(ISBN 0375405534) is an autobiographical memoir
by writer Vladimir Nabokov
The first twelve chapters describe Nabokov's remembrance of his youth in a quasi-aristocratic family living in pre-revolutionary Saint Petersburg
and their country estate Vyra near Siverskaya
. The final three chapters recall his years at Cambridge
and as part of the Russian émigré community
. The book is dedicated to his wife Vera and covers his life from 1903 until his emigration to America in 1940.
Nabokov published "Mademoiselle O", which became Chapter Five of the book, in French in 1936, and in English in the Atlantic Monthly in 1943, not indicating that it actually was not fiction. Subsequent pieces of the autobiography were published as individual or collected stories, and each chapter can stand on its own. Andrew Field observed that while Nabokov evoked the past through “puppets of memory”, like his educators, Colette, or Tamara, his intimate family life with Vera and Dmitri remained "untouched". Field indicated that the chapter on butterflies is an interesting example how the author deploys the fictional with the factual. It recounts, for example, how his first butterfly escapes at Vyra, in Russia, and is "overtaken and captured" forty years later on a butterfly hunt in Colorado.
Nabokov wanted to title the book Speak, Mnemosyne
, but his publishers refused for fear that readers would not buy a "book whose title they could not pronounce". It was first published in a single volume in 1951 as Speak, Memory
in the United Kingdom and as Conclusive Evidence
in the United States. The Russian version was published in 1954 and called Drugie berega
(Other Shores). An extended edition including several photographs was published in 1966 as Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited
There are variances between the individually published chapters, the two English versions, and the Russian version. Nabokov, having lost his belongings in 1917, wrote from memory, and explains that certain reported details needed corrections; thus the individual chapters as published in magazines and the book versions differ in some regards. Also, the memoirs were adjusted to either the English- or Russian- speaking audience. It has been proposed that the ever-shifting text of his autobiography suggests that "reality" cannot be "possessed" by the reader, the "esteemed visitor", but only by Nabokov himself.
Nabokov had planned a sequel under the title Speak on, Memory or Speak, America. He wrote, however, a fictional autobiographic memoir of a double persona, apparently being upset by a real biography by Andrew Field, under the title of Look at the Harlequins!.
The chapters were individually published as follows,- unless indicated otherwise publications occurred in The New Yorker
- "Mademoiselle O" (Chapter Five), published first in French in Mesures in 1936, portrays his French-speaking Swiss governess, Mademoiselle Cécile Miauton who arrived in the winter of 1906. In English, it was first published in The Atlantic Monthly in 1943, and included in the Nine Stories collection (1947) as well as in Nabokov's Dozen (1958) and the posthumous The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov.
- "Portrait of My Uncle" (Chapter Three), 1948, takes account of his ancestors as well as his uncle "Ruka". In 1916 Nabokov inherited the estate Rozhdestveno, next to Vyra, from his uncle, but lost it in the revolution.
- "My English Education" (Chapter Four), 1948, presents the houses at Vyra and St. Petersburg and some of his educators.
- "Butterflies" (Chapter Six), 1948, introduces a lifelong passion of Nabokov's.
- "Colette" (Chapter Seven), 1948, remembers a 1909 family vacation at Biarritz where he met a nine-year old girl whose real name was Claude Deprès. As "First Love" the story is also included in Nabokov's Dozen.
- "My Russian Education" (Chapter Nine), 1948, depicts his father.
- "Curtain-Raiser" (Chapter Ten), 1949, describes the end of boyhood.
- "Portrait of My Mother" (Chapter Two), 1949, also discusses his synesthesia.
- "Tamara" (Chapter Twelve), 1949, describes a love affair that took place when he was seventeen, she sixteen. Her real name was Valentina Shulgina.
- "First Poem" (Chapter Eleven), 1949, published in the Partisan Review, analyzes Nabokov's first attempt at poetry.
- "Lantern Slides" (Chapter Eight), 1950, recalls various educators and their methods.
- "Perfect Past" (Chapter One), 1950, contains early childhood memories including the Russo-Japanese war.
- "Gardens and Parks" (Chapter Fifteen), 1950, represents a more personal at Vera directed recollection of their journey .
- "Lodgings in Trinity Lane" (Chapter Thirteen), 1951, published in Harper's Magazine, describes his time in Cambridge and talks about his brothers.
- "Exile" (Chapter Fourteen), 1951, published in the Partisan Review, relates his life as an émigré. In this chapter the author poses a chess problem.
- "The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness" - the opening sentence.