The answer to my question comes in the form of two books recently read: one, relatively new, by Terry Eagleton, the British literary critic with a great comic gift that makes THE GATE KEEPER sharp-witted, insightful, often hilarious; the other a classic in its genre, Vladimir Nabokov's SPEAK MEMORY, perhaps the greatest of autobiographies.
Eagleton has had the ability to use language as his main weapon in the British class system. With that skill, he has moved from an Irish-Catholic working class background to the elite world of academia while at the same time using this skill to satirize the Oxbridge scene. His portrait of his Cambridge don is memorable and hilarious yet also reverent since he, like the nuns the young Eagleton once served as a boy, opened doors to a wider world than he might have ever known. The resulting memoir is not merely about Eagleton but about several other things, too: Britain in the past fifty years, being a Catholic, and an outsider.
So, too, Nabokov's memoir is not only about his early life, in all its rich detail, but about time, memory, and the writing of autobiography itself. As he recalls his aristocratic upbringing in pre-revolutionary Russia, where he was taught English first, then Russian and French, where his household staff numbered fifty servants, he situates his detailed recollections in a broader context. He shows us how recording in words a remembered scene from boyhood is to see it in relation to time, which he says is "but memory in the making."
Like St. Augustine's Confessions, the first Western autobiography we know of, Nabokov is concerned with the relation between time, imagination, and memory. As a scientist (specializing in butterflies), he has an eye for specifics, and his details provide the vivid thrill he had that we the reader can share as we learn what made him what he is, a man with poetic gifts in several languages, whose baroque sentences convey an old-world aura. He tells us that his mother's ring is of "pigeon-blood ruby" (not merely ruby), thereby re-creating with such specifics the atmosphere of his privileged upbringing. He is grateful to his mother's memory of past details since, he says, he has inherited her taste for the beauty of "unreal estate," intangible associations that sustained him in later years in exile and relative poverty. Recalling these bits of past delights is important in maintaining happiness later, as the past informs the present.
Probing his childhood becomes, for Nabokov, an "awakening of consciousness" shared with our remote ancestors as they discovered time. "How small the cosmos," he writes, how puny "in comparison to human consciousness, to a single individual recollection and its expression in words."
The focus, then, is not just on various, discontinuous fragments recollected in the writing process, not just on his own personal life but on re-staging the past in the present and reflecting on our shared human sense of how time functions. He resists the wall of ordinary time that separates us from timelessness. We feel lucky to share in recollected days when time seemed to stand still.
And so, in "Speak, Memory," Nabokov has created a poetic text, rich in detail, that defines what it means to write about oneself, one's own life, in the context of the vast ocean of consciousness and the mystery of time. His book is both a remarkable memoir and a guide to exploring one's past and using language to say often inexpressible things. It is about how the personal can be universal.
It is a memoir about how, ideally, to write a memoir (if only one were as richly talented as he).