Speaking of Memory: Nabokov’s Folded Fabric

October 18, 2014   •   By Peter Birkenhead

EARLY IN THE PAGES of his memoir, Speak, Memory, Vladimir Nabokov confesses that he is a “chronophobic,” that he in fact not only fears but also doesn’t “believe in time,” that he is less impressed by memory’s ability to sort and retrieve information than by its knack for synthesizing that information into poetry. He writes, “I witness with pleasure the supreme achievement of memory, which is the masterly use it makes of innate harmonies when gathering to its fold the suspended and wandering tonalities of the past.”

It is in the pursuit of this pleasure that Nabokov mimics, in his memoir and in his novels, the way our memories tell themselves to us: in hints, collisions, and rushes, overlapping, upside down, out of order. Nabokov’s belief in the surreptitious, intentional nature of memory was at the heart of his writing process — he wrote his novels on index cards, jumping from section to section as mood and memory struck him — and is as much a subject of his memoir as are the memories themselves.

Beginning with an account of the months in 1903 when the author’s four-year-old consciousness rouses itself and begins to record images of a happy, eventful childhood, the Nabokov that emerges is as impressed with himself as one might expect him to be, but also painfully introverted, exquisitely attuned to the subtexts of human interaction, powerfully drawn to the hidden movements of nature, and, even as a young child, haunted by his recollections.

“A bewildering sequence of English nurses and governesses, some of them wringing their hands, others smiling at me enigmatically,” he writes, “come out to meet me as I re-enter my past.” He catches his caretakers in the act of becoming characters in his story, and fixes them to the page in candid snapshots, as with this description of a particular, acrobatically gifted tutor: “The next picture looks as if it had come onto the screen upside down.” So the observer reveals himself observing, reveling in the variety of his modes of perception, in their ability to unveil hidden realities. “If one looked through blue glass,” he recalls, “the sand turned to cinders while inky trees swam in a tropical sky. […] The red made the foliage drip ruby dark upon a pink footpath. The green soaked greenery in a greener green.”

Those panes of colored glass are just a few of the countless refractive surfaces through which we observe the landscape of Speak, Memory — prisms, mirrors, decanters, marbles, photo-slides, magnifiers, pince-nez, flutes, and vials — all rendered in sentences that are themselves glass-like, recursive, moving at great speed through provisional spaces, opening on to ever-approaching and receding points of arrival or departure. Nabokov the chronophobe may fear clock time, but he is in thrall to the experience of mind time, the awareness of his own inner temporality, which he refers to as “the radiant and mobile medium,” “the pure element.” There is a sense throughout Speak, Memory that the human experience of time is the essence of consciousness itself — that for Nabokov time is life.

For instance — on a train that travels from southern Russia in 1917 to a Swiss hotel room in the 1960s, Nabokov contemplates the locks on a suitcase his mother carried with her on her honeymoon in 1897:

At a collapsible table, my mother and I played a card game called durachki. Although it was still broad daylight, our cards, a glass and, on a different plane, the locks of a suitcase were reflected in the window. […] [I]n sudden ravines, and among scuttling cottages, those discarnate gamblers kept steadily playing on for steadily sparkling stakes. […] [O]n this gray winter morning, in the looking glass of my bright hotel room, I see shining the same, the very same, locks of that now seventy-year-old valise.

The collapsible table, the “different plane.” The sudden ravines and cottages. The glass, the window, the locks, the “sparkling stakes,” the mirror. All the elements of the Nabokovian universe are here: motion, light, reflection, hints of other dimensions, time travel. This is a deeply skeptical exploration of our attempts, in a spinning world of evolving phenomena, to define a fixed, concrete Self, to define anything in stasis; that is, it is less concerned with how a character moves through time than how time flows through a singular consciousness. And the book is filled with moments like this — of Nabokov pointing and saying, “Look at that! Can you believe that?” He is not making a case for a post-Einstein universe; he’s discovering that universe with a childlike delight, and inviting the reader to discover it with him.


An obsessive student of butterflies, Nabokov was frustrated by what he saw as the arbitrary nature of rigid taxonomical definitions, writing that, “such conceptions as species, subspecies, etc. […] exist as abstract conceptions, mummified ideas severed from and uninfluenced by the continuous evolution of data-perception.” As the wandering shape-shifter tours his pasts he reassembles old selves — “a pretty boy in knickerbockers and sailor cap,” “a lanky cosmopolitan expatriate in flannel bags and beret,” “a fat hatless old man in shorts,” each one as substantial and fragile as the newly minted American mandarin narrator of Speak, Memory — each one momentarily useful to his storytelling purposes. But the compulsively self-reinventing, forever-in-transit author clearly believes, as he did about butterflies, that a human persona is possessed of a “fugitive sense,” an essentially transitional nature, and, as he said elsewhere, that “to adopt [it] as a logical reality […] would be much the same as conceiving a journey in terms of stopping places.” The only thing resembling a still point in the universe of Speak, Memory is the mind of the narrator, but even it is keenly sensitive to the fundamental inconstancy of its condition and environment.

