Monday, 22 October 2018

Nabokov’s prose, memory, and the sad women in Speak, Memory

The writing of Speak, Memory is wonderful, as expected, but once in a while, there’s a passage that just breaks my heart. 
“Nominally, the housekeeping was in the hands of [my mother’s] former nurse, at that time a bleary, incredibly wrinkled old woman (born a slave around 1830) with the small face of a melancholy tortoise and big shuffling feet. She wore a nunnish brown dress and gave off a slight but unforgettable smell of coffee and decay. Her dreaded congratulation on our birthdays and namedays was the serfage kiss on the shoulder. Age had developed in her a pathological stinginess, especially in regard to sugar and preserves, so that by degrees, and with the sanction of my parents, other domestic arrangements, kept secret from her, had quietly come into force. Without knowing it (the knowledge would have broken her heart), she remained dangling as it were, from her own key ring, while my mother did her best to ally with soothing words he suspicions that now and then flitted across the old woman’s weakening mind. Sole mistress of her moldy and remote little kingdom, which she thought was the real one (we would have starved had it been so), she was followed by the mocking glances of lackeys and maids as she steadily plodded through long corridors to store away half an apple or a couple of broken Petit-Beurre biscuits she had found on a plate.” 
Or this one: 
“Whenever in my dreams I see the dead, they always appear silent, bothered, strangely depressed, quite unlike their dear, bright selves. I am aware of them, without any astonishment in surroundings they never visited during their earthly existence, in the house of some friend of mine they never knew. They sit apart, frowning at the floor, as it death were a dark taint, a shameful family secret. It is certainly not then—not in dreams—but 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, from the mast, from the past and its castle tower. And although nothing much can be seen through the mist, there is somehow the blissful feeling that one Is looking in the right direction.” 
Speak, Memory is about Nabokov’s childhood and his life before moving to America, but it’s also about memory. 
“I see again my schoolroom in Vyra, the blue roses of the wallpaper, the open window. Its reflection fills he oval mirror above the leathern couch where my uncle sits, gloating over a tattered book. A sense of security, of well-being, of summer warmth pervades my memory. That robust reality makes a ghost of the present. The mirror brims with brightness; a bumblebee has entered the room and bumps against the ceiling. Everything is as it should be, nothing will ever change, nobody will ever die.” 
And this one about Mademoiselle O: 
“Her Russian vocabulary consisted, I know, of 1 short word, the same solitary word that years later she was to take back to Switzerland. This word, which in her pronunciation may be phonetically rendered as ‘giddy-eh’ (actually it is gde with e as in ‘yet’), meant ‘Where?’ And that was a good deal. Uttered by her like the raucous cry of some lost bird, it accumulated such interrogatory force that it sufficed for all her needs. ‘Giddy-eh? Giddy-eh?’ she would wail, not only to find out her whereabouts but also to express supreme misery; the fact that she was a stranger, shipwrecked, penniless, ailing, in search of the blessed land where at last she would be understood.” 
Here is not an arrogant, sneering Nabokov, but a warm, humane Nabokov, full of love and nostalgia. The only other time I’ve encountered the warm Nabokov is in The Gift, but even then, the mockery sometimes creeps in (I’m of course excluding the chapter about Chernyshevsky).
This is perhaps the best autobiography I have ever read. 


  1. wonderful excerpts... i'd forgotten that N's memories were associated with ghosts and the eternal now to be found in past recollections... moving and accurate, imo...

    1. Glad you like them.
      I couldn't find the full text online so I had to type these excerpts, so I'm not able to quote much.
      The Gift has lots of ghosts too, do you remember? (if you've read it, that is, I'm not even sure now).

    2. i don't believe i've read that one... i looked on my list, and i've read Pnin, Pale Fire, and the Sebastian Knight one, although i don't remember those either, so i might have, at one time: one of the disadvantages of being old: faulty memories...

    3. If you like Russian literature, you might like The Gift.