Speak, Memory: Nabakov and 49 other Authors on What It Is to Remember


August 23, 2015 by Paula Reed Nancarrow

My daughter Maggie got me Vladimir Nabokov’s Speak, Memory one year for Christmas; it seems a fitting title for this post, which is the penultimate one for #AUTHORityAugust, in which I collect quotations from authors of varying degrees of fame on topics I happen to be mulling over. So far we have covered family, aging, and reading. The topic this time is memory. You’ll find a couple of my favorite writers on memoir, as well as more than the usual sprinkle of poets. Where poems are excerpted and available online, I have linked to the whole text. 



How uncanny to go back in memory to a house from which time has stolen all the furniture, and to find the one remembered chair, and to write it so large, so deep, that it furnishes the entire vacant room. ― Patricia Hampl


I think a person permeates a spot, and a lost presence makes the environment timeless to me, keeps an area alive. It pulsates because of that.
― Andrew Wyeth


You remember only what you want to remember. You know only what your heart allows you to know.  ― Amy Tan, Saving Fish from Drowning


Scars have the strange power to remind us that our past is real. ― Cormac McCarthy, All the Pretty Horses


“Once,” she will say, as if she remembers,
and the memory will stick like a fishbone.
She knows
how easily she will comply when a man puts his hand
on the back of her neck and gently steers her.

She knows how long she will wait for rescue, how the world
will go on expanding outside.
She will see her mother’s photo
of Elvis shaking hands with Nixon, the terrifying conjunction.

A whole war with Asia will begin slowly,
in her lifetime, out of such irreconcilable urges.

― Fleda Brown, The Women Who Loved Elvis All Their Lives



Oh, everything is gorgeous once it’s gone.
― Gregory Maguire, Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West


Everyone has two memories. The one you can tell and the one that is stuck to the underside of that, the dark, tarry smear of what happened.  ― Amy Bloom, Away


Your memory is a monster; you forget—it doesn’t. It simply files things away. It keeps things for you, or hides things from you—and summons them to your recall with will of its own. You think you have a memory; but it has you!
― John Irving, A Prayer for Owen Meany


But maybe that’s what the dead do. They stay. They linger. Benign and sweet and painful. They don’t need us. They echo all by themselves.
― Sangu Mandanna, The Lost Girl


IMG_6261-e1353444700573Each in the most hidden sack kept
the lost jewels of memory,
intense love, secret nights and permanent kisses,
the fragment of public or private happiness.
A few, the wolves, collected thighs,
other men loved the dawn scratching
mountain ranges or ice floes, locomotives, numbers.
For me happiness was to share singing,
praising, cursing, crying with a thousand eyes.
I ask forgiveness for my bad ways:
my life had no use on earth.
― Pablo Neruda, from Still Another Day


I have the most ill-regulated memory. It does those things which it ought not to do and leaves undone the things it ought to have done. But it has not yet gone on strike altogether.  ― Dorothy L. Sayers


It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards,’ says the White Queen to Alice.  ― Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking-Glass


I used to think that once you really knew a thing, its truth would shine on forever. Now it’s pretty obvious to me that more often than not the batteries fade, and sometimes what you knew even goes out with a bang when you try and call on it, just like a light bulb cracking off when you throw the switch.  ― Lucy Grealy


We all have an old knot in the heart we wish to untie.  ― Michael Ondaatje, The Cat’s Table


We look at the world once, in childhood.
The rest is memory
― Louise Glück


VLADIMIR: (after a moment of bewilderment). We’ll see when the time comes. (Pause.) I was saying that things have changed here since yesterday.
ESTRAGON: Everything oozes.
VLADIMIR: Look at the tree.
ESTRAGON: It’s never the same pus from one second to the next.
VLADIMIR: The tree, look at the tree. Estragon looks at the tree.
ESTRAGON: Was it not there yesterday?
VLADIMIR: Yes of course it was there. Do you not remember? We nearly hanged ourselves from it. But you wouldn’t. Do you not remember?
ESTRAGON: You dreamt it.
VLADIMIR: Is it possible you’ve forgotten already?
ESTRAGON: That’s the way I am. Either I forget immediately or I never forget.
― Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot


Nothing stays put.
The world is a wheel.

All that we know, that we’re
made of, is motion.

― Amy Clampitt, Nothing stays put


A man of great memory without learning hath a rock and a spindle and no staff to spin.

