'Speak, memory' said Vladimir Nabokov. And immediately there came flooding back to him a host of enchanting recollections - of his comfortable childhood and adolescence, of his rich, liberal-minded father, his beautiful mother, an army of relations and family hangers-on and of grand old houses in St Petersburg and the surrounding countryside in pre-revolutionary Russia. Young love, butterflies, tutors and a multitude of other themes thread together to weave an autobiography which is itself a work of art.
This Penguin Modern Classic edition contains an appendix, 'Chapter sixteen', a pseudo-review written by Nabokov in 1950 but only now published for the first time in paperback.
There existed in Russia, and still exists no doubt, a special type of school-age boy who, without necessarily being athletic in appearance or outstanding in mental scope, often having, in fact, no energy in class, a rather scrawny physique, and even, perhaps, a touch of pulmonary consumption, excels quite phenomenally at soccer and chess, and learns with the utmost ease and grace any kind of sport or game of skill (Borya Shik, Kostya Buketov, the famous brothers Sharabanov- where are they now, my teammates and rivals ?). I was a good skater on ice and switching to rollers was for me not more difficult than for a man to replace an ordinary razor by a safety one. Very quickly I learned two or three tricky steps on the wooden floor of the rink and in no ballroom have I danced with more zest or ability (we, Shiks and Buketovs, are poor ballroom dancers, as a rule). The several instructors wore scarlet uniforms, half hussar and half hotel page. They all spoke English, of one brand or another. Among the regular visitors, I soon noticed a group of American young ladies. At first, they all merged in a common spin of bright exotic beauty. The process of differentiation began when, during one of my lone dances (and a few seconds before I came the worst cropper that I ever came on a rink), somebody said something about me as I whirled by, and a wonderful, twangy feminine voice answered,
'Yes, isn't he cunning?'
I can still see her tall figure in a navy-blue tailor-made suit.
Her large velvet hat was transfixed by a dazzling pin. For obvious reasons, I decided her name was Louise. At night, I would lie awake and imagine all kinds of romantic situations, and think of her willowy waist and white throat, and worry over an odd discomfort that I had associated before only with chafing shorts. One afternoon, I saw her standing in the lobby of the rink, and the most dashing of the instructors, a sleek ruffian of the Calhoun type, was holding her by the wrist and interrogating her with a crooked grin, and she was looking away and childishly turning her wrist this way and that in his grasp, and the following night he was shot, lassoed, buried alive, shot again, throttled, bitingly insulted, coolly aimed at, spared, and left to drag a life of shame.
High-principled but rather simple Lenski, who was abroad for the first time, had some trouble keeping the delights of sight- seeing in harmony with his pedagogical duties. We took advantage of this and guided him toward places where our parents might not have allowed us to go. He could not resist the Wintergarten, for instance, and so, one night, we found ourselves there, drinking ice-chocolate in an orchestra box. The show developed on the usual lines: a juggler in evening clothes; then a woman, with flashes of rhinestones on her bosom, trilling a concert aria in alternating effusions of green and red light; then a comic on roller skates. Between him and a bicycle act (of which more later) there was an item on the program called 'The Gala Girls,' and with something of the shattering and ignominious physical shock I had experienced when coming that cropper on the rink, I recognized my American ladies in the garland of linked, shrill-voiced, shameless 'girls,' all rippling from left to right, and then from right to left, with a rhythmic rising of ten identical legs that shot up from ten corollas of flounces. I located my Louise's face - and knew at once that it was all over, that I had lost her, that I would never forgive her for singing so loudly, for smiling so readily, for disguising herself in that ridiculous way so unlike the charm of either' proud Creoles' or' questionable senoritas.' I could not stop thinking of her altogether, of course...