Speak, Memory, by Vladimir Nabokov

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Ed. Penguin Books, 1969. Size 18 x 11 cm. With 21 photographs black and white. State: Used, very good. 240 pages

By Vladimir Nabokov
Montreux, 5 January 1966

The present work is a systematically correlated assemblage of personal recollections ranging geographically from St Petersburg to St Nazaire, and covering thirty-seven years, from August 1903 to May 1940, with only a few sallies into later space-time. The essay that initiated the series corresponds to what is now Chapter Five. I wrote it in French, under the title of ‘Mademoiselle O.’ thirty years ago in Paris, where Jean Paulhan published it in the second issue of Mesures, 1936. A photograph (published recently in Giséle Freund’s James Joyce in Paris) commemorates this event, except that I am wrongly identified (in the Mesures group relaxing around a garden table of stone) as ‘Audiberti.’

In America, whither I migrated on 28 May 1940, ‘Mademoiselle O.’ was translated by the late Hilda Ward into English, revised by me, and published by Edward Weeks in the January 1943 issue of The Atlantic Monthly (which was also the first magazine to print my stories written in America). My association with The New Yorker had begun (through Edmund Wilson) with a short poem in April 1942, followed by other fugitive pieces; but my first prose composition appeared there only on 3 January 1948: this was ‘Portrait of My Unele’ (Chapter Three of the complete work), written in June 1947 at Columbine Lodge, Estes Park, Colo., where my wife, child, and I could not have stayed much longer had not Harold Ross hit it off so well with the ghost of my past. The same magazine also published Chapter Four (‘My English Education’, 27 March 1948), Chapter Six (‘Butterflies’, 12 June 1948), Chapter Seven (‘Colette’, 31 July 1948) and Chapter Nine (‘My Russian Education’, 18 September 1948), all written in Cambridge, Mass., at a time of great mental and physical stress, as well as Chapter Ten (‘Curtain-Raiser’, 1 January 1949), Chapter Two (‘Portrait of My Mother’, 9 April 1949), Chapter Twelve (‘Tamara’, 10 December 1949), Chapter Eight (‘Lantern Slides’ 11 February 1950; H. R.’s query: ‘Were the Nabokovs a one-nutcracker family?’), Chapter One (‘Perfect Past’, 15 April 1950), and Chapter Fifteen (‘Gardens and Parks’, 17 June 1950), all written in Ithaca, N.Y.

Of the remaining three chapters, Chapters Eleven and Fourteen appeared in the Partisan Review (‘First Poem’, September 1949, and ‘Exile’, January-February 1951), while Chapter Thirteen went to Harper’s Magazine (‘Lodgings in Trinity Lane’, January 1951).

The English versión of ‘Mademoiselle O.’ has been republished in Nine Stories (New Directions, 1947), and Nabokov’s Dozen (Doubleday, 1958; Heinemann, 1959; Popular Library, 1959; and Penguin Books, 1960); in the latter collection, I also included ‘First Love’, which became the darling of anthologists.

Although I had been composing these chapters in the erratic sequence reflected by the dates of first publication given above, they had been neatly filling numbered gaps in my mind which followed the present order of chapters. That order had been established in 1936, at the placing of the cornerstone which already held in its hidden hollow various maps, timetables, a collection of matchboxes, a chip of ruby glass, and even -as I now realize- the view from my balcony of Geneva lake, of its ripples and glades of light, black-dotted today, at teatime, with coots and tufted ducks. I had no trouble therefore in assembling a volume which Harper & Bros. of New York brought out in 1951, under the title Conclusive Evidence; conclusive evidence of my having existed. Unfortunately, the phrase suggested a mystery story, and I planned to entitle the British edition Speak, Mnemosyne but was told that ‘little old ladies would not want to ask for a book whose title they could not pronounce’. I also toyed with The Anthemion which is the name of a honeysuckle ornament, consisting of elaborate interlacements and expanding clusters, but nobody liked it; so we finally settled for Speak, Memory (Gollancz, 1951, and The Universal Library, N.Y., 1960).

Among the anomalies of a memory, whose possessor and victim should never have tried to become an autobiographer, the worst is the inclination to equate in retrospect my age with that of the century. This has led to a series of remarkably consistent chronological blunders in the first version of this book. I was born in April 1899, and naturally, mduring the first third of, say, 1903, was roughly three years old; but in August of that year, the sharp ‘3’ revealed to me (as descrtibed in ‘Perfect Past) should refer to the century’s age, not to mine, which was ‘4’ and as square and resilient as a rubber pillow. Similarly, in the early summer of 1906 -the summer I began to collect butterflies- I was seven and not six as stated initially in the catastrophic second paragraph of Chapter 6. Mnemosyne, one must admit, has shown herself to be a very careless girl.

When after twenty years of absence I sailed back to Europe, I renewed ties that had been undone even before I had left it. At these family reunions, Speak, Memory was judged. Details of date and circumstance were checked, and it was found that in many cases I had erred, or had not examined deeply enough an obscure but fathomable recollection. Certain matters were dismissed by my advisers as legends or rumors or, if genuine, were proven to be related to events or periods other than those to which frail memory had attached them. My cousin Sergey Sergeevich Nabokov gave me invaluable information on the history of our family. Both my sisters angrily remonstrated against my description of the journey to Biarritz (beginning of Chapter Seven) and by pelting me with specific detailes convinced me I had been wrong in leaving them behind (‘with nurses and aunts’!). What I still have not benn able to rework through want of specific documentation, I have now preferred to delete for the sake of over-all truth. On the other hand, a number of facts relating to ancestors and other personages have come to light and have been incorporated in this final version of Speak, Memory. I hope to write some day a ‘Speak on, Memory’, covering the years 1940-60 spent in America: the evaporation of certain volatiles and the melting of certain metals are still going on in my coils and crucibles.

The reader will find in the present work scattered references to my novels, but on the whole I felt that the trouble of writing them had been enoughand that they should remain in the first stomach. My recent introductions to the English translations of Zashchita Luzhina, 1930 (The Defense, 1964), Otchayanie, 1936 (Despair, 1966), Priglashenie na kazn’, 1938 (Invitation to a Beheading, 1959), Dar, 1952, serialized 1937-38 (The Gift, 1963) and Soglyadatay, 1938 (The Eye, 1965) give a sufficiently detailed, and racy, account of the creative part of my European past.

To avoid hurting the living or distressing the dead, certain proper names have been changed. These are set off by quotation marks in the index. Its main purpose is to list for my convenience some of the people and themes connected with my past years. Its presence will annoy the vulgar buy may please the discerning, if only because

Through the window of that index
Climbs a rose
And sometimes a gentle wind ex
Ponto blows