Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0027176, Mon, 26 Sep 2016 01:24:05 +0000

[SIGHTING] Speak, Memory
Why Nabokov's Speak, Memory Still Speaks to Us
Remembering one of the greatest memoirs ever written
By Danny Heitman<https://www.neh.gov/humanities/author/danny-heitman> | HUMANITIES, Summer 2016 | Volume 37, Number 3

Earlier this year, when the New York Times asked novelist and essayist Roger Rosenblatt to name the best memoir he'd read recently, he was unequivocal in his reply. "Speak, Memory, recently or ever," Rosenblatt told the Times.
He was referring to the classic account by Vladimir Nabokov (1899-1977) of his idyllic Russian childhood in a family of colorful aristocrats, the 1917 Bolshevik revolution that banished him to exile, and the path that would eventually lead him to live in the United States.
Rosenblatt is far from alone in hailing Speak, Memory as a gem. "To write superior autobiography one requires not only literary gifts, which are obtainable with effort, but an intrinsically interesting life, which is less frequently available," literary critic Joseph Epstein once observed. "Those who possess the one are frequently devoid of the other, and vice versa. Only a fortunate few are able to reimagine their lives, to find themes and patterns that explain a life, in the way successful autobiography requires. Vladimir Nabokov was among them." After closing the pages of Speak, Memory, John Updike, no slouch himself as a prose stylist, was carried away. "Nabokov has never written English better than in these reminiscences; never has he written so sweetly," he declared. "With tender precision and copious wit . . . inspired by an atheist's faith in the magic of simile and the sacredness of lost time, Nabokov makes of his past a brilliant icon-bejewelled, perspectiveless, untouchable."
Updike was writing in 1966, the year that the definitive version of Speak, Memory, subtitled An Autobiography Revisited, was published. That edition is 50 years old this year, still in print after half a century, and still attracting new readers. Perhaps no one would be more surprised at the book's longevity than Nabokov himself. He pronounced the memoir "a dismal flop" after its release, lamenting that it brought him "fame but little money."
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Clearly, Nabokov wrote for the eye, which isn't surprising for a man who claimed to hear language as a form of color. The long a of English "has for me the tint of weathered wood," he mentioned by way of example. "I see q as browner than k," he added, "while s is not the light blue of c, but a curious mixture of azure and mother-of-pearl."
Nabokov's pairing of sound and color, a mixing of the senses known as synesthesia, recalls Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time, in which the taste of a madeleine cookie prompts an involuntary flood of childhood memories. Like Proust, Nabokov sometimes celebrates memory as a spiritual epiphany, the past prompting personal revelation through the magical alchemy that renders experience into literature.
"Nabokov once said that he was 'born a painter,'" scholars Stephen H. Blackwell and Kurt Johnson point out, also noting that as a boy Nabokov took drawing lessons from the celebrated artist Mstislav Dobuzhinsky.
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In a new book, Fine Lines, Blackwell and Johnson argue that Nabokov was more than a mere amateur lepidopterist, his drawings and insights making a real contribution to understanding evolutionary biology. "I cannot separate the aesthetic pleasure of seeing a butterfly and the scientific pleasure of knowing what it is," Nabokov said.
On his road trips through America, Nabokov gained a familiarity with the landscape that would inform Lolita, his signature novel. Decades after its publication, Lolita's subject matter continues to shock, and its most disturbing aspect lies in its basic contradiction: How could something so beautifully written advance a story of such utter debasement? Here again, Nabokov's enduring fascination with memory figures into his art. The novel's central character, Humbert Humbert, tells the story in retrospect, giving a morally bankrupt relationship the grandness of myth. Lolita is about many things, but one of its themes is the plasticity of the perceived past-how it can be bent through the biases of recollection to serve our personal conceits. In a kind of counterpoint to Speak, Memory's treatment of the past as pure transcendence when transmuted into narrative, Lolita hints at literary recollection as a corrupting influence as dark as Humbert's carnal appetites. That Humbert is a supremely sophisticated aesthete suggests the book as a cautionary tale about the black magic of art, its power to not only define reality but distort it.
But in Speak, Memory, Nabokov implies that memory, flawed though it may be, is the closest thing we have to a fixed star in a rootless world. He speculates that, when it came to remembering things, "Russian children of my generation passed through a period of genius, as if destiny were loyally trying what it could for them by giving them more than their share, in view of the cataclysm that was to remove completely the world they had known."
Danny Heitman, a columnist for The Advocate newspaper in Louisiana, is the author of A Summer of Birds: John James Audubon at Oakley House. His Humanities essay on H. L. Mencken was listed as a Notable Essay of the Year in Houghton Mifflin's Best American Essays 2015.

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