Olga Khotiashova responded to my review of Vladimir Nabokov’s memoir Speak, Memory by posting as a comment a lovely essay, which I have also featured as a guest post, below; it unites her personal history with her reading of the book and with literary and political analysis. A mathematician by education, she now lives in Houston.
Reflections on Vladimir Nabokov’s Speak, Memory
by a Russian native speaker recently immigrated to the USA
By Olga Khotiashova
I read the famous Lolita by V. Nabokov in mid-1980s. The book, a Russian translation copied from the original printed in the West and hand-bound, was secretly given to me by a friend with a comment, “If anybody asks you where you got it, answer that you found it in a dumpster.” I’m not sure if the original was smuggled through the Iron Curtain, probably the friend just wanted to heat my interest. Anyway, although it was mid-1980s, not mid-1930s, it was safer not to ask too many questions about the book: “The less you know, the better you sleep,” as the Russian saying says. I read Lolita quickly, liked it partially because of the romantic flavor of forbidden reading, and forgot about Nabokov for years.
The next encounter with the writer happened ten years later when the works by Nabokov were widely published in the former Soviet Union. I liked his novels especially those written in Russian a lot, and Drugie Berega (Other Shores) has become one of my favorite books. No wonder that having moved to the US, I was interested in the English version of the book—Speak, Memory.
Well, it appeared to be not an easy reading. Nabokov’s vocabulary is enormous and peculiar. I had to read sitting at my desk and checking up to 10 words per page in the dictionary, and some of the words needed even a deeper research. I even wrote down the new words first but gave up shortly as it became clear that I would unlikely ever use them. For me, with my freshly learned English, Nabokov’s prose seemed kind of staged: stylish and exquisite as his unique Russian but a little tied up in the limits of English grammar.
While reading Speak, Memory, I tried to answer two questions: 1) What may an American reader like about the book? 2) What does the book mean for me in comparison with its Russian vis-à-vis?
No doubt, Speak, Memory may be interesting to an American reader as an exotic butterfly for its unusual and mysterious beauty. But is there anything more? I borrowed the book in the library, and it had some notes and a library receipt which told me about the previous reader. The pencil notes on the margins affirmed that the reader looked for the connections with everything American, was interested in Russian cultural traditions, and was confused by Nabokov’s playing with words. It was funny that sometimes, when the American reader put a bold question mark having not found the word in the dictionary, I could easily guess the meaning based on the rules of word building in Russian. The receipt included two books: Nabokov’s memoir and the biography of Ernest Hemingway, and a DVD with the movie The Night of the Iguana based on the play by Tennessee Williams. Interesting! The choice itself may become the topic of a research. Anyway, I would join the same book club as that unknown reader and we would definitely find what to speak about despite obvious cultural difference.
I can imagine Speak, Memory in the reading list of a scholar specializing in 20th century literature. But it arguably may be interesting to a casual reader as well.
The book gives a private and subtle look at Russian life at the beginning of the 20th century. Nabokov shows the best part of Russian society: educated, broadminded, bearing rich cultural traditions. Most of these features were swept away by the October Revolution and were replaced by the fierce image of a hostile Russian which became a cliché. Nabokov reveals his vision of Russia and makes a reader avoid stereotypes and develop his or her own view.
Nature, landscapes have always been essential for both Russians and Americans. Russian landscapes, as Nabokov pictures them, give a key to the Russian spirituality. The book produces the strongest feeling of home and loving family—the values which cannot be overestimated. Viewed from the point of a boy raised by loving parents in close connection with nature and art, with great respect for the family history going through ages, and admiration of both native and foreign cultures, the picture of “perfect childhood” drawn by Nabokov may appeal to a reader as the source of first-hand information and particular spirituality.
As for my personal impression of the memoir, it hasn’t changed a lot after reading the English version. It just became more refined as I looked at Russia from the same shore the author did. Only looking from far away one may cherish the native language as the most valuable possession. Only living abroad one may feel the overwhelming beauty of the native land.
It was also a thrilling experience to observe Nabokov’s famous alliterations and decipher his allusions. “The spiral is a spiritualized circle” sounds like a poem in English. I wonder how Nabokov said it in Russian; no doubt he found some singing equivalent. Unfortunately, my Russian version of the book was left on the bookshelf in my St. Petersburg apartment. I know exactly where it is: on the right side, between Dostoevsky and Brodsky. The search for the adequate translation haunted me even in a night dream where I could easily reach the book, turn the pages quickly but still could not find the corresponding page. Alas, it was just a dream.
Writing in English, Nabokov preserved grace and magic epitomized in his Russian prose. Speak, Memory works as a magic lantern switching the reader from the narration to his or her own or even ancestral reminiscences. While reading the book, I caught myself several times feeling as if I was looking through the eyes of my great-grandmother whose namesake I am and whose youth coincided with the beginning of 20th century. I never met her. But due to Nabokov’s prose, the stories told me thousand times by my grandmother and stacked somewhere in the depth of the memory miraculously got alive and transformed into the vivid pictures of a sunlit apple orchard, Cossacks suppressing a students’ rally, train tours to the Crimea. I expect even more miracles.
Vladimir Nabokov wrote his memoir approximately the same time he was working on Lolita. He counted on the former to help him make living but it was the latter which turned out to be a great commercial success. Well, the life is all about unexpected things. As for me, I’ll probably never return to Lolita and will definitely reread both Speak, Memory and Drugie Berega, which connect distant shores and times and serve as bookmarks in the memory pinpointing treasured places and images.