Few are the truly great autobiographies: Benvenuto Cellini's, Jean-Jacques Rousseau's, Ben Franklin's, Edward Gibbon's, John Stuart Mills's, Henry Adams's, possibly Gertrude Stein's, and not many more. Nor ought one to be surprised at the paucity of their number. Of all forms of literature, autobiography is perhaps the most difficult to bring off successfully. Maintaining candor without lapsing into cant or self-adulation is only one of the difficulties autobiography presents. George Orwell underscored the point: "Autobiography is only to be trusted when it reveals something disgraceful. A man who gives a good account of himself is probably lying, since any life when viewed from the inside is simply a series of defeats."
To write superior autobiography one requires not only literary gifts, which are obtainable with effort, but an intrinsically interesting life, which is less frequently available. Those who possess the one are frequently devoid of the other, and vice versa. Only a fortunate few are able to reimagine their lives, to find themes and patterns that explain a life, in the way successful autobiography requires.
Vladimir Nabokov was among them. Late in "Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited" (1966), he writes that "the spiral is a spiritualized circle," and "a colored spiral in a small ball of glass is how I see my own life." This spiral took four twists. The first was the 20 years he spent in aristocratic opulence in his native Russia (1899-1919). This was followed by 21 years of impoverished exile in England, Germany and France (1919-40). The third was the years he spent as a teacher in the U.S. (1940-60). The enormous success of his novel "Lolita," freeing him to return to Europe—specifically to Montreux, Switzerland—provided the fourth twist, in which he was able to live out his days writing and pursuing butterflies until his death at the age of 78 in 1977.
"Speak, Memory" does not take up Nabokov's life in the U.S., the bulk of which he spent teaching literature at Cornell University; nor does it touch on his days in Montreux. The book ends as he, his Jewish wife and their young son, fleeing the Nazis, are about to sail off to America. Much of the greater part of the autobiography is given over to his life in Russia. He writes of his "careful reconstruction of my artificial but beautifully exact Russian past," from which he was brutally severed by the Russian Revolution. He never returned to Russia.
As an autobiographer—and as a novelist, too—Nabokov worked micro- rather than telescopically. The miniature was his entrée into the grander scene. "There is, it would seem," he writes, "in the dimensional scale of the world a kind of delicate meeting place between imagination and knowledge, a point, arrived at by diminishing large things and enlarging small ones that is intrinsically artistic." Such was his own method as an artist, and such was the art it produced on which his own international reputation rests.
Nabokov's portraits of his parents in "Speak, Memory" are a reminder of what good luck it is in life to love one's mother and father. Of his mother, he writes: "To love with all one's soul and leave the rest to fate was the simple rule she heeded." "Speak, Memory" provides verbal snapshots of his mother with her brown dachshunds, out hunting mushrooms, listening appreciatively to her son's first overheated poems. With her delicate sensitivity to the illusions of others, she understood what the nurturing of an artistic son required. "She cherished her own past," Nabokov writes, "with the same retrospective fervor that I now do her image and my own past."
Nabokov's father was a man given to good causes, who stood ready to sacrifice, and ultimately to die, for them. A man of learning and culture, he spoke out against government-encouraged pogroms, was against capital punishment, wrote against much that was cruel in the czarist regimes of his day. He served in Alexander Kerensky's cabinet. Nabokov's father lives forever in his son's—and now our—view of him being tossed into the air in gratitude and adulation by the peasants on his estate for justly mediating a dispute among them. "For an instant," Nabokov writes, having viewed this as a boy from a dining-room window, "the figure of my father in his wind-rippled white summer suit would be displayed, gloriously sprawling in midair, his limbs in a curiously casual attitude, his handsome, imperturbable features turned to the sky." He was killed in 1922 in Berlin, while shielding a liberal politician and editor from the pistol-fire of a far-right czarist fanatic.
In "Speak, Memory" Nabokov describes his childhood as "cosmopolitan," which it assuredly was, with four languages spoken in the family. The Nabokovs had not one but two chauffeurs to drive their three cars. Winters, when not in Biarritz, France, they occupied a mansion on a fashionable street in St. Petersburg. Four Great Danes were loosed at night under the control of a night watchman to guard Vyra, their estate 50 miles from town. Cooks, maids, gardeners, footmen were among the multitudinous household staff. An endless parade of tutors—German, English, French—was entrusted with the early education of the family's six children. What Nabokov calls "the stability and essential completeness" of his young life was of course wiped out by the Bolsheviks.
"Speak, Memory" is not without its longueurs. A lengthy section is given over to lepidoptery; another to the composition of chess problems. Odd that so great a writer is unable to generate passion in his readers for what were two among his own greatest passions, but it is so. Both, though, touch on his artistic life. Rare butterflies show up in several of his novels and stories. In "The Defense" he wrote one of the great novels about chess, a book whose true theme is obsession.
In his autobiography, Nabokov writes of those "things that one always hopes might survive captivity in the zoo of words." In this zoo one finds, to cite merely half a dozen, such exotic verbal creatures as "karakul," "chamfrained," "intrados," "discarnate" and "intervestibular." Surprising juxtapositions ("flowing nuns" and "the numb fury of verse making") and lilting formulations (a cousin who had "a sense of honor equivalent, morally, to perfect pitch," and "elegant old poets and their smiling similes") arise everywhere. Vladimir Nabokov hadn't it in him to write an uninteresting sentence.
A masterpiece of autobiography ought to capture the spirit of a time and place, be memorably well written, and make a reasonable pass at understanding that greatest of all conundrums, its author's own life. On all three counts, "Speak, Memory" qualifies.
—Mr. Epstein is the author of "A Literary Education and Other Essays" (Axios Press).