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.”