This memoir, published in 1951 and in expanded form in 1966, is on most best nonfiction book lists and it is easy to see why: It is written with an elegance and depth befitting this great multilingual prose stylist and entomologist, who unfortunately is best known for the novel Lolita, the story of middle-aged Humbert Humbert, who becomes obsessed and sexually involved with a 12-year-old girl.
I say unfortunately only because his other work, while less accessible to the casual reader, take his word play and eye for sensory detail to extraordinary depths.
Herewith an excerpt from the concluding pages of Speak Memory in which addresses his wife. As you read it, let the words roll through your mind . . . and memory:
In the fall of 1939, we returned to Paris and around May 20 of the following year we were again near the sea, this time on the western coast of France, at St. Nazaire. There, one last little garden surrounded us, as you and I, and our child, by now six, between us, walked through it on our way to the docks, where behind the buildings facing us, the liner Champlain was waiting to take us to New York. That garden was what the French call, phonetically, skwarr, and the Russians skver, perhaps because it is the kind of thing usually found in or near public squares in England. Laid out on the last limit of the past and one the verge of the present, it remains in my memory merely as a geometrical design which no doubt I could easily fill in with the colors of plausible flowers, if I were careless enough to break the hush of pure memory (except, perhaps, for some chance tinnitus due to the pressure of my own tired blood) I have left undisturbed, and humbly listened to, from the beginning. What I really remember about this neutrally blooming design, is its clever thematic gardens and parks; for suddenly, as we came to the end of its path, you and I saw something that we did not immediately point out to our child, so as to enjoy in full the blissful shock, the enchantment and glee he would experience on discovering ahead the ungenuinely gigantic, unrealistically real prototype of the various toy vessels he had doddled about in his bath. There, in front of us, where a broken row of houses stood between us and the harbor, and where the eye encountered all sorts of stratagems, such as pale-blue and pink underwear cakewalking on a clothesline, or a lady's bicycle and a striped cat oddly sharing a rudimentary balcony of cast iron, it was most satisfying to make out among the jumbled angles of roofs and walls, a splendid ship's funnel, showing from behind the clothesline as something in a scrambled picture -- Find What the Sailor Has Hidden -- that the finder cannot unsee once it has been seen.
Image by Anton Uys