- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 9, 2005

claire hopley

on Vladimir Nabokov’s

speak memory

Autobiographers dance onto center stage trailing clouds of glory. Lowering their masks everso slightly, they unfasten a ribbon so a veil or two falls away. The audience settles back warmed by visions of succulent secrets that will soon be theirs. But autobiographers are not in the business of revealing all.

Like striptease artists, they aim to entrance, revealing much of interest, but always keeping some chiffon and sequins in place. And after all, when the autobiographer is a great writer, who needs warts and all? Admirers who want to know what fueled their books can learn as much from their styles of representation as from life’s nitty-gritty details — titillating as these may be.

Nobody has ever been more fastidious about what he disclosed than Vladimir Nabokov. His “Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited” (1966) collects a number of essays written and published in other forms between 1936 and 1951. Much worked over for republication in this book, they flit around his life from his birth in St. Petersburg in 1899 through the Russian Revolution that took him to England and Cambridge University in 1919, then into exile in Germany and France, and finally to America in 1940.

The chapters are arranged chronologically, but Nabokov often swoops ahead or looks behind, drawing curtains over many events and brushing others aside. But the events are not central. As the title suggests, the autobiography is about memory, which Nabokov lovingly cultivated, not least because it fostered connections.

He recalls General Kuropatkin making patterns of matches to amuse him as a child. An aide delivers a message; the general jumps up, and the matches scatter. Fifteen years later while fleeing from the Bolsheviks, an elderly man asks the Nabokovs for a light. It turns out to be the general disguised as a peasant. Nabokov reflects, “What pleases me is the evolution of the match theme: those magic ones he had shown me had been trifled with and mislaid, and his armies had also vanished, and everything had fallen through… . The following of such thematic designs through one’s life should be, I think, the true purpose of autobiography.”

To spot “thematic designs” Nabokov surveys his life as a sunlit scene shaded by drifting clouds. There’s an imposing townhouse, chauffeured cars, a silvery river, a pillared mansion, boys cycling down the lane, kerchiefed peasant girls kneeling barefoot to weed the flowerbeds. This is the landscape of a childhood spent in the family’s St. Petersburg mansion and their estates in the country.

The eldest son of a noted jurist who campaigned against the tsarist government, Nabokov grew up cosseted in the luxuries of great wealth and the adulation of his family. When he was 17 an uncle left him a 2,000-acre property plus an amount equal to two million dollars. It had little effect. “Against the background of our great prosperity no inheritance could seem very conspicuous,” he writes. In any case the year was 1916 and revolution was about to sweep inherited riches away.

Much more important, both as a child and as an adult, were his interests and skills. Brought up trilingual in Russian, French and English (he could read English before he could read Russian), he began writing poetry as a boy. He also began collecting butterflies and pursued them throughout his life, becoming in the 1940s a research lepidopterist at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology.

In addition, he taught literature at Wellesley College, and from 1948 to 1959 he was professor of Russian and European literature at Cornell.

Before this, he has already made his name as the most talented of Russia’s migr writers. Unable to support a family on works written in Russian but not published in the Soviet Union, he contemplated writing in French, but chose English when he emigrated to America as the safest place during the Second World War. He compared this change to that of “a champion figure skater switching to roller skates.”

His wife, a professional translator, insisted that having perfected a “very special and complex brand of Russian, all his own,” equally he tamed English into “something it had never been before in its melody and flexibility.”

Great wealth allied to great talents honed by stringent experience as an impoverished migr in interwar Europe — does this explain Nabokov’s achievements? Only somewhat. Many people are talented, but none has combined mastery of the modern novel in both Russian and English with significant achievements as a poet, translator, critic and lepidopterist.

