JEUX DE MAUX.

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.)

Comments

  1. Interesting. That’s exactly what unsettles me about Ada, this sharp feeling of Nabokov’s gift in the mother tongue being betrayed, even prostituted. Great languages are like wonderful women, you may fall in love with many … but playing with several simultaneously, that’s fraught with moral risks.
    For a long time, I read middle stanzas of this must-read Nabokov-Sirin’s verse with a degree of horrified contempt about the author’s eagerness to change one’s language … it’s only recently that I started to realize a more torturous and conflicted feeling there.

  2. Yeah, that’s not eagerness but desperation. I agree, it’s a wonderful poem; I wonder if there’s a decent translation. (The Nabokov of that era could have done a brilliant one; I shudder to think what the puritanical translationist of Onegin would have made of it.)

  3. Ah, to say the truth, I only “recalled” the middle verses then, since there wasn’t any “legal” paper copy to actually “read”. Just heard it once from a stranger on a long-distance train journey eons ago, and memorized sort of selectively. It sure was a surprise to read it in full and discover its very different poignancy.
    But the point is, “поэт в России – больше, чем поэт”; it’s a divine calling no less, with this Seraphim of the desert crossroads who thrusts the burning coal where the prophet’s heart used to beat; and for someone who once named oneself after an omniscient bird of Paradise, there may be no letting go.

  4. Funny how times change. When I was a Russian major 20 years ago we would read and discuss mostly “dissident” and emigre literature. Bely, Zamyatin, Bulgakov, Tsvetayeva, Remizov, Aksyonov and Dovlatov were the big names. To be honest I don’t recall Sirin/Nabokov playing much of a role on the curriculum other than some short stories, but I think more because he was considered difficult for non-native speakers than because he wasn’t Russian. I know “Dar (the gift)” was often mentioned in reverential tones by the more knowing grad students.
    Certainly no one read Gorky or Sholokhov – they were despised by our teachers and the grad students. To this day I have never read either writer. Platonov didn’t have any name recognition in those days either, I only discovered him when I got to Russia.

  5. I read his blog and was intrigued by this post, too. His point of Nabokov’s prose being grounded in Russian resonated with me. That’s the sensation that I got from reading his English works, but couldn’t quite articulate it. I haven’t read Ada, but now it’s moved to the top of my list.
    That’s very interesting that Gorky and Sholokhov were required reading; true, they might be needed for understanding the historical setting, but I agree with JEH Smith about their literary values. LH, I now I have a picture in my head of you plowing through Поднятая Целина and Мать like we had to do in high school – I am sorry.
    I know opinions would differ on this, but I think Nabokov was a very mediocre poet.

  6. PS: visited Prof. Smith’s pages, got intimidated by the стёб (which unfortunately also happens sometimes when I leaf through Ada – unfortunately because I’d think a sublime literary genius wouldn’t waste one’s talent for стёб intimidation … it’s only OK for us mere mortals LOL).
    So I’m afraid to comment on his conjecture about hell and Ada there, and will instead comment here.
    Nabokov just wouldn’t equate “In hell” “в аду” with “into Ada” “в Аду” because these constructs have different syllables stressed. :P

  7. Nabokov just wouldn’t equate “In hell” “в аду” with “into Ada” “в Аду” because these constructs have different syllables stressed.
    That was my reaction too.

  8. I started studying Russian around the same time as Hat. The department, at Michigan, was exceptional for its interest in emigré writers, largely due to the presence of the late Carl Proffer, the Nabokov scholar, whose Ardis press was so important for emigré literature and literature that couldn’t get published in the Soviet Union at the time. I wasn’t a Russian major, just taking some courses, including a tutorial on Gogol with Proffer. Once or twice Brodsky, whose emigration he had recently helped arrange, poked his head in at the end of one of our sessions.
    At the time Proffer’s enthusiasms and critical approach struck me as too purely aesthetic. I was a big fan of Solzhenitsyn. I didn’t read either Nabokov or Brodsky till quite a bit later.

