Nabokov’s Speak Memory is at or near the top of many lists of esteemed autobiographies. “Autobiography” is exactly correct (one would expect only that from Nabokov) for, unlike a “memoir” which is ordered not so much temporally as for thematic emphasis and possibly to include “flashbacks” and “flash-forwards,” Speak Memory is largely a strictly linear personal history: very early childhood to well into adulthood.
However, I think it is often wise to talk of such books in a loose sense: call them autobiographies or memoirs, as you will; they are kin with similar challenges in recall and composition.
Speak, Memory is a wonderfully written autobiography that is arrogantly simple in framework. From its uncomplicated and unworldly theme all the decisions in the framing of the book and the thousands of decisions in the ever elusive, ever mysterious, ever “semiconscious” act of writing page after page, for example, what to leave out and how much detail to put in what is left in over the sweep of an evasive life in a time of ubiquitous upheaval–the possibly ever inscrutable “creative process,” the ever-mysteriously glimpsed “inspiration”– are made by its great prose master with perfect consistency to impose a virtually perfect narrative unity.
Yet Speak, Memory is eventually beautifully tedious.
I don’t know of a more self-absorbed book, of a more finely written autobiography, of a book done out of a haughtier attitude, of a more worldly unworldly book, of a less friendly book, of a more frankly contemptuous history of a brief part of History (with the assertion by omission that the Rest Of History is beneath contempt and an acknowledgment of the vast horrors of the twentieth century nightmare out of which Speak, Memory was written barely intimated in but a few asides that would probably not much register with a first-immigrant Martian), of a less compassionate book (the antithesis of Dickens), or of a better simple model for getting at the great difficulties in composing a book about oneself.
It is a great book, certainly among those written by authors about their own lives, times, and adventures, their own challenges and missions.
But it is a book with a most uncomplicated theme and hence simple in the ensuing way it is put together. Speak Memory displays great art in a stark gallery. Therefore, it bears fascinating, productive study in the vital art of personal history.
About personal histories there is an old distinction about their authors and hence their kinds: men and women of action versus men and women of retreat. It is easy to put Nabokov among the latter. But his method applies to both types.
Dispiritingly, Nabokov has had much nonsense written about him and his books, and I am certain he laughed sardonically at what of it he came across. You might not imagine such when you see the facts: He was born into Russian aristocracy in 1899 in St. Petersburg in a very wealthy, well-known family of some nobility, found his “perfect childhood” and luxurious adolescence shattered by the Bolshevik revolution, fled with his family to Western Europe, attended Cambridge, became a tennis player and fan, suffered the death of his father in Berlin in 1922 by an assassin for which (in a tragic farce which did nothing to diminish Nabokov’s lifelong disgust with “the affairs of mankind”) his father was not the target, fled with his wife Vera from Paris to America ahead of the invading Germans in May 1940, taught literature at Wellesley, became a notable butterfly chaser and collector (a “leipidorist”), wrote several great or near-great novels such as Lolita and Pnin, devised chess problems, and died beloved of many writers.
The nonsense written and spoken about Nabokov is summed in a line of praise on the front flap of the dust cover of the first Putnam edition of Speak, Memory: “…his memories present a moving…account of a vanished world.” Nabokov, the exile-retreatant from the horrors of History in his life, his “brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness,” was first and forever the Compleat Aesthete. He chased after beauty. As long as the grim turmoil of the twentieth century was not local, any comparatively civilized place would do. He pursued Beauty as freely as he could and captured it sublimely. Art was the butterfly net and much more. And like earlier Romantics such as Wordsworth, Nabokov associated the greatest beauty with childhood and youth. He put all he had to dramatize artistically about the Heroic Aesthete and the capture of Beauty into Lolita, including even more than the certain eventual corruption of that desperate preservation (especially desperate for the Lost Exile), namely, the final futility of escaping to “timelessness” except for the one possible redemption, “the only immortality you and I may share, my Lolita,” namely, Lolita itself whose life might be indefinite in future Awful History, though it be the half-life immortality of the artist through his or her splendid but finally imperfect creations (though Nabokov may well have considered his imperfections negligible), the only triumph, the beautiful remembrance mounted and preserved under clear glass but which the viewer’s imagination, guided by Nabokov the Artist, can see awaken gloriously and fly through and beyond that glass once again and whenever.
Yes, Lolita is Nabokov’s greatest novel. And Speak, Memory is his greatest advice, his credo, his call to action, and is superbly exemplary.
