NABOKV-L post 0000815, Thu, 9 Nov 1995 16:49:31 -0800

Subject
Ray MLA Abstract (fwd)
Date
Body
Kevin Ray
Olin Library and Dept. of English
Washington University


"_Mon Semblable, Mon Frere_":
Brotherhood, Silence, and the Unknowable in SPEAK, MEMORY


In what would be a simple three-page description of the ambivalent
relations between brothers of very different temperaments, Nabokov, in
SPEAK, MEMORY, sounds a deep note of troubled regret. After a quick
dispatch of Kirill, placing him within the author's created life, setting,
circumscribing him within the limits of the writer's self-definition,
Nabokov returns to Sergey and attempts again what he has, by his own
admission, failed before. "For various reasons," he writes, of Sergey,
ten months his junior, "I find it inordinately hard to speak about my
other brother." To Kirill, his youngest brother and godson, "as happened
in Russian families," Nabokov devotes two brief paragraphs of likeness and
affection, the younger brother echoing, somewhat diminished, the life and
the enthusiasms of the elder. "He loved seaside resorts and rich food,"
Nabokov writes, and we sense the comfort of his recognition. "He loathed,
as much as I do, bullfighting. He spoke five languages. He was a
dedicated practical joker. His one great reality in life was literature,
especially Russian poetry." Kirill is, for Nabokov, explicable, and can
be mapped into his own life.

But Sergey is not mappable, does not make himself available to Nabokov's
memory and to the shaping of his pen; he remains enigmatic, to his
brother's obvious frustration. Commentator's on Nabokov's representation
of this "other brother" have offered, as a rule, two explanations, origins
for distance in childhood, in adulthood, and persisting long into memory:
Sergey's homosexuality, revealed through Vladimir's indiscretion, and the
tragic bravery of his death. Both are strongly operative, but neither
accounts for Nabokov's hesitation and the narrative blankness that issues
from the problem of representing Sergey. Rather, Sergey is narratively
created _as a problem_; he is created as a problem of memory, an absence.
While other elements of Nabokov's life and family history may be forgotten
-- lapses still somewhere present, able to be retrieved -- Sergey is, at
heart, that unretrievable of absences, a person never known, always alien.
He is, in Nabokov's narrative of memory, a blind spot. SPEAK, MEMORY,
centered around the unknowable, unrememberable, hence unwritable, places
Nabokov in a circumstance in which, as in the narratives of his
much-unloved Freud, forgetfulness overtakes memory, and absence makes
itself felt more powerfully than presence. Sergey is a place of unbeing,
unknowing.

In this attempted, continually failing, recovery of the personal past,
Sergey's attributes become attenuated, the senses by which Nabokov may
know him (directly or by affinity) fewer, until Nabokov is left sifting
impressions which are insistently visual. The author, sensing that,
unlike Kirill, unlike others, _this_ is one who has never been known, has
never been an intimate, another self, tries to construct this "other
brother" from the outside in, from shards, fragments, visual clues. But
Sergey remains effaced, and defeats him again; he will not be remembered
whole. This paper asserts the centrality of Nabokov's failure to recover
and represent Sergey to the memorial project of this decidedly
un-Proustian book.