O Window in the Dark!

The Early Career of Vladimir Nabokov

appendix D: Parallel Scenes in Nabokov’s Novels and Speak, Memory


In Despair, Hermann notes, “Every man with a keen eye is familiar with those anonymously retold passages from his past life: false-innocent combinations of details, which smack revoltingly of plagiarism.” Despite the claims of many critics concerning Nabokov’s “unworldliness,” he often draws upon very specific recollections, and some of his novels are filled with what he has called “autoplagiarism.” The following passages are just a few of the many instances in which Nabokov has paralleled his art with scenes from his own life.


  • from the Foreword to Mary:   “I had not consulted Mashenka when writing Chapter Twelve of the autobiography a quarter of a century later; and now that I have, I am fascinated by the fact that despite the superimposed inventions . . . a headier extract of personal reality is contained in the romantization than in the autobiographer’s scrupulously faithful account.”


  • from Mary:   “The fact was that he had been waiting for her with such longing, had thought so much about her during those blissful days after the typhus, that he had fashioned her unique image long before he actually saw her.”

    from Speak, Memory:   “During the beginning of that summer and all through the previous one, Tamara’s name had kept cropping up (with the feigned naiveté so typical of Fate, when meaning business) . . . as if Mother Nature were giving me mysterious advance notices of Tamara’s existence.”


  • from Mary:   “In its small diamond-shaped window frames were panes of different-colored glass; if, say, you looked through a blue one the world seemed frozen in a lunar trance; through a yellow one, everything appeared extraordinarily gay; through a red one, the sky looked pink and foliage as dark as burgundy.”

    from Speak, Memory:   “But the most constant source of enchantment during those readings came from the harlequin pattern of colored panes inset in a whitewashed framework on either side of the verandah. . . . If one looked through blue glass, the sand turned to cinders while inky trees swam in a tropical sky. The yellow created an amber world infused with an extra strong brew of sunshine. The red made the foliage drip ruby dark upon a pink footpath. The green soaked greenery in a greener green.”


  • from Mary:   “Some village rowdy had linked their names by a short, crude verb, which moreover he had misspelled.”

    from Speak, Memory:   “I remember the coarse graffiti linking our first names, in strange diminutives, on a certain white gate and, a little apart from that village idiot scrawl, the adage ‘Prudence is the friend of Passion,’ in a bristly hand well-known to me.”


  • from Mary:   “Presently, through the streams of the night, there became visible the slow rotation of columns, washed by the same gentle whitish beam of his bicycle lamp; and there on the six-columned porch of a stranger’s closed mansion Ganin was welcomed by a blur of cool fragrance. . . .”

    from Speak, Memory:   “As I reached the top, my livid light flitted across the six-pillared white portico at the back of my uncle’s mute, shuttered manor. . . .”


  • from Mary:   “At this, their first meeting in St. Petersburg, Mary seemed subtly different, perhaps because she was wearing a hat and a fur coat. From that day began the new, snowbound era of their love. It was difficult to meet, long walks in the frost were agonizing. . . .”

    from Speak, Memory:   “With the coming of winter our reckless romance was transplanted to grim St. Petersburg. We found ourselves horribly deprived of the sylvan security we had grown accustomed to. . . . This permanent quest for some kind of refuge produced an odd sense of hopelessness, which, in its turn, foreshadowed other, much later and lonelier, roamings.”)


  • from The Defense:   “Slowly and heavily, to the sound of creaking stairs, crackling floorboards and shifting trunks, filling the whole house with her presence, the French governess had first appeared.”

    from Speak, Memory:   “I have often noticed that after I had bestowed on the characters of my novels some treasured item of my past, it would pine away in the artificial world where I had so abruptly placed it. . . . the portrait of my old French governess, whom I once lent to a boy in one of my books, is fading fast, now that it is engulfed in the description of a childhood entirely unrelated to my own. The man in me revolts against the fictionist, and here is my desperate attempt to save what is left of poor Mademoiselle. . . . A large woman, a very stout woman, Mademoiselle rolled into our existence in December 1905. . . .”


  • from Glory:   “There was the magnificent model of a brown-paneled sleeping car in the window of the Société des Wagons-Lits et des Grands Express Européens on the Nevsky Avenue where one was walked on a dull frosty day with slight spinners of snow, and had to wear black knit snow pants over one’s stockings and shorts.”

    from Speak, Memory:   “In the early years of this century, a travel agency on Nevsky Avenue displayed a three-foot-long model of an oak-brown international sleeping car.”


  • from Glory:   “Mayne Reid’s hero Maurice Geraldo having stopped his steed side-by-side with that of Louise Poindexter, put his arm around the blond Creole’s limber waist, and here the author exclaimed in a personal aside:    ‘What can compare with such a kiss?’”

    from Speak, Memory:   Re. The Headless Horseman, a Mayne Reid novel read by an adolescent Vladimir and his cousin Yuri:    “And here we find the gallant author interpolating a strange confession:    ‘The sweetest kiss that I ever had in my life was when a woman — a fair creature, in the hunting field — leant over in her saddle and kissed me as I sate in mine.’

      “The ‘sate,’ let us concede, gives duration and body to the kiss which the captain so comfortably ‘had,’ but I could not help feeling, even at the age of eleven, that centaurian lovemaking was not without its special limitations. Moreover, Yuri and I both knew a boy who had tried it, but the girl’s horse had pushed his into a ditch.”


  • from Glory:   “At Cambridge he felt still more foreign. Upon talking to his English fellow students he noted with wonder his unmistakably Russian essence.”

    from Speak, Memory:   “The story of my college years in England is really the story of my trying to become a Russian writer.”


  • from Glory:   “When, late at night, the sacred flame of the fireplace threatened to die, he would scrape the embers together, pile some wood chips on them, heap on a mountain of coal, fan the fire with the asthmatic bellows, and make the chimney draw by spreading an ample sheet of the Times across the mouth of the hearth. The taut sheet would grow warm and transparent, and the lines of print, mingling with the lines showing through from the reverse side, looked like the bizarre lettering of some mumbo-jumbo language. Then, as the hum and tumult of the fire increased, a fox-red, darkening spot would appear on the paper and suddenly burst through. The whole sheet, now aflame, would be instantly sucked in and sent flying up. And a belated passer-by, a gowned don, could observe, through the gloom of the gothic night, a fiery-haired witch emerge from the chimney into the starry sky. Next day Martin would pay a fine.”

    from Speak, Memory:   “So I would heap on more coals and help revive the flames by spreading a sheet of the London Times over the smoking black jaws of the fireplace, thus screening completely its open recess. A humming noise would start behind the taut paper, which would acquire the smoothness of drumskin and the beauty of luminous parchment. Presently, as the hum turned into a roar, an orange-colored spot would appear in the middle of the sheet, and whatever patch of print happened to be there . . . stood out with ominous clarity-until suddenly the orange spot burst. Then the flaming sheet, with the whirr of a liberated phoenix, would fly up the chimney to join the stars. It cost one a fine of twelve shillings if that firebird was observed.”

Despite his denial of The Gift’s relationship with the life that he himself led (a point he makes with suspicious vehemence in the Foreword to that novel), careful readers will nevertheless find hoards of episodes from The Gift that overlap with reminiscences in Speak, Memory, in which he more candidly admits: “I have sufficiently spoken of the gloom and the glory of exile in my Russian novels, and especially in the best of them, Dar (recently published in English as The Gift).”


back to chapter 4  back to contents  appendix E  bibliography

e-mail to Mike  Fox Paws home page