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The Radiance of a Personal Past

NO one has felt more passion than Nabokov for the radiance of a personal past, and no one has recollected the past with more precision. That alone would suffice to place his autobiography among the greatest ever written. But above all, "Speak, Memory" is the most artistic of all autobiographies. "The meeting point," as Nabokov himself defines it, "of an impersonal art form and a very personal life story," it records one man's unique and happy life and at the same time attempts to explore the nature, origins, and destiny of all human consciousness. Again and again its lucid and alluring style and its philosophical probings set up strangely importunate vibrations at a pitch we cannot find. When we discover the right frequency, we will find that without the least falsification of the facts Nabokov has managed to impart to his life a design as complex and harmonious as those of his finest novels. Some autobiographies succeed by their frankness and fullness, as if memory had been left to speak all its secrets onto an endless reel of tape. Nabokov does not operate that way: unlike his egomaniacal narrators, his Hermanns and his Kinbotes, he does not assume that his life, because it is his, ought to be of interest or concern to others. His purpose is not to tell everything about his life, but to compose a work that by the very artistry of its shaping can express his own deepest convictions far more fully than the thickest transcript of anecdotal reminiscence.

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