Saturday, August 20, 2011

Portraits of an Artist as a Young Man


I've really been enjoying Speak, Memory, a fascinating collection of Vladimir Nabokov's remembrances of his youth (1899-1919) in Imperial Russia.  As he notes in his penultimate chapter, it is the first arc of the spiral that made up his life, in which he delves into the some of the formative moments that shaped him.  One can find echoes of Lolita in his "first love" for Collette on a French seashore, where his family vacationed one summer.  And, his first real love for Tamara which ended when his family had to flee Petersburg for Crimea, as the Bolshevik revolution thrust the country into turmoil, and eventually set sail for Greece with Tamara's letters left to drift like butterflies as no forward address was left.  There is even a pause for silence in the death of Tolstoy, which Nabokov notes in his parents one morning.

Brian Boyd wrote the introduction to this Everyman's Library edition, 1999, and here he is on the Centennial of Nabokov's birth that year.  Boyd notes that Nabokov was startling accurate in his accounts, having written and rewritten pieces for magazines before finally publishing the final edition of his autobiography in 1966.

Nabokov briefly touches on the second arc of his life, a "voluntary exile" in Europe, which included Germany, France and England.  He notes the sickly green passports which were issued by the League of Nations to Russian emigres, who no longer found themselves citizens of the Soviet Union.  He writes about his three years at Cambridge trying to set his classmates straight on Bolshevism, eventually to give up and turn to poetry.  He also tells of his time in Paris among the Russian emigres, including a wonderful sketch of Ivan Bunin one night at a restaurant to which Bunin had invited him.

A sixteenth chapter has been added, in which Nabokov writes an amusing appraisal of his autobiography from the point of view of a third person critic.  Nabokov chose not to include it in his earlier edition of the book.

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