O Window in the Dark!

The Early Career of Vladimir Nabokov

Chapter 3: Re-Creation: Memory


Throughout his work Nabokov both explicitly and implicitly depicts the memory as a vital link in the chain between perception and the artistic re-creation of reality. Speak, Memory is like the invocation to an oracle of retrospection, a god of preservation through memory. “How small the cosmos (a kangaroo’s pouch would hold it), how paltry and puny in comparison to human consciousness, to a single individual recollection, and its expression in words!” Just as in Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, the memory is depicted as an agent of artistry every bit as potent as the fancy.

  Speak, Memory reads like a guided tour through Nabokov’s faculty of retrospection — the throbbing engine at the very heart of his creative genius. “Memory is,” he told an interviewer, “really, in itself, a tool, one of the many tools that the artist uses.” It is a “glass cell” which stores, and in its own peculiar and mysterious way, orders all our perceptions. Always one to display the workings of his magic, Nabokov often turned his creative eye upon the mechanism itself. In an early short story, “The Reunion” (1932), he vividly portrays the squeaking gears of retrospection as it struggles to recall the name of a neighbor’s dog, long dead:

Suddenly he stopped short. Somewhere in his memory there was a hint of motion, as if something very small had awakened and begun to stir. The word was still invisible, but its shadow had already crept out as from behind a corner, and he wanted to step on that shadow to keep it from retreating and disappearing again. Alas, he was too late. Everything vanished, but at the instant his brain ceased straining, the thing stirred again, more perceptibly this time, and like a mouse emerging from a crack when the room is quiet, there appeared, lightly, silently, mysteriously, the live corpuscle of a word. . . . “Give me your paw, Joker.” Joker! How simple it was. Joker. . . .

It is as though the memory is activated by that same quirky muse that fires the imagination, a “small furious devil,” and Nabokov derives from memory the same thrill he finds in art. “The act of vividly recalling a patch of the past is something,” he writes, “that I seem to have been performing with the utmost zeal all my life.” Within that glass ball Nabokov can conjure “the beauty of intangible property, unreal estate” that elevates the past above the present:

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.

Nabokov devotes his most loving attention to the memories of his childhood because “nothing is sweeter or stranger than to ponder those first thrills.” Earliest experience, not yet tainted by jaded expectations, has a vivid intensity that is unique, and it is this particular form of first-time perception that gives so much of Nabokov’s work its iridescent gleam.

  There is also something perilous and urgent in Nabokov’s conception of memory. The tool is overworked and imperfect. A memory that is not preserved becomes extinct, and Fyodor in The Gift laments, “I am beginning to forget relationships and connections between objects that still thrive in my memory, objects I thereby condemn to extinction.” When a memory is lost, then (as far as the individual mind is concerned), the once-remembered object is itself consigned to oblivion. (Margot in Laughter in the Dark experiences this literally. “She had only to change the position of some trifling object, and immediately it lost its soul and its memory was extinguished.”) Sometimes we reach back for a memory but find it embellished and inaccurate: “It is strange how a memory will grow into a wax figure, how the cherub grows suspiciously prettier as its frame darkens with age — strange, strange are the mishaps of memory.” Hermann recalls a snowy landscape, but then cries, “What nonsense! How could there be snow in June? Ought to be crossed out, were it not wicked to erase; for the real author is not I, but my impatient memory.” Once an error has been made the truth is gone forever, and the poignancy of retrospection is the fact that even the most vivid recollection can never quite have the “original’s bewitching convincingness.” Humbert exclaims, “I was weeping again, drunk on the impossible past.”


  Nabokov will have us understand that art is our only possible hedge against the perils of memory. In his poem Pale Fire, he coins the word “preterist: one who collects cold nests,” to refer to the artist who has tamed the demon that forms recollection, but in the process of doing so has, perhaps, diminished the “original’s bewitching convincingness.” To “immortalize the past in art” is a cliché that Nabokov will not accept without reservation, because “immortality” of that sort comes at a cost — life. He observes:

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. Although it lingered on in my mind, its personal warmth, its retrospective appeal was gone and, presently, it became more closely identified with my novel than with my former self, where it had seemed so safe from the intrusion of the artist. . . . The man in me revolts against the fictionist.

The artist can immortalize the past, perhaps, but it is no longer his past once he has done so. Still, he has nothing else to draw from, “in odd proof of the odd fact that whenever possible the scenery of our infancy is used by an economically minded producer as a ready-made setting for our adult dreams.” Nabokov has written that Gogol fell into

the worst possible plight a writer can be in: he had lost the gift of imagining facts and believed that facts may exist by themselves. The trouble is that bare facts do not exist in a state of nature, for they are never really quite bare; the white trace of the wristwatch, the curled piece of sticking plaster on a bruised heel, these cannot be discarded by the most ardent nudist. . . . I doubt whether you can give even your telephone number without giving something of yourself.

