Questions and Proposals about Vladimir Nabokov’s Speak, Memory (1951, 1966)
Please note: The edition of Speak, Memory referred to in the following questions and proposals is the Everyman’s Library edition, 1999, with the added “appendix” of the Sixteenth Chapter, and with an introduction by Brian Boyd. If your group decides to read this version of Speak, Memory, readers should be urged to read Boyd’s introduction, so they know the complex history of the book’s publication. And if you would like to use these study questions, but would prefer to work with the version of Speak, Memory Nabokov intended—meaning, the one without Chapter Sixteen–these questions will serve. Only one question here treats Chapter Sixteeen.
These questions were written by Emilie White. © Emilie T. White
Question 1. Speak, Memory as perhaps effecting a change in your relationship to reading.
Have you found, in reading Speak, Memory, that you are more aware of the reading experience than you usually are, even more protective or cultivating of the reading experience than you usually are? Perhaps you’ve reserved a specific time of day to read it, or have found yourself harvesting more of your day for reading generally. Perhaps, like me, you’re transcribing passages you especially love, in effect protracting the amount of time it takes to read, the book creating its own special “time” within the larger, habitual time of your day.
It seems Nabokov is up to something in describing reading as much as he does. Go back over the pages you’ve already clocked and look at how much reading goes on in Speak, Memory. And not just reading, but—-and here I’m expanding the question — looking, or studying, or gazing. The book is intent on sustained aesthetic wonder of several kinds (and under this heading I would include Nabokov’s pursuits as a lepidopterist). We might even say that “sustained aesthetic wonder” stands in Speak, Memory as a threshold between modes of perception, maybe even as an altar between worlds. Do you identify with this description of the book?
Question 2: Tone
Nabokov will do everything possible not to cheapen experience or to privilege emotion over the (sometime) hard-feeling, final-feeling obduracy of reality. You may have noticed, for instance, that at exactly those moments when other writers might have gone in for sentiment or nostalgia, Nabokov becomes droll; or he just concludes the chapter or section, he just gets out of there; or he expands the frame to include material unanticipated at the beginning of that chapter/section. You might have noticed how fast the narrative sometimes moves—-all of a sudden, a character we were just getting to know is dead.* You may have also noticed N.’s habit of self-irony, of making a character out of himself at exactly that moment when another writer might have tried to seem “sincere.” The attitude a writer holds towards his or her material is called “tone,” and many reader-writers believe that tone is all: that with the proper tone we are able to honor experience, thereby giving it to the reader; and that with an improper or vulgar tone we dishonor it, drawing the light to ourselves.
How do you experience Nabokov’s tone in Speak, Memory? Do you find yourself surprised by it, at times? Please refer to the text in your answer.
*An added observation: This acceleration in narrative I mention above, in which, say, an element of the world N. has just created for you is suddenly being “wrenched” away—the word is Boyd’s — such as a character suddenly dying, is an example of the many ways in which the book is experiential. It does what it’s talking about; or, it does what it dreads. The “colossal effort” Nabokov is making to rebel against time will be overwhelmed. Regularly the book will admit this, and moreover will make you feel it; and one way you feel it is to have something or someone you’ve grown to care about suddenly “wrenched away.”
Question 3: Time
In the first pages of the book, Nabokov sets himself up as a rebel against time; yet only a paragraph later he describes time as a “radiant and mobile medium” (p. 11). Also within that first chapter he suggests that the beginning of sentient life coincides with the beginning of our awareness of time (and here I refer to the moment on pages 10-11 when N. first learns his age in relation to those of his parents.) Now that you’ve read the book, what do you think time really is for Nabokov? Or maybe the question is less what time is for Nabokov than what Nabokov does with time. What he is able to do with his “medium” (it’s like asking what a painter is able to do with paint and canvas.) And what is time for you, now that you are beginning to integrate N.’s conception of time with your own?
By the way: Very helpful to me in my studies of Nabokov’s writing has been Michael Wood’s excellent monograph on Nabokov, The Magician’s Doubts: Nabokov and the Risks of Fiction. Here is Wood on Nabokov’s (or the narrator’s) posture toward time in Speak, Memory.
“The dominant posture in Speak, Memory is not disbelief in time and not simple submission to it. Nor is it, although Nabokov himself makes a number of rhetorical waves in this direction, a rebellion against time, an assault on the ‘walls of time’ of the ‘prison of time.’ It is an intricate engagement with what Nabokov, echoing Proust, calls ‘time itself’, and anticipating his own fiction character Van Veen, calls the ‘texture of time’. [. . .] The would-be rebel against time, time’s disbeliever, speaks even in his opening pages of time as ‘a radiant and mobile medium.’ Time is not only brutal passage and decay, it is also a form of awareness, and what Nabokov calls ‘the birth of sentient life’ is the birth of a consciousness that knows itself to be temporal. He associates the development of the mind itself with the very constraints it longs to deny: ‘the beginning of reflexive consciousness in the brain of our remotest ancestor must surely have coincided with the dawning sense of time.’ A little myth of origins. The remotest ancestor is figurative and hyperbolic, but the argument is immediate: we start to think when we think about time.”
