Sun and Stone

To love with all one’s soul and leave the rest to fate, was the simple rule she heeded. – Vladimir Nabokov, Speak, Memory (40)


I regret my occasional tendency toward a penurious sympathy. While I am deeply empathetic to the underdog, I have been known to scoff or display ungenerous feelings of exasperated chagrin when reading page after page of the wonders of other people’s good fortune.   As I began Speak, Memory I was afraid I might come down with a severe case of exasperated chagrin. Nabokov is one of my favorite writers, and I didn’t want to disturb my love.  I was not at all sure I was in the mood to go along side the memories of a man who had an idyllically over-privileged aristocratic Russian youth and turned out to be a literary genius to boot – a gluttony of riches I pity myself never to have known.

And yet, this tremendous autobiography won me over in every way: content, form, and fancy all come together to tell a biography of an amazing life in an extraordinary time.

In choosing our tutors, my father seems to have hit upon the ingenious idea of engaging each time a representative of another class or race, so as to expose us to all the winds that swept over the Russian Empire. (153)

Nabokov begins the story with a natural focus on his mother, and she sounds wonderful, (the opening quote at top describes her creed) but it was in his loving and amused description of his various tutors and studies that I really became transfixed by the unique world of early 1900 Russia- to say nothing of his fascinating lepidopterology or esteemed father. By the time we come to his family’s exile, the simplicity and true profundity by which, through him, we have come to experience a slice of the vast beautiful curiosity and complexity that is Russia is fully realized in his regardant prose.

Nabokov is at once self-deprecating while at the same time scathingly opinionated. But what comes through most beautifully is his tenderness. Well into the book, if I am not mistaken in the chapter concerning his brother, whom he has painfully little to say (by his own admission) he suddenly addresses the reader- and it is you. You (Vera).

When that slow-motion, silent explosion of love takes place in me, unfolding its melting fringes and overwhelming me with the sense of something much vaster, much more enduring and powerful than the accumulation of matter or energy in any imaginable cosmos, then my mind cannot but pinch itself to see if it is really awake. (297)

He is telling the story to his wife. At each “you,” a stab of affection ran through my heart. With a delicious casualness reminiscent of Ada, or Ardor’s Van we know she is the meaning and purpose of this book, and his life. He never describes her, their meeting, or how they came to love each other, she is simply the one – you. By the end of the story the intimacy of his referring to her is completely out in the open. It is lovely.

Here is a man to whom everything good was given, a lot of which was taken away, and yet all that is good, worthwhile and true- all the love, remains.

This is ecstasy, and behind the ecstasy is something else, which is hard to explain. It is like a momentary vacuum into which rushes all that I love. A sense of oneness with sun and stone. A thrill of gratitude to whom it may concern- to the contrapuntal genius of human fate or to tender ghosts humoring a lucky mortal. (139)*
*Here he is explaining his passion for lepidopterology – the study of butterflies.


22 responses to “Sun and Stone

  1. One of my favorite writers. Wasn’t Ada or Ardor the story of the incestuous brother and sister — that was a scary one!

  2. sun on stone

  3. You have sold me; sounds like a primer on love. After half a century, I’m thinking it’s a subject I might need more education in. THis sounds like a more than bearable textbook.

  4. I could not have a higher opinion of this book. Find What the Sailor Has Hidden.

  5. Recommnedation? Oh, sorry! I was just indulging in a favorite bit from the end, the last few pages, I think, of Speak, Memory. Although What the Sailor Has Hidden is a good name for a novel that someone should use.

    • Oh darn. I was always too trusting. Perhaps you can make up for my disappointment and suggest another. That is a very good title though. haha

    • It is already in use as the title of a Wesleyan Press book which I think is a translation of Pale Fire, but I’m not too sure.
      I wonder at the capitals in Nabokov’s text. It was the part of the sentence that followed that I initially fixated on -not being able to unsee something once seen…I think I auto corrected the caps until you wrote it and now- I can not unsee them nor cease to ponder the meaning.

      • That’s a critical work on Pale Fire, a good one. The children’s game Nabokov invents there in Speak, Memory is a good name for one approach to his work, except that Nabokov was not a sailor. But he is always hiding things in plain sight.

  6. I really like the first sentence. Lovely.

  7. Pingback: Not So Muted Mirth | so very very

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