  9. What I particularly like about Ada is that not only is the novel, like its author, trilingual, but in the novel the author’s adopted country, the United States of America, is itself trilingual. What we call Western Canada is part of the U.S. in Antiterra (the world of the novel), a russophone province called Estoty, or “Russian” Estoty, or archaically Russia (the Other Place is called “Tartary”), whereas “French” Estoty, or Canady, corresponds to our Eastern Canada.
    Of course, other languages are spoken under the Stars and Stripes too (from Part 1, Chapter 21):

    Still more amusing was the “message” of a Canadian social worker, Mme de Réan-Fichini, who published her treatise, On Contraceptive Devices, in Kapuskan patois (to spare the blushes of Estotians and United Statians; while instructing hardier fellow-workers in her special field). “Sole sura metoda,” she wrote, “por decevor natura, est por un strong-guy de contino-contino-contino jusque le plesir brimz; et lors, a lultima instanta, svitchera a l’altra gropa [groove]; ma perquoi una femme ardora andor ponderosa ne se retorna kvik enof, la transita e facilitata per positio torovago“; and that term an appended glossary explained in blunt English as “the posture generally adopted in rural communities by all classes, beginning by the country gentry and ending with the lowliest farm
    animals throughout the United Americas from Patagony to Gasp.”

  10. Oops, saved too soon, so I didn’t get to point out the explicitly trilingual nature of grope/gropa/жопа.

  11. Carl Proffer visited one of my classes at Reed College in 1965 or 1966 to talk about “What is to be done?”. About that time Brodsky read there, predumably invited by Proffer.
    Proffer thought that our class was a bunch of brabarians and said so, and he may have been right. I hadn’t known of his importance.

  12. John: the reading you saw must have been a bit later, Brodsky didn’t come over till ’72.
    Proffer, as far as I could tell (not knowing him well) was quite warm to those who shared his enthusiasms and rather aloof to those who didn’t.
    The Kapuskan patois from Ada is quite wonderful; I’ll have to put it on my list too.

  13. I remember growing up in Russia in the early 1980s reading Ada on the subway. It was not exactly a crime at the end of the Brezhnev time, but could have become a complication. Perestroika for me was to see others in Russia read Nabokov. I consider him a Russian writer, and you should savor his Russian prose reading his early work written in Russian and later translated.
    By the way, Nabokov would not have appreciated mentioning Ada together with longer novels by Dostoevsky…

  14. Odd. I was in college in between Hat and Vanya, and we read both “Soviet crap” and “forbidden authors,” including emigres. I had a whole seminar dedicated to Nabokov. I remember in Russia in the late 70s and 80s a friend was astonished that I’d read Nabokov, Bulgakov, Akhmatova, Solzhenitsyn, Brodsky etc etc etc. She said: We can’t read them here. I said: That was our college reading list.

  15. 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.
    I don’t know about Russian majors, but for everyone else Solzhenitsyn was incredibly popular then, and for political (if not directly ‘cold-war’) reasons. The US may not like losers, but the Nobel committee loves them.

  16. Oh, right, we did read Solzhenitsyn, but don’t forget that he had been officially published in the early ’60s—One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich was published in 1962 and “Matryona’s Home” in 1963. The book we were assigned, which I still have, was the handsome Posev collection (2nd ed. 1968).

  17. By the way, Nabokov would not have appreciated mentioning Ada together with longer novels by Dostoevsky…
    Yes, that thought gave me a chuckle as I composed the sentence. Much as I respect Nabokov’s literary judgment, his contempt for Dostoevsky is indefensible other than as an expression of his own psychological prejudice.

  18. I’ve always assumed Nabokov’s hatred of Dostoyevsky was at least partially political. Nabokov had no love for far-right, pan-Slavic nationalists, especially after his father was murdered by one. In Nabokov’s youth, Dostoyevsky was considered a horrid reactionary in the more progressive St Petersburg literary circles, and Vladimir Vladimirovich possibly never lost that prejudice.

  19. Good point, and of course he had to clothe his hatred in literary terms.

  20. marie-lucie says:

    a Canadian social worker, Mme de Réan-Fichini
    I bet you don’t know where that name comes from! (I can’t resist – maybe some Nabokov scholar has ferreted it out).
    This is a “clin d’oeil” to another Russian expatriate author (but for different reasons), Sophie Rostopchine (a daughter of the governor who burned Moscow to save it from Napoleon), who married a French nobleman and became la comtesse de Ségur. The marriage was a disaster, and partly for financial reasons the countess became a prolific author of books for children (especially little girls), based on her own experiences and those of her children and grandchildren. Madame de Réan is the mother of Les petites filles modèles (well-behaved little girls based on her daughters) and Madame Fichini is Sophie’s hated, vulgar stepmother in Les malheurs de Sophie, which is based on her memories of herself as a well-meaning but rambunctious child.

