Frances W. Richardson
Dr. Richard Stockton
November 20, 1989
Vladimir Nabokov was eighteen years old, the scion of "a kind of Russian family now extinct," when the Bolshevik Revolution deprived him of home and homeland. Political instability often gives impetus artistic experimentation; young Nabokov began at an early age to search for his poetic voice. Literary history shows that the doctrines of French symbolism spread to Russia during the years of Nabokov's childhood and youth. In fact, Nabokov, who was a product of the aristocratic, well-traveled and well-read Russian intelligentsia, specifically mentions the work of several Symbolist poets. Symbolist poetic techniques--born from the ashes of the French Revolution and the Romantic rebellion- capture in prismatic detail the nuances of thought and memory and are especially suited to the depletion of a child's imperfect perception of an environment of uncertainty, change, and upheaval. Nabokov desired to convey an accurate emotional description of the feelings and impressions of his childhood and thus wisely chose a symbolist method for his memoir, Speak, Memory.
Symbolist ideas useful to an understanding of Nabokov's autobiography include a notion of the equivalence of sense-data and mental states, an aesthetic feeling for the spiritual essence of reality and the supernatural dimension to representations of the visible world. Nabokov's methods extend beyond mere synesthesia to effects evocative of transcendent ideals, though he does lay claim to a colored alphabet like that of Rimbaud's "Vowel Sonnet" (34-35). The contrast between crystallized.
specific details and the deception and concealment of symbolic disguise creates a tension which accomplishes the iconization of Nabokov's unique childhood.
If Speak, Memory does have one unifying overall symbol it is that of the butterfly--a creature which represents beauty, flight, and metamorphosis--a n d which reappears in different
incarnations at regular intervals throughout the temporal and spatial dimensions of the story. Nabokov introduces the butterfly theme in a most literal manner:
I discovered in nature the nonutilitarian delights that I sought in art. Both were a form of magic, both were a. game of intricate enchantment and deception. I have hunted butterflies in various climes and disguises: as a pretty boy in knickerbockers and sailor- cap; as a lanky cosmopolitan expatriate in flannel bags and beret; as a fat. hatless old man in shorts. . . . Several of my finds. . . have been named after me. One of these, Nabokov's Pug ( Eupithecia nabokovi McDunnough), which I boxed one night in 1943 on a picture window of James Laughlin's Alta Lodge in Utah, fits most philosophically into the thematic spiral that began in a wood on the Oredezh around 1910 --or perhaps even earlier, on that Nova Zemblan river a century and a half ago (125-126).
Nabokov's fascination with butterflies reminds the reader of Baudelaire's definition of the nature and purpose of art: that the essence of reality is not material but spiritual; that man is made aware of the soul of everything, its spiritual essence, through a feeling for the aesthetic. At virtually every crisis of emotion or aesthetic in the book an insect alights; the author has even searched Western literature for more examples of the sensuous butterfly images he presents as representative of his own evanescent memories. Only once does Nabokov prefer to use a forthright rather than symbolist voice. His outburst in chapter three may be the result of irritating discussions with post- lecture busybodies:
My contempt for the emigre who "hates the Reds" because they "stole" his money and land is complete. The nostalgia I have been cherishing all these years is a hypertrophied sense of lost childhood) not sorrow for lost banknotes (73).
Thus Nabokov transmits the material losses of Czarist Russia into a spiritual deprivation of homeland. This emotional imprint causes his descriptions of the Nabokov family's fabulous wealth to achieve mythological status, to transform the reality of childhood's confused perception into legend;
Sometimes, in our St. Petersburg house, from a. secret compartment in the wall of her dressing room (and my birth room) [my mother] would produce a mass of jewelry for my bedtime amusement. I was very small then, and those flashing tiaras and chokers and rings seemed tome hardly inferior in mystery and enchantment to the illumination in the city during imperial fetes, when in the padded stillness of a frosty night, giant monograms, crowns and other armorial designs made of colored electric bulbs --sapphire, emerald, ruby- glowed with a kind of charmed constraint above the snowlined cornices of housefronts along residential streets (36).
