Speak, Memory, p.1Vladimir Nabokov
BOOKS BY Vladimir Nabokov
King, Queen, Knave
Laughter in the Dark
Invitation to a Beheading
The Real Life of Sebastian Knight
Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle
Look at the Harlequins!
A Russian Beauty and Other Stories
Tyrants Destroyed and Other Stories
Details of a Sunset and Other Stories
The Waltz Invention
Lolita: A Screenplay
The Man from the USSR and Other Plays
AUTOBIOGRAPHY AND INTERVIEWS
Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited
BIOGRAPHY AND CRITICISM
Lectures on Literature
Lectures on Russian Literature
Lectures on Don Quixote
Three Russian Poets: Translations of Pushkin,
Lermontov, and Tiutchev
A Hero of Our Time (Mikhail Lermontov)
The Song of Igor's Campaign (Anon.)
Eugene Onegin (Alexander Pushkin)
Dear Bunny, Dear Volodya:
The Nabokov-Wilson Letters, 1940-1971
Vladimir Nabokov: Selected Letters, 1940-1977
Poems and Problems
The Annotated Lolita
First Vintage International Edition, August 1989
Copyright 1947, 1948, 1949, 1950, 1951, (c) 1967 by Vladimir Nabokov
All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. Published in the United States by Random House, Inc., New York. Originally published, in different form, by Harper & Bros., New York, in 1951. This edition published by arrangement with the Estate of Vladimir Nabokov.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Nabokov, Vladimir Vladimirovich, 1899-1977.
Speak, memory: an autobiography revisited / by
p. cm.--(Vintage international)
Rev. ed. of: Conclusive evidence. 1951.
1. Nabokov, Vladimir Vladimirovich, 1899-1977--Biography.
2. Authors, Russian--20th century--Biography. 3. Authors, American--20th century--Biography. I. Nabokov, Vladimir Vladimirovich, 1899-1977. Conclusive evidence. II. Title.
Cover art by Michael Bierut
Cover photograph by Alison Gootee
Other Books by This Author
About the Author
Books by Vladimir Nabokov
THE present work is a systematically correlated assemblage of personal recollections ranging geographically from St. Petersburg to St. Nazaire, and covering thirty-seven years, from August 1903 to May 1940, with only a few sallies into later space-time. The essay that initiated the series corresponds to what is now Chapter Five. I wrote it in French, under the title of "Mademoiselle O," thirty years ago in Paris, where Jean Paulhan published it in the second issue of Mesures, 1936. A photograph (published recently in Gisele Freund's James Joyce in Paris) commemorates this event, except that I am wrongly identified (in the Mesures group relaxing around a garden table of stone) as "Audiberti."
In America, whither I migrated on May 28, 1940, "Mademoiselle O" was translated by the late Hilda Ward into English, revised by me, and published by Edward Weeks in the January, 1943, issue of The Atlantic Monthly (which was also the first magazine to print my stories written in America). My association with The New Yorker had begun (through Edmund Wilson) with a short poem in April 1942, followed by other fugitive pieces; but my first prose composition appeared there only on January 3, 1948: this was "Portrait of My Uncle" (Chapter Three of the complete work), written in June 1947 at Columbine Lodge, Estes Park, Colo., where my wife, child, and I could not have stayed much longer had not Harold Ross hit it off so well with the ghost of my past. The same magazine also published Chapter Four ("My English Education," March 27, 1948), Chapter Six ("Butterflies," June 12, 1948), Chapter Seven ("Colette," July 31, 1948) and Chapter Nine ("My Russian Education," September 18, 1948), all written in Cambridge, Mass., at a time of great mental and physical stress, as well as Chapter Ten ("Curtain-Raiser," January 1, 1949), Chapter Two ("Portrait of My Mother," April 9, 1949), Chapter Twelve ("Tamara," December 10, 1949), Chapter Eight ("Lantern Slides," February 11, 1950; H. R.'s query: "Were the Nabokovs a one-nutcracker family?"), Chapter One ("Perfect Past," April 15, 1950), and Chapter Fifteen ("Gardens and Parks," June 17, 1950), all written in Ithaca, N.Y.
