Speak, Memory – Vladimir Nabokov

22 March 2013
Chapters 1-4
A quarter of the way through, Nabokov is still obsessing about his childhood… and why wouldn’t he? Who wouldn’t dwell on the extraordinary experiences that come with being the son of upper-class parents with big houses and estates in and around St Petersburg at the beginning of the 20th Century?

But it isn’t details of the privileged life that I’m finding interesting. It’s Nabokov’s musings on the nature of memory, on the textures and colours of highly specific individual recollections, on the inadequacies of recognised theories – he’s very rude about Freud – in explaining the early relationships between a child and its parents. He has utter faith in his own judgments on these matters, has no doubt that they are intrinsically interesting, and is forthright in his pronouncements. This is his story, and he isn’t looking for anybody’s advice as to how it should be conveyed to the reader. It’s the apotheosis of the individual consciousness.

What I really find striking is his insistence on the richness of his interior life as a young child. Yes, I keep wanting to say, yes, it’s just like that. A description of bedtime turns into an epic as the young boy uses a series of rituals and delaying tactics, remembered nearly 50 years later, down to the detail of the width between particular banister rails and the feel of cold glass through the gauze of a net curtain. The hour spent waiting for a tutor who was always late for the four o’clock lesson is stretched out, full of anticipation, incident, and dread. I used to encourage students to write about their earliest memories, and was always astonished when some of them swore they could remember nothing before the age of about four. Nabokov describes the nostalgia he could feel at that age for earlier years – and I know exactly what he means, because I can remember doing the same thing. He doesn’t describe it just as I remember it, but I all through my childhood (to the age of, say, ten) I used to think back through what seemed like eons of time to when I was younger.

He does something else I recognise, and that is to establish his own life in the context of the years that came before. Early on he makes a joke about the way that people aren’t nearly so terrified of the time before they were born as they are about the time that will come afterwards. (He cites an exception, a ‘chronophobiac’ of his acquaintance who might or might not be a veiled self-portrait – who might or might not, in fact, be real at all.) This is on the first page of Chapter 1, and soon afterwards he’s taking us through the early stages of consciousness – or, rather, of his memory of them – when ‘a series of spaced flashes’ lengthen into ‘bright blocks of perception’. It’s these bright blocks that make up a large proportion of these early chapters, and Nabokov finds his childhood self such a phenomenal little being that the descriptions of them are often fascinating.

Take his synaesthesia, and the bond this creates between him and his mother. For him, letters have colours – and, despite admitting that to a non-synaesthete (or whatever) it can’t be terribly interesting, he describes the phenomenon in detail. When he mentions it to his mother, she knows exactly what he means. She tells him about a feature of her synaesthesia he turns out not to share – music and colours, if I remember rightly – but, somehow, it doesn’t matter to him. Their appreciation of the world is connected in a way that seems almost magical.

What I like about Nabokov’s project to chart the unique territory of his childhood consciousness – or experience or perception or whatever – is that in its particularity it becomes universal. That sounds like a glib paradox, but what I mean is that although almost every single ‘bright block of perception’ is unique to him, he goes through a completely recognisable process in retrieving it. Given that Nabokov and I are both white European males, his childhood and mine could not have been more different. But the richness he describes has nothing to do with his family’s wealth; all that provided was the particular context. A nose pressed through a net curtain on to the cold glass of a window is as vivid and real a memory for me in my industrial English terraced house as it is for him in his St Petersburg mansion.

Not everything in these chapters is given this highly individualised focus. There are descriptions of the estates, the houses and, interminably, a family whose history can be traced back five – or is it six? – centuries. Like the names in a Russian novel, they quickly become lost in a blur… but unlike the names in novels, there’s no harm done if they remain a blur. It doesn’t matter to me what the great-grandfather of this stylish émigré novelist got up to, or who that gay uncle was who bequeathed him all that money in his will. Whenever Nabokov goes on about his family and its illustrious connections, I’m reminded of one the very few other family memoirs I’ve ever read, Edmund De Waal’s The Hare with Amber Eyes. There’s the same pan-European cultural life, the same complacent attitude to wealth – and a generous gay uncle, who eventually bequeaths to De Waal the huge collection of netsuke that forms the core of his narrative.

The chapter dealing with the family’s history is fairly systematic in itself, as is Chapter 1 and its analysis of the processes of retrieving the earliest memories. But this isn’t a systematic book – because, I suppose, Nabokov wants to give an idea of how arbitrary-seeming the flow of memory can be. A view from a window in 1907 leads to a memory of the same view during the Revolution ten years later, when, Nabokov tells us, he saw his first dead body. His early memories are full of lurches like that, because we don’t remember things in chronological order. The Revolution memory is apt because, throughout his descriptions of his childhood, Nabokov constantly reminds us that the world he is remembering had a definite and cataclysmic ending. He makes a kind of joke about it, pretending to imagine that his parents were busy because they must have known that time was limited. But he doesn’t really find it funny, as he makes clear short sub-chapter during Chapter 3. He allows himself to ‘yearn after … one locality in Russia’ which, at the time he was writing, he knew he would never see again.

