[Blast from the Past] A Review of Nabokov’s ‘Speak, Memory’

Note: I used to write a semi-popular blog. Then I stopped writing it and started writing this one. I wrote a ton of posts on my prior blog, though, and some of them were quite good, if I don’t say so myself. I am going to reprise some of them here in the “Blast from the Past” series. Here’s the first one, a review of Vladimir Nabokov’s magnificent memoir.

Speak, Memory by Vladimir Nabokov, Everyman’s Library, 1999 edition.

speak memory nabokov

I realize that it is almost sacrilegious to even attempt to review Vladimir Nabokov’s autobiography, Speak, Memory, as I cannot hope to approach his level of prose or command of language. Even though I am a native speaker of English, I do not have nearly the vocabulary, the sheer facility with language, that he possessed.

Speak, Memory is Nabokov’s autobiography, covering his life from his idyllic childhood as an upper-class Russian, growing up in a beautiful house in St. Petersburg (“the only house in the world,” according to him) to the end of his first period as a White Russian émigré in Western Europe. (His first period of of European peripateticism was to end with the Second World War and his last-minute escape to the United States, where he would go on to teach in universities, discover new butterflies, and write more books, including his most famous work, Lolita.)

Speak, Memory is unique because he does not tell his story in a strictly chronological order. He writes of his family, their ancestry and origins, and of his happy childhood in late imperial Russia. His writing is so powerful that we, the readers, feel the sudden loss of this happy life, due to the Russian Revolution, as acutely as he must have felt it all those years ago.

Nabokov’s parents figure prominently in his memoir, his father more so than his mother, but his siblings are barely present. He certainly became the most famous and successful of them all: the world does not remember his ill-fated brother, Sergei, who died in a concentration camp in Nazi Germany, or his two sisters, Olga and Elena—I don’t know anything about them, beyond the fact that Elena lived into her nineties—or his younger brother, Kirill, whose life is as mysterious as his sisters’.

One can conclude that Nabokov did not grow up close to his siblings, even to Sergei, who was the closest in age to him—they simply had nothing in common. Young Vladimir enjoyed roaming through the fields and forests surrounding his family’s country estate, searching for butterflies; he was to remain an avid lepidopterist his entire life. He also began writing at an early age: he painfully describes the creation of his first poem, a powerful experience he remembered vividly well into adulthood.

One of the things that struck me was Nabokov’s indifference to music. He certainly was exposed to it from an early age: his father loved the opera, as any good Russian of his class did. Nabokov, however, was indifferent to it, describing it as “merely an arbitrary succession of more or less irritating sounds” (p. 22). Sergei did not share this sentiment (yet another difference between the two brothers) and neither did his son, Dmitri (Dmitri had a brief but successful career as in opera as a bass).

Throughout the book, Nabokov’s longing for his Russia, the Russia in which he grew up, not the Soviet Union, is evident. He never really got over the loss of his beloved Russia, and I suspect he felt it keenly every day of his life after he fled. His family left St. Petersburg in 1917 for the Crimea, which was not yet overrun by the Reds. A proud White Russian (he was to remain resolutely anti-Red, and therefore anti-Soviet, his entire life), he even considered joining Denikin’s* army to fight the Reds. Luckily, he did not, as he could have died and thus deprived the world of truly great literature.

His beloved cousin Yuri was not so lucky. Nabokov devotes the first part of Chapter 10 to his doomed cousin. As children, Nabokov and Yuri, who was a year and a half his senior, were great friends. Their relationship was to end rather violently in 1919 with Yuri’s death in the Civil War. Nabokov remembered his cousin thus, on page 155:

And three years later, as a cavalry officer in Denikin’s army, he was killed fighting the reds in northern Crimea. I saw him dead in Yalta, the whole front of his skull pushed back by the impact of several bullets, which had hit him like the iron board of the monstrous swing, when having outstripped his detachment he was in the act of recklessly attacking alone a Red machine-gun nest. Thus was quenched his lifelong thirst for intrepid conduct in battle, for that ultimate gallant gallop with drawn pistol or unsheathed sword. Had I been competent to write his epitaph, I might have summed up matters by saying—in richer words than I can muster here—that all emotions, all thoughts, were governed in Yuri by one gift: a sense of honor equivalent, morally, to absolute pitch.

High praise indeed.

Though I loved the book overall, it fell apart a bit towards the end. After writing about his childhood in excruciating, vivid detail, Nabokov described the years after fleeing from Russia with a sense of vagueness. He skims over his Cambridge years and neglected to mention meeting or even getting married to his wife, a fellow White Russian émigré. In the last few chapters, Nabokov adopted the second-person voice, directed at his wife. Stylistically, I did not care for this shift.

Speak, Memory is well-written, fascinating read that introduces us to long-gone but longed-for era as remembered by one of the twentieth century’s finest writers.

*This essay is not about the Russian Civil War specifically, so I did not want to go into detail about Denikin, one of the White generals. Anton Ivanovich Denikin was one of the commanders of the White forces. After the Whites were defeated, he fled Russia and died in the United States in 1947.