Beautiful Beautiful Words: Speak, Memory, by Vladimir Nabokov

For the last week I have been adding new words to my “favorite words” list, which isn’t an actual list but something I have vaguely kept track of in my head over the years (past favorites: idiosyncrasy, verisimilitude). Sometimes I like a word because of how it sounds. Plain and simple. “Juxtaposition!” But sometimes I like it because it’s like a portal into its meaning, which of course is only the beginning of its meaning, because aren’t words kind of like ciphers, arrangements of letters and sounds and whatnot, sometimes forcibly squared away into discrete objects or alphabetical permutations, but that can remotely access great wells of significance and the barely differentiated oceans of continuous meaning that constitute the human encounter with the world?

Maybe that theory is a bit grandiloquent. (Favorite.)

But anyway, this past week I came up with two new favorite words, in comparatively rapid succession, kind of by accident. Because they both do that access-y meaning-y thing, where they can be used literally to describe a thing or they can be thought through more deeply or used as a metaphor.

Anyway, I’ll just tell you what those two words are. Without any explanation or anything. One is “deconsecrated” (found in a New Yorker article about high art puppet shows, in which the featured players are rehearsing in a deconsecrated church). The other is “enharmonic” (meaning two musical notes, like D-sharp and E-flat, that have different names and functions but are, at pitch, the exact same note).

This is a roundabout way of telling you that my own personal word guru is Vladimir Nabokov (I wonder if he’s ever been called that before?) and I think I’ve gone on enough about him in the past, but I just finished reading his memoir Speak, Memory so I need to go on a little more about how he is the master of all things words. I’ll stick to the point.

Purchased at Half Price Books (Berkeley). Vintage International, 1989.

Purchased at Half Price Books (Berkeley). Vintage International, 1989.

Vladimir (we’re on a first name basis) started the reminiscences that constitute Speak, Memory as a young man, which roughly cover the period from his birth to the birth of his first and only child Dmitri, though he didn’t finish and publish them until sometime in the 1960s. He has a remarkable memory for detail, like superhuman—it seems memory, like writing, entomology and synesthesia, was an innate talent.

For me, the ultimate Nabokov fangirl (I wonder if anyone else has ever described themselves that way before?), this work is a real treat, because it allows the reader into the thoughts and feelings of the man, the myth, the legendary author. As much as I love his fiction, it can lean too heavily towards the cerebral, a showcase of his magisterial intellect and imagination, while missing a warmth or a tenderness or any window into Nabokov’s own humanity. Maybe that’s not fair—I think the warmth is there, but it’s faint and subtle and buried. His most famous protagonist is a monster. His family relationships are distant and ridiculous, and his love affairs tend to be all-consuming, fiery instruments of their participants’ destruction.

Which is why this sublime passage from the end of Speak, Memory is, for me, so revelatory (note that towards the end of these recollections, he begins periodically addressing the narrative to a “you” that can only be his wife Vera; the most overt manifestation of the fact that all of his books are dedicated to her):

“Whenever I start thinking of my love for a person, I am in the habit of immediately drawing radii from my love—from my heart, from the tender nucleus of a personal matter—to monstrously remote points of the universe. Something impels me to measure the consciousness of my love against such unimaginable and incalculable things as the behavior of nebulae (whose very remoteness seems a form of insanity), the dreadful pitfalls of eternity, the unknowledgeable beyond the unknown, the helplessness, the cold, the sickening involutions and interpenetrations of space and time… It cannot be helped; I must know where I stand, where you and my son stand. When that slow-motion, silent explosion of love takes place in me, unfolding its melting fringes and overwhelming me with the sense of something much vaster, much more enduring and powerful than the accumulation of matter or energy in any imaginable cosmos, then my mind cannot but pinch itself to see if it is really awake. I have to make a rapid inventory of the universe, just as a man in a dream tries to condone the absurdity of his position by making sure he is dreaming. I have to have all space and all time participate in my emotion, in my mortal love, so that the edge of its mortality is taken off, thus helping me to fight the utter degradation, ridicule, and horror of having developed an infinity of sensation and thought within a finite existence.”

