The Russian blogger natabelu has a post reproducing a correspondence carried on in the last years of his life by the wonderful children’s poet, critic, and essayist Korney Chukovsky (whose amazingly sensible book on language I celebrated here and here). I translate here the exchanges concerning Nabokov, which highlight the latter’s least appealing side (the supercilious aristocrat) as well as Chukovsky’s admirable tolerance (the original Russian is below the cut):

Sonya to Chukovsky:
A few days ago Vladimir Vladimirovich [Nabokov] sent me the new, revised edition of his autobiographical reminiscences [Speak, Memory]. As usual, before reading—or rather, rereading—them, I looked in the index for the names of people I knew. Against your name—Chukovsky—the author indicates page 254, see: Korneichuk, and there I read an interesting story about your visit to England in 1916 as one of the members of a special group. He writes the following: “There had been an official banquet presided over by Sir Edward Grey, and a funny interview with George V whom Chukovski, the enfant terrible of the group, insisted on asking if he liked the works of Oscar Wilde—’dze ooarks of OOald.’ The king, who was baffled by the interrogator’s accent, and who, anyway, had never been a voracious reader, neatly countered by inquiring how his guests liked the London fog. Chukovsky used to cite this triumphantly as an example of British cant—tabooing a writer because of his morals.” How interesting! I didn’t know that your interest in literature was so great that you were capable of breaking the rules of court etiquette. I sincerely congratulate you for it. […]
Chukovsky to Sonya:
I received the excerpt from the memoirs of your friend, and I cannot imagine why and what he is mocking. Really, I didn’t have governors as he did, and I learned English on my own. He was a lord [barin], I was a house painter, the son of a laundrywoman, and if in my youth I read Swinburne, Carlyle, Macaulay, Sam Johnson, Henry James, this happiness was a thousand times more difficult for me than for him. What is there here to laugh at? The idea of my having turned to King George at Buckingham Palace with a question about Wilde I consider witty enough, but it’s a complete lie, pure slander. Naturally, it doesn’t keep me from feeling love for many of his works and rejoicing in his literary success; 65 years of literary work have taught me not to bring personal relations into my judgments of works of art, but I am sure that no one who knows me would believe the malicious invention of the famous author. […]
Sonya to Chukovsky:
Dear Kornei Ivanovich,
I find Nabokov’s lie repulsive and am going to write him about it, quoting your words in my letter. Really, to invent, as the French say, complete untruth about a living person—what lack of taste! And it’s not the first time this has happened with him; I’m glad that he wrote to me, because I can’t imagine that anyone [else] would be in a position to check up on his story.
Chukovsky to Sonya:
[…] Concerning Vladimir Vladimirovich: people who have read his memoirs (I have not read them) write to me with amazement and indignation concerning his lines about me: they see them as nearly libelous. But I quickly cooled down, and I think that at that time, in 1915-16, there was something in me that provided fodder for his anecdote. The anecdote itself is an invention, but it is possible that he accurately reflected the disrespectful feeling I had toward those around me. I was very awkward: in gloves with holes, not knowing how to behave in high society—and then I was ignorant, like all newspapermen—an ignoramus despite myself, self-taught, who had to feed a large family with my clumsy writings. Vladimir Vladimirovich’s father, on the other hand, was a man of very high culture. He had a particular game: enumerating all of Dickens’ heroes, almost three hundred names. He engaged in a competition with me. I ran out of steam after the first hundred. We jokingly competed in our knowledge of the novels of Arnold Bennett. Here too he took first place: he named around twenty titles, whereas I had read only eight. I always treated him with respect and lovingly preserve his few letters and friendly notes in Chukokkala [Chukovsky’s album].
Sonya to Chukovsky:
[…]Regarding Nabokov: after I wrote to him about his invention concerning your visit to London with his father, he asked me to tell you that his son grew up on your “Krokodil” and “Moidodyr.” It seems to me that he felt very awkward at having his guilt revealed.

An interesting side note: “Sonya” was not the young woman Chukovsky supposed (and toward whom he developed romantic feelings) but the emigré editor Roman Grinberg (Роман Гринберг), who was afraid that Chukovsky would get in trouble if he were known to be corresponding with a well-known anti-Soviet and so invented Sonya as a safe alter ego.
(Via Anatoly.)

