So starts Nabokov in this excellent, impressionistic, nostalgic, deeply reflective memoir; an idyll to a privileged childhood in the last days of Czarist Russia. He goes on to say that: "...this darkness is caused merely by the walls of time separating me and my bruised fists from the free world of timelessness is a belief I gladly share with the most gaudily painted savage." Having recently lost a friend to the eternal darkness, re-reading Nabokov, who made the most of that brief period of light, is cathartic.
Nabokov was born in 1899, and raised on an estate outside St. Petersburg, before it became Leningrad, and even longer before it reverted to its original name. He chased butterflies as a boy, which turned into a lifetime avocation as a renown lepidopterist. Like all of us, he is an exile from his youth, and wears it more than most, but he was twice exiled more: first from Russia as the Bolsheviks seized power, and then from Europe, when the Nazis were ascendant, finally finding an accommodating life in America. His family was part of the tiniest sliver of the Russian population, the very elite; the ones who are the subject of so many books, and the fantasies that the readers include themselves in. He learned to speak English before Russian, and his family would "winter" in Biarritz. He makes clear, in a reasonably convincing way the basis for his nostalgia: "My old (since 1917) quarrel with the Soviet dictatorship is wholly unrelated to any question of property. My contempt for the émigré who `hates the Reds' because they `stole' his money and land is complete. The nostalgia I have been cherishing all these years is a hypertrophied sense of lost childhood, not sorrow for lost banknotes... to yearn...beneath the sky of my America to sigh for one locality in Russia."
Many of the other reviewers praised the incisive originality of his prose, and I am clearly in that camp; a few criticized him for "showing off," alas, perhaps, but his candle should not be hidden under the bushel basket. Consider: "The sepia gloom of an arctic afternoon in midwinter invaded the rooms and was deepening to an oppressive black." Or, "Huddled together in a constant seething of competitive reminiscences..." Or, "I recall one particular sunset. It lent an ember to my bicycle bell." Or even: "The spiral is a spiritualized circle." And in America he learned to "cease barring my sevens."
Also consider his critique of Darwin's theory of "natural selection": "...when a protective device was carried to a point of mimetic subtlety, exuberance, and luxury far in excess of a predator's power of appreciation. I discovered in nature the nonutilitarian delights that I sought in art. Both were a form of magic, both were a game of intricate enchantment and deception."
There are a number of other excellent reviews of this book posted at Amazon, including a couple which highlight my subject line. It may not be THE autobiography of the 20th Century, but it is an essential read, particularly for those still trying to make the most of their time in that brief crack of time.
(Note: Review first published at Amazon, USA, on October 05, 2009)