Of the remaining three chapters, Chapters Eleven and Fourteen appeared in the Partisan Review ("First Poem," September, 1949, and "Exile," January-February, 1951), while Chapter Thirteen went to Harper's Magazine ("Lodgings in Trinity Lane," January, 1951).
The English version of "Mademoiselle O" has been republished in Nine Stories (New Directions, 1947), and Nabokov's Dozen (Doubleday, 1958; Heinemann, 1959; Popular Library, 1959; and Penguin Books, 1960); in the latter collection, I also included "First Love," which became the darling of anthologists.
Although I had been composing these chapters in the erratic sequence reflected by the dates of first publication given above, they had been neatly filling numbered gaps in my mind which followed the present order of chapters. That order had been established in 1936, at the placing of the cornerstone which already held in its hidden hollow various maps, timetables, a collection of matchboxes, a chip of ruby glass, and even--as I now realize--the view from my balcony of Geneva lake, of its ripples and glades of light, black-dotted today, at teatime, with coots and tufted ducks. I had no trouble therefore in assembling a volume which Harper & Bros. of New York brought out in 1951, under the title Conclusive Evidence; conclusive evidence of my having existed. Unfortunately, the phrase suggested a mystery story, and I planned to entitle the British edition Speak, Mnemosyne but was told that "little old ladies would not want to ask for a book whose title they could not pronounce." I also toyed with The Anthemion which is the name of a honeysuckle ornament, consisting of elaborate interlacements and expanding clusters, but nobody liked it; so we finally settled for Speak, Memory (Gollancz, 1951, and The Universal Library, N.Y., 1960). Its translations are: Russian, by the author (Drugie Berega, The Chekhov Publishing House, N.Y., 1954), French, by Yvonne Davet (Autres Rivages, Gallimard, 1961), Italian, by Bruno Oddera (Parla, Ricordo, Mondadori, 1962), Spanish, by Jaime Pineiro Gonzales (!Habla, memoria!, 1963) and German, by Dieter E. Zimmer (Rowohlt, 1964). This exhausts the necessary amount of bibliographic information, which jittery critics who were annoyed by the
While writing the first version in America I was handicapped by an almost complete lack of data in regard to family history, and, consequently, by the impossibility of checking my memory when I felt it might be at fault. My father's biography has been amplified now, and revised. Numerous other revisions and additions have been made, especially in the earlier chapters. Certain tight parentheses have been opened and allowed to spill their still active contents. Or else an object, which had been a mere dummy chosen at random and of no factual significance in the account of an important event, kept bothering me every time I reread that passage in the course of correcting the proofs of various editions, until finally I made a great effort, and the arbitrary spectacles (which Mnemosyne must have needed more than anybody else) were metamorphosed into a clearly recalled oystershell-shaped cigarette case, gleaming in the wet grass at the foot of an aspen on the Chemin du Pendu, where I found on that June day in 1907 a hawkmoth rarely met with so far west, and where a quarter of a century earlier, my father had netted a Peacock butterfly very scarce in our northern woodlands.
In the summer of 1953, at a ranch near Portal, Arizona, at a rented house in Ashland, Oregon, and at various motels in the West and Midwest, I managed, between butterfly-hunting and writing Lolita and Pnin, to translate Speak, Memory, with the help of my wife, into Russian. Because of the psychological difficulty of replaying a theme elaborated in my Dar (The Gift), I omitted one entire chapter (Eleven). On the other hand, I revised many passages and tried to do something about the amnesic defects of the original--blank spots, blurry areas, domains of dimness. I discovered that sometimes, by means of intense concentration, the neutral smudge might be forced to come into beautiful focus so that the sudden view could be identified, and the anonymous servant named. For the present, final, edition of Speak, Memory I have not only introduced basic changes and copious additions into the initial English text, but have availed myself of the corrections I made while turning it into Russian. This re-Englishing of a Russian re-version of what had been an English re-telling of Russian memories in the first place, proved to be a diabolical task, but some consolation was given me by the thought that such multiple metamorphosis, familiar to butterflies, had not been tried by any human before.
