Nabokov’s Feat.

I’ve finally finished Nabokov’s 1932 novel Подвиг [The feat], translated by Nabokov & Son as Glory; it took me a couple of weeks longer than it should have because I kept taking nibbles rather than making meals of it. I don’t really know why — it is, of course, well written — but the further I got the grumpier I became, and finally I had to force myself to gobble up the last 50 pages or so. And now I am going to grouse about it. Warning: there will be spoilers, especially because the ending is the only thing that makes it a novel rather than a series of biographical events (many of them taken from the author’s own life: exile from Russia, studies at Cambridge, life in Berlin, extreme estheticism); early reviews complained of its apparently pointless, meandering nature.

You can get a summary of the plot, such as it is, at the Wikipedia article I linked above; the executive summary is that Martin Edelweiss, a Russian émigré who falls in unrequited love with a fellow émigré named Sonya while studying at Cambridge, makes a secret plan to enter the Soviet Union from Latvia. Why does he do this? To impress her? To prove something to himself (as earlier he had forced himself to return to a narrow cliff ledge from which he had nearly fallen to his death)? Who knows? Such non-explanation as there is can be found in the last chapter, during a conversation with his old friend Darwin in Berlin in which he describes his plan before taking the train to Riga to carry it out:

“Yes, of course, it is all quite simple,” said Darwin.

Silence again.

“Only I do not quite see what’s the purpose of it.”

“Give it a little thought, and you will.”

“Some plot against the good old Soviets? Want to see someone? Deliver a secret message, rig up something? I confess that as a boy I rather fancied those gloomy bearded chaps who threw bombs at the troika of the ruthless governor.”

Morosely, Martin shook his head.

“And if you merely want to visit the land of your fathers—although your father was half-Swiss, wasn’t he?—still, if you want to see it so badly, would it not be simpler to obtain a regular Soviet visa and cross the border by train? Don’t want to? Perhaps, after the assassination in that Swiss café, you think you won’t be given a visa? All right, I’ll get you a British passport.”

“What you’re imagining is all wrong,” said Martin, “I expected you’d understand everything at once.”

Darwin folded an arm under his head. He could not make up his mind whether or not Martin was pulling his leg, and if not, what really prompted him to embark on that preposterous undertaking. For a while he puffed on his pipe, then said:

“If, finally, what you are after is just pure risk, there’s no need to travel so far. Let us invent something unusual, something that can be executed right now, right here, without overstepping the windowsill. And then let’s have a bite and go to a music hall.”

Martin remained silent, and his face looked sad.

“This is absurd,” reflected Darwin, “absurd and rather peculiar. Stayed quietly in Cambridge while they had their civil war, and now craves a bullet in the head for spying. Is he trying to mystify me? What an idiotic conversation.”

Martin gave a start, looked at his watch, and got up.

“Look here, stop playing the fool,” said Darwin, smoke pouring profusely from his pipe. “After all, this is scarcely polite. We have not seen each other since Cambridge. Either tell me all, intelligibly, or admit that you were joking, and we’ll talk of other things.”

“I’ve told you all,” said Martin. “All. And now I must go.”

And he does, and the reader is left as bewildered as Darwin, unless that reader is VVN (or his wife Vera, who can be presumed to be an initiate). The thing is that Nabokov mentioned Martin as one of “my favorite creatures, my resplendent characters,” so he clearly did not mean him to be seen as a suicidal nut but rather as someone who found the glory he was seeking. But to accept that, you have to accept either that there is a continuing existence after this earthly one (which Nabokov seems to have believed) or that elegant design is all that really matters (ditto), and I reject both ideas, so I am left holding a bag of odd-smelling air.

