- Time and Time Again by Dan Jacobson
Deutsch, 213 pp, £8.95, September 1985, ISBN 0 233 97804 6
In Speak, Memory, the five-year-old Nabokov is led down from the nursery in 1904 to meet a friend of the family, General Kuropatkin.
To amuse me, he spread out a handful of matches on the divan where he was sitting, placed ten of them end to end to make a horizontal line and said: ‘This is the sea in calm weather.’ Then he tipped up each pair so as to turn the straight line into a zigzag – and that was ‘a stormy sea’. He scrambled the matches and was about to do, I hoped, a better trick when we were interrupted. His aide-de-camp was shown in and said something to him. With a Russian, flustered grunt, Kuropatkin immediately rose from his seat, the loose matches jumping up on the divan as his weight left it. That day, he had been ordered to assume supreme command of the Russian army in the Far East.
And there the incident might satisfactorily end, with the ten matches in immortal disarray – a slow freeze of sudden technicolour from the sepia past.
But it doesn’t. There is a sequel, an historical rhyme. Fifteen years later, Nabokov’s father, in flight from the Bolsheviks, is accosted on a bridge ‘by an old man who looked like a peasant in his sheepskin coat’. The old man, Kuropatkin, asks for a light, and the artist comments: ‘Whether or not old Kuropatkin, in his rustic disguise, managed to evade Soviet imprisonment, is immaterial. What pleases me is the evolution of the match theme ... The following of such thematic designs through one’s life should be, I think, the true purpose of autobiography.’
Dan Jacobson would agree. In his foreword to these 13 austerely beautiful recollections, he commits himself not only to the truth but also to shapeliness, to design, to form, to narratives ‘which would appear to begin naturally, develop in a surprising and persuasive manner, and come to an end no sooner or later than they should’. It looks like an impossible prescription – the writer as servant of two mistresses, the homely familiar, and the shapely piece on the side. Indeed, brilliant though Speak, Memory is, Nabokov never again achieves a moment comparable to the Kuropatkin incident, where Dichtung and Wahrheit embrace so closely and satisfyingly. His chapters have their rough unities – a chapter arranged around his mother, a chapter touching on English themes from Pears soap to imported tutors, a lepidoptery chapter, another about journeys abroad, and so on – but the Kuropatkin interlude serves only to show how difficult it is to achieve such perfect symmetry. And perhaps also how undesirable this might be on a large scale since, in the end, Nabokov’s subject is memory itself – a genre in which details carry with them their own validity. Those aerobatic matches, a bathroom thermometer ‘with a bit of damp string in the eye of the handle’, a candle whose ‘groggy flame squirms and ducks’, a senile grandfather who, when shown a pretty pebble by the infant author, examines it and slowly puts it into his mouth, ‘a silvery rustle spelling “Suchard” ’ – these details, gold-plated by the act of remembrance, are the treasures one takes away from Speak, Memory.