It didn't take me long to get to Nabokov, but it took Nabokov a while to get to me. Many years ago I read Lolita to see what the fuss was about, but in seeking the fuss I somehow missed the book. Or perhaps I just wasn't up to it. Nabokov was too hard.
But he gnawed at me. People I admired admired him. I tried another of his novels, Pale Fire, but found that harder still.
The breakthrough came perhaps a dozen years ago when I read his memoir, Speak Memory. I wasn't besotted but I began to see what others saw. This month I've taken that memoir back down from the shelves. Now I'm besotted.
And there's a truth in that. Re-reading a book is as good as reading it for the first time, because the psyche we bring to it ages and changes. Books are effectively mirrors: as we get older we see different things in them.
Consider that title, Speak, Memory. It's pompous. Most writers would ditch it for just that reason, would replace it with something less pleased with itself. Not Nabokov. Not Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov. It's the bang right title and for him that's that. He makes memory speak.
You know how it is. Summon a memory from your own childhood, a trip in the family car, say. Close your eyes and let the incidental details creep in, the sensory items you had no idea you had retained: the feel of the vinyl arm rest, the snap of the lid of the silver-gilt ashtray set into that arm rest, the texture of the back of the driver's seat, the shape of your father's head as he drove, his brylcreem-flattened thinning hair, the sweets you fought over with your brother, the lemony taste of them, the way they pitted as you sucked them, the little white crumpled paper bag they came in - how easily it tore - the way your damp bare thighs adhered to the vinyl seats and came away with a slight tearing sound, and so on. That's memory speaking.
Nabokov's brilliance is to record its voice on the page, to capture exactly how memory reveals itself, how detail brings up detail, how lucidly our brains record more than we think they do, and then to weave it into sentences that beguile and seduce. Here he is on a large, French spinster:
"'All her mannerisms come back to me when I think of her hands. Her trick of peeling rather than sharpening a pencil, the point held toward her stupendous and sterile bosom swathed in green wool. The way she had of inserting her little finger into her ear and vibrating it very rapidly."
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Peeling, stupendous, sterile, vibrating - that governess has been dead for 80 years but there she is in all her idiosyncratic substance. Nabokov's embalmed her in words. And he's done so in his second language out of three.
Born into the St Petersburg aristocracy in 1899 he learned English and French alongside his native Russian. After the revolution of 1917 his family was forced into exile. He wandered about Europe for a while, wrote nine novels in Russian, settled in Berlin, then fled it at the start of World War II and settled in the States.
Thereafter financial necessity obliged him to write in English, or as he put it, "My private tragedy is that I had to abandon my natural idiom, my untrammelled, rich and infinitely docile Russian tongue for a second-rate brand of English."
It is such a typical Nabokov sentence: precise, ornate, exquisitely orchestrated and yet subtly comic. For he knows as well as anyone that there is nothing second-rate about his English. It is like no one else's.
All his life he collected butterflies. Here's a memory from the early days:
"… an enthusiastic kitchen boy … would sometimes borrow my equipment and come back two hours later in triumph with a bagful of seething invertebrate life and several additional items. Loosening the mouth of the net which he had tied up with string, he would pour out his cornucopian spoil - a mass of grasshoppers, some sand, two parts of a mushroom he had thriftily plucked on the way home, more grasshoppers, more sand, and one battered Small White."
Look at the unimprovable choice of words - seething, cornucopian, thriftily, battered - and the utter precision of a mushroom that broke in two a hundred years ago.