Vladimir Nabokov is one of those geniuses I always felt somehow uneasy about.
What I knew about him? Very little.
During his literary career, Nabokov wrote ten novels in Russian, nine in English together with hundreds of short stories and poems.
And what I had read of all this astonishing production? Just two things. "Lolita", of course (and quite late) together with "The Eye" (and too soon).
That said, I came across this self-biography after finding out somewhere that this is one of the best self-biographies ever written or something. Which is partly true.
On the one hand "Speak, Memory" gives the utter confirmation that Nabokov was a peculiar character with whom it was probably quite uneasy to deal with. In these 15 plus one chapters recounting his early life in Russia and then the time he spent as an ex-pat in the UK, France and Germany after the Bolshevik revolution, Nabokov is often so self-satisfied about his childhood and young adult years to be almost unbearable.
A whole chapter, say, is dedicated to the heraldry of the Nabokoff/Nabokov family explaining who was who and whom married whom since the 18th century with a sort of elegy of patronymics and pointing out the powerful connections Vladimir's ancestry had with the Russian and Central European peerage.
Moreover, Nabokov is not afraid to tell us his little absurd idiosyncrasies which show a certain amount of snobbery like when he admits that he cannot stand sleeping because everybody does it and it's a waste or productive time or when he blame either Cambridge University life or those who cannot get the importance of his butterfly-cataloging hobby.
Nevertheless, or perhaps because of this unusual attitude towards his readers, this book is rather interesting and unique. One can discover a lot of amazing tiny details about Nabokov here. We may think this man was a genius incapable of looking at mundane business and daily activities, but this wouldn't be accurate.
For Vladimir Nabokov enjoyed not only hunting high and low the fields of Crimea, Cambridgeshire and Massachusetts in search of an unknown sub-specie of Polyommatus butterfly or creating chess puzzles for the grandmasters, but also playing tennis and standing between the posts on a football pitch practicing the noble art of goalkeeping.
By reading "Speak, Memory" we meet a grand writer and rather isolated person, but also a very sensitive human being who is not afraid of telling us about his own problems in relating with his brothers and fellow students, failures in love, illusions and disillusions. It's true how Nabokov lingers a bit too much on certain unimportant issues, but he was probably one of the few who could do it with an excellent writing style and without being reproached to get over himself.
This is not a complete self-biography dealing only with the first 40 years of Nabokov life and leaving out the most successful part of his existence as an author, but it's a fascinating reading, family heraldry apart.