16 books289 followers
July 24, 2021
Admittedly, I have only read the one Nabakov and we all know which novel I refer to...

Which is of course a classic masterpiece always worth revisiting and reinterpreting critically.

So I had high hopes for this author's memoirs, and that made it for something of a disappointment. The prose is extremely eloquent, worthy of laugh out louds on occasion, and there is no doubt he is a writer of the highest order.

But the subject matter just didn't include what the fan would have hoped. Don't get me wrong, the backstory detailing the social hierarchies of pre-revolution Russia are very fascinating. His privileged lifestyle, which he certainly does "check", and all the idiosyncrasies of his extended family and education and exile in Western Europe.

With even more depth, he talks of the politics of leftists of the era and his father's writing and death and sparse yet clever takes on every minor character of his life... And yet, he doesn't seem to get that real.

He doesn't talk about his own writer's path nearly enough. A few self-deprecating quips about poetry and affairs just are not sufficient.

Most of all, we want more of Lolita. The inspiration, and the fallout of becoming such a novelist of world renown. Furthermore, about emigrating to America and his years of fame.

It is the author's choice to focus on his earlier life, so that is the book we have. Yet if I am being honest, I just want more.
Profile Image for Susan.
2,638 reviews598 followers
January 4, 2015
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.

Profile Image for Claire Casso.
72 reviews
February 10, 2008
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.
Profile Image for Marco Tamborrino.
Author 6 books167 followers
April 21, 2013
"Da allora in poi, per parecchi anni, finché scrivendo un romanzo non riuscii a liberarmi di quella feconda emozione, ho continuato a equiparare la perdita del mio paese alla perdita del mio amore."

Non ho trattato bene questo libro. Sono stato cattivo nei suoi confronti. L'ho iniziato verso la fine dello scorso anno scolastico, poi l'ho ripreso verso la fine di questo e infine oggi l'ho concluso. È un libro meraviglioso, non c'è dubbio. Tuttavia la sua pesantezza lo rende una lettura di nicchia, un pezzo da collezione. Paradossalmente, dovrebbero leggerlo coloro che hanno letto tutto di Nabokov e vogliono conoscere la sua vita negli aspetti più intimi. Dico paradossalmente perché io sono escluso da questo gruppo. Non ho letto nient'altro di Nabokov, nemmeno la celebre Lolita (che ho comunque acquistato tempo fa).

Non ha senso fare un riassunto di un'autobiografia, quindi mi limiterò a fare qualche commento del tutto personale sugli avvenimenti che descrive l'autore.
Vorrei cominciare con questo lungo passo:

"Ogni qualvolta comincio a pensare al mio amore per qualcuno, ho l'abitudine di tracciare immediatamente dei raggi che vanno da quel sentimento d'amore - dal mio cuore, da un tenero nucleo personale - a punti mostruosamente remoti dell'universo. Qualche cosa mi costringe a misurare il grado di consapevolezza del mio amore confrontandolo con cose inimmaginabili e incalcolabili quali il comportamento di una nebulosa (la cui stessa lontananza sembra già di per sé una forma di follia), gli spaventosi trabocchetti dell'eternità, l'inconoscibile oltre l'ignoto, l'impotenza, il freddo, i nauseanti viluppi e compenetrazioni di spazio e tempo. É un'abitudine perniciosa, ma è più forte di me. Si può paragonare all'incontrollabile insistere della lingua di un insonne su un dente scheggiato, nella notte della bocca - così facendo la lingua si scortica ma non per questo smette. Ho conosciuto persone che, dopo aver sfiorato senza volerlo qualche cosa - lo stipite di una porta, una parete -, erano costrette a passare attraverso tutta una serie rapidissima e sistematica di contatti manuali con varie superfici della stanza prima di tornare a un'esistenza equilibrata. Niente da fare; devo sapere dove mi trovo, devo sapere dove siete voi, tu e mio figlio. Quando questa esplosione d'affetto silenziosa, al rallentatore, si verifica dentro di me dispiegando le sue frange struggenti e sopraffacendomi con il senso di qualche cosa molto più vasto, molto più duraturo e possente dell'accumulo di materia o di energia in qualsiasi cosmo immaginabile, allora la mia mente non può che darsi un pizzicotto per capire se è davvero sveglia. Devo fare un rapido inventario dell'universo, proprio come chi in sogno cerca di rimediare all'assurdità della sua situazione accertandosi che sta solo sognando. Devo fare in modo che tutto lo spazio e tutto il tempo partecipino alla mia emozione, al mio amore mortale così da eliminare lo spigolo della sua caducità, aiutandomi a combattere l'avvilimento, il ridicolo e l'orrore estremi di aver sviluppato un'infinità di sensazioni e di pensieri all'interno di un'esistenza finita."

Secondo questo passo è di una levatura stilistica impressionante. E trasmette un'emozione sottile, mezza addormentata, un'emozione che ti entra dentro e lì ci rimane per tutto il libro, per poi risvegliarsi alla fine e riempirti il cuore.