The practical writing benefits of this sensitivity are many. Unbeholden to a single “I,” the author avoids the tangles of self-justification; and owing no loyalty to the calendar, he is freed from the constraints of commonplace, linear narrative. He avails himself of a perspective from which he is able to comment at a particularly poignant and amusing distance on each of his many brief lives. Nabokov presents Sirin — the pseudonym under which he wrote most of his early Russian novels — in the third person, as someone he enjoyed reading in his youth, a writer whose “mirrorlike angles and clear but misleading sentences” were roundly and justly praised by critics, yet who — and here Nabokov could be speaking about any of his several personas — “Across the dark sky of exile […] passed […] like a meteor, and disappeared, leaving nothing much else behind him but a vague sense of unease.”

A compulsive chess player and puzzle-maker (as well as bug chaser), Nabokov understands his obsession with his past as not unlike the physicist’s attempt to discern patterns and points of connection, which in turn might provide a glimpse of infinity. He writes,

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 ecstasy 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.

He earns the reader’s indulgence of these minor rhapsodies by 1) writing them so exquisitely, and 2) by hovering at just the right height above a given scene to reveal both its orderly movements and its observer’s unruly passions. He assumes the narrative stance of a scientist in love with his amoeba, hunched over squiggling history, recording every darting movement while simultaneously monitoring the fluctuations of his own enraptured, often-startled heart.

“[The] permanent importance,” he proposes, of his memory project is as a “meeting point of an impersonal art form and a very personal life story,” one that links experiences from his early life — interminable sleigh rides, garden safaris, schoolyard humiliations — with his emergence into emotional and spiritual maturity. The scientist-author captures the breadth of his subjects by keeping his vision resolutely nearsighted. Focusing exclusively on the inner experience of events in his immediate emotional vicinity — the loss of his father, the loss of his country — he seems always to be describing the wider world, the one inhabited by the reader.

In this way, this study of a particularly exotic childhood, spent in the embrace of “the legendary Russia of [his] boyhood,” waited on by a staff of 50 servants, stands in for our own attempts to recover and examine perhaps more ordinary, yet no less “legendary,” pasts. Nabokov writes: “The following of such thematic designs through one’s life should be the true purpose of autobiography”; it is this elevation of theme over plot, of mind time over clock time, that lifts the deeply personal book into the realm of the universal, even the cosmic:

He felt that all this skein of random thoughts, like everything else as well—the seams and the sleaziness of the spring day, the ruffle of the air, the coarse, variously intercrossing threads of confused sounds — was but the reverse side of a magnificent fabric, on the front of which there gradually formed and became alive images invisible to him.

This belief in the revelatory potential of the coarse, the arbitrary, the seamy and confused elements of his life sends Nabokov into the past with eyes wide open. He re-watches the rocket-like progression of his time-travels — from the early days on his family’s St. Petersburg estate to their flight from Russia in 1917, and again from the Crimea as it was overrun by the Red Army two years later, to his early life as a student at Cambridge, contemplating the abrupt shock of his loss, then on to prewar France and almost immediately another flight, this time from the Nazis, and finally to America — with a poet’s sorrow and a scientist’s sense of awe.

So he tacks through time as memory, not chronology, dictates. He recalls arriving in England, dimly nostalgic for St. Petersburg, but more saddened by the realization that he will never see Russia through the eyes of an adult. The scene moves from a memory of remembering to a recollection of what was to come: “The story of my college years in England,” he writes,

is really the story of my trying to become a Russian writer. […] As with smarting eyes I meditated by the fire in my Cambridge room, all the potent banality of embers, solitude and distant chimes pressed against me, contorting the very folds of my face as an airman’s face is disfigured by the fantastic speed of his flight.

Even while sedentary the time traveler is in quantum motion.

When Nabokov writes about his mother reading to him as a child at bedtime he recalls a ring on her hand as she turned the pages of his book. He conjures in its facets “a room, people, lights, trees in the rain — a whole period of émigré life for which that ring was to pay.” He is remembering an imagined memory of childhood nostalgia, nostalgia for a past that predated his birth, as first remembered during young adulthood. Moreover, he credits his facility with memory to his mother, who, in those last days of the family’s Russian life, jealously hoarded her own recollections. “She cherished her […] past with the same retrospective fervor that I now do her image and my past. Thus, in a way, I inherited an exquisite simulacrum — the beauty of intangible property, unreal estate.” And his affectionate tending of that legacy is everywhere in his work. In the circular structure of Pnin, in the jumbled past and present of Ada. Fyodor, the main character of The Gift, jumps in a lake and swims “for a long time, half an hour, five hours, a week, another.” In the short story “The Visit to the Museum,” the narrator visits a European museum and leaves by a back door that opens onto a Russian street.


In the later sections of Speak, Memory Nabokov closely maps his extended European exile, during which, in 1919, his father was murdered in Berlin. But much earlier, in the book’s most audacious gesture, near the end of a long chapter about a cold, grammar-school winter, 10 years before his family would arrive in Germany, Nabokov quietly, almost casually, slips the event of his father’s future assassination into the last, brief paragraph like an icy shiv.

