Speak, Memory by Vladimir Nabokov

My first encounter with Nabokov’s work was at 14, a short story of his was given to me by my English teacher. I completely failed to comprehend the prose, awed at his vocabulary and complex sentences, and then moved on. His almost mystic prose, though, did leave a strong impression. (NB, upon picking up Nabokov’s short story, I have realized that the story is Signs and Symbols – 27th Oct, 2020.)

2 years later, I encountered another passage of his, an excerpt from Speak, Memory

In my mother’s pitiable lodgings, a cast of my father’s hand and a watercolor picture of his grave in the Greek-Catholic cemetery of Tegel, now in East Berlin, shared a shelf with émigré writers’ books, so prone to disintegration in their cheap paper covers. A soapbox covered with green cloth supported the dim little photographs in crumbling frames she liked to have near her couch. She did not really need them, for nothing had been lost. As a company of traveling players carry with them everywhere, while they still remember their lines, a windy heath, a misty castle, an enchanted island, so she had with her all that her soul had stored. With great clarity, I can see her sitting at a table and serenely considering the laid-out cards of a game of solitaire: she leans on her left elbow and presses to her cheek the free thumb of her left hand, in which, close to her mouth, she holds a cigarette, while her right hand stretches toward the next card. The double gleam on her fourth finger is two marriage rings – her own and my father’s, which, being too large for her, is fastened to hers by a bit of black thread.

I was drawn. First, by his mysterious style, often zooming into the smallest of details, with imagery more vivid than anything I have encountered before. Second, by the title – Speak, Memory – doesn’t it sound beautiful? Speak, Memory; Speak, Memory; Speak, Memory, it is as if the combination of these two words can be repeated a thousand times and still able to be interpreted differently in every utter. (This was, in fact, what drawn me to the second book of his that I’ve read, the beloved and infamous Lolita, “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth.”… – 27th Oct 2020.)

Nabokov didn’t disappoint. There is something mesmerizing about his words. He had rendered these instances of his first 40 years of life into subtle images and inexplicable emotions. Although I was often overwhelmed by his complex sentences, the process of reading and re-reading the paragraphs, Nabokov’s world opened its doors to me. The effort exerted only rendered more rewarding the reading.

In the course of reading the memoir, there was often a lingering desire to learn something factual, perhaps a deeper understanding of the milieu in Russia at that time? The life of emigre writers? The impact of the October Revolution? There were some in here, but Nabokov does not dwell on them. There are better ways to do so than read Speak, Memory. I was, however, moved and struck by the impact of the most mundane moments of childhood, and wondered, whether, when I reached Nabokov’s age, I would be able to look back at my memories, and able to weave them into such a symphony as he had so masterfully done. This memoir is an experience, a journey into the life and thoughts of Vladimir Nabokov, an exploration into the depth of consciousness, memory, and morality, guided by the great prosaist and poet himself. The most exciting adventures may be absent, but the most beautiful scenery will be revealed.

If I may, I will end with the beginning. Speak thus, Memory:

The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness. Although the two are identical twins, man, as a rule, views the prenatal abyss with more calm than the one he is heading for (at some forth-five hundred heartbeats an hour) … Imagination, the supreme delight of the immortal and the immature, should be limited. In order to enjoy life, we should not enjoy it too much.

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