NABOKOV INTERVIEW.

This USA Arts interview with Nabokov was filmed, I believe, in early 1965, since he says he’s still working on the Russian translation of Lolita, which he’d finished by March of that year; its 25 or so minutes are broken up into four parts. He starts off talking about how difficult it is for him to speak extemporaneously, making a comparison to the “beautiful, limpid” speech of his father, “with an aphorism here and a metaphor there … I can’t do it! … I have to write it down laboriously; I don’t think like that.” He complains about the “crude, medieval” Freud; then, after the titles and a quick summary of his biography (the announcer claims he learned English before Russian, which is of course untrue; he once claimed to have learned to read English first, but I’m not sure that can be taken literally either) he reads the start of Lolita in English and then in Russian, and from there on it’s completely absorbing if you care about Nabokov. (We also get to hear him chatting in French with the proprietor of a kiosk.) It ends with him playing chess with his wife (and laughing heartily, as he had earlier when talking about throwing out the index cards he wrote his novels on when they became too overwritten) and comparing writing to composing chess problems, with deception being part of the pleasure in each case. Thanks for the link go to Anatoly (whose commenters point out the oddity of Nabokov’s having such a strong accent in English, considering that he learned it as a child, attended Cambridge, and had spent twenty years in America).

Comments

  1. Лолита, свет моей жизни, огонь моих чресел. Грех мой, душа моя. Ло-ли-та: кончик языка совершает путь в три шажка вниз по нëбу, чтобы на третьем толкнуться о зубы. Ло. Ли. Та.
    Didn’t Julian Barnes somewhere have something to say about Nabokovian phonological missteps in this description of Lolita’s name? Maybe in Flaubert’s Parrot?

  2. “Ich spreche keine Sprach ohne Akzent.” –Henry Kissinger

  3. I see that Brian Boyd regards Barnes’ remark (“Nabokov was wrong – rather surprising, this – about the phonetics of the name Lolita.”) as a repetition of a point made earlier by Christopher Ricks concerning the difference between ‘coarse’ American alveolar dentals and (generalized) European (but also specifically Russian) true dentals. I can’t however, see any interesting differences between what Nabokov describes as ‘crushed’ American ‘l’ and ‘Iberized’ ‘l’ (at least in this particular case), nor am I clear on whether ‘Iberized’ ‘o’ (again, here) differs (much, or at all) in length from ‘long’ American ‘o’. Anyone here know about these things?

  4. I’m not good on phonetics, but it’s interesting that the commenters in Anatoly’s thread were remarking on the odd quality of his Russian l (one of them comparing it to an Indian accent).

  5. Anatoly Vorobey says:

    Hmm, what a pickle. Allow me to venture a different guess: perhaps by the ‘coarse t’ Nabokov is referring to the alveolar flap, that is, he’s warning us not to pronounce the t in Lolita with the sound Americans often use in “better”. The normal [t] is alveolar in both American and British English, so there wouldn’t be anything particularly American to warn against.
    Nabokov’s description does seem to show us a dental, distinctly non-English [t]. Could it be a hint at Humbert’s non-native English?

  6. Anatoly Vorobey says:

    There’s lots of Nabokov to be heard reading his poems, in both English and Russian, at a wonderful blog that digitized a record of Nabokov’s reading. I wrote about this record two years ago, and there’s a more extensive discussion [in Russian only, I'm afraid] of Nabokov’s pronunciation in Russian and English.

  7. Anatoly, do you know any recordings of Marina Tsvetaeva?
    i’ve heard before Gumilev, Bunin and Akhmatova reading their poems, there are online files, but never could find anything by her

  8. John Emerson says:

    Off-topic: Add “The Secret Lives of Trebisch Lincoln” to “The Hermit of Peking” (Sir Edmund Backhouse) and “The Orientalist” (Lev Nussimbaum) in your Orientalist-hoaxer library. Looks good so far.

  9. John Emerson says:

    Off-topic: Add “The Secret Lives of Trebisch Lincoln” to “The Hermit of Peking” (Sir Edmund Backhouse) and “The Orientalist” (Lev Nussimbaum) in your Orientalist-hoaxer library. Looks good so far.

