Speak, Memory by Vladimir Nabokov
2010 has seen something of a renaissance for Vladimir Nabokov, sadly long departed. Though Lolita takes its place on any list of 20th Century classics and most respectable bourgeois bookshelves, Nabokov until recently seemed in many people’s eyes to occupy the status of a one-book wonder. The ultimate writer’s writer, his name would crop up in any discussion of ‘stylists’ (that Masonic brotherhood of flash rhetoricians and tortured syllable-counters whose name always makes me think of hairdressers), and he was routinely championed by other members of the clan: John Updike, John Banville, and especially Martin Amis. But among the general readership a non-Lolita Nabokov remained an exotic bookshelf rarity.
Early in the year, though, the author’s son Dmitri brought his bizarre will-he-won’t-he dance of seduction to its limp and anticlimactic conclusion with the publication of The Original of Laura. An unfinished series of fragments written by an elderly, dying man, the destruction of which he had unambiguously instructed, the work was generally agreed not to have been Nabokov’s finest hour. Nonetheless, the gravy training had been set in motion, and Penguin re-commissioned the entire back-catalogue. So, wider attention has been drawn to the ingenious pranks of Pale Fire, the bloated, sporadic brilliance of Ada, the understated gorgeousness of Pnin and the forgotten triumphs of the Russian oeuvre: The Gift, Invitation to a Beheading, Despair, Laughter in the Dark, etc.
As something of a Nabokov fanatic, his famously stylized autobiography Speak, Memory had always been a gaping and somewhat inexplicable gap in my reading. And though it pains me to say so, having finally gotten round to reading it – 240 pages of miraculous prose, naturally – in doing so the semi-conscious reason why I had always slyly avoided it was exposed: once he has taken off the fictional mask, Nabokov often comes across as a bit of a (how to put this…) aloof, patronising, arrogant nob. I had previously gleaned this (furiously suppressed) impression from his famously hectoring and didactic introductions and afterwords to novels, some of the crabbier of his Strong Opinions, and the occasional summary dismissal of a great writer like Bellow or Dostoevsky. But there are times in Speak, Memory when his triumphant self-satisfaction overshadows even the exquisiteness of his prose or the atom-splitting precision of his observations.
Nabokov presents himself in Speak, Memory as an entirely, indeed improbably unconflicted person, entirely assured of his own genius (fair enough) and moral, ethical and social unimpeachability. The problem isn’t so much that this may or may not be an accurate self-assessment – it’s more that endless self-aggrandisation, no matter how immaculately cadenced, isn’t actually all that interesting. We follow the author through a series of snapshots of his opulent youth as an aristocratic scion in Tsarist Russia, through the family’s flight following the rise to power of the spoil-sport Bolsheviks and on to the author’s days as a student at Cambridge and an aspiring author in Berlin. However, due to Nabokov’s refusal to do anything with his memories other than lavishly aestheticise them, the exercise at times feels rather hollow and cold. The poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko once complained that you could hear the clatter of surgical tools in Nabokov’s prose, and it is ironic that this critical detachment is most glaring in the book that convention dictates should be his most personal.
Part of this approach is undoubtedly down to Nabokov’s hard-line aestheticism, which is based around an essentially symbolist conception of literary art. According to this line of thought life is one thing, literature is another entirely, and any attempt to approach literature as a vehicle for general ideas relating to the real world – ideology, politics, religion, sociology – is a childish form of make-believe. I may record a perception in the form of a sentence, but the resultant sentence is something entirely other from the real-world stimulus that inspired it. Literature is therefore in a sense locked into its own aesthetic form, endlessly mirroring its own artificial shapes and patterns rather than those of the real world. Hence the inward-facing, enclosed strucutures Nabokov is so fond of employing in his novels: like turning a novel into its own blurb in Ada, or constructing a narrative out of a set of footnotes to a poem in Pale Fire. Nabokov’s autobiography was never going to be a an ingenuous self-critique so much as an aesthetic exercise in transforming memory into the exalted and autonomous domain of art: “How small the cosmos (a kangeroo’s pouch could hold it), how paltry and puny in comparison to human consciousness, to a single individual recollection, and its expression in words!”.
However, in Speak, Memory – partly stemming from Nabokov’s overbearing self-satisfaction – we don’t find many of the conflicts that animate his greatest art: the virtuosic unreliability of Humbert Humbert, the pathos of Pnin, the comic insanity of Kinbote. Rather, we are lavished with an often sickly-sweet celebration of prelapsarian Tsarist Russia in which the Nabokovs were free to ostentatiously enjoy their life of inconceivable luxury (his father used to send his shirts from St Petersburg to London to be laundered) in oblivious abandon. Sometimes Speak, Memory reads like a sort of designer advert for wealth, and Nabokov’s convenient artistic assumpton of political PH neutrality is somewhat undermined by the uncomplicated role in which he casts the Bolshevik revolutionaries as the villains of the piece. The point is not that he is necessarily wrong in doing so, but one can’t help but feel he could have afforded the subject more serious scrutiny.
Hilariously poker-faced ascetic J.M Coetzee once said in an interview, “I have lost interest in Nabokov because he balked at facing the nature of his loss in its historical fullness” (presumably articulating the words extremely slowly in a near-inaudible monotone, wearing the murderous glare of an enraged hawk, and thereafter remaining absolutely immobile in agonising silence for several minutes, eventually causing the interviewer to weep and beg for forgiveness on Nabokov’s behalf). While my admiration for Nabokov’s novels survived Speak, Memory undiminished, the indulgent and entirely non-analytical way in which he romanticises his aristocratic ubringing in Tsarist Russia is at times both sentimental and smug. (The various accounts of Nabokov senior’s paternal benevolence towards the local peasants, and their awe-struck gratitude for his inexplicable good deeds, is particularly grating. Once in the book he even takes time out from his customarily lavish, waitored evening repast to go and deal with one of their rudimentary requests. The rustic savages respond to his generosity by hoisting him in the air and repeatedly tossing and catching him in their arms, in an overflow of joyous devotion).
However, for all its occasional frustrations, the prose in parts of Speak, Memory reaches almost absurdly poetic heights. Despite being a novelistic exercise in transforming memory into art, the impulse in Speak, Memory isn’t narrative development so much as isolated, virtuosic set-pieces in which the original stimulus of memory is aesthetically patterned and cadenced in an attempt to reach artistic equilibrium:
“There is, it would seem, in the dimensional scale of the world a kind of delicate meeting place between imagination and knowledge, a point, arrived at by diminishing large things and enlarging small ones, that is intrinsically artistic.”
While his attempts to find this artistic G-spot are often breathtaking, I couldn’t help but be left with the sense that autobiography has a tendancy to bring out the worst in Nabokov. Like Humbert Humbert, he hides behind the mask of his virtuosity, teasing us and never quite letting us in. ‘You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style’, says Humbert Humbert in one of Lolita’s most memorable lines. In Speak, Memory we have the fancy prose style without the irony, the ingenious overall design or the emotional range. For all of its lavish pyrotechnics, Speak, Memory ultimately feels like a relatively low-stakes exercise – albeit an extremely impressive one.