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NOJ / НОЖ: Nabokov Online Journal, Vol. III / 2009

Laurence Petit






ike many contemporary writers, Vladimir Nabokov in Speak, Memory explores the

destabilizing interaction between visual and verbal codes in an autobiographical work

combining text and photographic image. The originality of this book, however, is that it is not so much, as in so many other postmodern works, the supposedly truthful photographic image that does not hold its promise and challenges perception and representation. In Speak, Memory, photographs are indeed presented as a faithful, transparent window into the past. What obfuscates this autobiographical project, however, is the opacity of the reminiscing, or anamnestic discourse on those photographs, in particular that which is contained in their accompanying captions. Borrowing from critics such as Barthes, Doubrovsky, Harvey Rugg, and others, this essay examines how Nabokov in Speak, Memory playfully subverts his own autobiography, or photobiography, through an idiosyncratic use of text and image that not only sheds light on his condition as an exile, but also challenges his readers’ expectations in typically postmodern, as well as Nabokovian, fashion.

In his 1966 foreword to Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited, Nabokov announces that this is “the final edition” (Nabokov 6) of a text which, like the butterflies so dear L. Petit. Speak, Photographs?

to him, has undergone “multiple metamorphosis,” the present version being the outcome of a “diabolical task,” the “re-Englishing of a Russian re-version of what had been an English retelling of Russian memories in the first place” (Nabokov 6). In this statement, Nabokov is not just being his legendarily witty self. This multiple metamorphosis, “not tried by any human before” (Nabokov 6) – a statement that recalls Rousseau’s own megalomaniac declarations at the beginning of Confessions1 – is indeed worthy of lepidopterous metamorphosis if only in the many titles the book acquired over time, from the provisional title “The Person in Question” to the titles of the 1951 editions, Conclusive Evidence in the United States and Speak, Memory: A Memoir in England – itself chosen after Nabokov toyed with, and finally abandoned, the ideas of “Speak, Mnemosyne” and of “The Anthemion” – to the title of the 1954 Russian edition, Drugie berega (“Other Shores”), to the final 1967 title, Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited. In that sense, the subtitle “An Autobiography Revisited” could not be moreaccurate, especially since Nabokov did not just “revisit” the titles, but also revised and reworked the content of his text up until that last and final 1967 version.

What makes this final title particularly interesting, though, is that the deliberate inscription of Nabokov’s project into a specific literary tradition, that of “autobiography” (as opposed to the earlier “Memoir”), also corresponds to the inclusion, for the very first time, of photographs in a text which, until then, was made up of words only. It thus seems that Nabokov, in this final version, is not just revisiting an earlier text, but revisiting a whole literary genre, so as to produce, through this combination of autobiography and photographs, what is indeed a “unique freak as autobiographies go,” as the pseudo-reviewer of Conclusive Evidence – who turns out to be the author, himself, of course – writes in “Chapter Sixteen,”2 later added as an appendix to the text. And the truth is that, as can be expected from Nabokov, this autobiography certainly is a “unique freak,” combining the characteristics of what Hervé Guibert calls a “photobiography” (qtd in Hughes & Noble, 175), what Johnnie Gratton calls a “photobiographical autofiction” (Gratton 184), what Mounir Laouyen and Alex Hughes call, after the French New Novel or anti-novel, a “New Autobiography” (Laouyen 3) or “antiautobiography” (Hughes 168), and finally what Maria Louise Asher calls a “metaJean-Jacques Rousseau, Les Confessions, Livre I: “Je forme une enterprise qui n’eut jamais d’exemple, et dont l’exécution n’aura point d’imitateur” (1).

Chapter Sixteen, which Nabokov decided against publishing, finally appeared for the first time as an appendix in the 1998 American edition Knopf.

NOJ / НОЖ: Nabokov Online Journal, Vol. III / 2009 autobiography” (Asher 70). By combining text and photographs, this “new type of autobiography,” as Nabokov himself calls his project in a letter to a friend (Boyd ix), is indeed a “photobiography,” but Nabokov’s insistence on the constructed and highly subjective nature of his story through metatextual phrases like “the careful reconstruction of my artificial but beautifully exact Russian world” (Nabokov 211), or “and now comes that bicycle act – or at least my version of it” (Nabokov 162), immediately puts it amongst the postmodern categories of “photobiographical autofiction” or “metafiction.” In a mood of “general defiance against ‘egoliterature’” (Braud 76), to use Michel Braud’s phrase, postmodern theorists and practitioners of autobiography like Roland Barthes or Serge Doubrovsky have repeatedly emphasized the inherent impossibility that lies at the heart of the writing of the self. How can one give a truthful account of one’s self when one experiences that self as multiple, fragmented, and disjointed shards? And, as a result, how can that narrative be told by anyone else but “a character in a novel, or even by several characters,” as Barthes puts it in Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes (qtd in Ross, 12). Hence the concept of “autofiction” coined by Doubrosky in the 1970s, or that, more recent, of “New Autobiography,” which sees postmodern autobiography as marked by the “shattering of the self as whole”3 (Laouyen 3), and the autobiographical subject as representing “the degree zero of egoity”4 (Sécardin, qtd in Laouyen, 3) through its “unassignable identity” and “undetermined center” (Laouyen 4). Through the voice of his pseudo-reviewer in Chapter Sixteen reminding the reader that autobiographies can be “true, more or less true, or deliberately fictitious” (Nabokov 247), Nabokov shows us that he is fully aware of the inherently deceitful, and perhaps also self-deceiving, nature of autofiction, and that autobiography can no longer be what it was for the ancestors of the genre, writers such as Montaigne, Chateaubriand, and Rousseau, who firmly believed that the self as a totality could be accounted for “dans toute la vérité de sa nature” (“in the whole truth of its nature”), to quote Montaigne.5 Why then does Nabokov feel the need in 1966 to add to his text photographs, commonly seen as the most transparent of images, in a gesture which, if the author did not repeatedly claim otherwise, might then be seen as reinforcing what is also traditionally supposed to be the most “L’éclatement du sujet unaire” (Laouyen 3).