  This sort of melancholic generosity does have its compensations. In the first place, honest detail “is involuntarily conveyed to the reader by the integrity and reliability of a talent that assures the author’s observance of all the articles of the artistic covenant.” Here again is Nabokov’s Platonism. The “artistic covenant” would seem to be the tacit writer-to-reader promise to draw from the forms of reality, and the reader’s mind can sense an author’s integrity “involuntarily.”

  A second “bonus” of such historicity is the fact that the commonplace materials of today’s fictionist (hailing a cab, writing a thesis) may become historical gems to the future reader (living in a world without cars or theses). The narrator of the short story “A Guide to Berlin” (1925) finds that the “sense of literary creation” is

to portray ordinary objects as they will be reflected in the kindly mirror of future times; to find in the objects around us the fragrant tenderness that only posterity will discern and appreciate in the far-off times when every trifle of our plain everyday life will become exquisite and festive in its own right.

Readers who complain of Nabokov’s “unreal” fiction are perhaps not aware that even his most imaginary work (Invitation to a Beheading, Ada) is loaded with details that are not only “realistic” but are as actual as Joyce’s Dublin.

  Nabokov argues that art is a meeting between imagination and experience, “a point arrived at by diminishing large things and enlarging small ones, that is intrinsically artistic.” The writer with a firm grasp upon both can even make life follow art. In “A Letter Which Never Reached Russia” (1925), the narrator symbolizes his lonely happiness with the glow of a streetlamp on a misty night. The reader who savors the image may feel its tug every time he sees an actual mist-haloed streetlamp; his memory may become a mode of creative consciousness. Nabokov writes in Speak, Memory, “I witness with pleasure the supreme achievement of memory, which is the masterly use it makes of innate harmonies when gathering to its fold the suspended and wandering tonalities of the past.” Memory can make art of life, and can also make life of art.


  One day in 1914, young Vladimir was caught in a rainstorm at the Nabokov’s country estate, and he took shelter in a pavilion on the grounds. The fall of droplets through the trees enchanted him.

Without any wind blowing, the sheer weight of a raindrop, shining in parasitic luxury on a cordate leaf, caused its tip to dip, and what looked like a globule of quicksilver performed a sudden glissando down the center vein, and then, having shed its bright load, the relieved leaf unbent. Tip, leaf, dip, relief — the instant it all took to happen seemed to me not so much a fraction of time as a fissure in it, a missed heartbeat, which was refunded at once by a patter of rhymes. . . .

This was the genesis of Nabokov’s very first poem, and the image still haunted him three years later, in “The Rain Has Flown”:

Downward a leaf inclines its tip

  and drops from its tip a pearl.

He calls his early versifying a “phenomenon of orientation rather than of art,” a way of proving to himself the existence of what he had done and seen. (Whatever the intrinsic value of Nabokov’s juvenilia might be, we can’t resist the temptation to conjecture that he learned invaluable lessons about precision of imagery and diction, the echoes of which reverberate in even his English prose.) Moreover, the desire to create is never anything to apologize for, since:

In a sense, all poetry is positional: to try to express one’s position in regard to the universe embraced by consciousness is an immemorial urge. The arms of consciousness reach out and grope, and the longer they are the better. Tentacles, not wings, are Apollo’s natural members.

  Characteristically, Nabokov’s “favorite Russian poem” (which he farms out to Fyodor in The Gift) has as its themes memory and a piquant moment of consciousness.

One night between sunset and river

On the old bridge we stood, you and I.

Will you ever forget it, I queried,

— That particular swift that went by?

And you answered, so earnestly: Never!


And what sobs made us suddenly shiver,

What a cry life emitted in flight!

Till we die, till tomorrow, for ever

You and I on the old bridge one night.


  Not long after Vladimir Vladimirovich wrote his first poem, he fell in love for the first time, and so a large portion of his early verse consists of love poems to Tamara. His separation from her because of the revolution became the impetus for his first novel. He reports that “the loss of my country was equated for me with the loss of my love,” the pangs of which he finally relieved by writing Mary in 1925 (soon after he married Véra.)

  The plot of the novel is simple. A young émigré writer in Berlin, Ganin learns that the wife of a neighbor will soon leave the Soviet Union to join her husband in exile. Fate being what it is, Ganin discovers that the young woman is none other than his lost Mary, and he immediately begins to contrive a way to prevent his unsuspecting neighbor from meeting her, so that Ganin can spirit Mary away to a life that will renew the past.

  In the days before she is to arrive, Ganin falls into a reverie; “time for him had become the progress of recollection.” All his memories of Mary and Russia tumble into place:

He was a god, re-creating a world that had perished  . . Afraid of making a mistake, of losing himself in the bright labyrinths of memory, he re-created his past life watchfully, fondly, occasionally turning back for some forgotten piece of trivia, but never running ahead too fast.

  After indulging in nostalgia to the fullest, Ganin begins to have doubts: “I have read about the ‘eternal return.’ But what if this complicated game of patience never comes out a second time? Let me see — there’s something I don’t grasp — yes, this: surely it won’t all die when I do?”

  Minutes before Mary’s arrival, Ganin’s past has been recaptured. He realized that a mere renewal of the past cannot vie with the purity of his memory of the past, and alone but content he boards a train for France.