This multi-sensual, symbolic transmittal of memory and emotion permeates the entire autobiography. Nabokov, like a sucking butterfly, recounts visceral, almost gustatory memories
of his babyhood sensory explorations:
The recollection of my crib, with its lateral nets of fluffy cotton cords, brings back, too, the pleasure of handling a certain beautiful, delightfully solid, garnet -d a. r k crystal egg left over from some unremembered Easter; I used to chew a corner of the bed-sheet until it was thoroughly soaked and then wrap the egg in it tightly, so as to admire and re-lick the warm, ruddy glitter of the snugly enveloped facets that came seeping through with miraculous completeness of glow and color. But that was not yet the closest I got to feeding upon beauty (24).
Often Nabokov's mind, as in the passage above, acquires an aspect of the silent butterfly awaiting transformation. Hoarding visual, auditory, and tactile data as though constructing a
chrysalis, "feeding upon beauty," the boy Vladimir, viewing his life through a prismatic insect eye, also anticipates through contrast in auditory sensation each new pulsation of the cycle,
I witness with pleasure the supreme achievement of memory, which is the masterly use it makes of innate harmonies when gathering to its fold the suspended and wandering tonalities of the past. I like to imagine, in consummation and resolution of those jangling chords, something as enduring, in retrospect, as the long table that on summer birthdays and namedays used to be laid for afternoon chocolate out of doors. . . . I see the table cloth and the faces of seated people sharing In the animation of light and shade beneath a moving, a fabulous foliage... Through a tremulous prism, I distinguish the features of relatives and familiars, mute lips serenely moving in forgotten speech. I see the steam of the chocolate and the plates of blueberry tarts... In the place where my current tutor sits, there is a changeful image, a succession of fade-ins and fade-outs; the pulsation of my thought mingles with that of the leaf shadows and turns Ordo into Max and Max into Lenski and Lenski into the schoolmaster, and the whole array of trembling transformations is repeated (171).
Less benign is the youth's view of impending war, juxtaposed with his shaky new discovery of a poetic gift, as though he senses that the hopeful cocoon has split and prematurely spilled its damp life into a hostile world. The symbolist technique equates a malignant universe with the individual's "dissolving path" and evolves into a slippery satin armchair, in which the poet dares not rest. Such patterns serve to highlight the uncertainty of the era and the emotional instability induced thereby:
My nerves were on edge because of the darkness of the earth, which I had not noticed muffling itself up, and the nakedness of the firmament, the disrobing of which I had not noticed either. Overhead, between the formless trees bordering my dissolving path, the night sky was pale with stars. In those years, that marvelous mess of constellations, nebulae, interstellar- gaps and all the rest of the awesome show provoked in me an indescribable sense of nausea, of utter panic, as if I were hanging from the earth upside down on the brink of infinite space, with terrestrial gravity still holding me by the heels but about to release me any moment. Except for two corner windows in the upper story (my mother''s sitting room) the house was already dark. . . . My mother reclined on the sofa with the St. Petersburg Rech in her hands and an unopened London Times in her lap. A white telephone gleamed on the glass-topped table near her. . . . An armchair stood by the sofa, but I always avoided it because o f its golden satin, the mere sight of which caused a laciniate shiver to branch from my spine like nocturnal lightning (226).
