The book begins with a foreword-slash-disclaimer, from Nabokov himself: this book has gone the long way around in getting finished: it's been written, revised, translated, translated again, revised, added to, and published anew. Nabokov gives us the terms of the game: there are inconsistencies and clumsy additions and dangling questions, but this is all part of his design.
After being given a map of his young 'hood, we meet young Vladimir in his family country estate in rural Russia, watching an old family film that predates his birth. He uses the confusion of seeing his parents living without him as his first understanding of time. With understanding comes a realization of the wider world: signs of 1905's Russo-Japanese War, and the wars to come, are everywhere.
Next Nabokov talks about his tendency toward visions, or hallucinations, and his synesthesia, meaning certain letters come with certain colors in his brain's understanding. He and his mother share the same condition, and the two are close. They play tennis and all manner of games, and she goes out on her own to hunt for mushrooms. Nabokov writes about his mother while also describing the grounds of Vyra, including her ultimate lonely fate as an émigré widow in Prague.
Nabokov tells the story of his father's and mother's sides of the family, their military service and titles, while describing the family crest, the estates and military service, the inherited family noses, and the black sheep. This is nose-to-tail genealogy. Uncle Ruka, his mother's brother, gets a special portrait: he's a grumpy and smart man whose death prompts Nabokov to think more deeply about memory and time.
While Nabokov is growing up, he has several nurses, governesses, tutors, and teachers, and he catalogues many of these people while further exploring Vyra, his country estate, and the town house in St. Petersburg. He talks of speaking and reading English, his first language, and the English-language picture books that his mother reads to him.
A difficult Swiss woman, who in the book goes by Mademoiselle, comes to the Nabokov family when Vladimir is six. Nabokov has used her personage for fictional fuel, so here he attempts here to do tribute to the woman. Though at first he and his brother do anything they can to escape her clutches, Vladimir begins to appreciate her more as she reads French novels to them. After seven years, over objections, she departs the family and returns to Switzerland.
At age seven, Vladimir becomes obsessed with butterflies, and stalking the woods and meadows and marshes of Vyra in search of them. His mother kills them with ether, and then he adds them to the collection. Later, while put under ether for a medical procedure, he is taken back to his childhood: sense is an important part of memory. His obsession grows, and he finds he must skip out on visiting friends in the mornings just to feed his collection habit. Passerby look at him like he's got a third eye, but it's just the butterfly net.
In 1909, when Vladimir is ten years old his family vacations in Biarritz, a resort town on the French coast. Vladimir soon finds a playmate and young love in Colette, and he plans to elope with her. Predictably, the elopement proves to be more fantasy than fact; the young couple holds hands in a movie theatre and eventually both leave vacation to return home, never to see each other again.
After the light and dark of the beach and movie theatre, Nabokov brings us to what he calls a "magic lantern" show: a series of slides and short remembrances. He recalls visiting a schoolmaster's home with his father, his paternal grandmother's distaste for his father's decision not to serve the Tsar, and the tutors, including a short-staying carpenter's son, a nameless math teacher, an athletic Latvian, a handsome, bicycle-riding Pole, and Lenski, a young radical college student who subjects the neighborhood children to slide shows and lectures. For Nabokov, his series of childhood tutors is like a magic lantern show, one slide fading slowly to the next.
Nabokov then turns to a biography of his father, who was born the son of a minister and baroness, became a promising student, and, marrying Nabokov's mother, became a liberal journalist and lawyer who condemned pogroms and other violent royal acts of the time. Throughout Vladimir's childhood, his father was fined, briefly jailed, and eventually voluntarily exiled along with the rest of the family. He was assassinated in 1922, in Berlin. Vladimir and his father are close, and it becomes clear that his early death is among the central tragedies of Nabokov's life.
Explored next is Vladimir's friendship with his slightly older cousin Yuri, a less privileged, rough-and-tumble kind of boy with whom Vladimir has many boyhood adventures. As the two grow, bookish Vladimir and hearty Yuri play at frontier adventures of the American West (inspired by a novel) and shoot stolen guns. Yuri grows up, and in this, Vladimir sees that boyhood is ending. Nabokov has a crush on the head coachman's daughter.
At age fifteen, Vladimir discovers poetry writing for the first time. His first poem is in Russian, and he works with overwrought language to compose an elegy to nature, speaking about the vagaries of time and "memory's sting." When it is at last completed, he shows it to his mother, who meanwhile is waiting for a telephone call from his father, trapped in St. Petersburg as political unrest increases.
In the summer of 1915, Vladimir has his first love affair with a woman named Tamara. World War I, at its early height, feels distant to the lovers. They steal time in the country, and when both return to St. Petersburg for the school year, they skip class to canoodle. Vladimir publishes a disastrously sophomoric volume of poetry, much to Tamara's chagrin, about their love. By the next year, the war has come home, and the Nabokov family is relocated to Yalta while Tamara goes to the Ukraine. In fleeing, his family has lost much of its fortunes. Although Tamara continues to send letters, the family must eventually leave Russia in 1919, with no forwarding address.
After a brief period in Greece, the family moves to England, but they find it expensive and glum, and move to Berlin, leaving their two oldest sons, Vladimir included, to study at Cambridge. At university, Vladimir finds himself an inattentive student obsessed with missing home, enlivened by the politics of the day. Still feeling isolated, he turns to literature, and fills nights with writing.
After Cambridge, Vladimir is inundated with the indignities of being a stranger, and émigré, and is faced with poverty and restricted travel. He ends up in Paris, and then Berlin, where he teaches and continues his poetry and novel writing. However, it is bittersweet: in exile, his books cannot be circulated in Russia. He goes to expat readings, and becomes obsessed with the art of writing chess problems: not a game but an art of strategy. During this time, he meets his wife Véra, and though Nabokov does not discuss their meeting or romance, they marry and have a son. By the late 1930s, the family leaves for Paris, and in 1940, they receive a U.S. travel visa.
The final chapter finds Vladimir walking down the streets of Berlin in 1934, a brief back-pedal in time, on his way back from the maternity hospital where his wife has just had their son. Nabokov spends time describing the streets, and the nature of love, and its interconnectedness to the rest of the universe. He speaks of memory as a function of time and love and nature. Vladimir and Véra raise their son carefully, attempting to give him everything they had as children. In the final passage, Nabokov describes the land as they travel, including large vessels that look like his son's toy ships. He will not point them out to his son, for he wants his son to discover them by himself.