Justin E. H. Smith (a professor of philosophy with an interest in literature and a good working knowledge of Russian) has an interesting post on “Reading Ada, or Ardor,” from which I will extract the first few paragraphs:
I am only now realizing the extent to which I was indirectly caused to buy into the party line as concerns Vladimir Nabokov. When I say ‘party line’ I mean nothing other than the Soviet Communist Party, which of course took his work to fall entirely outside of anything that might be considered a part of the history of Russian literature. He was a White Russian, an aesthete, and a bit of a pervert. What’s more, he wrote mostly in English. And this was not as when, say, a grudgingly exiled Brodsky makes forays into English; this was a full métamorphose américaine, as he described it at some point. For Nabokov, English had the phonetics and the vocabulary to make it—again, in his words—the most valuable linguistic treasure at his disposition.
So when I was a student of Russian literature Nabokov was certainly not on the list of required reading. They had us reading Sholokhov and Gorky and crap like that just because, at least at the time, the syllabi of American university courses on Russian literature continued to echo the Soviet conception of the canon. So we had the most dreary and predictable sotsrealizm, stuff that may be of interest to the political historian but with absolutely no value as literature, rather than the most talented Russian author of the 20th century, whose language of choice was only one, I think relatively minor, reason for his exclusion.
It strikes me now that in fact Nabokov was drawing more on the richness of the Russian language when he was writing in English than the party-sanctioned authors were when they were writing directly in Russian. Ada, or Ardor, in particular, is a trilingual novel (French being the third, and certainly lesser of the three components), and to say that it was written in English doesn’t really do justice to Nabokov’s project. It was written through English, mostly, but there would be nothing left of the endeavor if the Russian and French vocabulary, along with the interlinguistic jeux de mots that straddle more than one of the three languages, were to be eliminated. It is through English, but it is about the way different natural languages connect up or fail to connect up with one another. It is about the way language limits expression, and it is an attempt to push through those limits.
His first point resonated strongly with me; I too, as a Russian major (forty years ago), was taught modern Russian literature in Soviet terms—not that my teachers were communists (I don’t recall any explicit politics coming up in class), but the authors we read were Soviet authors, and emigré literature might as well not have existed. That’s one of the more bizarre aspects of Cold War academia; you’d think in the Land of the Free, burning to liberate the Captive Nations, they would have emphasized the plucky writers striving to preserve their culture and language against the onslaughts first of Bolshevism and then of Nazism, but apparently it was more important to Know Your Enemy; anyway, the emigrés were losers, and America doesn’t like losers. The truly bizarre thing is that I loved Nabokov, bought and read Ada as soon as it came out, and appreciated all the Russian allusions as best I could with my limited Russian, and yet it never occurred to me to think of Nabokov as a Russian author. Did I even know that he had written books in Russian? As far as I can remember, I thought of him as an American author with a Russian background, much as Saroyan was an American author with an Armenian background. Now I think of him as a Russian author who was forced by fate (and his own psychology) to give up his native language, and I value his Russian writing even more highly than his novels in English. Nabokov took the evils of his century and made glorious language games of them, and it is lucky for us all that he was able to play his games in several languages at once.
I suspect Smith’s list of required reading was much like mine; Sholokhov and Gorky are certainly not “crap,” but it’s understandable that they might seem like that when viewed from the perspective of Nabokov (who despised pretty much all Soviet authors aside from Olesha). It’s unfair to stack anyone up against the twentieth century’s master of literary prose, but how can you help it when you’re under his spell? At any rate, I wish American students of the language had been exposed to his luminous Russian; I know it would have made me a more diligent student.
As for Ada, I am very much looking forward to rereading it now that I have a much deeper knowledge of both the Russian language and its literary tradition; it’s one of those treats, like Dostoevsky’s longer novels, that I’m putting off so it will taste all the sweeter.
(Via wood s lot.)