Although the above passage focuses on space and the stark black- and-bright contrasts of elemental light, the war and its changes are eventually personalized and transformed into the binding up of young Nabokov's everyday world into a neat package--a parcel of symbols--presented to Davy Jones, but which could easily (and might just as well) have been set. out for the municipal garbage collector. The remaining years of Nabokov's life will be devoted to scavenging through the dump; all digging on beaches, chasing butterflies and peeping through train windows will only bring splinters--s ha r d s--like the glass butterfly case crushed under the ample bottom of the hated French governess (127). Nabokov chooses sentimental and earthy symbols from nature to represent the lost homeland:
Tamara, Russia., the wildwood grading into old gardens, my northern birches and firs, the sight of my mother getting down on her hands and knees to kiss the earth every time we came back to the country from town for the summer, et la montagne et le grand chene- -these are things that fate one day bundled up pell-mell and tossed into the sea, completely severing me from my boyhood. (249-250)
External nature is a dictionary, according to Mallarme, and the words must be selected and arranged by the creative genius (as Nabokov does in the paragraph quoted above) before they have significance or beauty. Like the French symbolists, Nabokov views language as a game; the arrangement of discourse is for him not unlike the composition of a chess problem or the careful mounting of a butterfly specimen. In this way a pubescent daydream becomes a pun on a castle in Spain, a lost memory becomes a mischievous puppy bounding across the beach of time, the Pears soap used by English g over nesses evolves into gray pears advertised--decades later---on the walls of Victoria Station, and the ten remaining years of a father's life are given as a chess problem as yet unformulated, to be left unresolved.
Nabokov examines stored memories and constructs linkages between physical objects and the spiritual realities which lie beyond appearance. Like the French symbolists, his interest lies in expressing the interrelationships and correspondences of the symbols preserved in memory. A common childhood occurrence thus recalls the beautiful garnet crib toy as it foreshadows a transformed future:
I would often be read to in English by my mother. . . before turning the page she would place upon it her hand, with its familiar pigeon-blood ruby and diamond ring (within the limpid facets of which, had I been a better crystal-gazer, I might have seen a room, people, lights, trees in the rain--a whole period of emigre life for which that ring was to pay) (80).
Diverse experiences of travel are encompassed by the physical shape of relics from a former life, as aristocracy's remnants themselves form a symbolic connection through the cycle
of family vacation to flight to exile. Under Nabokov's pen even everyday objects (which can hardly be called mundane because of their fabulous beauty) take on a thematic aspect of meaning:
At a collapsible table, my mother and I played a card game called durachki. Although it was still broad daylight, our cards, a glass, and, on a different plane, the locks of a suitcase were reflected in the window. . . It was a long, very long game: on this gray winter morning, in the looking glass of my bright hotel room, I see shining the same, the very same, locks of that now seventy-year-old valise, a highish, heavyish necessaire de voyage of pigskin, with " H.N. " elaborately interwoven in thick silver under a similar coronet, which had been bought in 1897 for my mother's wedding trip to Florence. In 1917 it transported from St. Petersburg to the Crimea and then to London a handful of jewels. Around 1930, it lost to a pawnbroker its expensive receptacles of crystal and silver- leaving empty the cunningly contrived leathern holders on the inside of the lid. But that loss has been amply recouped during the thirty years it then traveled with me--f r o m Prague to Paris, from St. Nazaire to New York and through the mirrors of more than two hundred motel rooms and rented houses, in forty-six states. The fact that of our Russian heritage the hardiest survivor proved to be a traveling bag is both logical and emblematic (142-143).
Sometimes the physical artifact goes beyond the obvious symbolism to serve as a prop for the more ephemeral aspects of memory:
Among the trivial souvenirs acquired at Biarritz before leaving, my favorite was. . . a meerschaum penholder with a tiny peephole of crystal in its ornamental part. . . . a miraculous photographic view of the bay and of the line of cliffs ending in a lighthouse could been seen inside. And now a delightful thing happens. The process of re-creating that penholder and the microcosm in its eyelet stimulates my memory to a last effort. I try again to recall the name of Colette's dog-- a n d , triumphantly, along those remote beaches, over the glossy evening sands of the past, where each footprint slowly fills up with sunset water-, here it comes, here it comes, echoing and vibrating: Floss, Floss, Floss! (151-152)
The symbolists, like the Impressionists modified representation of the visible world to suggest a supernatural dimension beyond material appearances, an aspiration toward the
Infinite. Nabokov sometimes accomplishes this end through a playful recitation of sensuous detail reflected in mottled mirrors:
The toilets were separate from the bathrooms, and the oldest among them was a rather sumptuous but gloomy affair w it h some fine panelwork and a tasseled rope of red velvet, which when pulled, produced a beautifully modulated, discreetly muffled gurgle and gulp. From
that corner of the house, one could see Hesperus and hear the nightingales, and it was there that later, I used to compose my youthful verse, dedicated to unembraced beauties, and morosely survey, in a dimly illuminated mirror, the immediate erection of a strange castle in an unknown Spain (84-85).