Incidentally, a definitely foul-smelling bit is this passage, about a formerly admired Cambridge professor who was totally immersed in things Russian and spoke the language well:

Archibald Moon, however, although in a sense the same, seemed to be different: Martin could not manage to recapture the old enchantment. Moon told him that during the summer he had completed as many as sixteen new pages of his History of Russia, fully sixteen pages; he explained that he was able to accomplish so much because he devoted to work every hour of the long summer day, and as he said it he made with his fingers a gesture representing the ripple and plasticity of every phrase that he had nursed to life; in that gesture Martin seemed to discern something extremely depraved, and to listen to Moon’s rich speech was like chewing thick elastic Turkish Delight powdered with confectioner’s sugar. For the first time Martin felt personally offended by Moon’s treating Russia as an inanimate article of luxury. When he confided this to Darwin, Darwin laughed and nodded, and said that Moon was like that because of his addiction to uranism. This called for closer attention, and after one occasion when Moon without any excuse stroked Martin’s hair with trembling fingers, Martin stopped dropping in, and would noiselessly climb out of his window and down a rainpipe into the lane whenever there came that yearnful, lonesome knock on the door of his room. He nevertheless continued to attend Moon’s lectures, but now in studying Russian literature he endeavored to efface from his hearing Moon’s intonations, which kept pursuing him, especially in the rhythm of verse. He ended by switching to another teacher, grand old Professor Stephens, whose interpretation of Pushkin and Tolstoy was as honest as it was ponderous, and who spoke Russian in gasps and barks with the frequent addition of Serbian and Polish.

“Uranism” is, in the words of the OED, “(Male) homosexuality” (“Now chiefly historical”); of course such homophobia was par for the course at the time, but you would think that a man with a gay brother might have questioned it. At any rate, it’s hard to take today. Here’s an earlier passage in which Moon is still admired, which has some interesting bits on Russian:

Archibald Moon amazed and captivated Martin. His slow Russian speech, from which it had taken him years of patience to weed out the last vestige of English velarity, was smooth, simple, and expressive. His knowledge was distinguished by freshness, precision, and depth. He would read aloud from Russian poets whose very names Martin did not know. Holding down the page with long, slightly trembling fingers, Archibald Moon poured out iambic tetrameters. The room was in penumbra, and the lamplight picked out only the page and Moon’s face, with a pale gloss on the cheekbones, fine creases on the forehead, and translucent pink ears. When he had finished he would compress his thin lips, take off his pince-nez as carefully as if it were a dragonfly, and clean the lenses with chamois cloth. Martin sat on the edge of his armchair with his square black cap on his knees. […]

“By the way, do you know what a grape-transporting cart is called there?” he asked with a toss of his head, and, having ascertained that Martin did not, went on with gusto: “Mozhara, mozhara, sir,” and it was not clear which gave him greater pleasure: that he knew the Crimea better than did Martin, or that he could pronounce the word “sir” according to its Russian pronunciation which rhymes it with “air.” He joyfully informed Martin that the Russian “huligan” came from the name of a gang of Irish robbers, and that Golodai Island was named not after “golod” (hunger) but for an Englishman named Holliday who built a factory there. Once, when, speaking of some ignorant journalist (whom Moon had wrathfully taken to task in the Times), Martin said that the journalist had not replied because he probably sdreyfil (had funked), Moon raised his eyebrows, consulted a dictionary, and asked Martin if by chance he had ever lived in the Volga region. On another occasion, when Martin used the colloquialism ugrobil (“bumped off”), Moon grew angry and shouted that such a word did not and could not exist in Russian. “I’ve heard it, everybody knows it,” Martin said meekly, and was sustained by Sonia, who was sitting on the couch next to Mrs. Zilanov and watching not without curiosity Martin playing the host.

“Russian wordbuilding, the birth of neologisms,” said Moon, suddenly turning to the smiling Darwin, “ended together with Russia, that is, two years ago. Everything subsequent is blatnaya muzïka (thieves’ lingo).”