  Mary is an unsophisticated novel, but is useful precisely because of its lack of subtlety in expressing the themes which would remain central to Nabokov’s work throughout his émigré career: childhood, memory, and the reality of exile.


  In his memoirs, Nabokov writes:

I would submit that, in regard to the power of hoarding up impressions, Russian children of my generation passed through a period of genius, as if destiny were loyally trying what it could for them by giving them more than their share, in view of the cataclysm that was to remove completely the world they had known. Genius disappeared when everything had been stored.

Nabokov’s feelings about exile are mixed. Its negative aspects are obvious to the point of being overwhelming, but Nabokov can philosophize that “the nostalgia I have been cherishing all these years is a hypertrophied sense of lost childhood”; that is, that he has been betrayed less by the Reds than by time. Moreover, the “hoarded-up impressions” and his breach from their source gave him two things a writer must have: material and detachment. It is of course pointless to speculate, “What if the Whites had defeated the Bolsheviks?” or “What if World War II hadn’t brought Nabokov to America?” Nabokov himself sees the hand of Fate in his life, and he turns his loss to art rather than to grief.

  Nevertheless, Vladimir Vladimirovich continued to feel (and perhaps cultivate) the dream of returning to Russia. He writes in The Gift:

Ought one not to reject any longing for one’s homeland, for any homeland besides that which is with me, within me, which is stuck like the silver sand of the sea to the skin of my soles, lives in my eyes, my blood, gives depth and distance to the background of life’s every hope?

The Russians in Nabokov’s fictional worlds are a very disparate group of every possible political stamp, but they are all in some way dreamers, in search of some meaning, any meaning, to replace Russia. Edmund Wilson has said of Nabokov, “Surely his great distinction is to have described the situation of the exiled Russian.” An émigré writer like Udo Conrad in Laughter in the Dark can mutter, “It is a queer thing: the more I think of it, the more I feel certain that there comes a time in an artist’s life when he stops needing his fatherland.” For others, like Luzhin in The Defense and Smurov in The Eye, there is insanity and suicide.


  Nabokov has said that his finest early novels are those in which he condemns his people to “the solitary confinement of their own souls.” The Eye, his novella of 1929, was his fourth major work of fiction and is perhaps his most sophisticated work before Despair. The Eye is a story of pure imagination, on the opposite side of the spiral from the nearly autobiographical Mary.

  The “eye” is Smurov, a solitary “I” (a translator’s serendipity), who commits suicide after a life of exile and failure. Or does he? The “trick” of The Eye is its shifting time frames and narrational voices, about which Nabokov noted: “In any case the stress is not on the mystery but on the pattern. Tracking down Smurov remains, I believe, excellent sport.” Perhaps the following passage is the key to the novel:

For I knew now that after death human thought, liberated from the body, keeps on moving in a sphere where everything is interconnected as before, and has a relative degree of sense, and that a sinner’s torment in the afterworld consists precisely in that his tenacious mind cannot find peace until it manages to unravel the complex consequences of his reckless terrestrial actions.

We cannot be sure whether we are watching this unraveling of Smurov’s knavish past, or if he is alive and hallucinating, with his mortal mind unraveling, but it soon becomes clear that his consciousness is a grotesque perversion of the Nabokovian ideal. The enclosing glass sphere of Smurov’s perception is not transparent but is a mirror. He lacks a re-creative memory and therefore his enormous ego requires continual reappraisal and support. His world is just a terribly distorted product of his own fancy, the existence of others “merely a shimmer on a screen.” But in this novel of mirrors the situation is simultaneously reversed. At the end of the novel Smurov comes to realize:

For I do not exist: there exist but the thousands of mirrors that reflect me. With every acquaintance I make, the population of phantoms resembling me increases. Somewhere they live, somewhere they multiply. I alone do not exist. . . . To be nothing but a big, slightly vitreous, somewhat bloodshot, unblinking eye. I swear this is happiness.

We leave Smurov here, in this same hell of mirrors in which will later wander the even more outrageous Hermann of Despair. Nabokov’s “mirrors” are not only physical objects or simply metaphors, but are also the reflecting of one’s own existence in art, or (to add another loop to the spiral) the immortalizing force of art in which the creative conscious is reflected in the imagination of every new reader.

  In any literature, not just Nabokov’s, we can see that self-identity is often very closely conjoined with national identity. The exiles from the Russian Revolution had to learn to forge themselves independent of fatherland, and the task proved too demanding for many.

  The philosophic artist, though, could see his loss as one that time would have inevitably effected anyway. He could feel a patterning hand of Fate, and could turn his pain into sense and meaning through the exercise of memory and imagination. Nabokov explains:

I think that in the middle thirties we had just given up the idea of going back. But it didn’t matter much because Russia was with us. We were Russia. What had we lost? We had lost . . . a few sounds and smells, the sun at the end of a leafy avenue, the backdrop of a magic childhood.


© Michael Fleming

Princeton, New Jersey

March 1980


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