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Speak, Memory

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The finest autobiography written.

I just finished reading Speak, Memory, Vladimir Nabokov's autobiography. Upon reflection, I find it difficult to think much about this work without being reminded of the autobiography my classmates and I were assigned to write in our junior year of high school.

"I got a C- on my life!" exclaimed a classmate of mine. My acquaintance was making a joke of the assumption that the score of an autobiography is the same as the "score" of the author's life. (I assumed that he was making a joke, though with this character, one could not be sure.)

My own submission (which received a perfect score) was humbly entitled, Matt Curtin: The Man, The Machine, The Mystery. The autobiographical account of an intellectual adolescent. (At this point, there is probably little surprise why I was happy to discover early in my programming career that hubris was one of the three qualities needed to make a great programmer.)

An autobiography is not just to convey a litany of biographical facts, but to share significant life experiences with readers. (I believe that as much today as I did then.) Apparently, I had a kindred spirit in my English teacher, who also found the title amusing and apparently enjoyed the prose that followed. In stark contrast to this reaction was that of my mother, who pronounced my effort, "the most egotistical thing [she] ever read." Perhaps I could have avoided the charge by writing my autobiography about someone else.

Speak, Memory has been called the greatest autobiography written. If the sharing of experiences is the metric, I am confident in declaring Speak, Memory an admirable success. In it, I shared many childhood experiences with young Vladimir Nabokov in pre-Soviet Russia, as well as some that followed into early adulthood as an émigré in Europe. (Being generally interested in the 1917 Russian revolution, I found the irony of Nabokov's need to leave Russia amazing -- on par with the stupidity and shortsightedness of the Bolsheviks who instituted a system which rejected essentially everyone who could do anything to establish and to build Russia's culture. As far as I am concerned, I'm glad Nabokov, Rachmaninoff, and all the rest came to the U.S. -- it just makes it easier for the rest of the world to enjoy their work.)

Rather than taking the standard approach of following strict chronology, Nabokov follows streams of consciousness and trains of thought, even if they require chasing a thread that spans several years, or several countries. Another chapter might well fast-forward or rewind several years from the point where the previous ended. The result is a wonderful narrative of an existence brought to life and shared with readers.

The experiences shared are rich and engrossing. Well worth the time to give it a read.

Created by cmcurtin
This article originally appeared on Sunshine Poultry.
Last modified 2005-04-12 12:56 PM
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