And in one place the translation delightfully reveals an obscene word decently hidden in the original. In ch. XVIII, the Russian has:

У Вадима была одна постоянная прибаутка, которую он Дарвину с трудом перевел: “Приятно зреть, когда большой медведь ведет под ручку маленькую сучку”, — и на последних словах голос у него становился совсем тонким.

But in Glory we get:

Vadim had one inevitable jingle, with a limerick arrangement of Russian rhymes: Priyátno zret’, kogdá bol’shóy medvéd’ vedyót pod rúchku málen’kuyu súchku, chtob eyó poét’ (What fun to stare when a great big bear walks home arm in arm with a tiny bitch to lay her there).

I have bolded the phrase missing from the Russian, where it would be чтоб ее поеть (and provide the missing rhyme for зреть and медведь), using the most obscene verb in Russian, еть ‘to fuck.’ In the following chapter, we find:

Арчибальд Мун попрощался на первом же углу и, нежно улыбнувшись Вадиму (который за его спиной обычно звал его заборным словцом с дополнением “на колесиках”), удалился, держась очень прямо.

Archibald Moon said good-bye at the very first corner and, with a tender smile for Vadim (who behind his back usually referred to him by an indecent noun supplemented by “on rollers”), glided away, holding himself very erect.

Here the English is as shy as the Russian, but the original phrase is easily recognized as хуй на колёсиках ‘неприятный, нелепый человек [an unpleasant, ridiculous person].’ Of course, хуй ‘cock, prick’ is the most obscene noun in Russian. Naughty, naughty VVN!

Unrelated except that I ran across it in Brian Boyd’s superb biography of Nabokov while researching the novel:

On May 20 [1930, in Prague] he gave a public reading (the beginning of The Eye, “The Aurelian,” some poems) before a crowded and enthusiastic audience in Ičrasek Hall […]

I have been unable to find any Czech name that might have been distorted into the nonexistent “Ičrasek”; any help will be most welcome.


  1. J.W. Brewer says

    FWIW one sometimes finds, in a certain register of Anglophone Eastern Orthodox discourse, “podvig” used as a loanword rather than translated, with the perhaps exoticizing implicature that it has a certain nuance that cannot be easily rendered in English. This sort of podvig is one with a spiritual dimension that may or may not be what is implied by Nabokov’s title. E.g. a whole lecture by a distinguished bishop entitled “The Ascetic Podvig of Living in the World.” Or this excerpt from an English translation of a discussion attributed to the current (not popular in certain circles …) Patriarch of Moscow: ‘Podvig is generally an action taken not for your own sake, but for the sake of something else—an idea, your motherland, or your neighbor. Podvig is an action that brings risks for the one performing it, even to the point of laying down his life. Nevertheless, people perform podvigs, and if we think about what podvizhnichestvo (the performing of podvigs) is, we cannot but ask the question: Is there a place for podvig in the materialistic concept of human life, without at all taking into consideration a higher power or divine presence? The answer is a resounding “no”!’

  2. Evidently Ираска is another form of Йирасек (Алоис?). (example)

  3. I am not sure that Patriarch’s unpopularity in certain circles stems from his employment of etymological confusion, but that is what he does. Podvig now almost exclusively means a heroic act, an act of bravery. But historically and in religious context it meant usually more sustained extraordinary effort, not necessarily involving elevated risk to one’s own safety. More like dedication. And podvizhnichestvo is something like an extraordinary dedication (it sounds like an engraving on a plaque for someone who spent 30 years with an enterprise), but more often than not it meant asceticism.

    The modern meaning is almost certainly what Nabokov had in mind, because, going by our host’s précis, neither a sustained effort, nor asceticism make sense.

  4. зале Ираска

    Thanks so much! So it was the Jirásek Theatre.

  5. Unfortunately it’s definitely not the linked Jirásek Theatre as that one is located in northern Bohemia, far from Prague (it was funny seeing it here, as I grew up there and actually visited this newly reconstructed theatre a few months ago in fact). All in all, there’s about 5 different “Jirásek” theatres all across Czechia.

