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Nabokov's Brightly Colored Wings of Memory

Jonathan Yardley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 26, 2004

An occasional series in which The Post's book critic reconsiders notable and/or neglected books from the past.

Among the many books by Vladimir Nabokov, two are of special importance to me. The first, not surprisingly, is "Lolita," one of the indisputably great American novels of the 20th century, one that grows ever deeper and richer not merely with each reading but also as it is reflected upon and savored within the province of memory. In time "Lolita" will have its own "Second Reading" (though in truth it will be a fourth or fifth), a day I await with eager anticipation.

The other, perhaps somewhat less predictably, is "Speak, Memory," the memoir that Nabokov wrote in bits and pieces mostly in the 1940s, first published in book form in 1951 (under the title "Conclusive Evidence") and then republished, heavily edited and revised, under its current title in 1966. Precisely how many times I have read it I do not know, nor do I recall when I read it for the first time, but this can be said with certainty: It is a book that I absolutely, unconditionally love. Opening it entirely at random -- to any page, any paragraph, any sentence -- I feel at once in the presence of the miraculous, awakened once again to the power, the magic and the mystery of the word.

There are remarkably few pieces of writing about which I can say that: a number of poems (though I rarely read poetry anymore), James Joyce's story "The Dead," "The Great Gatsby" and "One Hundred Years of Solitude," some Faulkner and Dickens, "Jane Eyre," a handful of books treasured in childhood and youth. The list could go on a bit longer -- Shakespeare, of course -- but not much. Four decades of reading for a living have made me difficult to satisfy, easy to displease, reluctant to give my heart to any old book or any old author.

It is true that some of Nabokov's books and the literary tricks he delighted in playing are not especially to my taste. Some of those tricks are to be found in "Speak, Memory" -- word games, twinning, puns, et cetera -- and those with a taste for that can read the book for the pleasures this playfulness affords them. But at heart it is a deeply humane and even old-fashioned book, and its prose from first word to last can only be called astonishing.

The memoir begins with the author's birth in St. Petersburg in 1899, though its real beginning is in 1903, when Nabokov's consciousness fully awakened and his prodigious memory clicked into place. It covers his blissful childhood as the eldest son of an almost unimaginably privileged Russian family and that family's escape from the Bolsheviks in 1918. It touches lightly on his years at Cambridge, his European exile during the 1920s and 1930s, and ends with his departure for the United States in 1940. Though it does tell a story, in structure it is episodic rather than linear, and Nabokov backs and fills as the inclination strikes him. Narrative line is almost nonexistent, so the reader is pulled along by Nabokov's effort to find the connections within his own past -- "The following of such thematic designs through one's life should be, I think, the true purpose of autobiography" -- and by the endless surprises of his prose.

Over the years some readers have complained that Nabokov emerges from these pages as pampered, arrogant and self-absorbed, all of which is true and none of which matters in the least. Autobiography is inherently and inescapably an act of immodesty, and don't let any autobiographer try to tell you otherwise. Its real subject is, or should be, the development of the inner and outer self, and attending properly to that task can only plunge the author into the abyss of self. The successful memoirist is the one who explores self in ways in which others can see perhaps a glimmer of their own selves and who retains throughout the redeeming quality of self-deprecation.

Nabokov was haunted and obsessed by the past. "The act of vividly recalling a patch of the past is something that I seem to have been performing with the utmost zest all my life," he writes, and, later: "I witness with pleasure the supreme achievement of memory, which is the masterly use it makes of innate harmonies when gathering to its fold the suspended and wandering tonalities of the past." Even those of us cursed with defective and/or selective memories can find, in his searches, parallels to our own attempts to figure out where we came from and who we are. Writing with passion about "the legendary Russia of my boyhood," Nabokov places each reader in his or her own childhood, no matter how different it may have been from his, spent as it was in a handsome St. Petersburg townhouse and on the three family estates 50 miles south of that city.

What matters is not that Nabokov was rich and privileged in ways few if any of his readers can comprehend -- "our city household and country place," for example, had "a permanent staff of about 50 servants" -- but that he brings such abiding humanity to this examination of his past. Contemplating his family's lost fortune -- when the Nabokovs fled to Yalta and then to Western Europe, "except for a few jewels astutely buried in the normal filling of a talcum powder container, we were absolutely ruined" -- he gets it exactly right: "The nostalgia I have been cherishing all these years is a hypertrophied sense of lost childhood, not sorrow for lost banknotes." The impulse to rediscover and reclaim childhood is deep in human nature, and thus the chord "Speak, Memory" touches is truly universal.