Among the anomalies of a memory, whose possessor and victim should never have tried to become an autobiographer, the worst is the inclination to equate in retrospect my age with that of the century. This has led to a series of remarkably consistent chronological blunders in the first version of this book. I was born in April 1899, and naturally, during the first third of, say, 1903, was roughly three years old; but in August of that year, the sharp "3" revealed to me (as described in "Perfect Past") should refer to the century's age, not to mine, which was "4" and as square and resilient as a rubber pillow. Similarly, in the early summer of 1906--the summer I began to collect butterflies--I was seven and not six as stated initially in the catastrophic second paragraph of Chapter 6. Mnemosyne, one must admit, has shown herself to be a very careless girl.
All dates are given in the New Style: we lagged twelve days behind the rest of the civilized world in the nineteenth century, and thirteen in the beginning of the twentieth. By the Old Style I was born on April 10, at daybreak, in the last year of the last century, and that was (if I could have been whisked across the border at once) April 22 in, say, Germany; but since all my birthdays were celebrated, with diminishing pomp, in the twentieth century, everybody, including myself, upon being shifted by revolution and expatriation from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian, used to add thirteen, instead of twelve days to the 10th of April. The error is serious. What is to be done? I find "April 23" under "birth date" in my most recent passport, which is also the birth date of Shakespeare, my nephew Vladimir Sikorski, Shirley Temple and Hazel Brown (who, moreover, shares my passport). This, then, is the problem. Calculatory ineptitude prevents me from trying to solve it.
When after twenty years of absence I sailed back to Europe, I renewed ties that had been undone even before I had left it. At these family reunions, Speak, Memory was judged. Details of date and circumstance were checked, and it was found that in many cases I had erred, or had not examined deeply enough an obscure but fathomable recollection. Certain matters were dismissed by my advisers as legends or rumors or, if genuine, were proven to be related to events or periods other than those to which frail memory had attached them. My cousin Sergey Sergeevich Nabokov gave me invaluable information on the history of our family. Both my sisters angrily remonstrated against my description of the journey to Biarritz (beginning of Chapter Seven) and by pelting me with specific details convinced me I had been wrong in leaving them behind ("with nurses and aunts"!). What I still have not been able to rework through want of specific documentation, I have now preferred to delete for the sake of over-all truth. On the other hand, a number of facts relating to ancestors and other personages have come to light and have been incorporated in this final version of Speak, Memory. I hope to write some day a "Speak on, Memory," covering the years 1940-60 spent in America: the evaporation of certain volatiles and the melting of certain metals are still going on in my coils and crucibles.
The reader will find in the present work scattered references to my novels, but on the whole I felt that the trouble of writing them had been enough and that they should remain in the first stomach. My recent introductions to the English translations of Zashchita Luzhina, 1930 (The Defense, Putnam, 1964), Otchayanie, 1936 (Despair, Putnam, 1966), Priglashenie na kazn', 1938 (Invitation to a Beheading, Putnam, 1959), Dar, 1952, serialized 1937-38 (The Gift, Putnam, 1963) and Soglyadatay, 1938 (The Eye, Phaedra, 1965) give a sufficiently detailed, and racy, account of the creative part of my European past. For those who would like a fuller list of my publications, there is the detailed bibliography, worked out by Dieter E. Zimmer (Vladimir Nabokov Bibliographie des Gesamtwerks, Rowohlt, 1st ed. December, 1963; 2nd revised ed. May, 1964).
