As a huge fan of Nabokov and a curious explorer of the realm of reconstructed memory through memoirs and autobiographies, this book has been idling on my to-read list for a bit, ever since my enthralling encounter with Lolita. An account of Nabokov’s life, more or less chronologically, from childhood to adulthood, from a flourishing and aristocratic lifestyle in Russia to exile in Europe and eventually a life in America, this series of fifteen vignettes renders the landscape of Nabokov’s young life with nostalgia and the pain of a joyful, yet lost, childhood.
What I find most interesting in the memories that Nabokov presents to the reader in his anecdotes is that, with alarming beauty, utmost tenderness, and genius precision, they represent “a kind of delicate meeting place between imagination and knowledge” (167). Nabokov’s approach to seeing the world as a child and capturing the artistic in nature involves a blending of memory and fiction and the creation of captivating details that one genre can generously lend to the other.
I loved this sense of playfulness between working towards the precision/ truthfulness of memory and being self-aware of memory as part fiction, a re-telling of one’s past as colored by the present. As experienced in Nabokov’s robust and detailed account of his French governess, “Mademoiselle,” he at the same time emphasizes an uncertainty of knowing whether the characters of one’s childhood are really as they have been imprinted in one’s mind:
“Houses have crumbled in my memory as soundlessly as they did in the mute films of yore, and the portrait of my old French governess, whom I once lent to a boy in one of my books, is fading fast, now that it is engulfed in the description of a childhood entirely unrelated to my own. The man in me revolts against the fictionist, and here is my desperate attempt to save what is left of poor Mademoiselle” (95).
The inability to truly know the accuracy of one’s convictions about the past, the faultiness of recollection, the world of fiction from which bloom all the colorful details which we so adamantly claim to be true — this, I think, is at the heart of this book.
We witness Nabokov in the very act of recalling and are swept up in the minute details of the places that he revisits in his mind. He poignantly describes the reconstruction of his memory of garden parties on his family’s estate, the actions of family members around the banquet table, and the foods and desserts laid out for the meal. It is interesting to note that Nabokov says he always approaches this childhood scene in his mind from the vantage point of the park rather than from the house, “as if the mind, in order to go back thither, had to do so with the silent steps of a prodigal, faint with excitement” (171).
In his account of this scene, time is slowed, sounds are muted, and the reader experiences a slow-motion effect from the words on the page in a gloriously cinematic recreation. And then suddenly, “some knob is touched and a torrent of sounds comes to life,” and the reader is thrust into normal speed again, with the scene bursting to life with the immediacy of real time. Nabokov’s ability to warp and pause the speed of time, and to convey his confession that he does “not believe in time,” exhibits his mastery and control of language, his ability to bring us closer to a different reality, one that is beyond the immediate veneer of our everyday lives.
I enjoyed being witness to Nabokov’s first encounters with the passions of his life — butterfly-catching, poetry, chess, his first romances. It makes me think back to the moments in my own life when a sudden interest was sparked at random or in ways I don’t quite remember, when the beauty of the world outside of ourselves pressed itself so incessantly on our young minds and came out of us in tender, fumbling ways, and turning points that were so crucial to the development of who we are today.
His description of the dripping of rain drops on a singular leaf after a thunderstorm, and how the rhymes of a poem suddenly crystallized in his mind as a newfound passion (“tip, leaf, drip, relief”), was especially meaningful for me:
“…the instant it all took to happen seemed to me not so much a fraction of time as a fissure in it, a missed heartbeat, which was refunded at once by a patter of rhymes; I say ‘patter’ intentionally, for when a gust of wind did come, the trees would briskly start to drip all together in as crude an imitation of the recent downpour as the stanza I was already muttering resembled the shock of wonder I had experienced when for a moment heart and leaf had been one” (217)
Such passages are laden with the attention, beauty, and sheer mastery that made this book so delectable to read. I also considered what Nabokov then says about poetry: “But then, in a sense, all poetry is positional: to try to express one’s position in regard to the universe embraced by consciousness, is an immemorial urge. The arms of consciousness reach out and grope, and the longer they are the better.”
The older I grow, the longer my arms of consciousness get in trying to reach out to the outside world, to those around me, as well as towards myself in awareness of what I have to give from what I have gained. Poetry has certainly been “positional” for me in this regard, and I appreciated Nabokov’s wisdom on this. This has been one of the best reads of the year for me, and I was appreciative of the power, intellect, and sensitivity of Nabokov’s writing.