An Early Nabokov Memory

Lately I’ve been rereading Vladimir Nabokov’s memoir Speak, Memory.  To me, Nabokov is a kindred soul.  He has such an admirable command of the English language, considering that his native language is Russian.  My favorite Nabokov novel is Pale Fire, but Bend Sinister is a close second.  Nabokov’s novels, like those of Flaubert, Dickens, Conrad, Woolf, Twain, and Hardy, are infinitely rereadable.   Maybe it’s just me, but I can’t retain every aspect of the splendor of the language used in these authors’ novels.  They beg to be reread periodically.

Vladimir Nabokov grew up in a wealthy Russian family but his childhood was interrupted by the Russian Revolution.  His family was exiled to Paris and Vladimir ended up studying butterflies and teaching literature in the USA.  Here’s a short passage from his memoirs which impressed me:

Neither in environment nor in heredity can I find the exact instrument that fashioned me, the anonymous roller that pressed upon my life a certain intricate watermark, whose unique design becomes visible when the lamp of art is made to shine through life’s foolscap.

Larry

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “An Early Nabokov Memory

  1. Darrell

    Someone once said that we must return periodically to the wellsprings. Sadly, it’s not all that easy to do.

    I never read Nabokov because all that came to mind was Lolita, but the “intricate watermark” phrase has a familiar ring to it.

  2. Joan

    What an interesting passage, Larry. Sounds like he also had a intricate relationship with maybe handmade paper? I love the phrase ‘life’s foolscap’.
    Lately, I’m thinking life’s pretty much a ship of fools(cap?)

    I vaguely remember reading Lolita to see if the book was as awful as the movie, and being surprised that it was not.

  3. The publication of Lolita during the 1950s was a mixed blessing for Nabokov; due to the semi-literate American reading public’s seemingly unlimited appetite for sexy lit the book was a bestseller, and V.N. never really had to work again.

    The non-explicit pedophilic subject matter of Lolita, though, turned many readers off, which is unfortunate. Nabokov was one of the few American writers of flawless limpid prose in the 20th century, IMHO.

    And the word “foolscap” intrigues me, as it seems to be one of those linguistic remnants of the medieval world with which the English language is blessed.

  4. paullamb

    It sounds as though Mr. Nabokov was looking for a single, dominating influence on his life. It’s no wonder he couldn’t find it. I suspect that with his multi-national and multi-cultural upbringing as well as his polymath’s interests in the world, the number of influences on his character are countless and (blessedly) unknowable.

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