The two-mover described in the last chapter has been republished in Chess Problems by Lipton, Matthews & Rice (Faber, London 1963, p. 252). My most amusing invention, however, is a "White-retracts-move" problem which I dedicated to E. A. Znosko-Borovski, who published it, in the nineteen-thirties (1934?), in the emigre daily Poslednie Novosti, Paris. I do not recall the position lucidly enough to notate it here, but perhaps some lover of "fairy chess" (to which type of problem it belongs) will look it up some day in one of those blessed libraries where old newspapers are microfilmed, as all our memories should be. Reviewers read the first version more carelessly than they will this new edition: only one of them noticed my "vicious snap" at Freud in the first paragraph of Chapter Eight, section 2, and none discovered the name of a great cartoonist and a tribute to him in the last sentence of section 2, Chapter Eleven. It is most embarrassing for a writer to have to point out such things himself.
To avoid hurting the living or distressing the dead, certain proper names have been changed. These are set off by quotation marks in the index. Its main purpose is to list for my convenience some of the people and themes connected with my past years. Its presence will annoy the vulgar but may please the discerning, if only because
Through the window of that index
Climbs a rose
And sometimes a gentle wind ex
January 5, 1966
This photograph, taken in 1955 by an obliging American tourist, shows the Nabokov house, of pink granite with frescoes and other Italianate ornaments, in St. Petersburg, now Leningrad, 47, Morskaya, now Hertzen Street. Aleksandr Ivanovich Hertzen (1812-1870) was a famous liberal (whom this commemoration by a police state would hardly have gratified) as well as the talented author of Biloe i Dumi (translatable as "Bygones and Meditations"), one of my father's favorite books. My room was on the third floor, above the oriel. The lind
THE cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness. Although the two are identical twins, man, as a rule, views the prenatal abyss with more calm than the one he is heading for (at some forty-five hundred heartbeats an hour). I know, however, of a young chronophobiac who experienced something like panic when looking for the first time at homemade movies that had been taken a few weeks before his birth. He saw a world that was practically unchanged--the same house, the same people--and then realized that he did not exist there at all and that nobody mourned his absence. He caught a glimpse of his mother waving from an upstairs window, and that unfamiliar gesture disturbed him, as if it were some mysterious farewell. But what particularly frightened him was the sight of a brand-new baby carriage standing there on the porch, with the smug, encroaching air of a coffin; even that was empty, as if, in the reverse course of events, his very bones had disintegrated.
Such fancies are not foreign to young lives. Or, to put it otherwise, first and last things often tend to have an adolescent note--unless, possibly, they are directed by some venerable and rigid religion. Nature expects a full-grown man to accept the two black voids, fore and aft, as stolidly as he accepts the extraordinary visions in between. Imagination, the supreme delight of the immortal and the immature, should be limited. In order to enjoy life, we should not enjoy it too much.
I rebel against this state of affairs. I feel the urge to take my rebellion outside and picket nature. Over and over again, my mind has made colossal efforts to distinguish the faintest of personal glimmers in the impersonal darkness on both sides of my life. That this darkness is caused merely by the walls of time separating me and my bruised fists from the free world of timelessness is a belief I gladly share with the most gaudily painted savage. I have journeyed back in thought--with thought hopelessly tapering off as I went--to remote regions where I groped for some secret outlet only to discover that the prison of time is spherical and without exits. Short of suicide, I have tried everything. I have doffed my identity in order to pass for a conventional spook and steal into realms that existed before I was conceived. I have mentally endured the degrading company of Victorian lady novelists and retired colonels who remembered having, in former lives, been slave messengers on a Roman road or sages under the willows of Lhasa. I have ransacked my oldest dreams for keys and clues--and let me say at once that I reject completely the vulgar, shabby, fundamentally medieval world of Freud, with its crankish quest for sexual symbols (something like searching for Baconian acrostics in Shakespeare's works) and its bitter little embryos spying, from their natural nooks, upon the love life of their parents.
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