Vladimir Nabokov

Speak Memory: An Autobiography Revisited

“Common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.”

Memory, for Russian-born novelist Vladimir Nabokov (1899-1977), is an active thing that holds truth and space. It pulls him back and thrusts him forward to visions and narratives. His tone in Speak, Memory is playful as he reflects on his beautiful but distant mother, his intellectual father, his beloved pre-War St. Petersburg.

But Nabokov is also intensely philosophical. He wonders if that which he immortalized in fiction is truer than life. This autobiography, especially his skepticism of memory, differs from those like Graham Green who accept childhood, though only memory, as real.

Throughout his autobiography Nabokov assigns spatial properties to the abstract. Some things are close, like truth, reality, experience; and others remain far; observation, memory, and oblivion. Imagination is the connecting bridge. But even imagination cannot penetrate the eternity of darkness.

Among the more interesting confessions (though not surprising given his immense spatial abilities) is Nabokov claims synaesthesia, a psychological term for correlating senses. Nabokov saw sounds: “There is a steely x, thundercloud z, and huckleberry k… I see q as browner than k.” I experience synaesthesia but with numbers, five is spring green, eight is a berry color.

Read more about memory and how it configures our present in Penelope Lively’s memoir. Or on the impossible attainability of things past in Deep, Aching Longing for the Impossible or the talismans of memory in The Precious Things We Keep Nearby.