Gennady Barabtarlo, RIP.

Brian Boyd posts on the Vladimir Nabokov Forum about the death of the great Nabokov scholar Gennady Barabtarlo:

Nabokov scholar Gennady Alexandrovich (“Gene”) Barabtarlo died on February 24, aged 70.

Even before the publication of his book Phantom of Fact: A Guide to Nabokov’s Pnin (Ardis, 1989)—still the go-to source for what for many is their favorite Nabokov novel, Nabokovians knew him as early as 1982 for his contributions to The Vladimir Nabokov Research Newsletter (before it became The Nabokovian). He contributed to The Nabokovian in many ways, through notes, through the indexes he volunteered to prepare for the first 30 and then the first 50 issues, and as editor of the Annotations and Queries section from 1994 to 2001. […]

He opposed the publication of The Original of Laura, but when Dmitri Nabokov decided to publish it, Dmitri, knowing the sumptuousness and fastidiousness of Gene’s style in English and Russian, asked him to translate it into Russian. It was the right choice: Gene’s translation occupied the top two spots in the Russian bestseller lists, for the regular and the limited editions, a sales success that far surpassed anything in English or any other languages. […]

Over the years, Gene’s passion for detail and for problem-solving allowed him to crack problems that I am not sure anyone else would have solved: the riddling Mali è trano t’amesti! in Invitation to a Beheading, for instance, which he brilliantly decoded in his next solo book, Aerial View: On Nabokov’s Art and Metaphysics (Berlin: Peter Lang, 1993), as “smert’ mila—èto taina (death is sweet—it’s a secret)” with huge implications for Nabokov’s thought, or another puzzle that proved essential for my own book on Nabokov’s Pale Fire.

At the same time as he scrutinized detail, as in his priceless annotations to Pnin, Gennady Barabtarlo liked the big picture, the deep picture, the aerial view. He followed the theme of Nabokov’s metaphysics throughout his prolific commentaries, not least in the hefty (466pp) Sochinenie Nabokova (Nabokov’s Composition), published in 2011 by Ivan Limbakh, then Russia’s best literary publisher, and short-listed for the Andrey Bely Prize.

He translated all of Nabokov’s stories and a number of his novels into Russian. He edited Nabokov’s dream-diaries, in Insomniac Dreams (2018), and was working on translating it into Russian, with Alla, in his last year. He had already had another long book on Nabokov mapped out before his illness robbed him of the chance of completing it.

His family’s obituary notice is here; we discussed the name Barabtarlo (which means ‘son of the Tarler rabbi’) and his odd preference for using pre-reform orthography here. I thank Steven Lubman for alerting me to the sad news.

Addendum. The wonderful poet Irina Mashinski (at LH in 2005 and 2014) has a Facebook post about her love for Barabtarlo’s translation of Pnin, which for a long time was all she knew him for; she says she didn’t even think of it as a translation, and to this day it is dearer to her than the original:

Намного позже, прочитав и потом перечитывая кусками английский оригинал, я восхищалась и цедила текст его пофразно – читала как литературу, хотя бы и из любимых. Но родным и НЕ-ЛИТЕРАТУРНЫМ Пниным, моим, в большой степени, alter ego (и мне совсем не мешает, что я в этом не одинока и нет у меня ревности к другим пнинолюбам и соответственно моим полудвойникам, хотя и в клуб никакой я входить не хочу) – настоящим и родным был русский барабтарловский пнинский мир, в который входишь с любой страницы и читаешь на ночь хотя бы и несколько абзацев – хотя иногда и читать-то не нужно, потому многие части знаешь наизусть и лишь подтверждаешь и уточняешь уже находящееся у тебя в голове, как читаешь любимого поэта – по стихотворению или даже фрагменту его – и это примиряет с каким хочешь паршивым днем и легко выпрямляет его.

Much later, having read and then reread the English original, I was captivated and muttered the text sentence by sentence — I read it as literature, even if as much-loved literature. But my own Pnin, intimate and non-literary, to a great extent my alter ego (and it doesn’t bother me at all that I am not alone in this, and I am not jealous of other Pninophiles, my half-doubles, though I don’t want to enter any clubs) — the real Pnin world, intimately mine, was Barabtarlo’s Russian one, which you can enter from any page and read at least a few paragraphs of at bedtime — though sometimes you don’t even need to read it, because you know so many places by heart and you just confirm and clarify what’s already in your head, as you read a favorite poet, a poem or fragment at a time, and it reconciles you to even the lousiest day and makes it a little straighter.

Now I want to read that translation.

Further addendum: Muireann Maguire quotes “a touching obituary from Olga Voronina” in a Facebook post.


  1. I’m surprised the Nabokov LiveJournal (in Russian) hasn’t posted about this, but they don’t seem to update very often.

  2. Prediction: this thread will turn into a discussion of his last name. Or at least I hope it does.

  3. No, for that you want this thread, where it is exhaustively discussed.

  4. Christopher Culver says

    Phantom of Fact: A Guide to Nabokov’s Pnin

    I had no idea that Barabtarlo’s book even existed, or that people felt Pnin – one of Nabokov’s most straightforward novels – needed a guide. Is there some vast amount of allusion in Pnin that I missed? Well, I guess I’ll have to re-read the novel and get ahold of Barabtarlo’s book.

  5. I’m pretty much sure there are vast amounts of allusion in pretty much everything Nabokov wrote, though it’s more subterranean in the earlier novels. From Ada on he let it all hang out.

  6. Wow. You were not lost in the Russian syntax of Mashinski. Respect!

  7. Oh man, that’s right. How could I forget?

  8. Christopher Culver:
    I’d never heard of the book either, and decided I wanted a copy before even reading these comments. Unfortunately, the single copy on ABE is going for $4,000, and the single copy on Amazon is priced (by a different seller) at $5,001. I’m guessing that second dealer doesn’t actually have a copy, and is planning to buy the $4,000 copy and sell it for $5,001 if anyone out there with more money than sense fails to check ABE before ordering it through Amazon.

    And yes, Pnin is one of my favorite books, along with The Secret Agent (Conrad), Antigua, Penny, Puce (Robert Graves) and The British Museum is Falling Down (David Lodge) – I can jump in on any page. Plus, I love commentaries.

  9. Mali è trano t’amesti!

    Alongside Barabtarlo’s permutation, Omry Ronen lists (in Nabokov and Goethe) two imprecise and apparently deceptive ones: material’no tam est’ (the grave accent morphs into a second apostrophe) and a telo temnitsa mira (both the accent and the apostrophe are gone). I don’t know who was the first to suggest these anagrams.

    Barabtarlo published at least one article on Pnin in Russian. It’s available for free, can be found by googling/yandexing, and gives a good enough idea of his approach and vision.

  10. I’m surprised the Nabokov LiveJournal (in Russian) hasn’t posted about this, but they don’t seem to update very often.

    It took them less than a year!

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