Dress Down Sunday: Speak, Memory by Vladimir Nabokov

first published 1951, in this form in 1966


[Mademoiselle is the young Nabokov’s governess. On the writing-desk in her room there are many photographs.]

Lording it over the rest was one in a fancy frame incrusted with garnets; it showed, in three-quarter view, a slim young brunette clad in a close-fitting dress, with brave eyes and abundant hair. “A braid as thick as my arm and reaching down to my ankles!” was Mademoiselle’s melodramatic comment. For this had been she – but in vain did my eyes probe her familiar form to try and extract the graceful creature it had engulfed. Such discoveries as my awed brother and I did make merely increased the difficulties of that task; and the grown-ups who during the day beheld a densely clothed Mademoiselle never saw what we children saw when, roused from her sleep Speak Memory Jezby one of us shrieking himself out of a bad dream, dishevelled, candle in hand, a gleam of gilt lace on the blood-red dressing gown that could not quite wrap her quaking mass, the ghastly Jezebel of Racine’s absurd play stomped barefooted into our bedroom.

speak Memory Jez 2

observations:  I did not like the last Nabokov book I read, Ada or Ardor, so to balance that here are his rather wonderful memoirs. The book sounds very cobbled together: different parts were written and published at different times, and he couldn’t stop tinkering with it. In the introduction he describes it as “a systematically correlated assemblage of personal recollections” ranging from St Petersburg to St Nazaire and covering 37 years, from 1903 to 1940. In the intro he helpfully points out some effects in the work that he is quite proud of – ones that he feels the critics failed to notice sufficiently. This may not sound charming, but it is. (Perhaps like Stella Gibbons in Cold Comfort Farm he could have helped out by putting asterisks by paragraphs he considered particularly good.)

Nabokov was part of a wealthy landed family in pre-Revolutionary Russia, and his memories of growing up in that world cover very familiar ground – the clothes, the luxury, the countryside, the activities (fencing, skating, going out on a sleigh). But he makes them quite magical: perhaps it is his synaesthesia (where colours, words and facts all blend into each other visually – this is a terrible description, but I haven’t been able to find a better one) that makes his descriptions so perfect. The world of the governess is, again, a standard trope in these works, but the arrival of the lady above, and his attempts to describe her life, form a tour de force of writing.

The section begins with these sentences.
A large, alabaster-based kerosene lamp is steered into the gloaming. Gently it floats and comes down: the hand of memory, now in a footman’s white glove, places it in the center of a round table.
-- and for me that alone is worth the price of the book.

I loved this also: Mademoiselle compares herself to a certain poor relative who is almost as fat as she: “Je suis une sylphide a cote d’elle” she says with a shrug of contempt.

Speak Memory is not meant to be straightforward history – Nabokov explains how he has changed names and tidied up events, and used his story to make points and make reference to his novels and to many other items which were on his mind. So the book keeps you on your toes – I was glad to notice that the male tutor is called Lensky, the name of the young man who dies in the duel in Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin. In the first chapter, the first words are ‘The cradle rocks above an abyss’ and the closing words of the chapter are ‘in the open coffin’.

Mademoiselle having such long hair reminded me of the (off-stage) Empress of Austria in the marvellous Envious Casca by Georgette Heyer – one of the characters is reading a biography of her and comes out with helpful gems: ‘Elizabeth… could sit on her hair. Fancy!’ The Sylphides she compares herself with feature in this blog entry.

I found a small but effective collection of Jezebel images on Wikimedia: the top one is a 19th century oil painting by John Liston Byam Shaw. I love Paulette Goddard, but she never looks like anything except herself, and it doesn’t seem like great casting for this 1953 film. The other one is an illo for a children’s book of Bible stories.

Given Nabokov’s great interest in butterflies, it was interesting to find that there are many types of butterfly called Jezebel.

There is an excellent discussion of the exact marital status of Jezebel in LP Hartley’s Simonetta Perkins.


  1. Interesting, Moira, that he didn't put his memoirs together at one time. From some writers, I'd imagine that 'cobbled together' would be both disjointed and jarring. But I can imagine Nabakov pulling it off. And what an interesting window into that pre-Revolution time in Russia...

    1. I think you're right Margot - this fits him well. He was a fascinating character for many reasons: and I enjoyed this book in many ways.

  2. I've never read much by Nabakov, except for Lolita, this sounds interesting.

    1. I don't like everything I read by him - and there's a lot I haven't looked at - but he's always worth a try.

  3. Interesting, but I think reading it would frustrate me. Although I am sure he was a very interesting person.

    1. You'd have to be in the right mood - Nabokov is never a skim read! I find some of his other books very difficult.


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