NABOKOV AS POET.

I would in any case recommend Dear Bunny, Dear Volodya: The Nabokov-Wilson Letters, 1940-1971 for its superbly annotated collection of the correspondence of the gifted Wilson with his slightly younger and far greater contemporary Nabokov, but I do so with particular enthusiasm because of its important introduction by Simon Karlinsky. After a useful summary of both writers’ careers up to 1940, when Nabokov arrived in the States and the two men met, Karlinsky discusses with admirable clarity and force the mutual misunderstandings that strained their relationship from the beginning and finally destroyed it in the bad feelings over Wilson’s pugnacious 1965 review of Nabokov’s Eugene Onegin. He goes into Wilson’s delusion that Nabokov was ignorant about politics (he wrote to Nabokov in 1947, in the course of expressing his disappointment with Bend Sinister, “You aren’t good at this kind of subject, which involves questions of politics and social change, because you are totally uninterested in these matters and have never taken the trouble to understand them,” and in 1971 made the astonishing statement that Nabokov “does not even understand how [the Communist regime] works or how it ever came to be. His knowledge of Russia, in fact, is very special, extremely limited”), but what I want to focus on here is the literary misunderstanding. Wilson was, of course, one of the first American critics to write about Russian literature in any depth, and certainly one of the few with an ability to read Russian. As Karlinsky says, “His essays on Turgenev and Tolstoy were based on study of sources available only in the original Russian. In his essay on Tyutchev… Wilson ranged into areas of Russian literature most American critics do not even know exist.”

Yet, for all this wide scope, Wilson took almost no notice of the remarkable Silver Age of the early twentieth century — just as he had avoided when he wrote To the Finland Station looking too closely at the socialist and Marxist groups that opposed Lenin. Wilson was acquainted with D.S. Mirsky’s books on the history of Russian literature, which do that period full justice; but his view of the post-1905 situation had been formed earlier by Leon Trotsky’s Literature and Revolution, a book that cleverly discredits and slanders some of the finest Russian writers of the early twentieth century…
It was precisely in the brilliant literary flowering of that age, which Trotsky had concealed from Wilson, that Nabokov’s art originated — from the experimental prose of Remizov and Bely, from the more traditionalist, but stylistically exquisite prose of Bunin and, even more importantly, from the great and innovative poetry that was then being written by Annensky, Blok, Bely and, later, Mandelstam and Pasternak, among so many others…
When he warned Nabokov, in the first letter to him we have…, to avoid playing with words and making puns…, Wilson could not have been aware that this was less a personal idiosyncrasy of Nabokov’s than an aspect of a widespread trend in the literature of Russian modernism. Interest in paronomasia, in discovering the hitherto unperceived relationships between the semantic and phonetic aspects of speech, pursued not for the purpose of playing with words but for discovering and revealing hidden new meanings, was basic to the prose of Remizov, Bely and other Russian Symbolists. It was even more basic to the poetry of Mayakovsky, Pasternak and Tsvetaeva, the three poets whose work had some of the same roots as Nabokov’s prose and with whom he shared the bent for verbal experimentation that at first puzzled and then delighted readers of his novels written in English.

Like Joyce, he wrote some good poems but his real poetic gift is expressed in the magical sound-web of his prose. I quoted a nice example at the end of this post, and I’ll add a couple more that I’ve noticed while making my way through Drugie beregá.


In Chapter Five, section 5 of Speak, Memory, describing how he has always hated going to sleep and how he clung to the line of light visible from the room of his tutor Mademoiselle and hated it when she stopped reading and turned out the light, Nabokov talks about “imagining paradise as a place where a sleepless neighbor reads an endless book by the light of an eternal candle.” In English it’s a nice image, but look what it becomes in Russian (where it’s in section 6): “Рай – это место, где бессонный сосед читает бесконечную книгу при свете вечной свечи!” [Rai - eto mesto, gde bessonnyi soséd chitayet beskonéchnuyu knigu pri svete vechnoi svechí!] The slight assonance of “eto mesto” gives way to the snaky hiss of “bessonnyi soséd” and the k’s and n’s of “beskonéchnuyu knigu” before the triumphant entanglement of sounds in “svete vechnoi svechí.”
And a few pages earlier, in section 3, is this concentrated clause, almost a tongue-twister: “Втроем пройдя по полупротоптанной тропинке…” [Vtroem proidyá po poluprotóptannoi tropinke...] ‘The three of us passing along a half-beaten path…’ (in Nabokov’s English version: “The three of us followed a fairly easy trail…”). Listen to those tr’s and pr’s—you can hear them tripping proudly along the partly trodden trail, off on a promising trip that will be nipped in the bud by Dmitri.
No wonder it was so hard for him to give up writing in Russian. He wrote to his wife in 1942:

