Speak, Memory is Vladimir Nabokov’s autobiography. In college I knew several people who were big Nabokov fans, and they always recommended this and Pale Fire. I couldn’t get into either of them, was too into flitting around and acting like a teenage boy I think.
I picked up Speak, Memory again a few months ago, and wow, I definitely get it now. And Nabokov certainly does have an extraordinary memory. When I was reading it on a plane to Chicago, the guy next to me was not the “chat with the person next to you on a long flight” type– a history professor at Notre Dame, it turned out– but he felt the need to observe that I was reading an excellent book. Nabokov is just so freaking refined. Forget about his physical ability to recall details; that clearly is a result of his respect for them. He comes off as quietly compassionate.
He’s just been describing hunting butterflies in the woods alone on a July day “around 1910, I suppose,” as a kid. How many logs were stacked up in the clearing, flying past the strewn white clothes of the bathing girls on the shore, what plants and what plants and what plants were around, what birds were tweeting, how the light was, how the rare butterfly skimmed in flight.
He seals the thought by giving not so much the scene itself, but rather the vividness of the memory, a sort of Bird Girl attribution. It’s wiser than Stephen Dedalus’s epiphany on visual beauty, though; Nabokov is not such a young man here:
I confess I do not believe in time. I like to fold my magic carpet, after use, in such a way as to superimpose one part of the pattern upon another. Let visitors trip. And the highest enjoyment of timelessness– in a landscape selected at random– is when I stand among rare butterflies and their food plants. This is ecstasy, and behind the ecstacy is something else, which is hard to explain. It is like a momentary vacuum into which rushes all that I love. A sense of oneness with sun and stone. A thrill of gratitude to whom it may concern– to the contrapuntal genius of human fate or to tender ghosts humoring a lucky mortal.