Sunday, July 21, 2013

On "Speak, Memory" by Vladimer Nabokov ***

This is certainly one of the most elegant memoirs I've ever read. In fact, it reads more like an accumulation of discreet remembrances than a sustained narrative, and in that is probably where Nabokov often lost me. When I read reviews of certain contemporary authors, the reviewer will quote certain lines, will talk about the brilliance of a particular phrase or sentence, but the whole is left untouched, as if all readers want are these singular pieces of brilliance. There are a lot of pieces of singular brilliance in Nabokov's memoir.

I particularly liked the book when Nabokov focused in on a particular subject for a while and sustained the discussion such that I could walk along with him for a while. One chapter, for example, focuses on his love--and how he came be it--for collecting butterflies. Another focuses on the various home instructors he and his brother had. One talks of the emigrant Russian literary culture of the 1920s. And one talks of fleeing from one part of Russia to another in the midst of the Bolshevik revolution.

Nabokov's feelings about Lenin are particularly strident. He notes his unease with peoples in the Western world, where liberals tend to hold Lenin up and conservatives tend to talk him down, but for entirely different reasons than Nabokov would. Nabokov comes across as a liberal who unfairly finds himself thrust into the conservative camp because Western liberals don't know the true story of Russian socialism. I couldn't help but sympathize with Nabokov's feelings of being politically misunderstood.

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