Saturday, April 13, 2013

Speak, Memory (An Autobiography Revisited), By Vladimir Nabokov

My first exposure to Nabokov was in the poorly lit library basement of a local community college I attended a quarter century ago. A handful of his novels stood squeezed against one another on an overstuffed shelf – Pnin, Transparent Things, Glory, The Defense, Look at the Harlequins, Despair. The row reminded me of a three dimensional bar graph. Invitation to a Beheading, dwarfed by the others, represented profit losses in March; the taller bronze one right of it titled Laughter in the Dark stood for gains in April. The titles along the spines ran sideways so that, clumsily, I found myself, as if in some stretching exercise routine, leaning from the hip, craning my neck until my ear nearly touched my shoulder.  

A month before, a friend had recommended the author’s most famous, or infamous, novel Lolita. Based on the subject matter, I vowed to avoid that book. But the promise of impressive prose made me tug a random copy (a collection called Tyrants Destroyed and other stories) from its perch, and within seconds of the first clever line, I’d escaped the dank tomb-like library basement and fallen into a web of words so wondrous I lost track of the waning afternoon until closing time when the lights went out and the shelved catacombs closed in. I thumbed my Bic lighter (I smoked back then) and used the tiny torch to find the stairs and eventually reach the counter for checkout.

It wasn’t the morbid subject matter that interested me, nor the depressing characters and their self-destructive urges. In fact, those things were sometimes cringe-worthy. But the prose! Dizzying chains of sheer delight and wonder, perfectly crafted phrases invoking incredulity and joy, awe and gratitude, not unlike the sensation one feels listening to or reading the rousing speeches of some of our greatest political leaders in times of crisis: Lincoln, Churchill, MLK.

As I’ve said elsewhere: It’s not the plot but the writing that’s a marvel. Nabokov could dwell on squirrel poop and it would read like sheer poetry. I confess: for many years, I entertained a sort of hero worship for the man. I remember somewhat facetiously confiding in a dear friend and fellow Nabokov fan that the only reason I didn’t regard Nabokov as a god is because gods can be impugned. If you’re moved by the magic of a master and his prowess with language, then you too might fall prey to idolatry as I did those many years ago.

Putting this post together, I struggled to find some choice quote I could pluck from the garden and offer as evidence of his genius, but every line was part of a bouquet. Snapshots of a sunset fail to capture the sensation of that warmth on one’s face. Instead, I’ve resolved to return to that moment a quarter of a century ago, this time creating my own artificial dark by shutting my eyes, jabbing a random page with my forefinger, and copying the line printed above my nail.

“… a chair of thin iron, with its spidery shadow lying beneath it a little to one side of center, or a pleasantly supercilious, although plainly psychopathic, rotatory sprinkler, with a private rainbow hanging in its spray above gemmed grass …”

If I hadn’t read Speak, Memory this month, I would’ve assumed my youthful infatuation had been just that. But a quarter century later and approaching fifty, I realize I’m just as spellbound today. Nabokov’s approach is infectious, and despite my efforts to escape his influence, I catch myself channeling his charms, probably in an effort to invigorate my own prose. Unfortunately, my skills are an inferior mimicry of the master. I’m like that boy who tries to lift his father’s dumbbells or that rodent apprentice donning the enchanted conical hat in the magician’s absence. I just hope I can discern my own voice amid the many I admire and enjoy which sometimes threaten, by sheer virtue of their craft, to crush my own. 

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