From a journal entry, August, 2001
Just finished reading Vladimir Nabokov’s memoir Speak, Memory. How observant an eye. How gorgeous a prosodist. How I dislike him.
There’s a meanness that hovers in the offing of his writing, a fastidious drawing-back of the skirts and nostrils that goes beyond mere daintiness into discrimination in its ugly sense. Whether it’s the peasant girl at a gate or the burghers in a Berlin park, these are beings beneath him.
I’m sure he could love very deeply – his father, his son, his butterflies. But the ordinary unwashed – he can’t love them, or understand why sometimes you don’t or can’t wash.
I know this is partly my good old knee-jerk leftish upbringing coming into play. I was utterly taken aback by the sheer wealth of his early surroundings – the estate in the country, the town houses in St. Petersburg, the summers in Biarritz, the servants, the governesses, the dentists in Berlin.
“About bloody time there was a revolution,” I was muttering by the end of the first chapter.
But I doubt my reaction is completely determined by solidarity with the workers. It’s a personal thing – a reaction to what seems small, self-centered. He is astonished when his governess, Mademoiselle, seems to remember a different relationship than the one he recalls. But he never thinks there is any doubt of his memory being the more accurate one.
Walt Whitman wrote, “If you love to have a servant stand behind your chair at dinner, it will appear in your writing – or if you possess a vile opinion of women or if you grudge anything … these will appear by what you leave unsaid more than by what you say.”
What Nabokov constantly leaves unsaid is, “I might have been wrong. Someone else might interpret the situation otherwise, and be just as correct.”
Oh, now and again he expresses a mild regret at writing a harsh review of someone. Once, he’s not sure, in the struggle of remembered emotions during an embarrassing school situation, whether he was empathetically silent or one of the rowdy teenagers who humiliated the tutor. (I’ll bet it was the latter, Vladimir.)
But mostly his sense of privilege is so deeply engrained that it is invisible to him, and this privilege extends to being the one whose account of the past is right.
And then there’s that affectation in the last chapters of never naming his wife and son, referring only to ‘you’ and ‘our son.’ I’m sure his official, external reason would have been to protect their privacy, not to claim them in public. But there’s a horrible possessiveness to that continual beat of ‘our child’. As though by depriving these people of their names, Vera and Dmitri, he denies them an independent existence.
Oh, it’s very lovely, very detailed, very synaesthetic, all those pictures in the park. But I never feel he recognizes they have different eyes to look through. (You need to get out more, Vladimir.)
There’s one point in the memoir where Nabokov describes a failed dinner with Ivan Bunin, the Russian novelist and Nobel laureate who was also from an aristocratic background. Nabokov is not impressed by the fine restaurant – he’s had plenty of quails in his childhood, he prefers to eat lying down on a couch. (You have my sympathies, Vera.)
Towards the end of this tiresome evening, Bunin says, “You will die in dreadful pain and complete isolation.”
Just a page earlier, I’d been thinking, “Gawd, does this guy ever get his comeuppance?” So when I read that, I recognized a deep fellow feeling with Bunin.
In describing the incident, Nabokov was ostensibly being honest, citing the critical remark by a famous man. But underneath that (or on top of it), he is being smug. See, here I am in later life, not alone, not in great pain. After all, he issues this ‘final version’ of his memoir in his mid-sixties, in Montreux, Switzerland, well known, well-published. Life has never been hard – slightly impoverished for a while, but never hard.
Perhaps there were moments in his life where he knew he was alone and in pain. You can’t look into another man’s mind – only into his memoirs. But, as Whitman noted, they are curiously reliable. What we write cannot conceal what we are.
Nabokov thought comfortably well of himself. Conceit is an ugly thing. Bad enough when some macho guy in a mullet flashes his gold chains and a grin at you in the bar. But worse when an intellectual looks disdainfully in his direction and thinks, “I’m better than you are.”