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Paperback Speak, Memory : An Autobiography Revisited Book

ISBN: 0679723390

ISBN13: 9780679723394

Speak, Memory : An Autobiography Revisited

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Book Overview

Speak, Memory, first published in 1951 as Conclusive Evidence and then assiduously revised in 1966, is an elegant and rich evocation of Nabokov's life and times, even as it offers incisive insights into his major works, including Lolita , Pnin , Despair , The Gift , The Real Life of Sebastian Knigh t, and The Defense .

Customer Reviews

5 ratings


Personally, I like everything Nabokov did if only because reading him makes me a better writer. He is a "master stylist" cut from the cloth of James Joyce (in terms of his innovation and talent) who challenges his audience at every turn. When devouring his fiction, I am sure that there are many things I miss due to my being no great genius of literary analysis, but time with Nabokov is invariably time well spent. I make a point of circling those lines and turns of phrase which are strikingly original in the hopes that my own skills improve via his brilliant examples. I do the same thing with vocabulary words which was particularly the case with Speak, Memory as I bracketed off those terms with which I am not familiar. Thus, it seems that studying Nabokov is an essential tutorial for the aspiring writer. This, his autobiography, is absolutely charming and easily accessible for those readers intimidated by his other works. The author describes his early life in Russia--and vicariously, life in Tsarist Russia in general--and provides us with a captivating history of his family. Unfortunately, I found that it ended too soon. I longed for another 200 pages so his development as a novelist could be more fully explored. Nabokov, like so many writers, appears to have been the quintessential introvert and his environmental struggles are quite compelling. This is an astounding work that should be consulted repeatedly.

Perhaps The Greatest Autobiography You'll Ever Read

I re-read SPEAK, MEMORY once a year or so; on every occasion I am left in awe of Nabokov's skill as a prose stylist, and am dazzled by the memories he re-creates here. This is notable as the work of a writer of astounding technical skill and erudition, but also the work of someone who has a well-formed regard for his audience. At the very least, Nabokov expects that his audience will also be very intelligent. Thus, what we are left with here is something far beyond a typical "self-portrait at 20," instead we are left with recollections reframed, recalled and rendered with an adamantine clarity that shimmers and dazzles - after reading the descriptions of a youth spent on a Russian estate one can smell the frost in the air, note the detail on the wings of the butterflies oft referenced, or almost see the long, northern latitude sunsets for yourself. Technically formidable, engrossing and magical - this is one of very few books that I think everyone should read once. -David Alston

Nostalgic & Brilliantly Written

It is known that the great author worked on this project for many years, collecting photographs, letters, scraps of unfinished poetry, searching his past in order to write a close to accurate account of his early life. In fact this autobiography is atypical, similar to a wandering mind, grasping at images, sights and smells, recollections, reminisces, rather than a chronological,'factual' version of a life lived. The opening sentence of Speak, Memory, to my mind, is probably one of the most moving and haunting recollections in an autobiography ever read: "The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness." The narrator continues on to describe a young chronophobiac who experienced panic when he viewed an old home movie, seeing his mother wave from an upstairs window and below, a brand-new baby carriage standing alone, realizing that the carriage was his own days before his actual birth. This disturbed him as the feeling of peering at a world days before he came into existence, sort of a reverse course of events, was akin to staring directly into eternity. Nabokov's childhood and adolescence was an enchanting one, part of an aristocratic family, a beautiful mother and a liberal-minded father who had a vast library, where little Vladimir would arrive home to find him practicing his fencing, the clanging of blades, with a colleague. This was a civilized existence in St. Petersburg before the onslaught of the Russian Revolution. Similar to most aristocratic families at the time, the Bolsheviks seized the family fortune, forcing the family to flee their beloved Russia to Germany. But when Nabokov looks back at this tumultuous period, he says, "My old (since 1917) quarrel with the Soviet Dictatorship is wholly unrelated to any question of property. The nostalgia I have been cherishing all these years is a hypertrophied sense of lost childhood, not sorrow for lost banknotes." The book is strewn with old black and white photographs of Nabokov's family. There is one particular photograph of his father and mother taken circa 1900 at their estate at Vrya, which really depicts the aristocratic demeanour and pure strength of the author's father. In the background are the birches and firs of the countryside where Nabokov discovered his life-long passion with butterfly collecting. Even if the reader is not familiar with the great novels of Nabokov: Lolita, Pale Fire, The Eye and many others, will certainly enjoy this unique and brilliantly written autobiography by one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century.