(See Michael Wood, “The World Without Us: Speak, Memory,” in The Magician’s Doubts: Nabokov and the Risks of Fiction, Princeton University Press, 1994, p. 84)
Question 4: For Personal Reflection: Curiosity
Do you wish you had been as curious about the things and people of your childhood as Nabokov was about his own? I don’t have my childhood to do over again, and I am, in middle age, pretty much stuck with the mind I have-—but perhaps I can make a few hopeful changes. Does Speak, Memory inspire such hope in you? Please refer to the text in your answer.
Question 5: About “Sirin”: Self-Objectification/ Separation Self-from-Self
The narrator discusses Sirin on p. 225, in the middle of Chapter Fourteen (this is in the Everyman’s Library cloth edition from 1999.) “Sirin,” as some of you will know, is the name with which Nabokov signed his Russian novels. This is to say that when Nabokov starts talking about “Sirin,” he is in fact talking about himself—or, more precisely, about the writer he was, when he was still writing in Russian.
Please go back and reread the passage beginning on p. 225 of the Everyman cloth edition treating “Sirin” (the passage ends on the top of p. 226). “Sirin” raises a number of interesting and important questions, which, if answered, might help you think about the book as a whole. Here are some of those questions:
- Why is Nabokov posturing as someone other than the writer he was when he wrote in Russian; or, to put this question differently: Why has Nabokov objectified the writer he was when he wrote in Russian; or to put the questions differently still: Why is Nabokov invoking his former writer-self from outside of that self?
- What are the reasons behind the severance, the separation, self from self?
- There is mischief here, isn’t there? Do you think, with that mischief, Nabokov just wants to make you feel tricked? What if we said that by separating himself from himself, he makes something possible–emotionally possible, imaginatively possible-—both between you and him, and between you and yourself?
Question 6: About “Chapter Sixteen”: A proposal: Through ending his book two different ways, Nabokov has sent his book into two different kinds of “time,” two different kinds of contingency
In this proposal I’m going to advise that readers take a long look at the last two chapters of the book, Chapter 15, which was the ending N. intended for the book, and Chapter 16, which N. wrote in 1950,, and which he never published, and which was included, by Brian Boyd, as an “appendix” to the edition we read in the All Souls Book Group. What I advise you to do here is to treat these two different “endings” as two different kinds of “time.” Into what kind of time does Nabokov send his autobiography when he concludes it with Chapter 15? Into what kind of time (a very different one) does he send it when he concludes it with Chapter 16? Two different posterior lives he creates for his book; two contingencies. In giving his book (his life?) two endings, he up-ends the myth of endings. That is how the two-endings-ending registers for me, as an effort at control that admits paradoxically to the lack of control. For once you have two endings, you could just keep writing them, you could have…seventeen endings, you could have an infinite number. It’s also obviously extremely telling that Nabokov didn’t end his book with Chapter Sixteen. He ends it with Fifteen. That’s how he wanted the book to close. The final impression he wants for you, and here I’m referring to the very last paragraph of Chapter Fifteen, is that of his family, together, in “one last little garden,” “laid out on the last limit of the past and on the verge of the present,” encountering the “real prototype” of one of the toy vessels from his son’s bath. Another pattern to be discerned. Another “stratagem.” A ship will take them to New York, away from Europe, and Russia. (Go back and look at that final page, p. 243.) What are we to think—that Nabokov writes the clever, deconstructive ending (Chapter Sixteen) but doesn’t value it? Doesn’t want it, anyway. What are your thoughts, here?
Question 7: For Personal Reflection: What Speak, Memory may have to teach us about raising children: Nabokov as a I’ll theorist of child development.
One of the ways I thought about Speak, Memory was as a parent and/ or educator of children. You may remember Nabokov turning to the reader relatively early in the book and addressing him/her expressly as a parent. This moment comes after a long, especially moan-overable passage about Nabokov’s childhood nighttime-bathing ritual (he calls it his “bedtime dawdling” (61)). Nabokov has been climbing the stairs to bed ahead of his mother, with his eyes closed; and when he gets to the toilet, he dawdles some more by engaging in a sensory sort of experiment involving pressing his forehead against the “smooth comfortable edge” of the door and then “roll[ing] it a little.” “A dreamy rhythm,” he writes, “would permeate my being.” The whole passage, meaning, the description of this “bedtime dawdling,” takes nearly four full pages. The passage summarized above concludes: “I appeal to parents: never, never say, ‘Hurry up,’ to a child” (62).
