The storm passed quickly. The rain, which had been a mass of violently descending water wherein the trees writhed and rolled, was reduced all at once to oblique lines of silent gold breaking into short and long dashes against a background of subsiding vegetable agitation. Gulfs of voluptuous blue were expanding between great clouds — heap upon heap of pure white and purplish gray, lepota (Old Russian for “stately beauty”), moving myths, gouache and guano, among the curves of which one could distinguish a mammary allusion or the death mask of a poet.
I read Speak, Memory when I was fifteen, in the spring. I passed out, then awoke a few years later in college. In between was a period when my brain became about as useful to me as a shoelace knot that has tightened until no fingernail can pick it apart. I wanted to write like Nabokov and my brain cramped. The problem, the cramp, had been years in the making, and I’ve had similar problems since, just because I am the way I am. But that particular episode was long and severe, and preferably people spend 15, 16, and so on in discovery and adventure, not in sitting on the edge of their bed and feeling real fear because they missed the whole point of Pale Fire (the narrator is really what?).
The best part of Pale Fire, as far as I know:
I am the shadow of the waxwing slain
By the false azure of the window pane
Is that how it goes? Close enough. When I read the book, that bit was all I could find to like. I dragged myself thru page after page, hunting for bright language like birds hunting for seed on frozen ground. Let me be clear that I’m not pronouncing judgment on Pale Fire. For me, having read the book is pretty much the same as not having read it; brain cramp will do that to you. I do know that I found less bird seed scattered about than was on hand in Pnin, The Defense, Sebastian Knight, and my favorite (though largely by default) The Gift. Then there was Ada. I guess Ada bored me even worse than Pale Fire.
Even when a book had what I was looking for, the images, the turns of phrase, I had no interest in anything else there. His books, for me, were made up of long dullness broken by bits of sparkle that nobody else could match. I was always bored, like a kid with his chin against the window during a long car trip, waiting for a gas station to flash by so he can see it lit up against the night.
Possibly Nabokov was too much of an adult for me. Forget his symbolism and aesthetic philosophy and so on. Even just his humor might have been above me; as I recall, underneath all the surface stylistic play and along with whatever advanced symbolic patterning he indulged in, he also went in for a lot of social comedy: the absurd behavior of the emigres at their literary gatherings, the self-satisfied unspoken quote marks around a foreigner’s use of slang (“the Pond” for the Atlantic). Then again, those are the bits that made it thru to me alongside the sparklies. It’s everything else that’s faded. And what all that was, I can’t say. Everything’s a blank.
Bottom line: I read out of ambition driven by fear, and I made my brain and soul hurt. I did pick up some useful knowledge of how to write sparkly bits (I really pored over the samples I found), but one can only wish I had been slightly more positive in attitude.