Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Five top memoirs of Communism

A columnist for the Washington Post, Anne Applebaum is the author of Gulag: A History, an acclaimed historical account of the Soviet concentration camp system that won the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction.

One of the five top memoirs of Communism she discussed with Alec Ash at The Browser:
Speak, Memory by Vladimir Nabokov

[L]et’s talk about the Nabokov memoir.

I reread this last night, and I still think it’s one of the most beautiful memoirs ever written. Although it’s not about the Russian revolution as such, it is permeated with a sense of loss and exile, as are all of Nabokov’s books. He evokes gorgeous countryside scenes of pre-revolutionary Russia, but at the same time has some distance from it - he recognises the awfulness of what he at one point calls his “rather appalling country” at the same time.

Nabokov writes a great deal about his father, who was a liberal Russian politician – assassinated in 1922 in Germany – and had to leave when the Bolsheviks took over. It’s a different view of Russia than the one we usually read about. Nabokov’s milieu was neither the Czar’s inner circle nor the Bolshevik revolutionaries, but rather the Russian upper-middle classes who might have become a liberal intelligentsia but never got the chance.

The book, from the 1920s on when Nabokov moved to Berlin and then Paris at least, is written from an emigré perspective. To what extent can we trust that perspective? It’s a memoir but it plays with the nature of memory and fact.

There are clearly stories in Speak, Memory which seem as if they may have been invented. He even half admits this himself – Nabokov sometimes asks the reader, “do I really remember this or am I making it up?” I once read a passage of the book aloud to my husband – about Nabokov’s childhood memory of playing with his mother’s jewels – and my husband laughed at me, and said “you can’t possibly believe this is true.”

But this is one of the central themes: the tricks that memory plays, and how, in the course of writing, things come back to you. While this is a book about a childhood in Russia, it’s also a book about how time changes what we think about things. You should certainly read it with a grain of salt.
Read about another book Applebaum tagged at The Browser.

Speak, Memory is on Eva Hoffman's list of five notable memoirs of identity, dislocation & belonging and is one of Susan Cheever's favorite books.

--Marshal Zeringue