In some ways, "Speak, Memory" is a total "Back to the Future" situation. Except for instead of Marty McFly risking retroactive annihilation by disrupting his parents' high school meet-cute, Nabokov is returning to long-treasured memories and poking holes.
The plot itself is the story of a little boy who is obsessed with butterflies, writing, and the idea of home...a little boy who will one day grow up to write one of the most controversial novels of the twentieth century: "Lolita." But before ole Vladimir was weaving tales of an academic in love with his young step-daughter, he was tramping around the hills of a pre-revolutionary St. Petersburg with a butterfly net in tow, or falling in young love with a bourgeois little girl during a French seashore vacation. Yeah, this kid had it pretty good.
So where does the "Back to the Future" stuff come in? Maybe little kid Vladimir didn't know that his mother was waiting for a phone call to confirm his father's welfare when he blustered up on her to read his first overwrought poetry effort. But Nabokov-the-Author knows this all too well. And he tells us so! Ultimately, this is what sets "Speak, Memory" apart from any other childhood story. It isn't just a story; it's an all-out lifetime project. This winding, hyper-thoughtful memoir isn't just the story of a man-who-would-be-great, though: it's a book about the nature of time and the nature of home, and how the definitions of both change as we learn, grow, age, and grow more out of touch with both.
Just like Marty McFly went back to the future hoping to give his parents a little extra oomph in their lives, Nabokov went back to his manuscript, after first publishing it in 1951. The author had more follow-ups than Marty (even if you count the regrettable Back to the Future III, when the franchise jumped the shark and went Western). Over the next fifteen years Nabokov took a long ride in his literary Delorean: the book was translated into Russian with the help of his wife Véra, revised, and published again in 1954 as Other Shores. Then Nabokov decided to translate it back from Russian into English (his first language, much the chagrin of his Russkie compatriots), revising it yet again. And, like one of his specimens, the book metamorphosed from a more-or-less straightforward story caterpillar into the impossibly transformed and delicately patterned winged tome it is today, earning its "An Autobiography Revisited" subtitle in 1967.
Nabokov's McFly-style revisions and "revisitings" become ever more important when you think about the book's historical context. The book chronicles many of the important early-twentieth century events of Europe, but even the most careful reader will take a little time putting it together. His idyllic childhood is disrupted by the Russian Revolution of 1905, and his father's involvement as an outspoken liberal. Later his family is uprooted by World War I, and further fractured during World War II. Definitely not the most stable time to be living in that part of the world.
But do the politics and strife of the country sit outside his childhood consciousness? It's only the adult Nabokov that puts it together, in parentheticals and winding threads throughout the book. Because of this, reading can feel like you're on the ground during this tumult, your only guide a homesick kid used to luxuries he'll eventually loose as a result of major geopolitical shifts.
The events he describes in "Speak, Memory" happen to be true (unlike Marty McFly and Doc's adventures), and this gives the book its major thematic meat: he may call it a "systematically correlated assemblage of personal recollections," but as it's gone through its long metamorphosis, the book has become about that unavoidable and all-powerful force: time, the thing no person can stop. Here, Nabokov does his best to stop or at least slow it down, and go "Back to the Future" (hardy-har) so that he and readers can learn something more along the way.
Much like SNL's Stefon might say, this book has everything: poor little rich boys, a discourse on the study of butterflies in the early-to-mid twentieth century, school boy crushes, a ton of political revolutions, exiled families, births, deaths, chess games, and more. Nabokov's super-speedy, hyper-associative brain works overtime to tell the story of his life as a young writer and butterfly-hunter during a crazy-unstable period in Russia.
This book is a reality show whose main character talks to the camera in the confessional booth and tells us what's what. We see scenes from the characters' lives, and then get the scoop on what was going on, and why it matters in the grander scheme of things. It's post-modern in the most contemporary sense: let's talk about it...and then let's talk about talking about it...and then let's talk some more.
Usually, a life story gives us just that: a story. But this book is an all-access backstage pass to the process of writing and rewriting an autobiography. Ever wonder what it's like to look back on your life, see the people you loved and hated, the moments big and small, and then figure out how you're going to communicate that? Nabokov spills constantly about what it's like to remember his now-dead father as a sweet, joking dad, or what it meant to be an émigré father himself, trying to give his baby son everything he can. He tells about the beauty, the pain, the inconsistencies, and the reversals. He can't help himself. He's undoubtedly emo, and we can learn a lot from this very smart man's super-open heart.
Correspondence from the Author Himself
Check out the Nabokov archives at Cornell University!
Home-Turned-Tourist-Destination: The Nabokov House
Curious to see the Nabokov's St. Petersburg town house? You're in luck.
A Review of "Speak, Memory" by the Famous Scientist Oliver Sacks
Oliver Sacks is known for his work writing about rare brain conditions. Read as he gets to work on Nabokov's noggin.
An Interview with Nabokov from the New York Times, 1951
Nabokov sits down for a brief chat on the occasion of the first "Speak, Memory" publication.
"The Genius & Mrs. Genius"
This fascinating New Yorker article spends time talking about Nabokov's wife Vera and her prominent role in his life and work.
Vladimir Nabokov and The Art of the Self-Interview
A piece in the Paris Review revealing the fascinating fact: Nabokov insisted on writing his interview answers, rather than giving them in conversation.
Excuse Me, Professor Nabokov?
Wonder what it was like to be taught by Vladimir? Read this essay by one of his students at Cornell.
A CSPAN-2 Book TV Tribute to Vladimir Nabokov
Because who doesn't love Book TV?
"Speak, Memory" and the Craft of Memoir
A panel of writers discusses the book's craft at the Jaipur Literature Festival.
Hello, I'm Checking In
A funny video about the author and why he loves hotels.
The Ivan Mozzhuin Effect
Remember that actor Vladimir encounters beside his "walk-away" horse in Yalta? He was a famous Russian silent film actor who was the subject of the Kuleshov Effect, where filmmaker Lev Kuleshov demonstrated that a montage impacted audiences' emotions more than a single shot. (FYI: His last name was also spelled "Mozzhukin" and, most commonly "Mosjoukine.")
Use Another Sense to Experience Nabokov's Singular Prose!
Here's a sample of actor Stefan Rudnicki reading it.
An Interview with Nabokov From Way Back When (1969)
The author talks to British journalist James Mossman about the pleasure and pain of writing.
A Secondary Source
Listen to an NPR interview with Nabokov's biographer Andrea Pitzer.
Nabokov and His Net
Vladimir Nabokov kept his butterfly net after all those years.
The Photograph from the Foreword
This photograph shows Nabokov and the 1936 editorial staff of Mesures, who first published "Mademoiselle O" (Chapter 5 of "Speak, Memory").