    However my cursory search in Czech sources did not turn out any mentions of “Jirásek Hall” (‘sál’ in Czech) of any kind in Prague (certainly no building of that name nowadays, possibly one existed in the past).

    The only speculation I can offer, is that since it’s almost certainly tied to the writer Alois Jirásek who died in Prague just two months before Nabokov’s visit and who was buried with grand state funeral, national mourning etc., it’s possible that there were various places around Prague changing their name in his honour at that time, even if just temporarily.

  6. Rats! Thanks for the correction and the possibilities; I guess there’s no way of knowing.

  7. PlasticPaddy says

    From Czech Wikipedia:
    Alois Jirásek vyučoval v letech 1888–1909 na gymnáziu v Žitné ulici. Toto gymnázium získalo v roce 1916 novou budovu v Resslově ulici a od roku 1921 neslo název Jiráskovo gymnázium.
    Could the “hall” have been the school auditorium?

  8. David Marjanović says


    Is that more obscene than the regularized version ебать?

  9. No, just shorter.

  10. Could the “hall” have been the school auditorium?

    It very well could be. But I wasn’t able to verify it in any way – school’s website, nor blind web searches for references of it to either specifically the use of sál for other events under this name or to Nabokov himself yielded any results (not surprising as it’d be obscure detail).
    I’m no expert at local history so I have no clue of how common were such dedications of buildings to still living artists at the time (i.e. if it was the only Prague establishment connected with the name). Nowadays it feels like every other town in Czechia has at least one street or house named after Jirásek – not to mention that there are at least 3 different “Jirásek gymnázium” (i.e. schools) including this one in various Czech cities as well.

    The only possible clue I uncovered was a reference back to VVN’s own writing about his time in Prague. Specifically one local student thesis doing historical research of Nabokov family’s time in Czechoslovakia lists all his visits and activities there, including details about the visit on 20th May 1930 in question. And while it’s quite detailed in describing the circumstances of his arrival and various encounters during stay, it is sadly vague in this particular regard. On the other hand it cites one source which I’m not sure is the same as the one mentioned above by MMcM.

    Thesis itself (in Czech) is here, the visit of 1930 is discussed at least (I just skimmed through it) on pp. 52-54 and 63-64 where our public reading of Соглядатай et al. is referenced directly, including proposed timetable (no mention of the venue though).

    The citation for these parts is: НАБОКОВ, В. Письма к Вере. Санкт-Петербург: Азбука, Азбука-Аттикус, 2019. 704 p., ISBN 978-5-389-16476-5.
    The pages referenced for this visit are cca pp. 174-180, with the reading itself mentioned possibly at p. 179.

    If anyone’s interested there’s a chance to find more fleshed out description over there I guess (or of course in any other editions of his letters to Vera discussing this period of time).

  11. Aha, I have that very edition of his letters to Vera, and on p. 175 (86. 12 мая 1930 г) we find:

    Сегодня вечером идем всей семьей в кинематограф, а завтра я приглашен в «Скит поэтов». Мой вечер 20-го.

    This evening we’re going, the whole family, to the movies, and tomorrow I’m invited to the Skete of Poets. My evening is on the 20th.

    If only we could find where the «Скит» had its meetings!

  12. Page 84 of the thesis Matt links to mentions that the Skete (Poustevna básníků) generally didn’t have a fixed meeting place and tended to move around. It even gives a couple of example locations, but typically not the one we want. It must be Jirásek something though. A random thought, but maybe ‘hall’ was an idiosyncratic translation. ‘Jiráskův dům’ was/is apparently a nickname for the Nový Pachtovský palác -a reference to a famous inhabitant, Arnold Jirásek, himself a distant relative of Alois. No idea if that nickname applied at the time, though.

