This book is amazing, not for the story it tells but for how that story is written. It consists of essays written and published at different times and places, but it all holds together. Each chapter follows the other in basically chronological order. Let the author speak for himself:
For the present final edition of Speak Memory I have not only introduced basic changes and copious additions into the initial English text, but have availed myself of the corrections I made while turning it into Russian. This re-Englishing of a Russian reversion of what had been an English re-telling of Russian memories in the first place proved to be a diabolical task, but some consolation was given me by the thought that such multiple metamorphoses, familiar to butterflies, had not been tried by any human before.
The book covers the years from his birth in 1899 to 1940, when he, his wife and son immigrated to the US. It begins with his Russian boyhood, followed by his émigré years in Europe. It covers his tutors, his passion for butterflies, a bit about his synesthesia, his coming-of –age, his first girlfriends, his writing and poetry. You clearly understand where he came from, but that is NOT the glory of the book. What is astonishingly good is how he describes memories. What a vocabulary! Words, words and more words. Adjectives and unusual verbal constructions. It is magical. If you want simple wording, I guess this is not for you though.
Since what is so stupendous about the book is the writing, I must offer you another sample. It is at the end of the book when he is soon off to America on an ocean liner. He is walking with his wife and six year-old son up a path in a park in Paris, and they spot the boat:
What I really remember about this neutrally blooming design (the park) is its clever thematic connection with transatlantic gardens and parks. For suddenly as we came to the end of its path you and I (his wife) saw something that we did not immediately point out to our child, so as to enjoy in full the blissful shock the enchantment and glee he would experience on discovering ahead the ungenuinely gigantic, the unrealistically real prototype of the various toy vessels he dottled about in his bath. There in front of us, where a broken row of house stood between us and the harbor and where the eye encountered all sorts of stratagems, such as pale blue and pink underwear cake-walking on a clothesline or a ladies bicycle and a striped cat oddly sharing a rudimentary balcony of cast iron, it was most satisfying to make out among the jumbled angles of roofs and walls a splendid ship’s funnel showing from behind the clothesline as something in a scrambled picture. Find what the sailor has hidden that the finder cannot un-see once it has been seen.
I am writing what I have listened to in the audiobook version of this book, which is well narrated by Stefan Rudnicki, in a deep tone perfect for Nabokov’s words. The narration has just the right pomp!
I LOVED the book, but it might not be for everyone.