Considerations on those of Nabokov, Violet Trefusis, and Sarah Bernhardt's leading man"It has been rated the greatest of autobiographies, but since such judgements depend so much on the criteria we bring to them, I will call it only the most artistic of autobiographies... it fuses truth to detail with perfection of form, the exact with the evocative, an acute awareness of time with intimations of timelessness."
I encountered this heady description of Vladimir Nabokov's autobiography in Stalking Nabokov, Brian Boyd's new book about the forty years he has spent pursuing, as a passionate reader and as the world's foremost Nabokov scholar, the great lepidopterist and author of Lolita, Pale Fire and Ada. Why did I never read this book, I was immediately asking myself.
I ordered myself in a copy -- it turned out to be the Everyman's Library centenary edition of 1999 with Brian Boyd's introduction -- and as I picked it up, I remembered. It was the title which had put me off! Speak, Memory. So stilted, so bloodless.
But look at that! There was Nabokov in his foreword telling us that Speak, Memory was not the title he had chosen. He had wanted Speak, Mnemosyne, an invocation to the goddess of memory and inventor of language and words. Now this is a phrase which resonates. I loved it! But the publishers did not, on the grounds, Nabokov says, that 'little old ladies would not want to ask for a book whose title they could not pronounce.'
What? Little old ladies? On the authority of having inherited the Classical Greek textbook which my great-grandmother (who would have been in her seventies during the period in question) had used during her grammar school days, I figure that in the 1950s little old ladies were probably one of the very few population-types who would have known to pronounce Mnemosyne.
Coming up with a good memoir title is evidently not as easy as it looks. Humourists do well: I love Jules Feiffer's Backing into Forward, and SJ Perelman's The Hindsight Saga, which I'm not sure if he used or just quipped that he ought to, is up there too. Actually all Perelman's books have great titles, another favourite of mine being Under the Spreading Atrophy. The painter Jacqueline Fahey told me that this American humourist, whom Bill Maher called "the greatest wordsmith America ever produced", will play a key role in the upcoming Part Two of her memoirs. Part One, by the way, was Something for the birds, quite a good title as well, especially if you have ever seen her thickly-forested Hansel and Gretel home in Grey Lynn.
Memoir titles have also been the inspiration for some memorable wisecracks after the fact. Here are two of my favourites, from a couple of famously witty women.
1. Women have been kind ... of dumb
When the great French actress Sarah Bernhardt left for her second “farewell tour” of America, aged sixty-six, she took with her a new leading man, who was also her new lover, twenty-seven-year-old Lou Tellegen. The son of a Dutch general and a Greek dancer, Tellegen had left home at 15, supposedly with his father's mistress in tow, and subsequently been a prize fighter, trapeze artist, champion fencer, murderer (so he said), gambler and gigolo, before trying acting -- or at any rate leading-manship -- with Bernhardt, after a brief apprenticeship with the great Italian actress Eleanora Duse. He was famed for having the body of a Greek god, and had posed for a number of sculptors, including Rodin, who used him for his statue Eternel printemps.
Tellegen arrived on the scene in time to star opposite Bernhardt in her two silent films, Camille and Queen Elizabeth, in which he played Essex to her Elizabeth (the age difference was just about the same as the real-life love story). Here's a clip of the film from youtube, in which Bernhardt emotes fantastically as Tellegen, as her executed lover, lies perfectly still, Greek profile well on view. Keep in mind that the film was made one hundred years ago (1912) and you can love it.
After a taste of the roar of the crowd in America, Tellegen left Bernhardt in order to follow his own star to Hollywood, where he became a silent film actor with the nickname "The Great Lover". He also became the lover, and then husband, of the great opera diva Geraldine Ferrar, and when that story ended, of a movie actress or two. Not uncoincidentally, things began to falter for him. The arrival of sound ruined his career as a film star, and age, drink and drugs his personal career as a lover. He wrote a memoir and called it Women have been kind. In her review of it in Vanity Fair, Dorothy Parker said the title should have been Women have been kind... of dumb.
One day shortly before his 50th birthday, he shaved, touched up his face with a bit of powder, and put an end to it all by stabbing himself seven times with a pair of golden scissors (engraved with his name, yet), surrounded by newspaper clippings of his career. I’m not sure if any of the tabloids which reported these details saw fit to note Lou Tellegen's prescient star turn, years before in London, in a theatrical version of The Portrait of Dorian Gray he produced himself.
2. Here lies Mrs. Trefusis
I spent many years in Florence as a member by marriage of a large Italian, sorry, Florentine, family, most particularly large in there being a great number of uncles. One of them, my husband's favourite, was a handsome and witty man who had earned himself a place in high society through these attributes, as well as from being a good hand at cards and a passable tennis player. He married an American heiress who had previously been married to a Neapolitan aristocrat, if I remember correctly a Count, and I used to love looking through the pages of their old guest book, where names like Cyrus Sulzberger and Hamish Hamilton rubbed shoulders with the names of various posh Florentine families.
I don't remember ever seeing the name of Violet Trefusis, who lived out her old age in Florence as the chatelaine of Villa L'Ombrellino, but I do remember that there was a family saying which would be delivered with gusto when, for instance, you'd just agreed to a third helping of food, "Like Mrs. Trefusis, who never refuses".
What Mrs Trefusis never refused was passion. You can read about her great love story with Vita Sackville-West (famed for having been immortalised by Virginia Woolf in Orlando) in the book Vita's son Nigel Nicolson wrote about his parents called Portrait of a marriage. It lasted from 1918 to 1921, three exalted years during which the lovers had no scruples about exhibiting their affair, going dining and dancing in London and Paris, Vita dressed as a soldier named "Julian" and Violet as Julian's girlfriend "Lushka". Later there were other lovers, such as Winnaretta Singer, heiress to the Singer sewing machine fortune and wife of the homosexual Prince Edmond de Polignac, who introduced Violet to the Parisian beau-monde.
Mrs. Trefusis called her memoirs, which were published in 1952, Don't look round. The Times Literary Supplement called the book "unreliable"; while on her part, Nancy Mitford, who had run with the same London-Paris-Florence crowd, suggested a better title would have been Here lies Mrs. Trefusis.
You can read Brian Boyd's introduction to Speak, Memory on the Random House website