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Nabokov: the Prose and Poetry of It All

Readers of Lolita may recall that Humbert Humbert, who delivers himself of the contents of the book while in confinement awaiting trial for murder, is something of a poet. “You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style,” he says, and you can count on this particular murderer for scattered flights of verse as well. His are “occassional poems” in the most invidious sense possible. His muse materializes only intermittently, and when she does it is in response to situations of a kind that do not, as a rule, give rise to la poèsie pure—or whatever we may call the opposite of occasional poetry.

Hoping, for example, to calm his restless Lolita he improvises a bit of what he tells her is “nonsense verse.”

The Squirl and his Squirrel, the Rabs and their Rabbits
Have certain obscure and peculiar habits.
Male humming birds make the most exquisite rockets.
The snake when he walks holds his hands in his pockets.

Nonsense is correct,” Lolita says mockingly perhaps guessing that Humbert’s weakness for nymphets like herself lends the poem a certain “obscure and peculiar” sense which she would prefer to ignore. As poet, Humbert succeeds no better with Rita, a temporary replacement for Lolita, and one who knows her time is short. He tries to stop her accusing sobs by extemporizing some verses about a certain “blue hotel” they have just motored past. “Why blue when it is white, why blue for heaven’s sake?” she protests and starts crying again. Humbert’s lengthiest effort is a ballad, full of literary allusions, double-entendres, and straight French, with which he writes to console himself for the loss of Lolita. One stanza reads:

Happy, happy is gnarled McFate
Touring the States with a child wife,
Plowing his Molly in every State
Among the protected wild life.

Humbert, like other of Nabokov’s creatures, foreign or nutty or both, has a flair for knowing what is going on in the American literary world, such as that “light verse” has been made respectable by Mr.W.H. Auden and that poetry of any weight lends itself nicely to depth analysis. His own analyst, Humbert says of his ballad: “It is really a maniac’s masterpiece. The stark, stiff, lurid rhymes correspond very exactly to certain perspectiveless and terrible landscapes and figures…as drawn by psychopaths in tests devised by astute trainers.” He is aware, too, of that American specialty, the belief that poetry inheres in phenomena themselves rather than in the poet, and that to write a poem one need only catalogue phenomena in impressive numbers. So he pounces upon a mimeographed list of names of Lolita’s classmates, surnames and first names intriguingly reversed for the purpose of alphabetization (e.g., FANTAZIA, STELLA; FLASHMAN, IRVING; HAZE, DOLORES). “A poem, a poem, forsooth!” he exclaims, and goes on to imagine the occupants of the classroom: “Adorable Stella, who has let strangers touch her; Irving, for whom I am sorry, etc.” Nor does Humbert’s muse desert him on the ultimate occasion. When, gun in hand, he delivers sentence on his rival Clare Quilty prior to shooting him dead, he does so in the accents of a certain poem, well known to the literary world, about sin, penitence, and death:

Because you took advantage of a sinner
because you took advantage
because you took
because you took advantage of my disadvantage…

That’s damned good,” says Quilty, providing. Humbert with an approving, if captive, audience at last.

For Humbert, the uses of poetry are rather low. He might even be said to prostitute his muse. The uses of poetry for Nabokov are high, though not so high as to rule out the efforts of those who are compelled into song by mixed motives, including lust, revenge, and the hope of a check from The New Yorker. Like that other master of prose, James Joyce, Nabokov aspired in youth to be a poet. More than Joyce did, he has continued to write verse and to fill his novels with reflections on poetry. The reflections are of major importance; the verse—the verse in English at least—is minor, as minor as verse could be and still remain interesting. His forthcoming translation of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin will conceivably stand as his main poetic achievement. For years he has been going on about Pushkin (“the gold reserve of our literature”), meanwhile preparing us for the magnum opus by translating other Russian poets. He brings to poetry and the informal criticism of poetry the same spirit of connoisseurship which fills his work as a whole—an impassioned connoisseurship that unites the naturalist in him with the literary artist and does duty, it would seem, for doctrine. He has a mind too rich to be impoverished by ideas. Before 1939, when he came to live in the United States and started publishing in English, he contributed a number of poems to Russian émigré periodicals in Europe. Between 1943 and 1957 he wrote the fourteen poems which, described as “his complete poetic works in English,” were collected in a miniature volume succinctly entitled Poems (1959). Pale Fire, his most recent novel in English (1962), consists of a long poem, or quasi-poem, ostensibly written by an American poet, and of lengthy notes ostensibly supplied by a European-born editor.

The last novel Nabokov wrote in Russian has lately come out in English—authentic Nabokovian English. The Gift is a delightful novel. It is also invaluable for what it tells us about its author’s relation to poetry and to prose, in the past as, I venture, at present. With The Gift as a main text, let us inquire into those relations, to the extent that we can do so in short space and with no knowledge of Russian.