― George Herbert



At times I feel as if I had lived all this before and that I have already written these very words, but I know it was not I: it was another woman, who kept her notebooks so that one day I could use them. I write, she wrote, that memory is fragile and the space of a single life is brief, passing so quickly that we never get a chance to see the relationship between events; we cannot gauge the consequences of our acts, and we believe in the fiction of past, present, and future, but it may also be true that everything happens simultaneously. … That’s why my Grandmother Clara wrote in her notebooks, in order to see things in their true dimension and to defy her own poor memory. ― Isabel Allende, The House of the Spirits


He couldn’t tell that this was one of those occasions a man never forgets: a small cicatrice had been made on the memory, a wound that would ache whenever certain things combined – the taste of gin at mid-day, the smell of flowers under a balcony, the clang of corrugated iron, an ugly bird flopping from perch to perch.
― Graham Greene, The Heart of the Matter


Memories are nice little possessions. As long as you don’t ignore the present when you take them out to play.  ― Nora Roberts


Monotony collapses time; novelty unfolds it. You can exercise daily and eat healthily and live a long life, while experiencing a short one. If you spend your life sitting in a cubicle and passing papers, one day is bound to blend unmemorably into the next – and disappear. That’s why it’s so important to change routines regularly, and take vacations to exotic locales, and have as many new experiences as possible that can serve to anchor our memories. Creating new memories stretches out psychological time, and lengthens our perception of our lives.  ― Joshua Foer, Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything


There was a time before.

Remember when the tiny sightless hand
could not know, not say hand, but knew it
in its straying, knew it in the cool

condensation steaming the station wagon windows,
thrums of heat blowing a brand of idiot’s safety
over the brightly-wrapped package
that was then your body, well-loved?

This must have been you, looking out at that world
of flat, buttered fields and blackbirds ascending.

― Erin Belieu, All Distance


And since we don’t just forget things because they don’t matter but also forget things because they matter too much because each of us remembers and forgets in a pattern whose labyrinthine windings are an identification mark no less distinctive than a fingerprint’s, it’s no wonder that the shards of reality one person will cherish as a biography can seem to someone else who, say, happened to have eaten some ten thousand dinners at the very same kitchen table, to be a willful excursion into mythomania.
― Philip Roth, American Pastoral


Memory is a complicated thing, a relative to truth, but not its twin.

― Barbara Kingsolver, Animal Dreams


How we keep these dead souls in our hearts. Each one of us carries within himself his necropolis. ― Gustave Flaubert


She was afraid to suggest to him that to most people, nothing “happens.” That most people merely live from day to day until they die. That, after he had been dead a year, doubtless fewer than five people would think of him oftener than once a year. That there might even come a year when no one on earth would think of him at all.
― Gwendolyn Brooks, Maud Martha


Memory is a crazy woman that hoards colored rags and throws away food.
― Austin O’Malley


A word of warning here. The events as you remember them will never be the same in your memory once you have turned them into a memoir. For years I have worried that if I turn all of my life into literature, I won’t have any real life left – just stories about it. And it is a realistic concern: it does happen like that. I am no longer sure I remember how it felt to be twenty and living in Spain after my parents died; my book about it stands now between me and my memories. When I try to think about that time, what comes to mind most readily is what I wrote.
― Judith Barrington, Writing the Memoir: From Truth to Art


Vladimir Nabokov and his siblings Kirill, Olga, Sergey, and Elena. A photograph taken for their mother in 1918, a year after the Russian Revolution.

Vladimir Nabokov and his siblings Kirill, Olga, Sergey, and Elena. A photograph taken for their mother in 1918, a year after the Russian Revolution.

I think it is all a matter of love; the more you love a memory the stronger and stranger it becomes.
― Vladimir Nabokov


The point, I decided, wasn’t to have the autobiography or even the memories. The point was who I became when I wrote.  ― Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew, On The Threshold: Home, Hardwood, and Holiness


He is indebted to his memory for his jests and to his imagination for his facts.

― Richard Brinsley Sheridan


Strictly speaking, there is no such thing as collective memory–part of the same family of spurious notions as collective guilt. But there is collective instruction….What is called collective memory is not a remembering but a stipulating: that this is important, and this is the story about how it happened, with the pictures that lock the story in our minds.
― Susan Sontag


Childhood isn’t just those years. It’s also the opinions you form about them afterward. That’s why our childhoods are so long. ― Kim Stanley Robinson, Green Mars


This is the tongue of the dead man: remember, remember.
How far he is now, his actions

Around him like living room furniture, like a décor.
As the pallors gather—-The pallors of hands and neighborly faces,

The elate pallors of flying iris.
They are flying off into nothing: remember us.
The empty benches of memory look over stones,

Marble facades with blue veins, and jelly-glassfuls of daffodils.
It is so beautiful up here: it is a stopping place.

