I haven’t read a huge amount of Vladimir Nabokov’s novels, only the very obvious one and probably the second most obvious one (Pale Fire – though is Pnin a bit more famous?), so I approached his memoir, Speak, Memory, not as an avid completist seeking extra prose, but as someone who enjoys experimental fiction (though that of other people more than his) and is an increasingly clingy lover of memoir. Of non-fiction. Of things that are “true”, written novelisticly, ideally by novelists. Thus, I came for the life, not the writer.
Nabokov’s memoir ends when he leaves Europe for America, so though he is already a reasonably successful novelist writing in a language of a country he may not visit for the eyes of those who also may not visit it, he is not yet the Nabokov (I’d have capitalised that if I didn’t normally capitalise names) that he would later become. The only nymphets in the early years of his life are the real life women he romanced when a young and lusty man.*
Nabokov’s family were rich and fucking connected in Tsarist Russia, hence the going on the run after the Bolsheviks took over. His father was both a feudal landowner and a “liberal” politician, very much establishment, though (by all accounts) a nice man who wouldn’t really tolerate the exploitation of anyone. His mother was nice, his tutors were nice, his uncles were nice, his brother (who died in a Nazi concentration camp) was nice, his servants were nice and he wasn’t avaricious or angry because of his lost wealth (which he says, at one point, would have been (personally, in his teens) the equivalent of a couple of million American dollars. That’s a figure from the ’60s, remember…)
No one, no one close to Nabokov, is really bad. He makes fun of some of the fat women and overly-earnest men who tutored him and his brother, and this idyllic world of humongous wealth, when it comes to an abrupt end, seems only to be opening up and folding into to another great adventure, one which (it must be said) Nabokov definitely excelled in, perhaps because of his optimistic attitude.
I suppose, because Nabokov was born into money and was very, very successful at the discipline I am trying to hone my skills at, any attempt at criticism of him could (probably fairly) be deemed as classist jealousy.
Because I did, alas, really enjoy this book. I loved his descriptions of rural Russia, of glamorous holidays across Europe in the first decade of the twentieth century, his discussion of his school days, the ridiculousness of his father and the faltering failure (in his opinion) of the Russian revolution.
This is beautiful, delicious, prose, playing with language in an impressive and an elegant way, shifting time and location effortlessly and evoking a stupid and doomed era with an impress aplomb. I do like Nabokov’s writing, and here I liked Nabokov himself: he comes off well – there is no score-settling, very little self-aggrandising and an impressively zen attitude to the loss of his wealth.
This is a charming and an enjoyable memoir, not something I want to have enjoyed as much as I did, but it is the writing, really, that makes it: this is an excellently written piece. I’d raise my hat if it wasn’t too warm to be wearing one. Nabokov, against my better judgement, I’ll be reading you again soon.**
* Actually, a pretty serious omission from this text is the discussion of meeting his wife. She is there, in the text, as the addressee of many of his reminiscences, but never named and not given the space and attention given to his son, his parents, his servants, his cousins, his uncles, his friends, his-
Not given as much attention as anyone. Though he is quite loving when he addresses her, so it doesn’t feel like misogynistic forgetfulness, but a clear decision. Strange. I’d only not include people I knew very well in a memoir if I was trying to cover up the fact that I hated them. But, one must remember, I am a bit of a dick…
** He recommends, out of his own books, The Gift. Would anyone disagree??? Pnin is the obvious one, for me, that I haven’t read.