If you are reading this from my blog, and not from my Notes on Facebook, you can see that the name of my blog is Mnemosyne’s Notebook and the epigram is “Speak, Memory or die.” I took the epigram from the title of Vladimir Nabokov’s autobiography Speak, Memory and just made it a bit more urgent. Or American. Pearsonian.
I’ve begun reading Nabokov’s biography, and I was surprised to see that he originally wanted to title the autobiography Speak, Mnemosyne, but his publisher convinced him that “little old ladies would not want to ask for a book whose title they could not pronounce.” If it’s possible to have a goddess as a totem, or guardian angel, then Mnemosyne is mine. If you aren’t sure how to pronounce it, click here nəˈmäsənē; And if you aren’t sure who she is, click here.
I began my career in semiconductor memory, so Mnemosyne seemed like the right spirit to adopt. I have called her my “totem” – but in looking up the actual definition of the word I see that a totem has historically been a guiding spirit for a group, not an individual. Robert Bly‘s Mythopoetic men’s movement uses the word “totem” to denote a personal guiding spirit. Mnemosyne began as a Titaness, was the personification of memory and mother of the Muses, and now she’s my totem/personal guiding spirit. In Neil Gaimen’s American Gods a character goes from impaled 5 year old boy to god to kobold to something dead. We all have an arc, but the arcs of the gods are a bit more spectacular than most.
I was feeling some kinship with old Vlad until I got to this part….
…. the individual mystery remains to tantalize the memoirist. Neither in environment nor in heredity can I find the exact instrument that fashioned me, the anonymous roller that pressed upon my life a certain intricate watermark whose unique design becomes visible when the lamp of art is made to shine through life’s foolscap.
And I thought that I could never write as beautifully as that. What a wonderful image for the life of a writer.
Nabokov was also a synesthete. His took the form of associating colors with various letters. I love some of his descriptions
In the green group , there are alder leaf f, the unripe apple of p, the pistachio t. Dull green, combined somehow with violet, is the best I can do for w. The yellows comprise various e‘s, and i‘s, creamy d, bright-golden y, and u, whose alphabetical value I can express only by “brassy with an olive sheen.”
In his visualized alphabet, the word for rainbow would be kzspygv.
The 7 year old Vladimir mentioned to his mother that the colors on his alphabet blocks were “wrong.” His mother agreed and they discussed how each experienced the colors of the letters. His mother also was chromatically affected by music, but he was not. In fact, music was an annoyance to Nabokov.
His mother had an especial fondness for dachshunds, and at one point was given a dachshund that was the grandson of dachshunds owned by Anton Chekhov.
Nabokov was raised with such love, luxury, privilege, and culture that it’s a wonder he grew up to accomplish anything. Perhaps I’ll get a sense of how that came about as I read further.