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Speak, Memory

To some extent, every artist creates his or her own artistic predecessors, and in doing so resequences the artistic DNA of their precursors to be a bit more in alignment with their own. Vladimir Nabokov’s photograph-laden memoir Speak, Memory is frequently mentioned as an important source for the memoir-like prose fictions of W.G. Sebald. As has been pointed out many times, Nabokov hovers as a ghostly presence throughout The Emigrants, even appearing in a photograph.

Nabokov with Butterfly Net

It’s a little hard to imagine two writers as different as Nabokov and Sebald. Raised amongst wealth and privilege in a close-knit family, Nabokov recalls his life in pre-Revolutionary Russia with nearly unbroken nostalgic pleasure. Whatever nostalgia Sebald might have had for his youthful years in a remote Bavarian village becomes largely tainted for him by the facts of German history. Nabokov’s father was an anti-Tsarist, imprisoned, exiled, and ultimately killed for his fearless activism. Sebald’s father served in the German military before and during World War II.

Early in Speak, Memory, Nabokov tells of two encounters his father had fifteen years apart with a man named Kuropatkin, both stories involving matches.

What pleases me is the evolution of the match theme…The following of such thematic designs through one’s life should be, I think, the true purpose of autobiography.

This is how Speak, Memory, operates then – thematically rather than chronologically. In each chapter Nabokov returns anew to his early childhood and reels in, as it were, the memories associated with certain themes. Then he turns, faces a new direction, and casts his line again. But, it must be said, the pleasure that the thematic approach gives Nabokov seems largely poetic, as if the highest ecstasy arises from making a great rhyme.

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. I like to imagine, in consummation and resolution of those jangling chords, something as enduring, in retrospect, as the long table that on summer birthdays and namedays used to be laid for afternoon chocolate out of doors…Through a tremulous prism, I distinguish the features of relatives and familiars, mute lips serenely moving in forgotten speech.

Sebald, too, enjoyed the harmonies of memory and of history, but more often than not he used them to find the underlying horror. For Nabokov, childhood in Russia was a Garden of Eden. For Sebald, the Garden of Eden was a lie. In many ways, reading Speak, Memory serves as a reminder of what themes are not to be found in Sebald’s writing: innocence, romance, sexuality, and familial love, amongst others.

When Sebald himself wrote about Speak, Memory, as he did in Dream Textures, published in Campo Santo, he extracted a theme of spirits, of ghosts, of seances.

Nabokov repeatedly tries…to cast a little light into the darkness lying on both sides of our lives… [on the spirits who] tread the border between life and the world beyond.

Dream Textures is a remarkable piece of writing, a single paragraph ten pages long in which Sebald goes about the task of creating the Nabokov that he absorbed when Nabokov’s memories spoke to him.

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