So, freaking, romantic. If you’re into that kind of thing.

Anyway. It’s hard for me to explain why I love Vladimir Nabokov so much (beyond posting long samples of his writing). I think I should just consider myself lucky that I’ve found an author that so consistently and so unexpectedly impresses and thrills and delights me, that I love not only as a writer but as a person, and yes that includes the times where I come across something about him and am like, “Vladimir, why do you have to be so stuck-up about writing?” or “Vladimir, what’s wrong with you that you don’t like music?” but that’s normal with anyone you love.

The things that DO make him lovable: his awkward feelings about public speaking. His strangely pompous humility (how can you be self-deprecating about your own writing in writing so grand? Er, grandiloquent?). His obviously deep love and attachment to his wife and son. His ethics (which will of course be politically problematic on several points in retrospect, but which generally tended to abhor racism, anti-Semitism, violence and tyranny; his wife Vera was Jewish; though, also close to home, he never quite accepted his brother’s homosexuality). And—DUH!—his butterfly hunting!

Speaking of which. One of my favorite and most adorable and endearing passages from Speak, Memory, about the unwanted attention he draws when going about his butterfly-hunting business (something he loved from childhood all the way to his death):

“America has shown even more of this morbid interest in my retiary activities than other countries have—perhaps because I was in my forties when I came there to live, and the older the man, the queerer he looks with a butterfly net in his hand. Stern farmers have drawn my attention to NO FISHING signs; from cars passing me on the highway have come wild howls of derision; sleepy dogs, though unmindful of the worst bum, have perked up and come at me, snarling; tiny tots have pointed me out to their puzzled mamas; broad-minded vacationists have asked me whether I was catching bugs for bait; and one morning on a wasteland, lit by tall yuccas in bloom, near Santa Fe, a big black mare followed me for more than a mile.” (131)

So for anyone who loves Nabokov three eighths as much as I do, Speak, Memory is like an ostentatious gift of words that’s dropped in your lap and you almost feel guilty that you get to indulge in it. But the words are finite, and one thing that I tend to do—and maybe others can relate—or maybe I’m a big weirdo—is be constantly cognizant of the finiteness of the things I love and the time I get to spend with them.

This phenomenon manifests most overtly when I’m on a trip and I start to panic a little as the days slip away, all the more so if I felt they weren’t used to their utmost potential. But it also manifests in books, music, etc. When I first got into my favorite band Radiohead in early college, I had an exquisite first few months of acquainting myself with and acquiring their ten-year catalog, and then (until In Rainbows) one day it was gone. When I first started reading Harry Potter, the last book had already come out and I’d seen four movies, and I got to rip, leisurely, through all seven books without the anguish of the multi-year gaps that my hipper friends had to wait through. And then after Deathly Hallows it was gone. When Fellowship of the Ring came out I watched it four times in the theater, five more times at home before the second movie came out one year later, bought every theatrical and extended edition and CD soundtrack, plus film production picture books, plus at some point acquired one life-size Legolas poster (it was a GIFT), and then Return of the King came out and I saw it opening night and it was exhilarating and it was gone. Until The Hobbit, kind of.

I still have a ways to go through Nabokov’s entire oeuvre (favorite), but I feel the end, creeping up on me from behind Pale Fire and the rest of his Russian Period. I guess the best thing to do is enjoy it while it lasts.

…So here I am again. Talking about Nabokov, Radiohead, and Lord of the Rings. Some things don’t change at least.

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3 responses

  1. i like the word “obsequious.” it sounds like what it means.

  2. also i have six or seven different LOTR posters. and i bought them for myself, even the double-wide poster of the map of middle-earth. NERD PRIDE YO.

    1. haha. You’re right. I’m ashamed I was ever ashamed. If I hadn’t lost that Legolas poster, I’d prominently display him in my living room :P

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