On the way a lightning bolt of undefined inspiration ran right through me, a terrible desire to write, and write in Russian — but it’s impossible. I don’t think anyone who hasn’t experienced these feelings can properly appreciate them, the torment, the tragedy. English in this case is an illusion, ersatz. In my usual condition — busy with butterflies, translations or academic writing — I myself don’t fully register all the grief and bitterness of my situation…

Comments

  1. “Like Joyce, he wrote some good poems”
    Did Joyce write any good poems? Must have eluded me.

  2. I’m fond of “I hear an army charging upon the land,” but I’m thinking primarily of the verses he inserted into his novels—”The Ballad of Persse O’Reilly,” “The Ballad of Joking Jesus,” and so on.

  3. “the verses he inserted into his novels”
    Ah yes, fair enough!

  4. I just looked up The Ballad of Joking Jesus on wikipedia – it says he quoted it from another Irish poet named Gogarty….?

  5. It’s clear that Sinjun Gogarty used to recite a similar poem. It’s not at all clear what the words of that poem may have been, or to what extent Séamus Seoighe rewrote it before using it. But yeah, he didn’t create it ex nihilo.

  6. Nabokov “does not even understand how [the Communist regime] works or how it ever came to be. His knowledge of Russia, in fact, is very special, extremely limited”).
    I don’t know that I disagree or find that astonishing. Certainly Wilson was the last person who had any right to cast stones toward that particular glass house, but Nabokov certainly had a fairly sheltered life in Russia, and his personal Russia bears little resemblance to the Russia most of the Tsar’s subjects knew. For example, I’m alway struck by how little impact, before 1917, the first World War seemed to have on Nabokov and his peers. This was a major, major event with Russians dying by the tens of thousands every month, yet it doesn’t seem to have really impinged on the intelligentsia’s consciousness until far too late. And Nabokov’s Russian is some of the most beautiful prose of the 20th century – but it is an artificial language – if you want to read writing that feels like a language people actually spoke you read Bulgakov, Babel’ or even Platonov.

  7. >
    > …[Wilson] made the astonishing statement that Nabokov “does not even
    > understand how [the Communist regime] works or how it ever came to be.
    > His knowledge of Russia, in fact, is very special, extremely
    > limited”),
    >
    Now, is that statement at all astonishing?
    However…
    > Wilson was acquainted with D.S. Mirsky’s books on the history of
    > Russian literature, which do that period full justice; but his view of
    > the post-1905 situation had been formed earlier by Leon Trotsky’s
    > Literature and Revolution, a book that cleverly discredits and
    > slanders some of the finest Russian writers of the early twentieth
    > century…
    … however, it’s hard to believe that someone mentally strong enough to
    withstand the charm and a sort of charisma characteristic of Nabokov
    would be taken in by Trotsky, of all people? Was the obvious possibility
    of interpreting the Bolsheviks as second-rate doctrinaires completely
    out of touch with both the reality of people’s life and the world of
    culture — true or not, it _was_ an obvious thing to think — totally
    lost on men like that?