The Greatest Autobiography of Twentieth Century

Speak, Memory is primarily concerned with Nabokov's life prior to his emigration to America in 1940. Unlike regular autobiographies it is not a traditional chronological sequence of dates and facts, but, rather, Nabokov's memory of certain events thematically linked to the creation of himself as an artist and as the person that he himself is, at present moment of time when he is writing the book. Basically, I think he must have asked himself the question - "Where did I come from and how did I become who I am?" as perhaps all of us have asked ourselves at some point in time and then set out to answer the question using the two rare tools he had at his disposal - memory and imagination. As he says somewhere in the book when he manages to link some event in the childhood to something that happened to him in later years - "The following of such thematic designs through one's life should be, I think, the true purpose of autobiography." This idea of defining the Self through a narrative, that is life, is the central aesthetic idea of the book. This also explains the structure of the book and for an autobiography, it's structure is quite complex. Perhaps that's why it is also called by critics the "most artistic of autobiographies". Nabokov starts off each chapter with a theme, generally with the help of some evocative image and pursues it through different phases of his life. And in this way he is able to delineate the various fragments of his personality and self in detail so that everything starts making sense as a whole. Everything, of course, looks easy and effortless in Nabokov's hands. While reading the book, it seems, all the facts, images, feelings and evocations are concrete things stored at some place well known to the author and he simply picks them up as he pleases and serves them to the reader after dressing them up in his delicate prose. But of course it is not so easy. And anyone who has tried to remember and recreate his childhood and past time (as perhaps all of us have) and managed only hazy uncertainties will attest to it. I think that's why most of us, even those who are otherwise totally unsympathetic to Nabokov as a writer and person, will find in the book parallels to our own attempts to figure out where we came from and who we are. And for those of us who are cursed with defective or selective memories (or should I say blessed?) this book offers a poignant reminder of how much we have irretrievably lost and teaches us to see and notice things as if we are noticing own future recollection because that's the only way to regain all lost paradises (to use a Proustian phrase). I think the impulse to rediscover and reclaim childhood is deep in human nature and is present in all of us, and thus the chord "Speak, Memory" touches is truly universal and makes it a great book.

if you read no other Nabokov

I honestly don't consider myself competent to judge whether Nabokov is one of the century's greatest writers. Like many of his contemporaries, much of his work is so obscure as to defy my comprehension, but I do very much like what I understand in Pale Fire and Lolita, both of which made the Modern Library Top 100 Novels of the Century, and, of course, to read him is to be exposed to an English language and a prose style that one little knew existed. So I am more than willing to acknowledge that he was a singular and immense talent. It is altogether fitting then that his memoirs too should be unique.For the most part, Nabokov's mission here is literally to let his memory speak. In so doing he recreates late czarist Russia in loving, painstaking detail. While to the best of my knowledge Nabokov was never particularly identified with the anti-Communist émigré movement, this book is its own kind of indictment of the USSR. The case it lays out is not the political or the economic one but the historical and cultural one. As he says: My old (since 1917) quarrel with the Soviet dictatorship is wholly unrelated to any question of property. My contempt for the émigré 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. And finally: I reserve for myself the right to yearn after an ecological niche: ...Beneath the sky Of my America to sigh For one locality in Russia.The crimes of the commissars are without number and most are far greater than this, but this richly textured, impossibly specific and deeply moving memoir so brilliantly transports the reader to what seems to have been a wonderful and altogether innocent existence that to that list of crimes must be added the Bolsheviks utter destruction of this world. Even if you've never liked any of his other books, do yourself a favor and read this one. Even the passages that defy comprehension are beautiful.GRADE: A
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