Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Karr and Nabokov

Chapter Three of Speak, Memory, the source of a paragraph I posted earlier today, comes up in a new book by Mary Karr, The Art of Memoir. From a review:

Even Nabokov, whose Speak, Memory is praised extensively and poetically in one full chapter of Karr’s book, comes under fire for his pretentious indulgences later. “Nabokov devotes the third chapter of Speak, Memory to all his family estates and heraldry and his fancy-pants ancestors, Baron von So-and-So and Count Suck-On-This.”
It’s not clear to me that memorializing one’s ancestors is a matter of pretentious indulgence: to collect and recount the details of an aristocratic pedigree might be a gesture of mournful reverence. And the chapter’s brief discussion of heraldry is really about the workings of memory, Nabokov’s memory having at one point distorted the family crest beyond recognition. The estates and ancestors of this deeply Proustian chapter are the places and people of a lost world, now remembered or, at least, evoked. Fancy pants are not the point. As Nabokov writes later in the chapter,
My old (since 1917) quarrel with the Soviet dictatorship is wholly unrelated to any question of property. My contempt for the emigre who “hates the Reds” because they “stole” his money and land is complete. The nostalgia I have been cherishing all these years is a hypertrophied sense of lost childhood, not sorrow for lost banknotes.
Karr’s dismissal of estates and ancestors seems to me a form of snobbery in reverse: it’s okay to write your life if you come from a rough or messy background. But fancy-pants aristocrats, Keep Out.

The reviewer adds a parenthetical comment about the sentence from Karr:
(After laughing out loud at this line, I misread Karr’s Nabokov excerpt about “Prince Wittgenstein’s Druzhnoselie” as “Prince Wittgenstein’s Douchenozzle.”)
It’s sad to see such snark passing for lit crit.

Related reading
All OCA Nabokov posts (Pinboard)

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