Speak Memory an Autobiography Revisited

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9780140029260: Speak Memory an Autobiography Revisited

'Speak, memory', said Vladimir Nabokov. And immediately there came flooding back to him a host of enchanting recollections - of his comfortable childhood and adolescence, of his rich, liberal-minded father, his beautiful mother, an army of relations and family hangers-on and of grand old houses in St Petersburg and the surrounding countryside in pre-Revolutionary Russia. Young love, butterflies, tutors and a multitude of other themes thread together to weave an autobiography, which is itself a work of art.

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Review:

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 This volume is essential because it includes the unpublished last chapter, a pseudo-review comparing Speak, Memory with another, nonexistent memoir called When Lilacs Last.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

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