Thursday, 18 October 2018

Speak, Memory: 1st impressions

“I know […] of a young chronophobiac who experienced something like panic when looking for the 1st time at homemade movies that had been taken a few weeks before his birth. He saw a world that was practically unchanged—the same house, the same people—and then realized that he did not exist there at all and that nobody mourned his absence. He caught a glimpse of his mother waving from an upstairs window, and that unfamiliar gesture disturbed him, as if it were some mysterious farewell. But what particularly frightened him was the sight of a brand-new baby carriage standing there on the porch, with the smug, encroaching air of a coffin; even that was empty, as if, in the reverse course of events, his very bones had disintegrated.” 
That is a striking way to begin an autobiography. I’m reading Nabokov’s Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited
It is perhaps a bit early to read it, I have only read 5 novels by Nabokov so far, plus the 2 Lectures book (you need a certain understanding of Russian literature to read and appreciate The Gift, for example), but I’m familiar with some general facts of his life and his views on things, so I’m reading it anyway. 
His was an interesting life—came from an aristocratic family in Russia, spoke 3 languages, went on exile and lived in many countries, created masterpieces in both his mother tongue Russian and in English, had synesthesia, was interested in butterfly-hunting and lepidopterology, and so on. All that makes an interesting subject for a memoir, and his prose is incomparable. 
It is a great read so far. Check out this passage from chapter 2, about his mother:  
“To love with all one’s soul and leave the rest to fate, was the simple rule she heeded. ‘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. As if feeling that in a few years the tangible part of her world would perish, she cultivated an extraordinary consciousness of the various time marks distributed throughout our country place. She cherished her own past with the same retrospective fervor that I now do her image and my past. 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. Her special tags and imprints became as dear and as sacred to me as they were to her.” 
Speak, Memory is a celebration of life and the senses, and of memory.


  1. i remember liking this a lot, about forty years ago... his prose is very pictorial and he says interesting things about perception, isolating incidents to underline his awareness in moving ways...

  2. Oh no, not too early. The book is superb; I would push it on anyone. Almost anyone. Well, on many people. People who like to read and so on. A few people. My point is, it is in and of itself a masterpiece.

  3. Mudpuddle,
    That's nice to hear. Anyone who likes Nabokov is a friend of mine.

    I know, I know it's a masterpiece. I'm just afraid that there would be references I don't get, or something interesting I don't notice, because of the books I haven't read.

  4. It's the perfect first Nabokov. It is as if he were introducing himself to America, his new home.

    1. OK, noted.
      Though the other day I saw a blog post by somebody complaining about The Gift because she didn't know enough about Russian literature, and you commented that it introduced you to Russian literature.

    2. I wonder what I meant. The Gift was by no means the first Russian literature, or the first Nabokov in Russian, that I had read. Closer to the last. It was out of print for a while. I first read another student's photocopy of The Gift.

      Maybe I meant certain specific works. It is a two-way street. I mean, sometimes I read criticism to learn about works I do not know, and then I go read some of them. But sometimes I read a piece of literature, and then go look for criticism about it. Both ways are good.

    3. I don't know.
      But I believe that you said something like, even though you didn't know that much about Russian literature at the time, you didn't feel "left out" like the author of the blog post, but it sort of introduced you to Russian literature or certain works, or led you to certain works.
      Or maybe I misremembered what you wrote.