Nabokov’s Juvenilia as Ineffective Art: Speak Memory and Nabokov’s Discovery of Poetry

This paper was written for RUS 372: Nabokov & Global Literature as a response to the prompt “What are Nabokov’s thoughts on the nature of art and of literature in particular?”

Every poet, and artist in general, goes through a phase early in his career in which his work is classified as juvenilia. This work acts as a predecessor to themes and motifs that become more fully developed in the artist’s later work, but is not as sophisticated in terms of content and style. In his memoir Speak Memory, the infamous literary giant Vladimir Nabokov reflects upon his initial discovery of writing and the poems that he produced in his teenage years. Through his assessment of this early work and his negation of it as art, we begin to uncover his view of the true function of art: to serve, not as an accurate reflection of one’s individual reality, but as the rationalization and combination of many separate realities that, together, transcend the individual human experience.

On his early poems, Nabokov states that they are “hardly anything more than a sign I made of being alive, of passing or having passed, or hoping to pass, through certain intense human emotions” and compares them to “stripes of paint on a roadside rock” and “a pillared heap of stones marking a mountain trail.”1 Through his use of dismissive language, like “hardly” and “sign,” and the comparison of his juvenilia to the purely functional markers of “stripes of paint” and a “heap of stones,” Nabokov indicates that this work serves no purpose beyond practicality, helping him navigate “through certain intense human emotions” but not transcending these immediate emotions in any way.2 He furthers this notion by stating: “It was a phenomenon of orientation rather than of art.”3 These poems cease to be “art” in Nabokov’s view because they merely act as an “orientation” in his own physical world and reality and do not offer insights or connections beyond it. His insistence on the fact that his early poems’ functional and immediately positional qualities negate their status as art implies that, for Nabokov, true art must situate itself beyond the emotional and physical state of the artist.

One of the early poems that he discusses in Speak Memory is an elegy, and as he puts it, “It seems hardly worthwhile to add that, as themes go, my elegy dealt with the loss of a beloved mistress […] whom I had never lost, never loved, never met but was all set to meet, love, lose.”4 Instead of being immediately related to his present state as the previously discussed work is, this poem is a “miserable concoction,” containing gross imitations of great Russian poets, like Pushkin, Tyutchev, and Apuhtin.5 By denouncing the elegy as “miserable” and “hardly worthwhile,” Nabokov illustrates that obvious mimicry and lack of originality also prevent a poem from being considered art.6 Copying famous works and having no basis in one’s own reality for a poem make it as egregious an attempt at art as being incapable of moving beyond one’s limited experiences. In fact, following his writing of the elegy, young Nabokov attempts to mold his life after images he has stolen and imagined, taking his new lover “to all those secret spots in the woods, where [he] had daydreamed so ardently of meeting her, of creating her.”7 This filched fantasy world that he crafts for himself prevents him from experiencing even his own reality, as he feels that he cannot simply get acquainted with this girl but must create her himself, which, in turn, precludes him from transcending reality, as well.

Upon reflecting on the perceived “magic veil of [his] words,” Nabokov realizes that what he had assumed to be revealing and original turns of phrase were “so opaque that, in fact, they formed a wall in which all one could distinguish were the well-worn bits of the major and minor poets [he] imitated.”8 Again, he condemns the recycling of others’ art in one’s own, but also introduces a new standard by which to evaluate something’s effectiveness as art: a “magic veil.”9 This description implies that art should be mostly translucent, as a veil is, but obscure reality enough as to endow it with a level of magic and other-worldliness. He then draws a comparison between his fragmented early poems and “a paling […on which] animals had been painted […but] now the fence showed only disjointed parts of animals (some of them, moreover, upside down).”10 Though this fence still theoretically has all the parts that made up the original painting, they are now completely disjointed and no longer constitute art. The same is true for poetry: even if a poem has all of the supposed necessary pieces—elevated diction, rhyme pairs, strong imagery, et cetera—they mean nothing unless the poet combines them exactly and creates a new lens, or “veil,” through which to view reality.

During the recollection of his juvenilia, older, wiser Nabokov interjects a few of his own direct assertions about the nature of poetry and art, as well. He admits that “in a sense, all poetry is positional,” but clarifies that being positional does not inherently limit a poem to its author’s context—rather, a truly artful poem must “try to express one’s position in the universe embraced by consciousness.”11 He refers to this process as “cosmic synchronization.”12 By emphasizing the significance of the universe and cosmos as an integral part of the situation of the artist, Nabokov draws attention to the necessity of surpassing one’s immediate surroundings and experiences when creating art. Despite being “far too young” in his boyhood to fully comprehend this notion, he still recognizes “that a person hoping to become a poet must have the capacity of thinking of several things at a time,” indicating the importance of intersecting time and place in poetry and art as a whole.13

By evaluating the failures of his early poetry, Nabokov reveals his personal philosophy of art as transcendent of individual human experience in his memoir Speak Memory. This revelation in a memoir, a genre typically grounded entirely in personal, lived experiences, is ironic to say the least and allows Nabokov to manipulate the expectations of the genre. Perhaps, Nabokov’s choice to situate this content within an unexpected genre is just another one of his literary games, stringing his readers along to reveal to them his version of artistic truth.

Works Cited

Nabokov, Vladimir. Speak Memory: An Autobiography Revisited. New York: Random House, 1989.

  1. Vladimir Nabokov, Speak Memory: An Autobiography Revisited, (New York: Random House, 1989), 217.
  2. Nabokov, Speak Memory, 217.
  3. Nabokov, Speak Memory, 217.
  4. Nabokov, Speak Memory, 225.
  5. Nabokov, Speak Memory, 225.
  6. Nabokov, Speak Memory, 224-25.
  7. Nabokov, Speak Memory, 232.
  8. Nabokov, Speak Memory, 221.
  9. Nabokov, Speak Memory, 221.
  10. Nabokov, Speak Memory, 221.
  11. Nabokov, Speak Memory, 218.
  12. Nabokov, Speak Memory, 218.
  13. Nabokov, Speak Memory, 218.

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