Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Speak, Memory

Today is the birthday of Vladimir Nabokov, born in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1899. He was the first of five children; his father was a lawyer and politician and the family were well-to-do members of the minor nobility. He grew up with access to a lavish library, and was trilingual, fluent in English and French, as well as his native Russian, from an early age. When he was 17, he inherited an estate from his uncle, but he lost it the following year in the Bolshevik Revolution, and he was never to own a house again. The family fled St. Petersburg during the revolution, and in 1919 they settled in western Europe: first England, where Nabokov attended Cambridge, and then Berlin, where his father was shot and killed at a political rally in 1922.

Nabokov left Berlin in 1936 with his wife, Vera, who was Jewish, and their son; they moved to Paris but left again in 1940 to escape the Nazi advance. They settled in the United States, where he wrote and pursued the life of the academic nomad, moving from rented house to rented house and teaching at a series of colleges. In 1961, the success of his famously controversial novel Lolita (1953), and its subsequent film adaptation, enabled him to retire and write full time, and the Nabokovs moved to a hotel in Switzerland, where they lived until his death in 1977.

It is of particular interest to Moffat Book Events, looking ahead to our international conference on translation here 20-22 Sept 2013, that he wrote his first nine novels in Russian, and then began writing in English, although he mourned the loss of his native language. He wrote in the afterword to Lolita: "My private tragedy, which cannot, and indeed should not, be anybody's concern, is that I had to abandon my natural idiom, my untrammeled, rich, and infinitely docile Russian tongue for a second-rate brand of English."

He was also a passionate and methodical collector of butterflies. He wrote, "From the age of seven, everything I felt in connection with a rectangle of framed sunlight was dominated by a single passion. If my first glance of the morning was for the sun, my first thought was for the butterflies it would engender," and he claimed that he would have become a lepidopterist, had it not been for the interruption of the Bolshevik Revolution. His knowledge, though self-taught, was so great that he was appointed curator for the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology's butterfly collection. In 1945, he came up with a theory that the Polyommatus Blue species had come to North America from Asia in a series of waves, and though professional lepidopterists scoffed at him at the time, recent DNA research has proven him right.

In his memoir, Speak, Memory (1951), he wrote, "The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness."

And, "A sense of security, of well-being, of summer warmth pervades my memory. That robust reality makes a ghost of the present. The mirror brims with brightness; a bumblebee has entered the room and bumps against the ceiling. Everything is as it should be, nothing will ever change, nobody will ever die." (from today's online The Writer's Almanac)

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