The Gift has been widely and pleasantly reviewed during the months since it appeared. So far as I am aware, however, no one has pointed out that the book is a sort of hail and farewell to the poetic muse considered as a full time companion. A young poet formidably named Fyodor Godunov-Cherdyntsev is the hero. (One of The Gift‘s best reviewers, Mr. Stanley Edgar Hyman, tells us this was Nabokov’s own pen name as a poet—he signed his novels V. Sirin.) An émigré Russian who has forfeited much to the Bolsheviks—a country estate, a St. Petersburg town house, probably a father, possibly a future as a native writer, Fyodor lives an exile’s desultory life in Berlin, moving from furnished room to furnished room, giving stupid Germans reluctant Russian lessons, writing verses, imagining the fine reviews his recently published book of poems will get, recalling his Russian childhood, mingling diffidently with his quarrelsome fellow exiles, losing his keys, getting his clothes stolen at the Grünewald swimming lake. His life is almost as unreal as the phenomenon we find him scrutinizing on the novel’s first page: a moving van with “the name of the moving company in yard-high blue letters, each of which (including a square dot) was shaded laterally with black paint—a dishonest attempt to climb into the next dimension.” Fyodor seeks to climb into the next dimension by the frail but not dishonest ladder of poetry alone. True, he has a distinct “gift” for it, a charming craze for words, and a capacity for hallucination which verges on secular mysticism. The first chapter is, among other things, a little anthology of his poems. They are about things remembered from his childhood in Russia.

My ball has rolled under Nurse’s commode.
On the floor a candle
Tugs at the ends of the shadows
This way and that, but the ball is gone…

Knocked from its hiding place by a poker, the ball “Crosses the whole room and promptly goes under/The impregnable sofa.” The long line nicely reproduces the effect of the ball’s trip across the room. But the ball remains lost.

As the novel unfolds, we see Fyodor’s situation—which resembles the ball’s—reflected back at him in various ways by people around him. There is the tragedy (or tragic farce) of the young poet Yasha, a recent suicide, whose hopeless attachment to a German youth of the blond and blue-eyed type forms, incidentally, a grim parody of Thomas Mann. There is the pure farce of Mr. Busch, a Latvian with pretensions to poetry. Before an audience choking with stifled laughter, he reads his “new, philosophical tragedy.” It is Faust out of Brand out of Busch, and includes the following conversation in a “Street of Sin”:

FIRST PROSTITUTE

All is water. That is what my client Phales* says.

SECOND PROSTITUTE

All is air, young Anaximines told me.

THIRD PROSTITUTE

All is number. My bald Pythagoras cannot be wrong.

FOURTH PROSTITUTE

Heracles* caresses me whispering “All is fire.”

LONE COMPANION (enters)

All is fate.

There is no great poetry without parody,” Fyodor explains; and in The Gift the parodies tend to be better than the poems. So Fyodor begins to feel that he will eventually want “to speak in quite another way, not in miniature verse with charms and chimes, but in very, very different manly words…” Indeed, during an imaginary conversation with an older poet he respects, he hears the man say: “By the way, I’ve read your very remarkable volume of poems. Actually, of course, they are but models of your future novels.” He stops trying to recapture his own childhood and undertakes to recreate in words, first the final days of his beloved father, a celebrated naturalist who has vanished on a scientific expedition to Asia, the victim of an accident or of the Bolsheviks; second, the life of Chernyshevski, the celebrated social critic of the 1860’s, father of Russian utilitarianism, Lenin’s mentor. For these projects, Fyodor abandons verse, wooing instead “the Muse of Russian prose-rhythms.” His assault on Chernyshevski’s crude version of the liberal imagination strangely foreshadows the assault that Proust, at the start of his career as a serious writer, made for similar reasons on Sainte-Beuve. But Contre Sainte-Beuve (which, incidentally, is of recent discovery and could not therefore have been in Nabokov’s mind during the years 1935-37 when The Gift was written) is the tirade of tyro when compared to Nabokov-Fyodor’s explosive yet touching portrait of Chernyshevski. Rejected by a publisher as “a syringe of sulphuric acid,” the portrait is really part of Fyodor’s attempt to contemplate Russian history without nostalgia—that nostalgia, which, in Nabokov’s view, so often ends in paranoia. “Why,” he asks, “had everything in Russia become so shoddy, so crabbed and gray, how could she have become so befooled and befuddled? Or had the old ‘urge toward the light’ concealed a fatal flaw, which in the course of progress toward the objective had grown more and more evident, until it was revealed that this ‘light’ was burning in the window of a prison overseer, and that was all?” But Fyodor’s attempt to climb into the next dimension depends on other things than writing. He must unite himself, as he does after many false steps, with a pretty, intelligent, hardworking girl who loves him and his poems, her name being Zina Mertz. Zina embodies, along with a poetic sensibility, the advantages of good prose. Is this putting it too neatly? The novel itself has a rather pat way of making its points, a somewhat mechanical way of contriving its games of reality and appearance. After all, The Gift is a comparatively early work. In most respects, though, the mature Nabokov is in command. Fyodor and Zina meet in a setting that is prosaic with a vengeance. It is one of those superlatively dreary interiors, epitomized by the communal bathroom and the communal bar of soap with the single hair in it, which Nabokov loves to swoop down on, whether in Berlin or the U.S.A., from the high-wire of fantasy. This feeling for the commonplace at its commonest shows that his affinity with Joyce equals his affinity (more obvious in The Gift) with Proust. Fyodor writes a poem addressed to Zina but printed in prose. “Look at that street—it runs to China straight, and yonder star above the Volga glows!” Thus, in a fashion, the man and the woman, the exile and his homeland, the poet and the prose writer come together.