Nabokov can find universality in the most unlikely places. The pursuit, capture and collection of butterflies may well have been the greatest passion bestowed upon this deeply passionate man, but it is one that holds not the slightest interest for me. Yet here, in a paragraph that can (and must) be read over and over again, he places his passion in a context all of us can understand:

"I confess I do not believe in time. I like to fold my magic carpet, after use, in such a way as to superimpose one part of the pattern upon another. Let visitors trip. And the highest enjoyment of timelessness -- in a landscape selected at random -- is when I stand among rare butterflies and their food plants. This is ecstasy, and behind the ecstasy is something else, which is hard to explain. It is like a momentary vacuum into which rushes all that I love. A sense of oneness with sun and stone. A thrill of gratitude to whom it may concern -- to the contrapuntal genius of human fate or to tender ghosts humoring a lucky mortal."

No attempt will be made here to lit-crit that paragraph; no doubt this has been done to excess by all the pedants who have made it their lives' work to pick Nabokov's bones bare. Instead I merely submit it for your own scrutiny and gratification, and for the insights -- both subtle and joyful -- that it offers into the incredible richness of human existence. The study of butterflies -- lepidopterology, to give it its proper name -- is revealed under Nabokov's microscope to be yet another way to see ourselves and the world we inhabit.

It also provides Nabokov splendid opportunities for the self-mockery that makes this book as witty and funny as it is wise. "I have hunted butterflies in various climes and disguises," he writes: "as a pretty boy in knickerbockers and sailor cap; as a lanky cosmopolitan expatriate in flannel bags and beret; as a fat hatless old man in shorts." Early on he discovered "that a 'lepist' indulging in his quiet quest was apt to provoke strange reactions in other creatures," especially after he crossed the Atlantic:

"America has shown even more of this morbid interest in my retiary activities than other countries have -- perhaps because I was in my forties when I came there to live, and the older the man, the queerer he looks with a butterfly net in his hand. Stern farmers have drawn my attention to NO FISHING signs; from cars passing me on the highway have come wild howls of derision; sleepy dogs, though unmindful of the worst bum, have perked up and come at me, snarling; tiny tots have pointed me out to their puzzled mamas; broad-minded vacationists have asked me whether I was catching bugs for bait; and one morning on a wasteland, lit by tall yuccas in bloom, near Santa Fe, a big black mare followed me for more than a mile."

It would be easy to fill the remaining few inches of this essay with quotations such as that one, because "Speak, Memory" has what at times seems a bottomless supply of them. Witty, clever, self-effacing, ingenious: Nabokov is all of these things here, but he never lapses into the preciousness that was (to my taste, at least) his greatest literary weakness. Perhaps the explanation is that he deals here with matters of the utmost emotional weight for him: his beloved parents, his lost childhood, his lost Russia. It is important to emphasize that just as he had no nostalgia for lost banknotes, so he had none for lost czars. His father -- assassinated in Berlin in 1922 "by a sinister ruffian" because of his liberal, anti-Bolshevik views and activities -- in 1905 had "severed all connection with the tsar's government and resolutely plunged into antidespotic politics," and Nabokov shared those convictions.

No doubt there were aspects of his lost privileged life that Nabokov did miss -- who in his or her right mind would not? -- but what most pained him once he had left Russia was that he had never known it as fully as he wanted to. "The story of my college years in England," he writes, "is really the story of my trying to become a Russian writer," and he continues:

"As with smarting eyes I meditated by the fire in my Cambridge room, all the potent banality of embers, solitude and distant chimes pressed against me, contorting the very folds of my face as an airman's face is disfigured by the fantastic speed of his flight. And I thought of all I had missed in my country, of the things I would not have omitted to note and treasure, had I suspected before that my life was to veer in such a violent way."

Nabokov's entire adult life was spent in exile: in England, in Europe, in the United States, finally in Switzerland, where he died in 1977, late in his eighth decade. There were times when he thought about revisiting his native land, and by the 1970s he probably could have done so without interference or incident, but by then the Russia he knew existed only in "my rich nostalgia." Also by then, he had given it a permanent place within the pages of this book, an enduring masterpiece that assures immortality for the very Russia he had lost.

"Speak, Memory" is available in a Vintage paperback ($14).

Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is yardleyj@washpost.com.

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