  8. Nabokov certainly had a fairly sheltered life in Russia, and his personal Russia bears little resemblance to the Russia most of the Tsar’s subjects knew.
    So? That’s true of everyone; a peasant in the Tambov guberniya had as little understanding of Nabokov’s life as a Petersburg aristo as Nabokov had of peasant life. I’m sure there are many ways of life that you’re unacquainted with. That’s a far cry from saying his “knowledge of Russia, in fact, is very special, extremely limited,” which clearly implies more limited than you would expect of someone in his situation. Wilson wasn’t saying his knowledge was limited because he was an aristo, he was saying it was limited because Nabokov took no interest in the world around him, which is absurd. Nabokov’s father was a politician, and VV heard all sorts of political discussion around the dinner table; he attended the Tenishev School, where he heard more political discussion from his classmates and teachers. Just because he chose not to take part in it doesn’t mean he was unaware of it. He knew far more about how the Communist regime worked and how it came to be than Edmund Wilson could ever hope to.
    For example, I’m always struck by how little impact, before 1917, the first World War seemed to have on Nabokov and his peers.
    Again, so? You can say the same about the Iraq War and most Americans who don’t have relatives in the military. That is an interesting sociological observation, but it has little relevance to a discussion of Nabokov per se.
    Was the obvious possibility of interpreting the Bolsheviks as second-rate doctrinaires completely out of touch with both the reality of people’s life and the world of culture… totally lost on men like that?
    Yes. I was just discussing this with my wife recently: the sad truth is that Americans and Europeans who didn’t accept the prevailing system of politics and economics, in which workers were crushed by bosses with the armed support of governments, were desperate for some example of a society that provided justice for the “little man,” and Soviet Russia was so bright with hope and possibility (in theory, and as presented by propaganda) that they did not want to hear anything that popped their bubble. And I don’t know what you mean by “Trotsky, of all people”; Trotsky was a highly literate man with a capable and wide-ranging mind, who wrote brilliantly about (for example) the Balkan Wars—why wouldn’t he appeal to an intellectual like Wilson?
    And remember that Western ignorance about the reality of Russian life was complete; most Westerners, like Wilson, thought that Russia had basically been a brutal dictatorship from the Middle Ages until the October Revolution, and had not the faintest idea about the civil society that was struggling to emerge between the emancipation of the serfs and the Bolshevik coup. The zemstvos, district courts, and so on, which meant so much to liberals like Nabokov’s father, might never have existed for all Wilson knew. And I might point out that there was more freedom of the press in 1917 Russia, before the coup, than in any Western country, where wartime censorship was stifling.

  9. LH, the peasant in Tambov guberniya probably lived the way 70-80% of the population of Russia lived. Not to romanticize the peasantry, but your typical Russian peasant probably had a far more widely shared feeling for what it means to be “Russian” than Nabokov did. And maybe that is romanticizing too much, but most other writers of Nabokov’s approximate age seem, to me at least, to have been more deeply engaged with Russian life than Nabokov ever was. And WWI and Iraq? No comparison. Really.
    [Nabokov] knew far more about how the Communist regime worked and how it came to be than Edmund Wilson could ever hope to.
    I agree. That’s not my point. My point is that Nabokov knew far less about how the Communist regime worked and how it came to be than most other Russian intellectuals his age (or by the 1950s Polish, German, Hungarian intellectuals etc..). Vladmir Dimitrievich had a truly outstanding political mind, Vladimir Vladimirovich, not so much. But to be fair, I don’t think Nabokov really cared to know much about Communism – he knew it was a disaster, he knew it was a deeply anti-human regime and he seems to have left it at that and mostly spared himself the details. He certainly was never a Milosz or a Milan Kundera type spending his exile dissecting and analyzing the Communist mind.
    Wilson wasn’t saying his knowledge was limited because he was an aristo, he was saying it was limited because Nabokov took no interest in the world around him, which is absurd.
    No, it’s not absurd, it’s probably a completely fair observation from Wilson’s point of view. Nabokov certainly had a deep interest in the physical world and people around him, maybe Nabokov would even say he had an interest in the “real” world and that Wilson was the one who was living with his head in the clouds. But look at it from Wilson’s point of view (which would be the point of view of most intellectuals) – doesn’t Nabokov’s writing suggest to you that Nabokov considered most social and political issues that typical intellectuals find important to be trivial ephemeral farce? I mean Invitation to a Beheading isn’t even subtle on this point. It’s not surprising at all that he and Wilson completely failed to understand each other, especially in the 1950s and 60s when intellectuals were expected as a matter of course to be socially and politically engaged. It really required someone “of the people” like Solzhenitsyn to open Western intellectual eyes, or a Milosz who could explain Communism’s flaws in a language Western intellectuals were used to.
    I feel like you’re creating a false dichotomy – Wilson, gullible naive Western liberal vs. Nabokov, unjustly ignored Russian truth teller. The first part of the proposition is unquestionably true. But just maybe you should allow the possibility that Nabokov was hardly the Russian writer best suited to explaining Russia to the West.