The two paragraphs that precede it tell the story of the evening in 1909 when his father managed cleverly to avert death at the hands of a duelist, but the events described occur almost exclusively in Nabokov’s worried imagination. During a “dreamy” sleigh ride home from school which “engenders […] an almost hallucinatory state of mind,” he witnesses “dim silhouettes of duelists [advance] upon each other and […] stop at the crack of dawn in damp glades of old country estates.” He sees “Pushkin, mortally wounded at the first fire, grimly sit up to discharge his pistol at d’Anthès.” And, “behind it all,” he writes, “there was yet a very special emotional abyss that I was desperately trying to skirt […] and this was the tender friendship underlying my respect for my father; the charm of our perfect accord.”

When he arrives home he immediately intuits, from images that seem to have “opportunities of dream arrangements” — his uncle coming downstairs, looking back up at his parents with a laugh and slapping the balustrade with his gloves — that the duel has been called off and that his father would survive. He sees his father but cannot look directly at him.

“And then, it happened.” Nabokov writes (a phrase so un-Nabokovian it stops the reader cold), “My heart welled in me like that wave on which the Buynïy rose when her captain brought her alongside the burning Suvorov, and I had no handkerchief.”

It is only post-climax, in the almost-parenthetical sentence that follows that melodramatic peak, that the author takes us 10 years into the future to report his father’s assassination, and only in the sentence after that, the very last of the chapter, that he makes its most salient point. He writes, as if to explain his methods: “But no shadow was cast by that future event upon the bright stars of our St. Petersburg house; the large, cool hand resting upon my head did not quaver, and the several lines of play in a difficult chess composition were not blended yet on the board.” He is teaching us something about the building of stories and the experience of time yet the moment couldn’t feel less academic or pedantic, and is in fact almost unbearably emotional. Lots of memoirists construct nonlinear narratives, but for Nabokov the construction of the story is the story.

Understanding the emphatic disdain Nabokov’s quietly abrupt segue conveys for the conventional rhythms of transition is a key to understanding his ambitions in this scene, and in general. For Nabokov, time exists only in personal, reflective consciousness, and is forever being blown around by the unpredictable weather of the mind. For his purposes — the navigation of the “intangible property” of memory — a polite device like linear foreshadowing is as useful as a tape measure in outer space.

Instead of leading us directly, step-by-creaky-step to a dark and fateful moment, scientist that he is, the author traces the emotional black hole at the center of the story by inference, by measuring disturbances in the trails of objects subjected to its pull. He shows us a spiral of shadows, one concocted so adroitly it feels like a trick, but that works precisely because it eschews the usual trickery. The telling of his father’s murder achieves its breathtaking effect by dramatizing not the way the father dies, but the way the mind of the father’s rememberer works. We experience the abruptly delivered moment as a sucker punch, but we recognize that the deliverer of the blow is memory, not Nabokov. What we remember of our lives may be different, but how we remember is the same.


In a typical response to an editor’s request for some changes to a chapter of his novel Pnin, Nabokov would write, “Such changes would effect the inner core of the piece which is built on a whole series of inner organic transitions; it would be agony even to contemplate replacing some of them at random by mechanical inorganic links when I have taken such pains with the inner linkage and balance.”

So it is with Speak, Memory: in welcoming his memories on their own disorderly terms, Nabokov opens himself to a universe in which, as he wrote in Ada, “The present is only the top of the past, and the future does not exist,” or, as his fellow multi-exile Einstein put it, “the distinction between past, present, and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.”

His many obsessions reveal themselves, in Speak, Memory, to be obliterators of that distinction, coaxers of secret selves from the realm of the radiant medium, borderless time, the “two eternities of darkness” between which our “existence is but a brief crack of light.” The chronophobic is drawn to that black expanse like an anti-moth, only to be thwarted by illusion. He writes, “That this darkness is caused merely by the walls of time separating me and my bruised fists from the free world of timelessness is a belief I gladly share with the most gaudily painted savage.”

There is a giddy, illicit charge to Nabokov’s hunt for a glimpse of infinity. He stalks his prey through endless summer gardens, a patient but determined peeping-tom, swinging a butterfly net at sacred experience, capturing a “thrill of gratitude to whom it may concern — to the contrapuntal genius of human fate or to tender ghosts humoring a lucky mortal.”

The humble lepidopterist’s smile in that sentence is what keeps Speak, Memory from floating off into the ether, as it occasionally threatens to do, or sinking into morbid self-pity. The notion at the heart of this tender, wistful book, the enlightenment Nabokov gleans from his compulsive pattern-seeking reveries, is a bright but steely-hard one, as beautiful, but as cold, as the St. Petersburg blizzards that so mesmerized him as an already nostalgic young boy: that memory can corrugate time, call its bluff, that sometimes it can even, by twists and turns, when the light is just right, render it meaningless.


Peter Birkenhead is a writer living in Washington, DC. His memoir Gonville was published in 2010.