25 March
Chapters 5-8
I’ve changed my mind: I think this is a systematic book after all, and any impression of the random-seeming leaps and swoops that memory can make is, in fact, carefully created. In these chapters, Nabokov seems to be more at home with the idea of displaying his famous penchant for style. There’s a whole chapter, for instance, that seems designed simply to rescue the memory of a single real person after he’d let himself use her as the model for a character in a novel. Once a real memory is used in fiction, he tells us, ‘its retrospective appeal had gone and, presently, it became more closely identified with my novel.’ You got that? Novelists have a unique problem – which, in this chapter, calls for a unique solution.

It’s Chapter 5, and it’s all about the governess habitually referred to as Mademoiselle. Or it’s all about a section of Nabokov’s childhood. Or it’s all about what a clever stylist Nabokov is. Or… or it’s all these things, obviously. As though to redress the balance, considering that his memory of her has been compromised, his chosen method to begin with is to write in a particularly novelistic way. He wasn’t present at her arrival at the station near their estate, but that doesn’t stop him describing it: ‘I try to imagine what she saw and felt…’; ‘I can visualise her, by proxy, as she stands…’ and so on. These imaginative games are nothing compared to the extraordinary image he invents of her ‘grossly exaggerated shadow, also holding a muff, [which] races beside the sleigh, climbs a billow of snow, and is gone….’

If we like, we can see all this as stylistic froth, disguising what is, at a literal level, a straightforward memoir. But I think it’s more than that, because Nabokov seems genuinely interested in how the alert memoirist constructs his narrative. He has various metaphors for the ways he pieces together his memories, sometimes – as in the name of the dog owned by a crush of his one summer in Biarritz – letting them crystallise over pages. It’s a technique, one that he is alerting us to as he uses it. Just as plays metafictional games in his novels, sometimes this memoir becomes – what? – a meta-memoir. He describes exactly how he has managed, through a process of ‘re-creating’ another memory entirely, to remember the dog’s name. And a page later, at the end of that particular chapter, various randomly connected items from the past mingle with his memory of his final sight of the girl until she ‘finally dissolves among the slender shadows cast on the gravelled path….’

It’s these descriptions of the process of Nabokov’s archaeological digs into his own memory that I’m finding most interesting. Inevitably, there’s also plenty of the sort of stuff you’d expect to find in more conventional autobiographies than this one. Some of it is interesting, and I’ll come back to that. Some of it, for me, isn’t. There’s one interminable chapter about his obsession with Lepidoptera. I had to skim it quickly, not because I’ve anything against butterflies and moths, but because I have no concept of the collection-mania that drives people like him. I like things, love visiting museums and art galleries – but have no desire to own any particular thing. (There are exceptions, but these are always temporary. I always have a good pen, a good penknife and at least one reasonably good camera, because they’re useful. But if I break or lose one of them, I get a replacement. And I quite like to have a decent bicycle as well, now I think of it, and some kind of computer. It doesn’t matter what kind.)

So, enough of the butterflies. The only thing I can remember about that chapter now is his confession of how unappealing his obsession could be, even when he was still a child. He spent a day with his net, knowing that a friend was waiting in the house on the big estate on the promise of spending time with him. Oh, and I can also remember that he has published in scientific journals, was in communication with experts from the age of about two, was once devastated when Mademoiselle sat on a newly-completed display. Does Nabokov turn them into a kind of metaphor to represent greater losses? His childhood collections are all gone now, of course, and they aren’t the only things…. (Sigh.)

The conventional stuff is what links together the interesting explorations of memory, the details of the privileged life which Nabokov is perfectly at ease with. And why shouldn’t he be? It isn’t his fault that he lived in houses where there were more servants than family members, became intimately familiar with the interiors of the luxurious trains that would take them on their long annual holidays to Biarritz or wherever. Ok, the golden age of aristocratic life before the cataclysms of war and revolution has been a well-trodden path for a long time, but in Nabokov’s hands it’s good travel writing. This is even true when he’s describing one or other of his homes: this is an unfamiliar culture, and these are alien, complacent attitudes that are interesting in themselves. Up to a point.

But I’m having to trawl through my own memories now, because it’s some weeks since I actually picked up the book. Time to read some more, I think.

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