When the Australian critic and writer Andrew Field asked Nabokov for his blessing to write his biography, the answer came: "I told everything about myself in Speak, Memory, and it was not a very pleasant portrait. I appear as a precious person in that book. All that chess and those butterflies. Not very interesting."
The modern reader may agree or disagree. But the fact remains that while Nabokov's self-awareness, bordering on self-consciousness (but always superior, never neurotic) might start to irritate the reader, it is the first-hand description of the turbulent first few years of the 20th century that compels the reader to pursue this fascinating autobiography to the end. Nevermind that we are reading the account of a wealthy, indulged and privileged child, who lived in households with "50 servants and no questions asked". And that this book contains recollections of a blissfully happy and unfraught childhood before world events shattered Nabokov's world. Speak, Memory is nevertheless a book about loss; in Nabokov's words, a "hypertrophied sense of lost childhood", without falling into the self-pitying, confessional abyss that modern 'misery-memoirs' inhabit.
I first read Speak, Memory when living in St Petersburg as a student of Russian in the 1990s. As I read the first few chapters, set in Russia's second city, I conscientiously visited the sites where Nabokov spent his childhood. I stood outside his house like a Nabokov-junkie on Bolshaya Morskaya Ulitsa,(then not yet a museum). I looked in vain for the "English shop" on Nevsky Prospekt where his mother might have bought him a giant Faber Castell pencil. And once I had found a friend who had a car and the patience to explore the countryside with me, I also visited the wooden, pillared house at Rozhdestveno, which Nabokov inherited from his uncle at the age of sixteen. (see Bookmark to page 58).
The timing could not have been more poignant. The house had burned down a week before my visit. It had been a museum of local history, and all that was left was a charred skeleton, which was probably unsafe to walk around. But walk around I did, and in the first room, I saw the harp-shaped frame of a grand piano, which had literally burned to the ground. A couple of the strings were sticking out of the frame, and I am ashamed to admit that by then I had become sentimental and Russian enough to take one as a souvenir. The string is still in the drawer of my desk, where I sit trying to find my own writer's voice.
In Speak, Memory, a fully-established author only half-way through his life is showing his working, as it were, with a unique self-knowledge usually given to very few. The subtitle of the book, "An Autobiography Revisited" says it all: Nabokov constantly rewrote and redefined his past and re-worded his memories. Each chapter in Speak, Memory was published as an article or a short story previously, and when editing them for the book - first the American and then the English - Nabokov could not stop fiddling with, or reshaping his memories, nor correcting facts as and when required to by family members who pointed out errors.
Nabokov became the writer he did because of the store of memories, and happy ones at that, that his early childhood furnished him with. It is impossible to disassociate Nabokov with place because autobiographical data informed so much of his work. This is, in a sense, an autobiography of an autobiography. The fact that it was a work in progress is clear from his translation of the text into Russian, which he described as "This re-Englishing of a Russian re-version of what had been an English re-telling of Russian memories in the first place".
The strong sense of place, happens to be my main reason for loving this book. But for others of a less Russophile, and certainly a less moonstruck bent, Speak, Memory is simply a delightfully, if slightly arrogantly narrated life that spanned some of modern history's turbulent birthing years. It will appeal to lovers of Proust, lovers of words in any language, and of course, to Russophiles, though Russophilia is not a pre-requisite.
Nabokov initially wanted to call the British edition of his autobiography "Speak, Mnemosyne" but was told that "little old ladies would not want to ask for a book whose name they could not pronouce." A sequel, entitled "Speak on, memory" was planned but was never written.
Harper's: "[Nabokov] has fleshed the bare bones of historical data with hilarious anecdotes and with a felicity of style that makes Speak, Memory a constant pleasure to read. Confirmed Nabokovians will relish the further clues and references to his fictional works that shine like nuggets in the silver stream of his prose."
New York Times: "Scintillating…One finds here amazing glimpses into the life of a world that has vanished forever." —New York Times
Amazon.com: 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.