  10. >
    > And I don’t know what you mean by “Trotsky, of all people”;
    >
    I meant, chiefly, his style — that of a Marxist doctrinaire. While
    lively, it is — in the Russian original, at least — somewhat base and
    full of socialistic clichés of the day. The text is typically filled
    with “bloody crimes”, “thunder-clouds of reaction”, “tsarist satraps”,
    etc. T. went on writing about the “reaction” and “crimes” of the “world
    bourgeoisie” in those same terms even after it became abundantly clear
    that the Communists had far outstripped the real and imaginary crimes of
    the previous regimes. Those who do not share one’s point of view are
    either on pay by the bourgeoisie (in just those terms), or foolish, or
    both. And the liveliness of style is of the kind one would meet in Ilf
    and Petrov, who might be actually indebted to Trotsky somewhat — he was
    also very fond of making cheap fun of “intelligencia” and had the same
    taste for arguing with straw men. BTW, there’s a theory that interprets
    both famous novels of Ilf and Petrov in the context of the
    anti-trotskist campaign; whether or not this theory is true, and if they
    were thus genuinely anti-trotskists or desperately trying to atone for
    past sins against the party I can’t say.
    >
    > Trotsky was a highly literate man with a capable and wide-ranging
    > mind, who wrote brilliantly about (for example) the Balkan Wars—why
    > wouldn’t he appeal to an intellectual like Wilson?
    >
    That men like Bertrand Russel could briefly think that “not just evil
    could come out of Soviet Russia” is one thing; believing Trotsky as a
    judge of Russian _culture_, while being a reader of Russian and having
    access to the contemporary immigrant literature, is another. Sadly,
    this makes me think those people would have liked even Hitler, had
    Hitler only happened to share some of their pet peeves…
    BTW, how widely known T.’s Balkan reporting was in the West?

  11. maybe that is romanticizing too much
    It is. Just because there were more peasants than city-dwellers doesn’t make peasants “more Russian”; that’s the kind of narodnichestvo that got people into such ludicrous predicaments in the 1870s. Dividing Russians into “more” and “less” Russian is nonsense, but if one is inclined that way, one could say that a cultured, literate man like Nabokov, who had read and heard about the entire Empire and its history, was more Russian than a peasant from Tambov, who knew only the problems and ways of his particular village/region. Do I have to remind you that many peasants knew little about WWI and didn’t want to go fight the Germans because the Germans weren’t threatening their village, so they had no quarrel with them?
    doesn’t Nabokov’s writing suggest to you that Nabokov considered most social and political issues that typical intellectuals find important to be trivial ephemeral farce?
    We have to be careful when interpreting VV’s remarks about such things, and this is one of the areas in which Karlinsky’s introduction is so good. Nabokov was reacting to the pressure put on artists and intellectuals by the Russian critical establishment before the revolution (not to mention the political establishment after it) to be “socially useful”—people like Belinsky judged artists on the extent to which they represented the people’s struggle for freedom. Nabokov quite properly despised that attitude and its ruinous influence on art, and that’s what he was talking about when he said the kind of things that made Wilson think he had no interest in politics. I too say those things, but I read the paper and know a great deal about politics and history. You can’t judge a butterfly by its protective coloration.
    But just maybe you should allow the possibility that Nabokov was hardly the Russian writer best suited to explaining Russia to the West.
    I didn’t say he was, though I’m not sure who the competition would have been in the 1940s. But he could have explained a great deal to Wilson had Wilson been willing to listen.

  12. paperasse says:

    “Again, so? You can say the same about the Iraq War and most Americans who don’t have relatives in the military. That is an interesting sociological observation, but it has little relevance to a discussion of Nabokov per se.”
    MOST Americans and their connection to the Iraq situation are nothing akin to Nabokov’s priviledged perspective in WWI Russia. It has every relevance to an honest discussion of the continuum of Nabokov’s oeuvres. How easily the descriptivists resort to prescribed tactics when one of their beloved is under scrutiny!

  13. Could you perhaps make an intelligible point instead of confining yourself to insults? I am happy to debate the point, but you give me nothing to debate. And “privileged” Nabokov saw people killed within view of his window in Petrograd; I do not think this is an experience “MOST Americans” have.

  14. paperasse says:

    Yet you still maintain that “it has little relevance to a discussion of Nabokov per se.”?