I wonder if others of you began to see the book as, among other things, a portrayal of, maybe even as an argument for, a certain kind of parenting that could make possible within a child the peace and energy essentially to have one’s childhood—-to dwell without hurry or self-consciousness within the fantasies and imaginative play of childhood and explore their particular character. There does seem in Speak, Memory a kind of theory of individual development that says that the full and “dawdling” exploration of one’s self, of the natural world, of language, books, images, one’s own rhythms—-that this research, if allowed to follow its own “time,” could, later in life, result in the courage and delicacy of attention necessary to love one’s life, even to make a work of art out of that life (or out of that love, if you will), despite the dread of loss.
Thoughts here? Thoughts here as a child? As a parent? As an educator?
Question 8: Shift in Writer to Reader Address: The Moment when Nabokov starts addressing his wife, Véra
What do you make of the shift in address, which happens about mid-way through the book, from a generalized reader-address to a more specified “you,” meaning, to Nabokov’s wife, Véra? Every now and then Nabokov will turn to his wife and recall an experience only the two of them could know. The feeling I am left with as I read these shifts in address– well, the feelings are complex, and one of them is of suddenly realizing I have been eavesdropping. Then, by Chapter Fifteen, the chapter originally intended by Nabokov as the last in his autobiography, the entirety of the address is to Véra. What is the effect of this shift for you, the reader? Does your relationship to the book change as Nabokov emerges more and more as a husband and father? What is it like, for you, to be included in that relationship–through reading Nabokov address his wife–and to be ex-cluded by that relationship, in that you are now no longer the primary addressee?
Question 9. A way Nabokov might have conceptualized his relationship to you, the reader
In one of our meetings about Speak, Memory, a couple of discussants said that they found Nabokov “conceited,” and then went on to say that they found his conceitedness a kind of barrier they had to overcome before accepting the book. I’d like to shake things up a bit and propose the following in reply. I think it’s worth doing even for the non-All Souls book group member, or leader.
What if Nabokov knew that he had an extraordinary gift—-the kind given only to a few writers a century. And what if his response to knowing he had it was to create a relationship with you in which the fullness of his gift, and the fullness of yours, could be fully engaged? What if the creation of this relationship—-with you, the reader—-was his way of accepting his gift with the utmost responsibility?
What if, in other words, Nabokov is not a writer who plays at being anything less than what he knows himself to be? And what if, in the United States especially, we expect such posturing; and what if it’s this expectation that makes it difficult for us to embrace the challenge (a playful challenge) set to our intelligence by a writer as potent–and as liberating–as Nabokov? Please note that by modifying the challenge as “playful” one does not necessarily mean “light” or “un-serious.” The point, for Nabokov, is not to value the game one way or the other—-light, serious, what have you. The point is only to play.
A corollary to the last question, Question 9: Considering Nabokov’s term, “artist-reader”: the possibility that Nabokov took his reader very seriously
Indeed, what if it is the potency of our own intelligence, our own imagination, we are most unwilling to accept? What if our reluctance to accept that potency is the ultimate barrier? And what if our reluctance to accept that potency is bound up with the reluctance to accept the change-ability of the self, its vulnerability to change and contingency (and death.)
Related to this last question: What if, for Nabokov, the ideal relationship with you, as reader, is as opponents in a game of chess? If this proposal interests you, please reread the section about chess in Chapter Fourteen. (The passage begins p. 226 and ends p. 230.)
Question 10.“This capacity to wonder at trifles…[is] the highest form of consciousness.”
The following is a remark of Nabokov’s from one of his lectures about other writers’ literature. The title of this lecture is “The Art of Literature and Commonsense.”
“This capacity to wonder at trifles–no matter the imminent peril–these asides of the spirit, these footnotes in the volume of life are the highest forms of consciousness, and it is in this childishly speculative state of mind, so different from commonsense and its logic, that we know the world to be good.” (Vladimir Nabokov, Lectures on Literature, ed. Fredson Bowers, New York: Harcourt Brave Jovanovich, 1980, p. 374.)
This capacity to wonder at trifles…is the highest form of consciousness. What are your thoughts, reading this? One thought I have is how subjective in emphasis this remark is, how perhaps dangerously private and idiosyncratic. But what about the common good? one wants to say. Isn’t the highest form of my consciousness taking shape when I’m thinking or working on behalf of the other, on behalf of other people and what we share in common? And then another thought I have is how hopeful the remark is — how, to have arrived at it at all, one would need to have developed a certain faith in human consciousness, a strength of faith, that had already withstood the vicissitudes invariably encountered in an illogical, speculative state of existence. What are your thoughts, here? How does the experience of reading Speak, Memory inform your thinking on this question?