Vladimir Nabokov

I learned to read English before I could read Russian. My first English friends were four simple souls in my grammar --- Ben, Dan, Sam and Ned. There used to be a great deal of fuss about their identities and whereabouts --- "Who is Ben?" "He is Dan," "Sam is in bed," and so on. Althought it all remained rather stiff and patchy (the compiler was handicapped by having to employ --- for the initial lessons, at least --- words of not more than three letters), my imagination somehow managed to obtain the necessary data. Wan-faced, big-limbed, silent nitwits, proud in the possession of certain tools ("Ben has an axe"), they now drift with a slow-motioned slouch across the remotest backdrop of memory; and, akin to the mad alphabet of an optician's chart, the grammar-book lettering looms again before me.

The schoolroom was drenched with sunlight. In a sweating glass jar, several spiny caterpillars were feeding on nettle leaves (and ejecting interesting, barrell-shaped pellets of oilve-green frass). The oilcloth that covered the round table smelled of glue. Miss Clayton smelled of Miss Clayton. Through the window one could see kerchiefed peasant girls weeding a garden path on their hands and knees or gently raking the sun-mottled sand. Golden orioles in the greenery emitted their four brilliant notes: dee-del-dee-O!

Ned lumbered past the window in a fair impersonation of the gardener's mate Ivan...On later pages longer words appeared, and at the very end of the brown, inkstained volume, a real sensible story unfolded its adult sentences (One day Ted said to Ann: Let us... the little reader's ultimate triumph and reward...)"

--- from Speak Memory:
An Autobiography Revisited

©1947 G. P. Putnams

Go Home     Subscribe to RALPH     Go Up