Speak, Memory – 5/5 Stars
Rereading this book for the first time in a few years and this time as an audiobook opened up the story, the writing, and the book overall in some positive ways. Nabokov has become for me not necessarily a favorite writer because I don’t like every single thing he’s written, and my love for his writing comes with some pitfalls (ahem, figuring out what exactly to do and feel about The Enchanter and Lolita), but my esteem for him as a writer, and also for the figure he strikes as a “man of letters”. This has nothing to do with what kind of person he was (which I think is mostly: selfish, brilliant, a giant baby, a sour piece of shit, arrogant as hell) but who he was in the world, how that informed his writing, and what he opened up for others. This memoirs covers the years previous to his birth, his whole childhood and adolescence, schools, young adulthood, and parts of his married life, specifically the birth of his son.
He tells us early on of the double oblivion everyone faces in their life, trying to account for eternity before they were born, and the eternity after they’re born. This presents a kind of horror that has to be faced (or ignored) and just doesn’t exist, as far as we know, outside of humanity, and for plenty of people, within it. This leads him to try to build the context around what he was born into. He was born a Russian aristocrat of the highest wealth and influence. You can find online a picture of the estate he inherited (and didn’t have to share with his brother Sergei) when he was 16. He explains his education as a balance between an actual school, where he often had to hear rumors about his father’s political maneuverings in glowing and hateful terms, as well as his series of nannies and tutors at home where he learned multiple languages and from the tutors and nannies myriad backgrounds, other things about the world. He also talks about how in so many of his novels live the items, people, conversations, and other pieces of his childhood and how he has a complicated relationship with them in his work.
He also was a living answer to the battle-cry: Eat the rich! He was rich, and they ate his entire life. He spent his whole adulthood in a very safe form of exile. He went to Oxford, where he tells us he didn’t learn to be English like so many of his classmates, but where he learned to be Russian, especially given the fall of Russia in his youth.
We also get a beautiful set of writings from his early marriage, written to Vera, about his impressions of their early life together. This book still remains one of the absolute pinnacles of memoir, written as art, before memoirs were written as art.