I came to Speak, Memory not only off the back of the first two volumes of Remembrance of Things Past but also as a Vladimir Nabokov virgin. A friend at work has lent me Lolita but it is still waiting to be read so I knew very little about the man and his writing style. This book is like a symphony; it starts slowly but builds and then finishes leaving you catching at the impressions it leaves in its wake.
In a nutshell this is a memoir of Nabokov’s life from the age of zero to around 37ish. But because of where he was living – Russia and then later Berlin – and the timing 1899 – 1936 it is also an insight to a family and the changes to relationships and destinies that happen as a result of revolution and war. There are some very typical family moments, but then there are others that it is almost impossible to relate except through the powerful description – his father almost fighting a duel, the crumbling of everything they have known and owned and the bitter twist of his father’s assassination.
At the same time as being a memoir it is also a book about exile and the different ways to react to being deprived not so much of your fortune and property but of the places that meant so much to you as a child and as a family and it is thoughts around that subject that linger after the final page has been read.
Is it well written?
I did find it slightly difficult because of the jerky way the narrative develops but in his defence it starts slowly because his memories are not so strong so he tries to develop the story from the age of around three, which is probably too early to make much sense. The parts of the story that I would have liked to have seen developed is around the revolution because things like the First World War and the events of October 1917 are just sketched lightly as background events only intruding in details when they directly involve his family. It would have done no harm to the casual non-historically intelligent reader to place the story in more of a historical context. That said the actual style of the book is of a very high standard that does challenge you to either agree or disagree with the way he reacted – rejecting a lot of exile company and psychoanalysis – to his predicament.
Should it be read?
In a way this is an ideal book for a student of Russian history because it provides an insight into the consequences of the revolution for a family that was on the aristocratic fringes. There are also some tantalisingly short references at the end of the book to what it felt like to be living in Hitler’s Berlin at the start of Hitler’s reign. This is a book that would appeal to anyone who has read Nabokov’s books but because of the historical value of the story it should be read by a much wider audience.
On the memoir level it would either lead to Proust, Joyce and a host of others that have concentrated on the minutiae of life for a fictional or autobiographical character. It also leads to more Nabokov including the famous Lolita.
Version read – Penguin paperback