Acclaimed novelist Vladimir Nabokov’s Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited
is an adaptation of his first, partial autobiography Conclusive Evidence
, which was published as a column in The New Yorker
. Speak, Memory
radically revises this first autobiography, covering the first forty years of Nabokov's life, moving from Russia to the south of France to Yalta to England, and finally to America. In it, Nabokov writes about his recognition of his own meager existence on this vast and complicated planet, also reflecting on his unique experiences as a child with synesthesia and obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Nabokov begins his memoir writing about his experiences watching home movies of his parents before he was born. He is disturbed at first by how they had lived just fine without him – it made him feel meager, unimportant, and temporary. He reflects, quite darkly, that the crib his parents filmed looks like a coffin as if they, too, recognize the flash of life that each person gets and the deeply impermanent nature of human existence.
Though the memoir has this dark undertone, Nabokov had quite a happy childhood. He was obviously quite close to his mother, with whom he shared a genetic neuropsychological diagnosis of synesthesia – letters had colors in his brain, and he could not equate one without the other. He and his mother bonded over their shared synesthesia and many other things. It is clear that she was loving and gentle with her son, even when he showed a predisposition for obsessive-compulsive disorder as a very young boy.
Some of Nabokov's compulsions came out in his butterfly collecting – he remained an avid amateur lepidopterist until his death. He would collect butterflies, and his mother would kill them for him and pin them to boards, so he could admire them. As a child, Nabokov was never seen without his butterfly net. Later, when Nabokov was older, he became obsessed with other things, including paper lanterns that displayed colorful pictures on the walls. He notes that this obsession began after a brief romantic fling in the south of France, which involved holding hands in a movie theatre. He loved the darkness of movies coupled with the bright light outside and found he could recreate this experience through his paper lanterns.
Nabokov experiences a few romances, including a brief fling with the author Colette when he was a boy in southern France. He also spends many days with his cousin Yuri, a young boy whose parents are not as well off as Nabokov's. Yuri is a little rough around the edges, but the boys are fast friends, and they share many fond memories.
Later, World War I breaks out and the family moves often – to Yalta, then Greece, then England. The family is much less happy in England, which is expensive and grey, and where they are treated poorly because they are Russian emigrants. When Nabokov and his brothers leave home to attend school at Oxford, his mother and father leave the country; Nabokov misses them dearly. He is sheltered from life in college, only finding upon graduating that this Russian heritage makes him an alien among English society. He is soon incredibly poor and unable to travel far because of the aura of distrust that English society casts upon him. He moves to Berlin, where he finds a job teaching, but his true passion is writing novels. Unfortunately, nobody in his home country of Russia can read his books, because he is considered a Russian exile and all of his books are banned as a result.
Eventually, Nabokov decides to move to America with his wife and young son, in order to give his child the kind of childhood he had had – one of creative thinking, exploration, and freedom. The family moves to America in 1940, and he enjoys his life as a professor there for many decades.
Vladimir Nabokov is an esteemed novelist known worldwide for his books, most famously the frequently banned novel Lolita
, which depicts an older man's obsessive sexual relationship with a young girl. Nabokov also wrote Pale Fire
, and other novels. Born in St. Petersburg, he died in Switzerland at age seventy-eight. He was a finalist for the National Book Award seven times in his lifetime, and his novels have been adapted for film, television, and the stage.