Соня – Чуковскому:
На днях Владимир Владимирович прислал мне новое, исправленное издание своих автобиографических воспоминаний. Как обычно, перед тем как прочесть, вернее – перечесть их, я просмотрела в индексе знакомые мне имена. Против Вашего имени – Чуковский – автор указывает на стр. 254, смотреть: Корнейчук, и там я прочла интересную историю о Вашей поездке в Англию в 1916 году в качестве члена специальной группы. Он сообщает следующее: «Там был официальный банкет под председательством сэра Эдварда Грея и забавное интервью с королем Георгом V, у которого Чуковский, enfant terrible группы, добивался узнать, нравятся ли ему произведения Оскара Уайльда – «дзи ооаркс оф Ооалд». Король, не отличавшийся любовью к чтению и сбитый с толку акцентом спрашивавшего, ответил в свою очередь вопросом, нравится ли гостю лондонский туман (позже Чуковский торжественно цитировал это как пример английского ханжеского замалчивания писателя из-за аморальности его личной жизни)». Как это занимательно! Я не знала, что Ваш интерес к литературе так велик, что Вы были способны взрывать правила дворцового этикета. Искренние мои поздравления по этому поводу.

Чуковский – Соне:
Выдержку из воспоминаний Вашего друга я получил, и никак не могу представить себе, зачем и над чем он глумится. Действительно, у меня не было гувернеров, какие были у него, и английский язык я знаю самоучкой. Он был барин, я был маляр, сын прачки, и если я в юности читал Суинберна, Карлейла, Маколея, Сэм. Джонсона, Хенри Джеймса, мне это счастье далось в тысячу раз труднее, чем ему. Над чем же здесь смеяться? Выдумку о том, будто я в Букингэмском дворце обратился к королю Георгу с вопросом об Уайльде – я считаю довольно остроумной, но ведь это явная ложь, клевета. Конечно, это не мешает мне относиться ко многим его произведениям с любовью, радоваться его литературным успехам, – 65 лет литературной работы приучили меня не вносить личных отношений в оценку произведений искусства, но я уверен, что никто из знающих меня не поверит злому вымыслу знаменитого автора.

Соня – Чуковскому:
Дорогой Корней Иванович,
Я нахожу набоковскую ложь отвратительной и собираюсь написать ему об этом, процитировав в своем письме Ваши слова. В самом деле, выдумать, как французы говорят, сплошную неправду о живом человеке – какая безвкусица! И это не первый раз случается с ним; я рада, что он написал это мне, потому что не могу представить, что кто-то в состоянии проверить его историю.
Чуковский – Соне:

Относительно Владимира Владимировича: люди, прочитавшие его мемуары (я не читал их), пишут мне с удивлением, с возмущением по поводу его строк обо мне: видят здесь чуть не пасквиль. Но я вскоре поостыл и думаю, что в то время – в 1915-16 гг. – во мне было очевидно что-то, что дало пищу его анекдоту. Самый анекдот – выдумка, но возможно, что он верно отразил то неуважительное чувство, которое я внушал окружающим. Я был очень нескладен: в дырявых перчатках, неумеющий держаться в высшем обществе – и притом невежда, как все газетные работники, – невежда-поневоле, самоучка, вынужденный кормить огромную семью своим неумелым писанием. Отец же Владимира Владимировича был человек очень высокой культуры. У него была особая игра: перечислять все имена героев Диккенса – чуть ли не триста имен. Он соревновался со мною. Я изнемогал после первой же сотни. Мы в шутку состязались в знании всех романов А. Беннета. Он и здесь оказывался первым: назвал около двух десятков заглавий, я же читал всего восемь. Я всегда относился к нему с уважением и любовно храню его немногие письма и дружеские записи в «Чукоккала».
Соня – Чуковскому:

Относительно Набокова: после того, как я написала ему насчет его выдумки относительно Вашей поездки в Лондон вместе с его отцом, он в ответ просил меня передать Вам, что его сын вырос на Вашем «Крокодиле» и «Мойдодыре». Мне кажется, что он чувствует себя очень неловко, будучи уличенным.


  1. Chukovsky’s house-museum in Peredelkino is delightful, too. In better days my great-grandfather had his dacha nearby, and, I think, knew the Chukoskys well.

  2. Poor guy. And they claim that deceit is only a problem on the internet.

  3. I adore Chukovsky, so thanks for posting this. I agree that his books are sensible, and you can see how sensible he is in this exchange.
    How cool of your great-grandfather to have a dacha in Peredelkino, Slawkenergius! Way back in 1981, my (now ex-) husband and I went to Peredelkino and stood outside the gate of the Chukovsky dacha. It wasn’t a museum then, but we knew that sometimes it was possible to go in and look around. Chukovsky’s grand-daughter came out and invited us in. She showed us around, told us stories, and nearly had us to tea. When we were leaving we asked her why she had come out and why on earth she had invited us in. She said that she had a sense of who was a “friend” just by looking out the window.
    But that was a different time…

  4. Marvelous exchange!
    “Really, to invent, as the French say, complete untruth about a living person—what lack of taste!”
    Does that “as the French say” signal that “what lack of taste” is a wry-‘n’-dry Gallic substitute for a thundering Slavic denunciation of the villain’s moral and spiritual failings that would usually be expected?

