Having finished Proust, my wife and I have started reading Speak, Memory at bedtime, and I am reading the corresponding section of the Russian version, Drugie berega [Other shores], afterwards; I want to make a post about the amazing Russian tradition of literary autobiographies and memoirs (and autobiographical novels), but I don’t have time at the moment, so I’ll confine myself to noting that the differences between the Russian and English texts are fascinating and illuminating for understanding Nabokov’s writerly instincts. Here’s a sample from the first section of Chapter Two (he is describing the visions he has before falling asleep, which are not “muscae volitantes—shadows cast upon the retinal rods by motes in the vitreous humor”):

At times, however, my photisms take on a rather soothing flou quality, and then I see—projected, as it were, upon the inside of the eyelid—gray figures walking between beehives, or small black parrots gradually vanishing among mountain snows, or a mauve remoteness melting beyond moving masts.

Here is the Russian:

Но иногда, перед самым забытьем, пухлый пепел падает на краски, и тогда фотизмы мои успокоительно расплываются, кто-то ходит в плаще среди ульев, лиловеют из-за паруса дымчатые острова, валит снег, улетают тяжелые птицы.


But sometimes, before I lapse into drowsy oblivion, plump ashes fall on the colors, and then my photisms spread soothingly, someone walks in a cloak among beehives, smoke-colored islands turn violet beyond a sail, snow falls thickly, heavy birds fly away.

What is basically the same set of images is expressed very differently. And in this instance I think I prefer the Russian; as usual with Nabokov, it is more reader-friendly—the use of the French word flou ‘blurred, out-of-focus, fuzzy’ seems to me ostentatious and self-indulgent (compare his intention of calling the book Speak, Mnemosyne, from which he was dissuaded by his sensible publisher)—and I don’t really believe in those parrots. On the other hand, the English version ends with the “mauve remoteness melting beyond moving masts,” a subtle anticipation of the very end of the book, with its harbor view that includes “a splendid ship’s funnel, showing from behind the clothesline as something in a scrambled picture.” So, as always, it’s good to have them both; binocular vision is preferable to monocular.
Addendum. I just ran across this near the end of II:3 (his mother has been off picking mushrooms in a light rain):
…бисерная морось на зеленовато-бурой шерсти плаща образовывала вокруг нее подобие дымчатого ореола.
[...the beadily-minute drizzle on the greenish-brown wool of her cloak formed around her the likeness of a smoke-colored aureole.]
(English version: “…her small figure cloaked and hooded in greenish-brown wool, on which countless droplets of moisture made a kind of mist all around her.”)
Note that the not-all-that-common words плащ [plashch] ‘cloak’ and дымчатый [dýmchatyi] ‘smoke-colored’ occur in the same order, separated by a similar number of words, as in the photisms quote. Can this possibly be a coincidence? Even in a writer less careful about his word choice than Nabokov, it would seem unlikely; with VV, if it is not deliberate it surely indicates a psychological connection between the visions he sees before sleep and his beloved mycophilic mother.

Here’s an odd comparison from the start of V:5:
“Инеистое дерево и кубовый сугроб убраны безмолвным бутафором.” [The berimed tree and the indigo snowdrift have been removed by a silent property man.]
“The berimed tree and the high snowdrift with its xanthic hole have been removed by a silent property man.”
How did indigo become “xanthic” (‘yellow’), or vice versa?
[The correction of the typo "hold" to "hole"—thanks, J. Del Col!—eliminates the mystery; the yellow is the product of micturation rather than illumination.]
Addendum (May 21, 2008): We’ve finished Speak, Memory (and begun Middlemarch), and I ran across a phrase in the final section of the Russian version, Drugie berega, that nicely contrasts кубовый [kubovyi] ‘indigo’ and кубический [kubicheskii] ‘cubic’: низкая, кубовой окраски, скамья с тисовой, кубической формы, живой изгородью сзади и с боков [nizkaya, kubovoi okraski, skam'ya s tisovoi, kubicheskoi formy, zhivoi izgorod'yu szadi i s bokov] ‘a low bench of indigo tint with a hedge of yew, cubic in form, behind and to the sides’ (‘hedge’ in Russian is literally ‘living fence,’ which I like). The passage reads in Speak, Memory “a low blue bench against a cuboid hedge of yew.”


  1. So was it Nabokov himself who translated it into English? Or his son, or someone else?

  2. I am sorry, but how do you get “indigo” from “кубовый”? If anything, ti should be “angular” to refer to its volume, so his own translation of “high” is adequate. However, “xanthic” doesn’t make sense, I agree.

  3. So was it Nabokov himself who translated it into English?
    He wrote it in English, translated it into Russian, then expanded and rewrote the English version. See the Wikipedia article for details.
    I am sorry, but how do you get “indigo” from “кубовый”?
    Because that’s what it means. It’s not a common meaning, which is why people often get it wrong. Cf. Georges Nivat in The Garland Companion to Nabokov, p. 683: “Even some lexical peculiarities remind us of Bely, such [a]s Nabokov’s use of the rather rare and recherché Russian color adjective ‘kubovyi,’ translated [in Chapter One] as ‘cobalt blue’ (‘indigo’ would be more exact). Vladimir Vladimirovich told me that all translators of [Bely's] Petersburg had misunderstood the adjective as meaning ‘cubic.’” (This last is no longer true, if it ever was; David McDuff gets it right in his translation of the earlier, longer “Sirin” version of Bely’s novel—the later “Berlin” version does not contain the word.)

  4. My bad, it’s such an antiquated meaning, I’ve never heard it that way. In my defense, Ushakov lists it in his dictionary as “adjective of cube” and only 2nd as “indigo” – http://dic.academic.ru/dic.nsf/ushakov/845634

  5. Don’t feel bad—it surprised the hell out of me when I first ran into it, too. (And worsened my pathological need to look everything up in every possible dictionary.)

  6. Maybe indigo became xanthic when the red robes of Burmese monks became saffron? ;-) A sort of creeping yellow peril?

  7. I don’t quite see how this helps, but indigo dye is greenish-yellow and oxidizes blue.
    (Remember when Jenny Balfour-Paul was interviewed in the same show as Robert Vanderplank?)

  8. jamessal says:

    I like the version that begins “But sometimes” a lot better too, though to me it’s not just the French in the other version that’s ostentatious but the whole back-of-the-eyelids trope (which he uses so much more effectively in Lolita). He just doesn’t need it. Much more effective to slide those dreamy images into a grammatical list than to introduce them formally. He probably could have gotten away with those parrots in the second version.

  9. jeff delcol says:

    Could that “xanthic hold” be a typo for “xanthic hole?” As in the apocryphal advice from the Inuit mother to her children,’Never eat the yellow snow.’

  10. Heh.

  11. J. Del Col says:

    I was right; it is a “xanthic hole.” I just checked my copy of the book. On the previous page aid hole iss made by the family’s Great Dane.

  12. J. Del Col says:

    Let’s try that again.
    “On the previous page said hole is made by the family’s Great Dane.”

  13. I’ll fix it; thanks!

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