― Sylvia Plath, Berck-Plage


Right now I’m having amnesia and déjà vu at the same time. I think I’ve forgotten this before. ―Steven Wright


What we remember from childhood we remember forever — permanent ghosts, stamped, inked, imprinted, eternally seen.

― Cynthia Ozick


Every man’s memory is his private literature.

― Aldous Huxley


Memory is more indelible than ink. ― Anita Loos


The difference between false memories and true ones is the same as for jewels: it is always the false ones that look the most real, the most brilliant. 

― Salvador Dalí


Book Cover for Octavia Butler's Wild Seed.

Book Cover for Octavia Butler’s Wild Seed.

If you work hard enough at something that doesn’t matter, you can forget for a while about the things that do. ― Octavia E. Butler 


Humor is emotional chaos remembered in tranquility.  ― James Thurber 


Little girl, a memory without blot or contamination must be an exquisite treasure-an inexhaustible source of pure refreshment:is it not? ― Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre 


The light of memory, or rather the light that memory lends to things, is the palest light of all. I am not quite sure whether I am dreaming or remembering, whether I have lived my life or dreamed it. Just as dreams do, memory makes me profoundly aware of the unreality, the evanescence of the world, a fleeting image in the moving water.

― Eugène Ionesco


There’s no such thing as yesterday, he thought dully. Memory is just today, happening over and over again, stamped indelibly with regret. ― Helen Maryles Shankman 


The true art of memory is the art of attention.

― Samuel Johnson


The charm, one might say the genius of memory, is that it is choosy, chancy, and temperamental: it rejects the edifying cathedral and indelibly photographs the small boy outside, chewing a hunk of melon in the dust. 

― Elizabeth Bowen


You are told a lot about your education, but some beautiful, sacred memory, preserved since childhood, is perhaps the best education of all. If a man carries many such memories into life with him, he is saved for the rest of his days. And even if only one good memory is left in our hearts, it may also be the instrument of our salvation one day. 

― Fyodor Dostoyevsky 


Memories do not change, and change is the law of existence. If our dead, the closest, the most beloved, were to return to us after a long absence and instead of the old, familiar trees were to find in our souls English gardens and stone walls — that is to say, other loves, other tastes, other interests, they would gaze upon us sadly and tenderly for a moment, wiping away their tears, and then return to their tombs to rest.
― Teresa de la Parra, Las memorias de Mamá Blanca


Photo courtesy of GQ Britain, "The Rudest People in Britain."

Photo courtesy of GQ Britain, The Rudest People in Britain.

I have a memory like an elephant. In fact, elephants often consult me. 

― Noël Coward




12 thoughts on “Speak, Memory: Nabakov and 49 other Authors on What It Is to Remember

  1. Thank you so much for this.Quotations are my secret addiction – or not so secret. for the last two years I have posted a quote from a writer about the process of writing every Sunday morning. I’m not entirely certain what the attraction is but I think it is because we get a snapshot of a way of thinking, a glimspe of the interior and maybe it’s easier to make the leap from one mind to another in a tiny burst…


  2. Judith Post says:

    Interesting quotes. They ran the gamut from profound to fun. Laughed at #36. Been there, felt like that:) I guess we need Dumbledore’s Pensieve (in Harry Potter), so that we can recall exact details.


  3. I absolutely love Barbara Kingsolver’s: “Memory is a complicated thing, a relative to truth, but not its twin.” But Noël Coward’s is quite humorous. :-)


  4. There are so many lovely quotes here Paula – many of which cause pause for reflection. I read your post last night on my tablet and returned to it today. Each time I read it, I find myself focusing on new gems with so many hidden treasures. But I chuckled through the last one “I have a memory like an elephant. In fact, elephants often consult me.” ― Noël Coward


  5. Diana says:

    loved the language of #10 — Pablo Naruda
    the practicality of #21 — Nora Roberts
    the wisdom in #22 — Joshua Foer (in fact, I think this is a “keeper”)
    and the “aha” moment of #29 — Judith Barrington. Although I would change the focus a bit and suggest that the writing down doesn’t eliminate or hide other memories, but instead results in the written memories being the ones that are preserved. I often forget things, and am only reminded of them when I read a note, or a letter, or a journal entry — which then triggers all kinds of other memories/remembrances.

    Thus the “aha” of #29 — I need more memorable events (new experiences) to help anchor memories.


  6. […] Speak, Memory: Nabakov and 49 other Authors on What It Is to Remember. […]


  7. Elissaveta says:

    We look at the world once, in childhood.
    The rest is memory
    ― Louise Glück

    This one stood out for some reason. So lovely and in a way, quite sad.

    Once again, a brilliant post. Thank you, Paula. :)


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