In the foreword to the 1966 edition of Speak, Memory, Nabokov explains painstakingly that the reader is about to begin a "re-Englishing of a Russian re-version of what had been an English re-telling of Russian memories in the first place" because in 1953 Nabokov translated his original text, first published as a whole in 1951 as Conclusive Evidence in the United States, into Russian. In the course of translating the English version into Russian, Nabokov modified and elaborated on several of the chapters, and the final version, described above, was republished as Speak, Memory in 1967.

Speak, Memory spans 37 years of Nabokov's life, from St Petersburg in August 1903, (the year in which he claims to have become fully conscious of the world, aged 4), to St Nazaire in May 1940, when Europe was newly engaged in World War II, and the Nabokovs (Vladimir, his wife Vera and 6 year old son Dmitri) were poised to set sail for a new life in the United States.

The chapters of this autobiography wander from pre-revolutionary St Petersburg to Europe's watering holes, from the idyllic childhood of a wealthy Russian aristocratic child to his flight, with his family, from their comfortable life to an impoverished emigre existence in Berlin and Paris. The structure of the book is thus vaguely linear, with leaps backwards and forwards in time, in and out of memories, and bound together by recurring leitmotifs, and can be seen as the musings of a writer in the making.