Helen DeWitt, the wonderful writer who blogs at paperpools, has an intriguing idea in her post mute inglorious Nabokovs: spend a few hours introducing people to three different languages, just enough to read a few lines by a great writer in each (her examples are Italian and Calvino, Greek and Homer, and Arabic and Ibn Rushd). Her post title is explained thus:
Nabokov was taught English and French from an early age; this early exposure to languages other than his mother tongue seems to have been important in his formation as a writer. In Speak, Memory he talks about the entertainment offered by working through a little grammar book, in which the student started on simple sentences, could look forward to ever more exciting grammatical features, and at the end was able to read a simple story. He remembers sitting inside while a servant swept the gravel walk outside; he wonders whether she might not have been happier sweeping the walk than driving a tractor in later years under the Soviets.
That last sentence is a reminder of Nabokov’s least appealing side, the smug aristo; Helen responds: “But perhaps she was a mute inglorious Nabokov. Perhaps the servant, too, had gifts which would have benefited from reading an introduction to English culminating in an adventure for little Ned.”
Incidentally, she ends by welcoming “visitors from Guardian Books Blog”; out of curiosity, I visited that fine site and discovered that that in their latest post they link to both Helen and me (“The slightly disappointing subject of the sentence: ‘It’s the only thing I read on the train apart from the Talmud‘”). So: Hello visitors from Guardian Books Blog!