The theme of Nabokov’s autobiography? The imagining of the beautiful, the supreme delight of “the immortal and the immature,” and recovered and shaped from our experience through art, is the only, and a sublime, refuge for humans.
Put more simply, Beauty is All.
And so Nabokov in Speak, Memory is exactly this: a would-be transporter of his readers into a timeless beauty. He sees himself as the divine artist; the only deity there might be and one who himself comes to life but briefly and will reign thereafter in absentia through his art. He is not a forced exile from the pre-Bolshevik Russia. He is a self-exile from all in life except the beautiful:
“My old (since 1917) quarrel with the Soviet dictatorship is wholly unrelated to any question of property. My contempt for the emigre 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.”
He wants you to leave this “gray” world behind. (In Lolita, Humbert Humbert is pursued by the evil “McFate” in a generally “wrought iron world.”) He has no intention, perhaps never did, to reform even a sorry square foot of that dismal world. He is among the great antisocial artists. He has not the slightest sense of what is called on Eyewitness News, “civic responsibility.” A Churchillian defense of civilization is in some other universe in the Nabokovian multiverse (though Nabokov really wouldn’t care a whit about the question of one or many universes). He seeks splendid isolation, hoping there is some to be found, if only for a short time.
So: Speak Memory shows the simplest of frameworks. Nabokov strolls through his remembered life looking almost only for moments of beauty. Some of those moments are inherently beautiful even though his artistry makes them more splendid. Some are “ordinary” moments and incidents rendered beautiful largely by his artistry, perhaps because he is especially fond of them. He seems utterly careless about giving fulsome accounts of large portions of the general story: and, to reiterate, for Nabokov the general story is Hell on Earth, and who needs that? Nabokov seeks “the free world of timelessness,” namely, moments of great beauty which come alive in your imagination by his artistry, “…when the lamp of art is made to shine through life’s foolscap.”
Put in the standard Romanticism:
“I may be inordinately fond of my earliest impressions, but then I have reason to be grateful to them. They led the way to a veritable Eden of visual and tactile sensations…. Nothing is sweeter or stranger to ponder than those first thrills. They belong to the harmonious world of a perfect childhood….”
Reading Speak, Memory for many literati is like a long visit to a See’s Candies outlet offering copious free samples or like having two desserts at Serendipity 3 in Manhattan: if you want to splurge on the Beautiful, Speak, Memory is your dish.
Artistic, beautiful displays abound: Lawn tennis on private courts, mansions, schoolrooms, drawing rooms, picture books, Tortoiseshell butterflies, landscapes, magic-lantern projections, gardens, parks, the Savoy Alps, Homo poeticus, chess compositions, and on and on.
And thus in Speak, Memory we proceed on a journey very similar to a butterfly hunt, and Nabokov becomes (whether or not he would scorn it, and he most probably would scorn it) an instructor in the art of autobiography and memoir-writing.
The main lesson? Keep it simple in framework.
The main insight? Theme is supreme.
Theme guides you in what to include and what to leave out. And theme certainly leads you into the best modes of writing. Modes? Scene, dialog, narration, description. You must decide among them; you must use the proper blend. Theme dictates. Hence Speak, Memory is largely narration and description: for (simple) example, In June we traveled to verdant Italy but by brownish September we longed for the crisp London air of autumn and so in October we found ourselves sailing on the darkly rippling Thames.
In short, because Speak, Memory is a collection of beautiful moments and not really much of a drama of people, scene and dialog–the modes of the present tense, the essence of the theater and the hardest workers in most novels–are not called upon much in Speak, Memory. Since Beauty, not Personal History and General History, is the be-all and end-all theme in Nabokov’s autobiography, description of beautiful things spotted during an almost nonchalant stroll of a narration along a background arc of life becomes the essential formal vehicle.
It’s marvelous, but after two desserts at Serendipity 3, most of us are ready to leave. If there’s a sidewalk orator across the street, we might even pause and burp and see whether we can grasp his basic call to action. We’re sated and ready for purpose. Maybe we’re being shouted that The End Is Near but that perhaps there is something we can do to avert it. If we look around us, we won’t see Nabokov in the small crowd. But by then, we won’t miss him.
He probably did not like taxi trips and probably wouldn’t have been at Serendipity 3 on any account. Ole Suspect Wikipedia tells me that the great Vladimir–and he is among the finest writers–never learned to drive a car, did not answer telephones, and left a lot of logistics to his loyal wife, Vera, to whom he dedicated his marvelous books.
An artful dodger.