In questo libro io ho imparato ad amare una Russia che non ho mai visto e che ormai non c'è più. Nabokov ci parla della "Russia leggendaria", la Russia pre-rivoluzionaria, rovinata dalla crudeltà dei bolscevichi. Una Russia che lo costringe a fuggire e a passare vent'anni in esilio nell'Europa Occidentale (stabilendosi in seguito in America). Ci parla della Russia della sua infanzia, arricchendola di particolari. Ed è proprio dai particolari che parte per raccontare un evento. La sua caccia alle farfalle, l'amore per queste creature, le vite delle persone della sua famiglia, il suo primo amore, la sua istruzione, i suoi precettori e il rapporto con suo padre. Le cose più belle arrivano verso la fine: il racconto di come è iniziato il suo amore per la letteratura, il modo in cui lui trovava le parole e le formava nella sua mente e, infine, poche pagine finali sui primi tre anni di vita di suo figlio.

Ci sono miliardi di dettagli e di voli stilistici meravigliosi, nelle pagine di questa autobiografia. È un piccolo gioiello di uno dei più grandi scrittori del '900. Un gioiello, intimo, personale e profondamente russo come nient'altro al mondo. Indipendentemente dalla nostra ideologia, la Rivoluzione d'Ottobre ha praticamente ucciso la creatività culturale in Russia. E Nabokov lo sottolinea bene. Lui che "datemi qualsiasi cosa, su un qualsiasi continente che assomigli alla campagna pietroburghese, e il mio cuore si scioglie". Lui ama questa Russia magica della sua giovinezza, la Russia nei cui boschi, d'estate, portava la sua prima ragazza. Tra i luoghi silvani dove facevano l'amore, di nascosto. Nabokov è, anche e soprattutto, un uomo di una tenerezza e sensibilità senza fine. L'accuratezza con cui racconta ogni cosa è immensa.

"Le sere d'estate della mia adolescenza, quando passavo pedalando davanti alla sua isbà, mi parlano ora con la sua voce. In un viottolo tra i campi, all'incrocio con la desolata strada maestra, io scendevo dalla bicicletta e l'appoggiavo a un palo del telegrafo. Un tramonto quasi terribile nel suo splendore indugiava in un cielo senza limiti. Tra gli ammassi che mutavano in modo impercettibile si riusciva a cogliere dettagli strutturali vivacemente colorati di organismi celesti, o fessure luminose in cumuli oscuri, o piatte spiagge eteree che parevano miraggi di isole deserte. Allora di tutto questo non sapevo che farmene (mentre ora lo so benissimo) - come sbarazzarmene, come trasformarlo in qualche cosa che può essere girato al lettore in caratteri a stampa perché sia lui a vedersela con il benedetto brivido d'emozione - e quella incapacità non faceva che aumentare il mio senso di oppressione. Un'ombra colossale cominciava a invadere i campi, e nella quiete assoluta i pali telegrafici ronzavano, e quei bruchi che si nutrono di notte scalavano il gambo della pianta prescelta. Rosicchia, rosicchia, rosicchia — avanzava, aggrappato allo stelo di una campanula, un bel bruco a strisce non riportato nello Spuler, lavorando di mandibole lungo il bordo della foglia più vicina che divorava secondo un comodo semicerchio, poi allungando di nuovo il collo e di nuovo curvandolo a mano a mano che si addentrava nella nitida superficie concava. Normalmente lo avrei fatto scivolare, con un frammento della sua piantina, in una scatoletta di fiammiferi e me lo sarei portato a casa affinché l'anno dopo si schiudesse in una Splendida Sorpresa, ma la mia testa era altrove. Zina e Colette, le mie compagne di giochi sulla spiaggia; la saltellante Louise; tutte quelle ragazzine alle feste, accese in volto, la fascia della cintura bassa sui fianchi, i capelli di seta; la languida contessa G., dama di mio cugino; Polen'ka, sorridente nell'angoscia dei miei nuovi sogni - si fondevano tutte insieme in qualcuno che non conoscevo ma che avrei presto incontrato."

Vorrei davvero avere la profondità di questo scrittore quando parlo di qualcosa che mi è successo. Ma quello che più voglio, leggendo queste pagine, è avere più immagini e più storie di quella Russia meravigliosa, così bella e così fragile - proprio perché bella -, destinata a cadere per il suo splendore. Vorrei vedere con gli occhi di Nabokov i luoghi della sua infanzia, i buffi personaggi che la affollano, gli insegnanti che ha avuto, i suoi parenti e i suoi fratelli.

Quando ho letto della sua fuga dalla Russia e del successivo esilio, mi si è stretto il cuore. Il Nabokov ventenne non si rese subito conto che quello sarebbe stato un addio definitivo. Per tutta la vita gli toccò convivere con una nostalgia e una malinconia profonde. Come quando dice che le lettere di Tamara, la ragazza della sua estate russa, sarebbero continuate ad arrivare in Crimea (dove si era inizialmente rifugiato con la famiglia dopo la fuga da San Pietroburgo) al suo indirizzo.

"Tamara, la Russia, i boschi incolti che sfumano in antichi giardini, le mie betulle, i miei abeti nordici, l'immagine di mia madre che si inginocchia carponi a baciare la terra ogni volta che per l'estate facciamo ritorno in campagna dalla città, et la montagne et la grand chêne - tutte cose che un bel giorno il destino ha fatto su alla rinfusa e gettato a mare, tagliandomi fuori per sempre dalla mia adolescenza."

Non penso ci sia bisogno di aggiungere altro. È un libro su gran parte della vita di uno scrittore. È un libro sulla sua anima. Va letto con pazienza e amore, perché in fondo è proprio l'amore che muove la penna di Nabokov mentre scrive. L'amore per i suoi ricordi.

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