Speak, Memory

Speak, Memory

An Autobiography Revisited

Book - 1966
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Publisher: New York : Putnam 1966.
Edition: Rev. ed..
Branch Call Number: LPLC880926113313
Characteristics: 316 p. :,ill., col. map (on lining papers) ports. ;,22 cm.


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Jan 04, 2018

A large woman, a very stout woman, Mademoiselle rolled into our existence in December 1905 when I was six and my brother five. There she is. I see so plainly her abundant dark hair, brushed up high and covertly graying; the three wrinkles on her austere forehead; her beetling brows; the steely eyes behind the black-rimmed pince-nez; that vestigial moustache; that blotchy complexion which in moments of wrath develops an additional flush in the region of the third, and amplest, chin so regally spread over the frilled mountain of her blouse. And now she sits down, or rather she tackles the job of sitting down, the jelly of her jowl quaking, her prodigious posterior, with the three buttons on the side, lowering itself warily; then, at the last second, she surrenders her bulk to the wicker armchair, which, out of sheer fright, bursts into a salvo of cracking.

Jan 04, 2018

[Summer 1914]
The storm passed quickly...

A moment later my first poem began. What touched it off? I think I know. Without any wind blowing, the sheer weight of a raindrop, shining in parasitic luxury on a cordate leaf, caused its tip to dip, and what looked like a globule of quicksilver performed a sudden glissando down the centre vein, and then, having shed its bright load, the relieved leaf unbent. Tip, leaf, dip, relief - the instant it all took to happen seemed to me not so much a fraction of time as a fissure in it, a missed heartbeat, which was refunded at once by a patter of rhymes: I say 'patter' intentionally, for when a gust of wind did come, the trees would briskly start to drip altogether in as crude an imitation of the recent downpour as the stanza I was already muttering resembled the shock of wonder I had experienced when for a moment heart and leaf had been one.

Jan 04, 2018

The "English" Park that separated our house from the hayfields was an extensive and elaborate affair with labyrinth paths, Turgenevian benches, and imported oaks among the endemic firs and birches. The struggle that had gone on since my grandfather's time to keep the park from reverting to the wild state always fell short of complete success. No gardener could cope with the hillocks of frizzly black earth that the pink hands of moles kept heaping on the tidy sand of the main walk. Weeds and fungi, and ridgelike tree roots crossed and recrossed the sun-flecked trails. ..On a picturesque boulder, a little mountain ash and a still smaller aspen had climbed, holding hands, like two clumsy, shy children.


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Nov 10, 2018

If the act of reading is to give your mind over to someone else, then memoir reading is the act of putting your mind into someone else’s shoes, the protagonist walking the reader through an alternative reality. These shoes, Nabokov’s, are the elite Russian counterpart to Dorothy’s ruby red slippers, and the journey is through an enchanting, fantastic, foreign Oz.

On the surface, this memoir is the furthest reach from relatable. The author is a presumptuous male, privileged and entitled, born into the one percent of the one percent, a literal goldmine heir with top government ministers and princes in his lineage. As the favorited first born son of a famous father, servants and nannies, private tutors and drivers exist solely to serve him. His childhood home has so many rooms he gets lost; his family’s country estate is like his own private Central Park.

The writing is dense and complicated, as if the author has no interest in its effect on the reader, as if he’s saying, “Catch up! I’m not slowing down for you, dear reader.” Sentences are so packed with erudite description and high-brow words that the lush writing verges on satire. It’s as if the author tried to create sentences out of obscure words he hunted down and collected from a pre-war Oxford dictionary.

But you miss out when you judge a book by its cover. Start reading and it’s like the first time you saw a rainbow. There is heavenly magic in this twice-translated writing.1 It’s a male-oriented, aristocrat-assuming, captivating spell that drops you into an early 20th century Russian Disneyland. Once you’re there you don’t want to get off the ride. The 21st century and its injustices, family issues, to-do lists: it all vanishes. You have become a gifted, privileged, energetic, young boy in a snow-filled, butterfly-chasing, fantasy world. You are also a jokester. As a reader, you’re never quite sure if the protagonist you’ve inhabited is laughing at you, teasing you, or laughing with you. He’s playing chess and you’re not sure where the pieces are.

If it isn’t already evident, this memoir surprised me. The more you examine closely, the more you see something you’ve never seen before, with colors that you didn’t think existed, luminescent and unbelievable but right there in front of you if you slow down and pay attention.

Jan 04, 2018

Rather than an autobiography, this is a composition of minutely detailed "patches" of memories. The writer is a poet and his prose is elegant and bursting with imagery. The reader is allowed to enter (rather than invited, it seemed to me) into the stratified heights of the doomed, early 20th century, wealthy Russian aristocracy.

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