  21. Nabokov discussing Dostoevsky, genius, and other things, from a BBC interview. Very entertaining.

  22. Well, I guess that didn’t work. The URL is http://www.bbc.co.uk/bbcfour/audiointerviews/realmedia/nabokovv/nabokovv1.ram
    You need to be able to play RealAudio files.

  23. I think I fixed the link in your earlier comment; let me know if it doesn’t work.

  24. I bet you don’t know where that name comes from!
    I didn’t, and thanks very much for the explanation.

  25. Yes, the link works now. Thanks!
    I remember N. saying that he always insisted on giving interviews in writing, because he was such a hestitant, unspontaneous speaker. Not when he had a good script, evidently.

  26. marie-lucie says:

    Mme de Réan-Fichini p.s.
    That shows the amazing range of his reading. Did he (or perhaps his mother) have a French governess who introduced him to the comtesse’s works?

  27. J. W. Brewer says:

    marie-lucie: Wikipedia sez that “Mademoiselle O” is a memoir by Vladimir Nabokov about his eccentric Swiss French governess.
    It was first written and published in French in Mesures (vol. 2, no. 2, 1936) and subsequently in English (translated by Nabokov and Hilda Ward) in the The Atlantic Monthly (January 1943). [end wikiquote]
    This memoir subsequently became part of Speak, Memory (possibly in reworked form?), which is where I would have read it.

  28. marie-lucie says:

    THank you, JWB. I don’t know if I can find those sources.
    Perhaps the governess gave him those two best-known works of the comtesse to read, or read them to him, although they are much more appealing to girls’ than boys’ likely interests (eg the minute description of dolls’ wardrobes). But the books might have belonged to his own mother, who could have read them as a child and kept them as an adult, for her future children.
    We had those books at home, and I had never wondered about where they came from, but they looked old-fashioned and well-used, so they had probably belonged to my mother (or even my grandmother). The texts have been kept in print and are still very popular as little girls’ classics.

  29. more appealing to girls’ than boys
    Nevertheless, I believe Speak, Memory says it was his Uncle Ruka who introduced him to the Bibliothèque Rose editions of Les Petites Filles Modèles, Les Vacances and Les Malheurs de Sophie and relates his rediscovery of them many years later.

  30. marie-lucie says:

    MMcM, very interesting! My family’s volumes are indeed from the Bibliothèque Rose, which published books for children.

  31. Gorky was quite a dissident himself, if you go beyond Mat’, and an emigre too. His 20s play, The False Coin, was banned when already in production and stayed suspect up to 1960s.
    I wonder what the current reading lists look like?

  32. J.W. Brewer says:

    “We got it all: Les Malheurs de Sophie, Le Tour du Monde en Quatre Vingts Jours, Le Petit Chose, Les Misérables, Le Comte de Monte Cristo, many others. There she sat, distilling her reading voice from the still prison of her person.” – from Speak, Memory, describing “Mademoiselle.”
    but also a separate passage about Ruka: “and many years later, my moan echoed his, when I rediscovered, in a chance nursery, those same “Bibliotheque Rose” volumes, with their stories about boys and girls who led in France ..”

  33. marie-lucie says:

    All the classics! Somehow I don’t think Le Comte de Monte Cristo was in the Bibliothèque Rose, but the comtesse’s books definitely were.

  34. I’ve always wondered what Nabokov did or would have thought of Vonnegut’s books.
    I doubt Nabokov would have liked Vonnegut’s writing style, but I imagine Nabokov would have appreciated Vonnegut’s imagination.

  35. bruessel says:

    The Bibliothèque Rose still exists. While still publishing a few classics like the Comtesse de Ségur books, it now seems to concentrate on books about TV series and films like Hannah Montana and High School Musical. There is also the Bibliothèque Verte. While originally, Rose was for girls and Verte was for boys, they now say that one is “Humour et Emotion” and the other one “Action et Aventure”.

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