  13. What a mess! And I agree, “hall” could perfectly well be a nonce designation, not an official name.

  14. J.W. Brewer says

    Hmm. Just as with “podvig,” I know “skete” in English as a very specifically religiously-marked term. But maybe Скит is typically used in Russian with an explicitly religious sense and the extension from a community of monastics to a buncha raffish/dissolute boho literary types was intended jocularly?

  15. Exactly.

  16. Long ago James Wood called Glory “one of the most idea-free novels of its genre” (the Bildungsroman). He had a point.

    My ideas about Nabokov shifted a bit once I became convinced that his idiosyncratic version of the “continuing existence after this earthly one,” his ghosts and so on, Hazel Shade and the Vane sisters, were not just an imaginative conceit but something he really meant. Not that any reader has to go along so far.

  17. I came to the same realization, and found myself put off to some extent — Yeats’s gyres are cockamamie, but you don’t need to accept them to enjoy the poetry, whereas Nabokov makes it hard to accept the story without the baggage. The writing is seductive, but I don’t want to get into bed with his ghosts.

  18. But maybe Скит is typically used in Russian with an explicitly religious sense and the extension from a community of monastics to a buncha raffish/dissolute boho literary types was intended jocularly?

    Yes. I went to Russian national corpus to check myself and found out that they have a “random verse” feature. This is a random verse for скит

    Как Розанов с Леонтьевым ― и жить,
    и умирать, держа в уме друг друга,
    и рядышком в земле одной почить
    в тени скита черниговского ― ну-ка
    попробуйте, ученые орлы,
    так нрав смирять и вы, шоу-голубки,
    так брезгать, а не клянчить похвалы
    у черни, в храме задирая юбки.

    What the?

  19. If Nabokov truly believed in ghosts and some sort of afterlife why did he begin his memoir with the famous quote „ The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness. “

    Did he change as he got older, or was he so enamored of the abyss imagery that he just used it without necessarily believing it?

  20. I’m not sure “common sense tells us” indicates what uncommon VVN believed. It’s a good line, and I suspect that’s what mattered to him.

  21. J.W. Brewer says

    I actually heard the word “podvig” uttered out loud in a sermon last night – at the ancestrally-Albanian parish in Queens although the guest preacher was from the ancestrally-Russian parish in Yonkers. And the word was used, well not pejoratively, but almost. The theme being that we conventionally think of the life of such-and-such saint as a great podvig, in the sense of a heroic struggle against world/flesh/devil (not that he said that trilogy out loud), but maybe we can get a different and better perspective if we view the very same sequence of actions and events not through the podvig lens but simply as a response and/or surrender to divine love.

  22. J.W. Brewer says

    Separately, this is probably the appropriate thread if anyone wants to argue (I personally think it’s not a question with a Single Right Answer) whether the 125th anniversary of Nabokov’s birth is more appropriately observed today or tomorrow. Today’s definitely the 102nd anniversary of Charles Mingus’ birth either way.

  23. David Eddyshaw says

    Naturally there cannot be a “right” answer to the question of Nabokov’s anniversary. The very idea is absurd. If Nabokov had intended to be born on one particular day, he would have made that clear.

  24. J.W. Brewer says

    It’s more that he was (allegedly) born on one particular day as reckoned by a particular calendar then in use in the place of his birth and among most L1 speakers of his L1, but subsequent attempts at translation unavoidably introduce ambiguity into the situation.

  25. as someone with unusual punctuation in some authorized recensions of my name, i stand in (critical) solidarity with VVN’s* decision to be born in a time, place, and condition that requires specialized birthday orthography!

    * should we just call him vivian? or is it funnier to call him gogo?

  26. J.W. Brewer says

    @rozele: Well, which orthography is specialized versus which is merely the default/standard one is often a matter of what or whose perspective is taken to be the default/standard one, innit?

  27. י‫אָ, אַװדאי!

    or if you prefer,
    י‫אָ, אַװאַדע!

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