I had the pleasure of exploring Vladimir Nabokov’s Speak, Memory with a book club this past week. Over a lunch of wine, chicken salad and a yummy berry cheesecake, we discussed this classic memoir about lost childhood, set in early 20th-century Russia prior to the revolution. The story that is so elegantly expressed — neither too sentimental nor overly melodramatic — moved members of the book club frequently to read passages out loud to hear Nabokov’s poetic style and be astonished by the detail. This passage is one of my favorites:
“I see again my schoolroom in Vyra, the blue roses of the wallpaper, the open window. Its reflection fills the oval mirror above the leathern couch where my uncle sits, gloating over a tattered book. A sense of security, of well-being, of summer warmth pervades my memory. That robust reality makes a ghost of the present. The mirror brims with brightness; a bumblebee has entered the room and bumps against the ceiling. Everything is as it should be, nothing will ever change, nobody will ever die.”
It’s widely known Nabokov first published his memoir in book format in 1951 as Conclusive Evidence and then heavily revised and republished it in 1966 under its current title. I pulled Stacy Schiff’s Vera (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov) from my bookshelf and learned more about the book’s title, specifically that Vera offered her own list of possibilities. As Schiff writes, “we can only be grateful that she did not prevail” or Nabokov’s classic might have been named “Fluorescent Tears” or “Roots” or “The Winding Way.”
This was my first reading of the classic, which I’ve been wanting to read since Vintage Books, a division of Random House, published a paperback edition in 1989. I bought the paperback at Cleveland Park Book Shop on Wisconsin Avenue NW in Washington D.C. around the time of its publication, excited to find it after a long, fruitless search. (These were the days prior to online bookselling.) If I’d read the memoir back then, during my 30s, I doubt I would have appreciated it as much as I did in these days of middle age. The nostalgia for the eternity perceived of childhood in hindsight, which Nabokov clarifies with ease, is more intense now as that time recedes deeper into my past. It has become, as Nabokov writes, a “hypertrophied sense.”
Knopf published an edition of Speak, Memory in the Everyman’s Library series in 1999 with a never-before published last chapter. Nabokov wrote that “Chapter 16” as a review of the book. According to Schiff, he had mixed feelings about it. Harper, the book’s original publisher, rejected it for the 1951 edition.
A note on Stacy Schiff: She won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize in biography for Vera. Her new book, just out, is Cleopatra: A Life.