The Metaphor of Loss in Vladimir Nabokov's Speak, Memory

Article excerpt

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Love in the present gave Nabokov back a sense of vibrant reality that countered that "ghost of the present" that had for such a long time undermined his sense of reality. Love as metaphor was like an "infinity of sensation," an almost mystical sensibility that could cross over into the dark reaches of space and time and transcend the scientific limitations of the physical universe. When we look at Nabokov's Speak, Memory, we see that whether he spoke of his past life, of butterfly collecting, of art, of chess, or of love, of all the things that were so close to his heart, he would always transform these experiences by shifting them into a metaphorical mode.

IN THE FIELD OF RUSSIAN LETTERS Sergey Aksakov, Alexander Herzen, and Leo Tolstoy have left us with memorable memoirs of nineteenth- century Russian life. In the twentieth century, Maxim Gorky, Ivan Bunin, and Konstantin Paustovsky wrote of childhood and beyond. The most memorable of Russian memoirs, however, perhaps because it is also the closest and the most relevant to our time, is Vladimir Nabokov's Speak, Memory.

Speak, Memory was the product of some twenty years of work, from 1946 to 1966. Nabokov (1899-1977) wrote it first in English as Conclusive Evidence, which appeared in 1951. He rewrote it into Russian as Drugie berega (Other Shores), publishing it in 1954. His revised, final, and definitive version came out in English in 1966 as Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited.

Nabokov's memoir, rich in personal memorabilia very close to his heart, is one of the finest things he ever wrote, comparable to the best of his fiction, especially The Defense, Pnin, and Pale Fire. As an autobiography, Speak, Memory is the tragic account, by now only too well known, of the Russian White emigre experience of having to leave Russia after the Revolution of 1917, sometimes forever, and having to eke out a living in Berlin, Paris, or elsewhere. But it can also stand for all the displaced people and refugees of the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries who share Nabokov's profound sense of exile, each in their way.

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NABOKOV WAS, IN THE END, MORE FORTUNATE than some of his emigre compatriots. After he and his family left Russia in 1919, he was able to complete his university education in Cambridge, become one of the best-known young Russian emigre writers in Europe, and was fortunate enough to escape the gathering Nazi Holocaust and war, and leave for the United States in 1940, where he established himself as an American writer in his own right and was soon to become financially independent.

Nabokov's Speak, Memory is full of poignant reminiscences of family history, family life, of governesses and tutors, English, French, and Russian, coming and going, bringing with them upper-class European culture. And though movingly described in everyday terms that were to haunt Nabokov through a lifetime, the reality of a way of life that his memoir was able to evoke was furthermore enhanced metaphorically by a more profound and pervasive feeling of loss, all the more acute when faced with the intensity of remembrance, a remembrance all the more painful because "the kind of Russian family to which I belonged --[is] a kind now extinct-- ..."

It was the loss, the absence, the haunting imagery of a lost world, the sense of emptiness and nothingness--not the loving details of a life remembered--that came to define the traumatic reality in Nabokov's autobiography. He pointed to the metaphorical quality of his reminiscences himself: "Thus, in a way, I inherited an exquisite simulacrum--the beauty of intangible property, unreal estate--and this proved a splendid training for the endurance of later losses."

This traumatic feeling of loss was coupled with a sense of the precariousness of human existence. The very first line of Nabokov's first chapter, which brings to mind yet another line in one of Turgenev's letters to Pauline Viardot, said as much: "The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness. …