21 of 21 people found the following review helpful
on 28 April 2010
As everyone knows, Nabokov was one of the greatest stylists of the 20th Century and this is one of his greatest books. In 'The Go-Between' L.P. Hartley said, "The past is a foreign country." For Nabokov this was eternally true. He was never to return to the land of his birth and instead stalked his memories of it as if they were butterflies, ecstatically pinning each to the pages of this book in a way which gives the caring reader a vicarious joy. He writes with passion and touching love of his family, his homes, his teachers and his country and in doing so achieves with Tolstoyan grace his goal of recreating something very like the actual past. A remarkable book and an exercise in precise writing to daunt any accomplished novelist. No one does it better than Nabokov.
12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
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)
10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
This memoire filled me with awe for one of the truly greatest writers of the 20C. You get the most astonishingly vivid portrait of how he thinks (or how he wants you to think he thinks), in an array of beautiful stories and the most vivid of memories. His views of a vanished Russia and then the emigre community before the Nazis took over are rendered in their full sensuality and comic vision; so are his early years in America. His first experience of writing poetry, in a kind of inspired trance, is destined to become a great classic of literature. He even write amazing captions to the photos in the book: I have remembered for 25 years how he described slapping at a mosquito in the night.
TO be sure, in spite of being a genius, he views are limited and sometimes stunted. But he can't be everything to everyone: if you take what he can give, it is well worth the ride and then some. I wanted to know what the man was like who wrote Lolita, and this was the best place I could find, even as he manipulates and distorts. His is one way to measure a life.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
This is a beautifully evocative memoir, consisting of the personal recollections of Nabakov, recalling his childhood in Imperial Russia . Nabakov was born in 1899 to a family who were not only members of the aristocracy, but heavily involved in politics. His father was a liberal, who opposed the Tsar and, in fact, as his grandmother wryly pointed out, was working to bring down the way of life which would eventually see him exiled and virtually penniless…
However, this is certainly not a memoir filled with sorrow or bitterness. Instead, the author recreates his privileged childhood, with its recurring pattern of winter in St Petersburg, the spring and summer spent at the family’s country estate and the autumn in foreign resorts. We read of the many tutors and governesses who came and went, the author and his brother’s many escapades (including boarding a ferry and leaving their nanny wringing her hands on the quay as her charges floated away and an attempted elopement with a French playmate). There is the horror of hearing his father might have died in a duel, the joy of butterfly collecting - always a passion throughout his life – his early attempts at writing poetry and his final leaving of Russia after the revolution.
Mostly, though, what we get are little snippets – beautifully written – of a world that has long gone, but which can see through the eyes of our narrator. Places, people, a way of life long since vanished, are recreated. You can almost feel the cold on carriage drives through the snow, or imagine walks in the countryside, so vivid are the descriptions. As such, it is almost not what is written, but how it is written, that is important here. The eye for detail; of the memory of a room, books on a shelf, or how it felt to wake in the morning, is what makes the book come alive. I think it is an important memoir and one which paints a portrait of a certain era and way of life which the author obviously missed, but recalled with love.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 1 September 2013
Nabokov's autobiography has a tangled publishing history. Installments first appeared in The New Yorker (and a few other publications) in the late 1940s; these were collected in 1951 in a volume entitled Speak, Memory in the United Kingdom and Conclusive Evidence in the United States. After publication, Nabokov consulted with his sisters and cousins, and found that some of the details were inaccurate. (Quite a common situation: much the same happened to Oliver Sacks after he published his memoir Uncle Tungsten.) Accordingly, Nabokov revised and elaborated the 1951 version to take account of the data provided by relatives; the updated and final text appeared in 1966.
Twelve of the fifteen chapters deal with Nabokov's boyhood in pre-revolutionary Russia; the remaining three describe his life as an émigré in Cambridge, Berlin and Paris in the inter-war years. Nabokov provides an exception to the rule proposed by P.G. Wodehouse that a happy childhood is a handicap for a writer: his early years appear to have been not merely happy, but idyllic, with their exotic properties of duels, troikas in the snow and peasants bathing naked in forest glades. His aristocratic, even dandyish youth is a world away from the brutal upbringing portrayed in Maxim Gorky's memoir of his childhood in 1870s Russia.
Nabokov's style was the envy of other writers:
'What startling beauty of phrase, twists of thought, depths of sorrow, bursts of wit! This was a rainbow prose that made most others look flat and gray.' (John Updike, More Matter, p.287)
His language is certainly strikingly original: he constantly finds an unexpected angle from which to approach experience. The account is not a conventional, chronological narrative; rather the material is organised thematically, with chapters devoted to enthusiasms such as butterflies and chess. Sometimes one wonders if the intellectuality and elaboration of the language gets in the way; I think I found Gorky's memoir more moving, although clearly Nabokov exceeds Gorky in terms of literary skill.
I listened to the recording of Speak, Memory made by Stefan Rudnicki and published by Brillance Audio in 2010. Rudnicki reads well, although the book is so linguistically elaborate - many words will need to be looked up in a dictionary by the average reader - that it is probably better read than listened to.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on 6 March 2011
Not only does this book provide fascinating insights into the genesis of some of Nabokov's most famous works, it also documents a vanished world in its evocation of pre-revolutionary Russia. It contains passages so beautiful that you read them again and again, and profoundly moving reflections on time and memory. Highly recommended.
7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on 12 November 2009
'Speak Memory' is the essential companion for anyone reading Nabokov's fictional works. The writing simply flows across the brain and is easier to read than Proust. I see 'SM' as an extension of what Proust was trying to achieve by transcribing memory into art; however if you can only read English, then reading Proust can be a little disatisfying (sic?) as he's always presented through a translator - no such worries with Nabokov who loved the Englsih language so much to become the greatest stylist since Joyce.
Reading 'SM' can give yourself a personal perspective on your own past and memory and makes one realise that we all have a vault of inspiration within our own minds in which to write about.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
Only the second book I have read by Vladimir Nabokov, the first was the amazing Lolita and, in common with that book, the writing is a delight.
Speak, Memory is a memoir that explores some of Nabokov's recollections. Each chapter is an independent entity and can be read on its own.
The bulk of the chapters recall Nabokov's childhood in an aristocratic family living in pre-revolutionary Saint Petersburg, and at a country estate near Siverskaya. The last three chapters recall his years in Cambridge, Berlin and Paris.
This short book is full of gorgeous writing. The content is less compelling, being a succession of mildly interesting musings and memories.
4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on 19 May 2011
I'm not an appreciative reader of autobiographies, and the only other one I've enjoyed is "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man". This is the goods too. Crystalline memories lovingly and magically reproduced, pinned down really like butterfly specimens. It's impressionistic rather than chronological, a consummate work by a master.
on 21 June 2014
a must-book for those who love memoirs. The captivating story of life and the European history at the turn of the 19-20 centuries from the world famous Russian writer