Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0003357, Wed, 16 Sep 1998 08:26:49 -0700

SPEAK, MEMORY as "Book of the Century" (fwd)
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Date: Tue, 8 Sep 1998 23:59:25 -0400 (EDT)
From: chinnie.ding@yale.edu

Chinnie Ding

London Telegraph
14 March 1998

Book of the Century

Penelope Lively makes her choice

VLADIMIR Nabokov's Speak, Memory: an Autobiography
Revisited may not be the greatest book of the century -
but it is my choice as a book that speaks significantly
for the century. I find myself constantly revisiting it
- to savour again those amazing flights of language
which evoke the extinguished world of pre-Revolutionary
Russia. You do not go to it for facts, and least of all
for coherent chronology, but to experience a railway
journey from St Petersburg to the south of France in
1909, miraculously recovered by mere words - a pigskin
valise, creaking woodwork, slow lights stalking by, thin
black wires "doing their best to slant up, to ascend
skywards, despite the lightning blows dealt them by one
telegraph pole after another". Or, reading the account
of a childhood game - forging on hands and knees through
a tunnel behind a sofa in order to "be welcomed by the
mesh of sunshine on the parquet under the canework of a
Viennese chair and two gamesome flies settling by turns"
- to realise that you are, for an instant, seeing
through the eyes of a four-year-old in a Russian country
mansion nearly 100 years ago.

The book is episodic, unstructured, fragmented -
sometimes maddeningly so. You are told what Nabokov
chooses to tell. It was written in fits and starts
during the 1940s and first published as isolated
articles, mainly in The New Yorker. Yet there is, in the
end, a curious unity - the memoir is not a narrative, it
is a partial testimony only and thus perfectly reflects
the nature of memory itself. The Revolution smokes away
beneath the text - the cataclysm of history which
entirely redirects these lives and which will eradicate
their world. Nabokov treats public events with a sort of
angry contempt, using scattered icy reminders of what
happened: the linden trees in a park from whose branches
escaping children were shot down by the mounted police
quelling the 1905 uprising.

The section on émigré life in the 1930s at one point
charts Europe in terms of an immaculate recollection of
parks and public gardens - a nicely exact setting for
the dispossessed. The author picks up from a Berlin
bookstall a volume bearing his father's Ex Libris - a
waif from a disintegrated library, another kind of
diaspora. Speak, Memory is filled with such suggestions
of loss, but it is also vibrant, vigorous, a celebration
not just of language but also of an unquenchable vision,
as when the schoolboy Nabokov sees above the horizon of
an immense Russian sunset sky "a family of serene clouds
in miniature . . . my marvellous tomorrow ready to be
delivered to me".