  5. When I was reading the original post, I kept thinking that the culprit behind Sonya’s persona would be Nabokov himself.

  6. Well this is certainly fascinating reading, thanks.
    On the British side: Sir Edward Grey (for anyone not familiar) was Foreign Secretary in 1916, the one who made the comment in 1914 about the lights going out all over Europe. It makes you wonder what he was doing in this company during WW1, why wasn’t he busier?

  7. How funny that profound knowledge of Dickens marked one as a man of “very high culture” in pre-Revolutionary Russia. What would Evelyn Waugh have made of that?

  8. I don’t think knowledge of Dickens’ characters made him a man of high culture — I think Chukovsky is using his knowledge as an example of it — showing that he was well-read. And remembered everything he read. Now I know why Nabokov’s exam questions on Russian lit were things like “describe the wallpaper in Kitty’s bedroom.” Okay — I’m joking (sort of).

  9. It’s not about Dickens in particular, I think. When I lived in Hamburg people were always trying to impress me with just that kind of worthless knowledge of English literature. I think it’s a European form of social snobbery — and in England the criterion is European (eg whether you’ve read all of Proust).

  10. Does that “as the French say” signal that “what lack of taste” is a wry-‘n’-dry Gallic substitute for a thundering Slavic denunciation of the villain’s moral and spiritual failings that would usually be expected?
    I wondered about that myself—it’s an odd wording—but I don’t suppose there’s any way of knowing.

  11. or maybe “invent … untruth” is a translation of some delicate French way of saying “lie”?

  12. “as the French say”

    Could it be a calque of “pardon my French”?

  13. I don’t see how; “pardon my French” is a jocular way of apologizing for vulgarity.

  14. because to accuse a literary maitre of having written “complete (!) lies” may be just as impolite, just as big a breach of the decorum as a vulgarity?

  15. I suppose, but it seems very unlikely. Why would Roman Grinberg be calquing a fairly obscure English expression, and if he were, why not translate it directly rather than writing “as the French say”? I don’t think there’s any way of knowing what exactly he meant, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t that. (Incidentally, Grinberg seems to have been pretty much forgotten; this has a good bio, but it’s about all I could find on the internet.)

  16. Agreed. English does seep occasionally, untranslated, into Sonya’s letters, but my quick glance didn’t spot translated Americanisms. BTW – good discussions there about importance of the symbolism of folk etymology / irrelevance of true etymology for the present-day meaning; also a good metaphor about translations surpassing originals – “but would you marry a prettier sister of your true love?”. Yes, and there turns out to be a real Sonya G. in this mystification tale – it was the name of Grinberg’s wife (and the eventual publisher of this correspondence).

  17. Huh! Thanks, that’s really interesting.

  18. Without any real basis, just by the plain sound of it “сплошн[ая] неправд[а] о живом человеке” sound as “Odessa” way to talk (“Хорошую моду себе взял — убивать живых людей” Babel). Jews in Russia were sometimes euphemized as Frenchmen. Certainly, it’s flimsy and I will trade this attempt at explanation for any reasonable real-French expression that might have been in the back of Grinberg’s mind.

  19. inventer

    B. − P. ext.
    1. Imaginer, concevoir. Inventer une excuse, un prétexte.
    2. En partic. Imaginer et donner comme réel, dans le seul but de tromper, quelque chose qui n’existe pas réellement. Inventer un mensonge.

    Paul avait proposé la chose comme une personne découverte en flagrant délit prend un air enjoué et invente une bourde quelconque (Cocteau, Enf. terr.,1929, p. 115):

    Sur votre passé, oui, j’aurais bien aimé inventer quelques calomnies sordides. Mais je me suis aperçu qu’on en savait beaucoup plus que moi. En inventant, je risquais de me mettre en contradiction avec des faits matériels connus, et de me discréditer… Romains, Hommes bonne vol.,1939, p. 173.

    ♦ Absol. Il [Pierre le fou] inventait à mesure; il avait l’air faux (Sartre, Mur,1939, p. 60).
    ♦ Emploi pronom. réfl. indir. Il n’avait pas l’air d’un miché. Mais il n’était certainement plus « du milieu » depuis longtemps. (Il avait parfois besoin de s’inventer des biographies complètes, mais rarement.) (Malraux, Cond. hum.,1933, p. 363).
    − Je n’invente rien. Ce que je dis est vrai. (Dict. xxes.).
    − Ce sont des choses qui ne s’inventent pas. Cela est sûrement vrai. (Dict. xxes.).

    I think this is what he meant

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