  10. Sili, are there people can switch from correct Swedish to correct Danish to correct Norwegian? Or would someone who knew all three languages just mess everything up?
    Waiting for a response from from Sili, you could wait all day and then three’ll come at the same time. So I asked my wife, because I thought it was a fair question for which I would like an answer too. Neither she nor my daughter could think of anyone, which is amazing, really. Then my wife remembered a Swede we know who learned Finnish to give a series of lectures there and he also speaks semi-norsk (well I can’t really understand him, but on the other hand I’m pretty deaf). I’m sure he knows semi-dansk too, I don’t think he knows Icelandic. He’s the only one we know, name of Lars Vilks. He’s very nice, he founded his own country, Ladonia. He’s currently writing a musical about Islamic fundamentalism (I’ve left a lot of stuff out, obviously).

  11. John Emerson says:

    Kron, I think that it was obvious that I was asking whether there was anyone who hadn’t written a musical about Islamic fundamentalism who could speak Danish, Swedish, and Norwegian. I hate it when I have to spell everything out for people.

  12. John Emerson says:

    Kron, I think that it was obvious that I was asking whether there was anyone who hadn’t written a musical about Islamic fundamentalism who could speak Danish, Swedish, and Norwegian. I hate it when I have to spell everything out for people.

  13. listened

  14. Oh, right. Sorry.

  15. I can’t however, see any interesting differences between what Nabokov describes as ‘crushed’ American ‘l’ and ‘Iberized’ ‘l’ (at least in this particular case), nor am I clear on whether ‘Iberized’ ‘o’ (again, here) differs (much, or at all) in length from ‘long’ American ‘o’. Anyone here know about these things?
    Here is my two cents; a transcript is at the end. The video is down at the moment, but when I listened to it before, it seemed to me Nabokov was talking about three different letters, t and l, which are NOT pronounced the American way and o, which IS pronounced the American way (in English, but not in Russian.)
    In Latin American Spanish, at least, consonants are not aspirated as much as in English–for instance, p is not aspirated at all. With an English word like “attentive”, I would practically spit the “t’s” –they would have an explosive sound. But in Spanish they would be practically swallowed. (When Nabakov describes an American “t” as “coarse”, I don’t think he is talking about the “t” sound in “matter”, which I would pronounce as “madder”–to me that’s more of a dull sound.)
    In English, I pronounce the letter “l” with the width of the tongue smashed against the roof of the mouth, but in Spanish with the tip of the tongue curled upward. This pronunciation of the Spanish ” l” is certainly in keeping with Nabakov’s decription of “the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate [I read this as "forward"] to tap, at three, on the teeth.”
    The “o” in Lolita is what in English we call a “long o”, pronounced like “low” as in “swing low, sweet chariot”. I pronounce “o” the same in Spanish or English, but in Spanish with a shorter duration. In Russian he pronounces it “la”, as in the sixth note of the do-re-mi song. In the video you can hear him plainly pronounce the difference between English “low-lita” and Russian “lah-lita”, with the same crisp consonants.
    From the transcript:

    Shall I read
    three lines of this Russian version? Of course, incredible as
    it may seem, perhaps not everybody remembers the way
    Lolita starts in English. So perhaps I should do the
    first lines in English first. Note that for the necessary
    effect of dreamy tenderness both “l”s and the “t” and indeed
    the whole word should be iberized and not pronounced the
    American way with crushed “l”s, a coarse “t”, and a long “o”:
    “Eolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul.
    Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps
    down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.”
    Now comes the Russian. Here the first syllable of her name
    sounds more like an “ah” sound than an “o” sound, but the rest
    is like Spanish: (Reads in Russian) “Lah-lee-ta, svet moey
    zhizni, ogon’ moih chresel. Greh may, dusha moya.”‘ And so
    on.

  16. David Marjanović says:

    Regarding “three steps down the palate”, I have noticed that my native (southern German) /t d n l/ are all… hm… I think “laminal denti-alveolar” would be the most pedantic description, though only in /t/ and /d/ the tip of the tongue always touches the teeth; in /n/ it’s often a teeny tiny bit behind them, and in /l/ further still, plus /l/ has a small range of places of articulation depending on the surrounding sounds — farther front next to front vowels like i, farther back next to back vowels like o. All of this seems to hold for Russian, too, except for the addition of velarization (by default before back vowels) and palatalization (by default before front vowels, always before i). So I think that’s what’s meant (“back on the alveolar ridge” and “up the palate” being the same thing).
    I’m not aware of any difference between British and American /t/ (both are apical-alveolar and, whenever possible, aspirated), except that the former becomes a glottal stop in many accents, while the latter becomes a flap between vowels and at least some other voiced sounds.

  17. American /t/ …the latter becomes a flap between vowels
    That doesn’t sound quite right to me. What about words like “attentive”–neither of the t’s are flaps or what about “substitute”–same thing. I can’t think of any pronunciation rule to predict this, though.

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