Weekly Wire
Weekly Alibi The Russian Remembers

Vladimir Nabokov's "Speak, Memory."

By Steven Robert Allen

JUNE 7, 1999: 

Vladimir Nabokov, Speak, Memory (Everyman's, hardcover, $17)

If there's a more perfect title for an autobiography, I can't think of one. Thankfully, the quality doesn't end there. The book cracks open, eyes fly across the opening sentences, words flow together like liquid metallic memory, and miraculously, Nabokov lives up to the inspired labeling.

Speak, Memory has been rereleased with the previously unpublished final "chapter" tacked on to the end for the first time ever. This so-called chapter is actually a fake review of the book, ostensibly written by an anonymous critic but actually penned by trickster Nabokov himself. Nothing more than a superfluous curio, it doesn't add much to the whole and is best fondled, along with Brian Boyd's academic introduction, like an extraneous appendage severed with a long, rusty blade from the main body.

Nabokov was one of those annoying geniuses who radiated such overwhelming self-confidence that you can't help but daydream about throttling him. He was a man who seems to have been genuinely obsessed with himself, a condition that -- though a prerequisite for writing autobiography -- rarely reaches the heights you'll find here.

The irony is that his writing is so brilliant, so intricate, so textured and funny that it doesn't take much to forgive him his many sins. All told, Speak, Memory is a work of pure art which easily transcends the smugness of its snot-nosed scribe.

Stop me if you've heard this before. Born at the turn of the 19th century, Nabokov grew up in an aristocratic Russian family with parents who were so loving and a childhood that was so perfect, it'll make you want to vomit. Little Vladimir's youth was an endless stream of cheery governesses and games. Life for the lad was pretty much as sweet and painless as it could be. In the midst of this childhood bliss, Nabokov's father rose to become one of the leading liberals fighting against the tyranny of the Czarist empire. Not surprisingly, considering the family's overwhelming wealth, when the Red Army rose to power in 1917, dad quickly became one of the main enemies of the Bolsheviks.

And so it went. Nabokov's golden childhood disappeared in the stinking, crimson mist of revolution. His parents lost their wealth and land, and the family was forced to flee west. Nabokov's father was eventually assassinated in Berlin. For the next 20 years, Nabokov spent a tenuous existence in various European cities writing novels in Russian while giving occasional tennis lessons to rich brats for extra cash.

Speak, Memory ends with Hitler sweeping Nabokov and family out of Europe. Our hero gets on a boat with his wife and kid and flees to the United States, which served as his adopted home till the day he died. In the U.S., Nabokov stopped writing novels in Russian and started writing in English -- among these was everyone's favorite poetic celebration of pedophilia, Lolita.

Don't be misled, though. In Speak, Memory, Nabokov doesn't place much emphasis on chronology or events. As one might expect from the author of Lolita, his vision is much more radical. When he does report events from his life, he goes to great lengths to be accurate, but this is not the focus of the book. As one of his philosophical friends puts it, "While the scientist sees everything that happens in one point of space, the poet feels everything that happens in one point of time." Nabokov's goal is nothing less than to escape the confines of time and space. Threads of ideas and feelings culled from his past tie each amorphous thought to every other amorphous thought, creating a sticky, complex net of memory and emotion. His success at achieving such an implausible end is remarkably consistent throughout the book.

Unfortunately, Nabokov has an irritating habit of injecting obscure names and foreign phrases into his text. If I had been raised in a trilingual, aristocratic family surrounded by tutors whose sole justification for breathing was to satisfy all my intellectual curiosities, maybe I would have enjoyed this book even more. In that sense, Speak, Memory is no different from his novels. Even this, though, can't irritate for long. Nabokov's style is so fluid and his intelligence is so precise that these brief moments of confusion are washed away beneath the hot magma waterfall of his unique poetic genius.


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