The hit television series Downton Abbey has nothing on Vladimir Nabokov’s memoir, Speak, Memory. Both begin a century ago in those misty years before World War I and the Bolshevik revolution changed everything.
Virginia Woolf set the crucial date a bit earlier, provocatively identifying it with the first Post-Impressionist exhibition in London: “On or before December 1910,” she said, “human character changed.” Another symbolic contender is the sinking of Titanic in 1912, which not only figures early in Downton Abbey but also plays a role in Speak, Memory, when Nabokov’s uncle Konstantin happens to return his ticket for the maiden voyage.
Nabokov’s delicious memoir is brought to mind by the publication of Brian Boyd’s Stalking Nabokov (Columbia University Press, 2011), which provides the occasion for Martin Amis to indulge in a recent literary romp in the TLS (“Divine Levity,” December 23, 2011).
Here is Nabokov describing how his mother, returning from a drizzly afternoon of mushroom-hunting on the family’s vast estate near St. Petersburg, lays her boletes out in concentric circles on an iron garden table:
"Old ones, with spongy, dingy flesh, would be eliminated, leaving the young and the crisp. For a moment, before they were bundled away by a servant to a place she knew nothing about, to a doom that did not interest her, she would stand there admiring them, in a glow of quiet contentment."
The fact that she never visited the kitchen or the servants’ hall – the family had about 50 servants – is an incidental detail in Nabokov’s description, but it has to strike us with a force far stronger than the “glow of quiet contentment” that describes his mother’s frame of mind.
This is a woman who lives by one simple rule: “To love with all one’s soul and leave the rest to fate.” And fate there would be. The mood changes on the next page: "A decade passed. World War I started. A crowd of patriots and my uncle Ruka stoned the German Embassy, Peterburg was sunk to Petrograd against all rules of nomenclatorial priority. Beethoven turned out to be Dutch"
His mother sets up a private hospital for wounded soldiers. "I remember her, in the fashionable nurse’s gray-and-white uniform she abhorred, denouncing with the same childish tears the impenetrable meekness of those crippled peasants and the ineffectiveness of part-time compassion."
After October 1917, the family is “absolutely ruined,” except for a few jewels that a far-seeing maid astutely buries in a container of talcum powder. After a spell in the Crimea, the Nabokovs make their way to Western Europe to begin the impecunious decades of exile.
Nabokov wanted to call his memoir Speak, Mnemosyne, but was “told that little old ladies would not want to ask for a book whose title they could not pronounce.” It being impossible to let the disparaging comment about little old ladies pass, I will not let it pass: whether it comes as a direct quotation from his publisher or not, it comes from some lofty male vantage, and Nabokov is not only repeating it, but uncritically immortalizing it in print.
And Nabokov is a lofty man with a vivid sense of history, of family, and of self-worth. I haven’t read the original essays nor the first edition of Speak, Memory (1960). The revised 1966 edition (Putnam’s) that I have read benefits from the work he did in translating the memoir into Russian with the help of his wife Véra, and then incorporating changes made in that process back into English. "This re-Englishing of a Russian re-version of what had been an English re-telling of Russian memories in the first place, proved to be a diabolical task, but some consolation was given me by the thought that such multiple metamorphosis, familiar to butterflies, had not been tried by any human before."
He has a vivid sense of happiness, as well – a point Amis makes – as well as a rare expertise in butterflies. "The highest enjoyment of timelessness – in a landscape selected at random – is when I stand among rare butterflies and their food plants. This is ecstasy, and behind the ecstasy is something else, which is hard to explain. It is like a momentary vacuum into which rushes all that I love. A sense of oneness with sun and stone. A thrill of gratitude to whom it may concern – to the contrapuntal genius of human fate or to tender ghosts humouring a lucky mortal."
© Linda Leith 2012