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Speak, Memory Hardcover – Mar 23 1999
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Even if you already own Nabokov's earthy, otherworldly account of his astounding life, you must buy this 1999 edition. And if you've never read Speak, Memory, you must do so at once. This volume is essential because it includes the unpublished last chapter, a pseudo-review comparing Speak, Memory with another, nonexistent memoir called When Lilacs Last. (That title refers to Whitman's poem on Lincoln's assassination and to the lilacs of Nabokov's childhood home) Chapter 16 is a key to what the imaginary reviewer accurately calls a "unique freak as autobiographies go," revealing its novel-like nature and unifying themes and images (chess, puzzles, spirals, jewels, rainbows, exile, the stained-glass shadow patterns that the future casts on the present). Maybe Nabokov thought he gave too much away, and one sees the formal superiority of ending the book with chapter 15. But the added essay is a gem that dazzles and illuminates.
You have to consult biographies like Brian Boyd's for the full, remarkable facts of Nabokov's life. A millionaire at 17 (his sister danced in Diaghilev gowns with Fabergé gems at the Winter Palace), repeatedly exiled, forced to bust out of one chrysalis after another into new lives, the writer retained only the infinite wealth of his memory and art. This book is a mosaic shaped by a mind so metaphorical that, as a babe, Nabokov perceived letters as colors, the alphabet as a rainbow.
The loss of his father is at Speak, Memory's core. This memoir is worth owning for a single paragraph alone, about the sight of Nabokov senior being tossed aloft by grateful peasants he'd been generous to--a dozen or so with locked arms flinging him up in a hip-hip-hooray ritual.
There, for an instant, the figure of my father in his wind-rippled white summer suit would be displayed, gloriously sprawled in midair.... Thrice, to the mighty heave-ho of his invisible tossers, he would fly up ... and then there he would be, on his last and loftiest flight, reclining, as if for good, against the cobalt blue of the summer noon, like one of those paradisiac personages who comfortably soar, with such a wealth of folds in their garments, on the vaulted ceiling of a church while below, one by one, the wax tapers in mortal hands light up to make a swarm of minute flames in the mist of incense, and the priest chants of eternal repose, and funeral lilies conceal the face of whoever lies there, among the swimming lights, in the open coffin.Nabokov recaptures the paradise of his youth, and acquits himself of the coldness of which some accuse him. He plays literary games, but he plays for keeps. --Tim Appelo
From Library Journal
Published as Conclusive Evidence in 1951 and later revised in 1966, Nabokov's title has been further updated with an additional, previously unseen chapter. Considering his profile in world literature, this is essential for public and academic libraries.
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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Nabokov's ancestors had numerous and diverse contacts with the world of letters. Nabokov says that his nostalgia is nostalgia for a lost childhood not lost banknotes. The kind of Russian family to which Nabokov belonged had a leaning toward English products, Pears soap, English toothpaste. Vladimir learned to read English before he learned to read Russian.
One is always at home in one's past. Vladimir found his own French governess and his mother's governess living in retirement in Lausanne, Switzerland. The women spoke to one another then, although in the past when they were in the same house they ignored one another.
He was born in St. Petersburg in 1899. The tutor started in 1906. When he was eleven his father decided that he should attend school. His father belonged to the great classless intelligentsia in Russia. In 1917-18 the family was put into a position of utter insecurity. His father became a minister of justice and the family was lodged near Yalta. In 1919 three Nabokov families fled Russia via the Crimea and Greece. From 1920 to 1940 Nabokov spent time preparing chess problems.
The book has pictures and an index. The publishing history of the book's parts appears in the forward. The book has charm. The fascination of the study of butterflies is treated by the author. Another subject covered is an extensive catalogue of both near and distant ancestors of the Nabokovs.
Describing his life gives him a more fluid form than were he to list facts about himself. Both rubrics cube and the swirled marble hold colors and both are more than just a simple box or sphere. It is the marble only, which contains frozen movement. Nabokov describes his life using prose and nature. He could have written the entire book as he did Chapter Three, but that bland, impersonal writing style, the detached categorizing, would not be as appealing as his imagery from nature and his rich prose are.
“Now and then, shed by a blossoming tree, a petal would come own, down, down, and with the odd feeling of seeing something neither worshiper nor casual spectator ought to see, one would manage to glimpse its reflection which swiftly—more swiftly than the petal fell—rose to meet it; and, for the fraction of a second, one feared that the trick would not work, that the blessed oil would not catch fire, that the reflection might miss and the petal float away alone, but every time the delicate union did take place, with the magic precision of a poet’s word meeting halfway his, or a reader’s recollection” (271).
Nabokov wants to make sure that his audience departs with what he is trying to convey—his ideas, himself. The petal is Nabokov, the “float down” is similar to death (the petals die after falling), the reflection is the water is the audience, and the reflection is the reflection of Nabokov’s essence. Nabokov wants the world, his audience, to catch him as he falls, to preserve him and reflect exactly what he sees himself as being. He worries that when he finishes falling, that the trick will not work. He is afraid that the petal will float away alone, the reflection lost somewhere in the stream. The “magic” connection is vital to Nabokov’s preservation. He wants to immortalize his memories, his thoughts, himself. To accomplish this, other people must remember him as he sees himself. He must be able to clearly convey what’s in his mind. The more people who remember him, understand him, and relate to him, the longer he will last. Writing about his life while using imagery from everyday life and nature is part of what Nabokov uses to ensure his preservation. The reason for this being that most people have seen some of nature and can imagine the feeling he is expressing through his imagery. Nabokov’s autobiography stays alive when it is preserved in nature because nature is living. The butterflies drifting amongst a sea of grass, the caterpillar stretching to see where its leaf went, all of these are in action (44). Writing about nature and life in prose serves to further add to this living feeling because prose is melodious and varies. So rather than kill his life by turning it into a list of facts and dates, Nabokov is able to seal it in a sort of biosphere, keeping everything inside his autobiography alive.
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