For the key to Nabokov’s art, one mustturnto “Speak, Memory.” It shows Nabokov’s delight in memory as the source of joy. Recalling his uncle rediscovering some childhood storybooks and of himself finding the books years later, he explains, “I not only go through the same agony of delight that my uncle did, but have to cope with an additional burden — the recollection I have of him, reliving his childhood with the help of those very books. I see again my schoolroom in Vyra, the blue roses of the wallpaper, the open window. Its reflection fills the oval mirror above the leathern couch where my uncle sits, gloating over a tattered book. A sense of security, of summer warmth pervades my memory. That robust reality makes a ghost of the present. The mirror brims with brightness; a bumblebee has entered the room and bumps against the ceiling. Everything is as it should be, nothing will ever change, nobody will ever die.” Clearly, for Nabokov memory stabilizes the ephemeral — just as literature does.

The immersion in memories and the love of “following … thematic designs” made Nabokov a novelist of doubles, parodies, illusions, and puzzles rather than snapshot reality. His work is full of facets and reflections. Describing his passion for butterflies, he says “From the first it had a great many intertwinkling facets.” As a tiny child he adored his mother scattering her jewels on the bed so he could enjoy their prisms. “I was very small then and those flashing tiaras and chokers and rings seemed to be hardly inferior in mystery and enchantment to the illumination in the city during imperial fetes,” he recalls.

He loved the stained glass of a garden pavilion where at 15 he sheltered from a storm and was seized by the muse of poetry. “The sheer weight of a raindrop, shining in parasitic luxury on a cordate leaf, caused its tip to dip, and what looked like a globule of quicksilver performed a sudden glissando down the center vein, and then, having shed its bright load, the relieved leaf unbent. Tip, leaf, dip relief — the instant it all took to happen seemed to me not so much a fraction of time as a fissure in it, a missed heartbeat, which was refunded at once by a patter of rhymes.”

Like quicksilver drops, stained glass windows, faceted diamonds, Nabokov turns dull everyday stones into brilliant festival jewels. “Speak, Memory” repeatedly catches him in the act. Describing his mother’s return from picking mushrooms, he depicts her “Emerging from the nebulous depths of the park alley, her small figure cloaked and hooded in greenish-brown wool, on which countless droplets of moisture made a mist all around her.” Her mushrooms redolent of the damp woods, she is like Mother Russia, nurturing and transcendent.

In another evocation of his country, Nabokov waves his wand over a snowy scene and the moon appears at his command: “For one moment, thanks to the sudden radiance of a lone lamp … a grossly exaggerated shadow races beside the sleigh, climbs a billow of snow and is gone … And let me not leave out the moon — for surely there must be a moon, the full incredibly clear disc that goes so well with the Russian lusty frosts. So there it comes.”

Looking back to 1909 he describes playing cards on a train whose windows reflected the lock of a suitcase. Suddenly he is an elderly man. “On this gray winter morning, in the looking glass of my bright hotel room, I see shining, the same, the very same, locks of that now seventy-year old valise, a highish, heavyish necessaire de voyage of pigskin, with H.N. elaborately interwoven in thick silver under a similar coronet, which had been bought in 1897 for my mother’s wedding trip to Florence.”

It is tempting to call this nostalgia. But while the reader luxuriates in nostalgic homesickness for the never-experienced vanished life of wealthy pre-revolutionary Russia, Nabokov scorned compatriots who mourned their lost riches. He never returned to Russia. “What it would be actually to see my former surroundings, I can hardly imagine,” he writes after describing a teenage love affair. “Sometimes I fancy myself revisiting them with a false passport, under an assumed name. It could be done.”

But there was no need. Nabokov’s past remained fresh and bright as memory “gather[ed]to its fold the suspended and wandering tonalities of the past.”

Paradoxically, then, the power of Nabokov’s autobiography is not that it tells all about his life, but that it harnesses recollection to manifest the magic of the world. One does not have to be a great novelist to do this; one simply has to cultivate Memory, known to the ancient Greeks as Mnemosyne, Mother of the Arts.

Claire Hopley is a writer in Amherst, Mass.

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