  15. “Nabokov was reacting to the pressure put on artists and intellectuals by the Russian critical establishment before the revolution (not to mention the political establishment after it) to be ‘socially useful’—people like Belinsky judged artists on the extent to which they represented the people’s struggle for freedom. Nabokov quite properly despised that attitude and its ruinous influence on art, and that’s what he was talking about when he said the kind of things that made Wilson think he had no interest in politics.”
    I think that’s right. Nabokov’s response to Wilson would probably be, “Look, we’ve already been through all this in Russia in the 19th century and look what happened. You want socially useful, politically engaged art, you end up with Chernyshevsky, and who read Chernyshevsky and thought he was wonderful? Lenin. So the result was bad writing AND bad government.”

  16. John Emerson says:

    Musorgsky was also basically a Chernyshevskian at some point during his career, so it was far from a dead loss.

  17. John Emerson says:

    Musorgsky was also basically a Chernyshevskian at some point during his career, so it was far from a dead loss.

  18. Very well said, JCass.

  19. > > But just maybe you should allow the possibility that Nabokov was
    > > hardly the Russian writer best suited to explaining Russia to the
    > > West.
    > >
    > I didn’t say he was, though I’m not sure who the competition would have
    > been in the 1940s. But he could have explained a great deal to Wilson
    > had Wilson been willing to listen.
    Had Wilson been willing to listen, a better candidate would be Mark
    Aldanov, who actually managed to be both of socialistic convictions, an
    erudite and a friend of Nabokov (the latter being probably the hardest
    to achieve). Aldanov also, if memory serves, has been in the US for long
    periods of time during the 40s and 50s. While the views of A. and some
    of his friends didn’t get across always seemed a mystery to me. The
    reproach of not really understanding the Soviet system would be probably
    as just for him as for Nabokov, but he had a complete historic view and
    a convincing theory of what the Bolsheviks really were and were they
    came from, and could, if required, talk to Marxists in their own jargon.

  20. True, and it’s one of the sad and strange aspects of twentieth-century history that almost nobody in the West wanted to listen to the many, many people with personal experience of the Soviet Union who had gotten out and wanted desperately to tell the West about it. The West wanted fantasies, not facts.

  21. You mean almost no prestigious Western intellectuals or journalists wanted to listen. After all, at any given time after 1917 the majority of the population of the West (I assume defined here as just UK, USA and France) viewed the USSR with deep, deep suspicion and dislike. The Catholic Church was consistently vehement in its denunciations of the USSR, as I assume were most Christian churches, except possibly Unitarians. Communists were pretty marginalised in the US and UK even at the height of their influence in the 30s. The question probably should be why in the 20th century was there such a wide gulf in the West between the “intellectual vanguard” and the rest of the population.

  22. Right, it’s the question of the trahison des clercs, and I don’t have a good answer. Why is it so hard for some (many) intellectuals to pay attention to basic human values like life and freedom? Sing them a pretty song and they follow you like rats.

  23. picaraza says:

    I think too much is made of Nabokov’s statements about his aversion to politics.
    Living among the exile community in Germany was very much aware of the reality of life in the Soviet Union and to witness the reality of life under the Nazis.
    Also, Nabokov seemed to me to be surprising sympathetic to Chernyshevsky. Not his prose, but aspects of his politics–opposition to capital punishment I think.
    (Perhaps I am confusing Nabokov with the poet in “The Gift”, but I recall that he had read a lot of Chernyshevsky in the course of writing that novel and found something to like about the man.)
    Anyway, Nabokov and Lenin found different things to admire about him.

  24. No, you’re quite right: Nabokov admired Ch. as a man but thought he was a terrible writer.

  25. What surprises me is that Nabokov first wrote Speak, Memory in English and then translated it into Russian, and yet the Russian version of that sentence you quote is so much more exquisite. Could he have had the sentence in mind in Russian when he was writing the original? Or was it just lucky that it could be translated so beautifully?

  26. Well, it’s more complicated than that. He wrote a shorter version in English (called originally Inconclusive Evidence), reworked it and added to it for the Russian version, then reworked and added to that for the final English version of Speak, Memory. So this particular sentence could have been originally written in Russian and then translated; you’d have to do a detailed comparison of the three versions to find out (and I think a scholar has actually written a book comparing the versions).

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