Even the most basic of childhood playthings become tools for the artist's imagination, implements from which he creates a symbolic aspect, of the layers of being, from the fraudulent
expectation given by exterior packaging, through the all- encompassing colors of visible reality, to the pristine white of pure imagination and memory:
Colored pencils. Their detailed spectrum advertised on the box but never completely represented by those inside. We are sitting at a round table, my brother and I. . . The green one, by a mere whirl of the wrist, could be made to produce a ruffled tree, or the eddy left by a submerged crocodile. The blue one drew a simple line across the page--a n d the horizon of all seas was there. A nondescript blunt one kept getting into one's way. The brown one was always broken, and so was the red, but sometimes, just after it had snapped, one could still make it serve by holding it so that the loose tip was propped, none too securely, by a jutting splinter. The little purple fellow, a special favorite of mine, had got worn down so short as to become scarcely manageable. The white one alone, that lanky albino among pencils, kept its original length, or at least did so until I discovered that, far from being a fraud leaving no mark on the page, it was the ideal implement since I could imagine whatever I wished while I scrawled (101).
At other times an occurrence, not an object, is shrouded in mystery. After months of pubertal tension and anticipation, unrelieved by cold showers and long bicycle rides, the boy Nabokov finds in love the ultimate supernatural expression of beauty and memory:
During the beginning of that. summer and all thorough the previous one, Tamara's name had kept- cropping up (with the feigned naivete so typical of Fate, when meaning business) here and there on our estate (Entry Forbidden) and on my uncle's land (Entry Strictly Forbidden) on the opposite bank of the Oredezh. I would find it written with a stick on the reddish sand of a park avenue, or penciled on a whitewashed wicket, or freshly carved (but not completed) in the wood of some ancient bench, as if Mother Nature were giving me mysterious advance notices of Tamara's existence. That hushed July afternoon, when I discovered her standing quite still (only her eyes were moving) in a birch grove, she seemed to have been spontaneously generated there, among those watchful trees, with the silent completeness of a mythological manifestation (229-230).
The sylvan nature of this first love affair emphasizes the fairy tale aspect of life in pre-Revolution Russia, and the winter- displacement of the lovers to the city prefigures the jolt of permanent exile. At the end of the relationship the cycle of the butterfly is completed:
. . . the sense of leaving Russia was totally eclipsed by the agonizing thought that Reds or no Reds, letters from Tamara would be still coming, miraculously and needlessly, "to southern Crimea, and would search there for a fugitive addressee, and weakly flap about like bewildered butterflies set loose in an alien zone, at the wrong altitude, among an unfamiliar flora (251).
"Happy is the novelist," remarks Nabokov, "who manages to prserve an actual love letter that he received when he was young" (249). But Nabokov's Tamara, like his Russia, has gone. Only in the peepholes and hidden compartments of memory lie the jewels buried in talcum powder, the lost rare pupae, the mirrors and windows revealing and altering reality, the secret bags and boxes containing hidden wonders-treasures which correspond to the written word, the mental process which is memory, and the incarnation of memory in symbol. These painful gems are offered by the author not with the expectation of sympathy but only as a symbolic presentation of lost beauty. As the structuralists claim the text itself contains its only reality, so Nabokov's work represents not the author's, but Its own chrysalis. And even though this autobiographical evocation is a throwback to a literary movement that had passed before the poet himself learned to write, the symbolist technique Nabokov has chosen produces for the contemporary reader a rare gift of hidden mystery, metamorphosis, and resurrection-like a garnet egg from some unremembered Easter.
Nabokov, Vladimir. Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited. Original Title: Conclusive Evidence. (1966 Revised Edition) New York: Putnam, 1960, 1966.