“Le degré zéro de l’égoité” (Secardin, qtd in Laouyen, 3).

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Preamble to Confessions: “Je veux montrer à mes semblables un homme dans toute la vérité de sa nature” (Rousseau, I, 1, 5). Rousseau himself is drawing from Montaigne’s statement in Essays, “The Author to the Reader”: “Je veux qu’on m’y voie en ma façon simple, naturelle et ordinaire, sans contention ni artifice: car c’est moi que je peins” (Montaigne, 49).

L. Petit. Speak, Photographs?

transparent genre, autobiography, a genre that purports to tell the truth about the self? And why, if autobiography is indeed for him synonymous with autofiction, does Nabokov use the photographic image of a camera “lucida” to describe the rigor and discipline of an autobiographical project whose demand for accuracy and faithfulness can only be conveyed, according to him, through a "precision of linear expression" which befits the "camera-lucida needs of literary composition" (Nabokov 68)? As Linda Harvey Rugg asks in the introduction to Picturing Ourselves: Photography and Autobiography, “Do photographs in the context of an autobiography come to the rescue of autobiographical referentiality, or do they undermine the integrity of referentiality? “ (Harvey Rugg 1) In the case of Speak, Memory, the answer is both, which is not surprising for an author well known for the ambiguity, irony, and undecidability of his writings. In Speak, Memory, photographs are indeed presented as a faithful, transparent window into a past, which, to use the phrase of Nabokov himself masquerading as the pseudo-reviewer of his own text, suddenly takes on “a singular air of luminous brightness” (252). What subverts the autobiographical project, however, is the opacity of the discourse on those photographs, a discourse that takes the form of captions added by Nabokov not for contextualizing, illustrative, or explanatory purposes, as is traditionally expected of captions, but mostly as a mask that the author uses to destabilize his reader and hide his trail in this supposed quest for the truth of the self.

In Speak, Memory, the actual black-and-white family photographs which are interspersed within the narrative, or grouped in its center, depending on the editions, are not just material reproductions meant to give a semblance of authenticity to a literary genre, autobiography, whose fictional nature, as we saw, has long been emphasized by critics. The photographic metaphor is what generates and governs a text in which both the reminiscing process to reach the depths of the past and the reviewing of that past are described in photographic terms. Through what Gavriel Moses calls a “veritable anatomy of modern optical technologies” (Moses 132), the numerous telescopes, microscopes, mirrors, and magic lanterns that were Nabokov’s toys when he was a child become metaphors to plunge into the recesses of memory through the “carefully wiped lenses of time” (Nabokov 179), or fancy’s “rear-view mirror” (Nabokov 74). Nabokov’s “imaginative optics,” to use Karen Jacobs’s phrase (Jacobs 5), thus serve as “time-transport devices” (Jacobs 5) or as “passports to alternate spatio-temporal locations” (Jacobs 5), which, as she explains, “[recall] Bahktin’s chronotope – a concept of ‘time-spaces’ that insist on the NOJ / НОЖ: Nabokov Online Journal, Vol. III / 2009 inseparability of temporal and spatial realms” (Jacobs 5). Once the reminiscing process is thus activated, time is recaptured in Proustian fashion and the past is revealed in the form of “ancient snapshots” (Nabokov 23) or sometimes one single picture, obtained there again at the end of a long photographic process and described by Nabokov as “the definite and permanent image that repeated exposure did finally leave in [his] mind” (Nabokov 65). Just as in the fantasy that the author had as a child to plunge into the picture above his bed (Nabokov 63), Nabokov the adult in a “strangely translucent state” (Nabokov 23) can now let himself be guided through the “picture gallery of time” (Nabokov 37), as if in a “slide show” (Nabokov 117), a “magic-lantern projection,” or those “mute films of yore” (Nabokov 70). Thanks to this visual process, the past, lit by the “kerosene lamp held by the hand of memory” (Nabokov 74), is suddenly “filled with brightness” (Nabokov 56) and achieves total transparency – as indicated by phrases such as “through a tremulous prism, I distinguish” (Nabokov 132) or “I see with utmost clarity” (Nabokov 18) – having been captured by a camera which is indeed “lucida” (Nabokov 68).

Interestingly enough, the visual metaphor used to describe the process of reminiscence, or anamnesis, and its textual counterpart, autobiography, become conflated as Nabokov invites us to be the literal viewers of a textual “slide show” (“I am going to show you a few slides,” Nabokov 117) or “magic-lantern sequence” (Nabokov 119) which provides the structure not just of chapter eight, but of Speak, Memory as a whole. And unlike the actual boring slide show that one of his tutors had organized in his childhood and which figures as a mise en abyme of his own imaginary slide show within the same chapter, this textual projection is what transports him straightaway, as if through the “magic shaft of a microscope” (Nabokov 128), into the magic realm of his “perfect past,” “the legendary Russia of [his] boyhood” (Nabokov 90).

L. Petit. Speak, Photographs?

The Nabokov house in St. Petersburg in 1955.

Photograph from the 1966 edition of Speak, Memory.

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