‘Speak, Memory’ by Vladimir Nabokov ***

‘Speak, Memory’ (Everyman’s Library Edition)

I have never read any of Nabokov’s fiction before, but when I saw this book on a ReadItSwapIt list and read its blurb, I thought that it sounded too good to miss.  I think that it is an interesting idea to begin reading a particular author’s oeuvre with a volume of autobiography, and it has certainly made me intrigued to read some of his fiction in future.

Speak, Memory covers the period between 1903 and 1940.  I make no bones about the fact that the book is written intelligently, but at first this style does feel as though it has been rather overdone. Some of Nabokov’s writing is stunning, but at times it did sound rather pretentious.  I have formed the general idea from reading reviews of his novels (mainly those of Ada and Lolita) that this is a general element of his style.  I felt that Nabokov’s prose did even out as it went along, and once I was used to his turns of phrase, it became eminently more readable.

At first, it felt as though Nabokov has essentially crafted a series of memory fragments, none of which are really connected, into a book.  For me, this gave the entirety rather a fractured feel.  After the first couple of chapters had passed, however, I did find that some of the later memories were connected – on rather a fragile string at times, it must be said.  Some of them were incredibly memorable – never, for example, will I be able to forget the rather disgusting way in which he talks about killing moths and butterflies for his collection – but sadly, not all of the fragments were.

I had rather an issue with the way in which the book was not sorted into chronological order.  It jumps back and forth so that Nabokov is a whole host of different ages in quick succession – three, six and three again.  Whilst I suppose it didn’t matter on the whole, it made it rather difficult to gauge how the author had grown into his own character. The format was an interesting one, but I can’t help thinking that I would have enjoyed it more had it had more of a structured and traditional manner about it.

Perhaps I should have mentioned at the outset that I am a self-confessed Russian history nerd.  It goes without saying really, then, that I found the social history – Russia’s military campaigns abroad, the forming of the First Parliament, and the vast divide between poverty and wealth, for example – fascinating.  The sense of place which Nabokov captured throughout was stunning.  He has made me want to go rushing back to beautiful St Petersburg on the first plane, which can only be a positive thing.

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