Last month I considered what makes a good memoir. This month I have been reading a few notable memoirs, one (by Vladimir Nabokov) with great delight, and with some new insights.
Gore Vidal, who died recently, did a memoir in 1992 called Palimpsest, which, in its gossipy, meandering, self-serving way, is a reflection of the author. Although I found it finally unreadable, I found several of Vidal's observations valuable: "A memoir is how you remember you own life," he says, whereas an autobiography is history, requiring facts and research. A memoir, then, uses the details of daily life to trigger the memory about people and events long buried.
"A memoir is set off by a thousand associations, often by objects in the given room." So proclaims Vidal. A master of this idiosynratic method who nevertheless follows a roughly chronologically order is Nabokov in Speak, Memory, one of his great works because of its poetic style and originality. He looks at a sofa or a hand and is transported to his youth in pre-revolutionary Russia where, cosseted and comfortable, he was raised in what he calls a "perfect childhood."
What emerges from these sensory recollections is not the dramatic story of the man himself--forced to flee the Russian Revolution in 1918, forced to flee the Nazis in 1940 because of his marriage to a Russian Jew, etc.--but his memories of people, the impressions that reveal certain things about the writer while concealing many personal(autobiographical) facts.
What emerge are reflections on time and memory. Nabokov intended to call his book "Conclusive Evidence" --evidence that he had indeed lived--but the change was wise. The fact that he was composing most of it in the American West while writing the celebrated and controversial novel Lolita in the back seat of his Buick while in search of butterflies-- Nabokov being a noted lepidopterist as well as writer--is all the more remarkable when you find several pages of the book devoted to his French governess and very little on his own family. He even includes several sentences on some troubling mosquitoes that he recalled from a trip to the Riviera in 1937. Only a trained entomologist, I suppose, with a sense of humor, would do so.
The result is a richly detailed, elegiac narrative of a creative mind at work, the work of a gifted, cultivated man in exile from his native land who finds contentment nearly everywhere he lands: Cambridge (where he gets a degree at Trinity College), Berlin, Prague, Paris, New York, Boston, and finally Montreux, Switzerland, where he spends his last 20 years, having finally earned enough money to return to the style in which he was raised.
And quite a style it was: the Nabokovs, wealthy and aristocratic, had a permanent staff of 50 on two estates in and near St. Petersburg. He was raised in a trilingual household, learning to write English before he wrote in Russian or French. He had English and French governnesses, described memorably, with hilarious attention to detail, and tutors. He never learned to drive, to type, to use the telephone: his was a pampered upbringing.
Anyone who wants to learn about descriptive writing, about writing that uses memorable details, would be well to study Nabokov's memoir, with its lapidary style, the product of his scientific interests. He later wrote about chess and did crosswords in Russian; throughout his life, wherever he was, he wrote poems in Russian. He later translated his earlier Russian fiction into English. All this linguistic background gives him material for puns and alliteration and wit, some say too much stylistic attention at the expense of content. But I have not read much of his other work.
From his cultivated mother, young Vladimir learned to feel the beauty of intangible things, which he calls "unreal estate." There are times when his style becomes overripe, and it is certainly more European than American, but he has a perfect ear and above all an eye for details that bring places, people, and his own early years to life. Consider this sentence on the mosquitoes, for example: "Hardly had I extingished the light in my room than it would come, that ominous whine whose unhurried, doleful, and wary rhythm contrasted so oddly with the actual mad speed of the satanic insect's gyrations." He is having fun with language, and the wit consists of some playful exaggeration.
He wrote such carefully wrought sentences by hand, usually standing up at a lecturn, where he also wrote out lectures given at Wellesley and Cornell on European literature to large classes in the late 1940s. I have saved a number of my favorite passages in which the author is lost in a timeless reverie, surrounded by words or butterflies, conveying his love of nature in hypnotic prose. He conveys emotions intensely but not sentimentally.
Whether his style can inspire today's American writer is doubtful, but his approach to the memoir, and his eye for descrptive detail, are of great value.
Of course, a basic question in any such memoir arises, as it certainly did with Vidal's book: who cares about all this detail, about this life (exotic and privileged though it was)? Presumably the reader's attention is held by the author's power of memory and imagination as well as by reflections on other issues of time and exile. And, of course, what is personal is said to be universal; certainly, we get, or I do, vicarious pleasure about being taken back with such clarity to an amazing world a hundred years ago in places I have been or, more likely, would like to have been.
Having spent a summer in Cambridge, for example, I can identify with Nabokov's description of the colleges where he, too, was mindful of all the great writers who have lived in that place: "Nothing one looked at was shut off in terms of time, everything was a natural opening into it, so that one's mind grew accustomed to work in a particularly pure space..." As he learns to distance himself as an outsider in England from his foreign fellow students, he is constantly aware of "the untrammeled extension of time" he felt: it was the source of much writing when he was supposed to be attending lectures.
But the emphasis is not on what he studied or what happened but on the mental furniture that shaped his extraordinary life. The emphasis is not on telling us the facts of his life, which he is relucant to do. Rather something of a game is going on, an ambivalent tease in which much is revealed while even more is concealed. One critic has said that Nabokov's style combines passionate lyricism with dispassionate precision: an admirable, almost unique achievement. His approach to his life is similar, the style reflecting the man.
Enough of the inner life of the man emerges, as it should in a great memoir, which Speak, Memory is.