Need we conclude that Nabokov has “sacrificed” poetry to prose? I doubt it. The English poems, all but two of them first printed in The New Yorker, are, it is true, of a kind called “lapidary.” Nevertheless, as Mr. Nathaniel Reicheck has suggested, “the poet goes beyond the limits of his art without violating its canon. This enlargement of a traditional form is made possible by his campaign to re-design the English language. His prosody is a unique and subtle parody of the original.” This, again, may be overstating things, but not by much. The English poems do have a peculiar small excellence: perfect lucidity, precise wit, the glow of a lighted candle cupped in an expert hand against the windy verse roundabout. “A Literary Dinner” is Charles Addams glorified. The poem turns on a misunderstanding such as might occur between a hostess whose enunciation was unclear and a foreign guest whose ear was imperfectly tuned to slurred English. “I want you, she murmured, to eat Dr. James.” And so, amid dull talk at the table, he does eat Dr. James.

All was good and well-cooked, but the tastiest part
was his nut-flavored, crisp cerebellum lum. The heart
resembled a shiny brown date,
and I stowed all his studs on the edge of my plate.

Such a nice foreign guest, obliging, hungry, and neat. For wit mingled with lyrical delight, “An Evening of Russian Poetry” comes closest to being “great”—besides being a helpful treatise on versification. Referring to the Russian poets’ “passion for expansion,” the lecturer goes on to exemplify it in several asides, by turns paranoiac and nostalgic in mood.

My back is Argus-eyed. I live in danger.
False shadows turn to track me as I pass…

Beyond the seas where I have lost a sceptre
I hear the neighing of my dappled nouns,
soft participles coming down the steps,
treading on leaves, trailing their rustling gowns,
and liquid verbs in ahla and in ili,
Aonian grottoes, nights in the Altal,
black pools of sound with “I”s for water lilies.
The empty glass I touched is tink- ling still,
but now ‘tis covered by a hand and dies…

While writing these verses Nabokov was elaborating the English prose which, somewhat subdued in Sebastian Knight, sometimes out of hand in Bend Sinister, would culminate in the controlled sinuosities of Lolita, the almost paranoid eloquence of Pale Fire. Kinbote’s eloquence, I mean, for the point of the novel, rhetorically speaking, seems to lie in the inflamed yet often beautiful writing of Kinbote’s editorial notes and the paler fires, the intermittent beauties, of John Shade’s poem. Mary McCarthy has said much about the book in her remarkable analysis and panegyric in The New Republic. One need only add a few words on Shade’s poem. Distressed by his daughter’s suicide, the father tries to convey his grief, his thoughts on death in general, in a kind of Popian four-part epistle constructed of the appropriate couplets. But he cannot rise either to Pope’s scarifying realism or to the dashing architectonics of Pope’s verse. Shade starts to quote the great lines from the Essay on Man:

See the blind beggar dance, the cripple sing,
The sot a hero, lunatic a king.

But he breaks the lines midway, adding that “they smack of a heartless age.” The poem has an inner subject that goes unperceived by either Shade or his editor, who imagines the poem is about him and his “lost sceptre,” his living “in danger.” The inner subject is the blindness of Shade’s grief, his helplessness before the extremities of passion and death, the spiritual deformity which was his daughter’s sole inheritance from him but which the singing cripple and the crippled Pope do not share. So the poem maunders along, lovely in spots, penetrating in other spots, now elegiac, now cheery. It clothes itself in a simulacrum of Popian couplets without attaining to the hard antitheses, the decisive pauses, which are the prosodic mirror of Pope’s tougher mind. Shade is a portrait of the poet as rustic American. The rustic American poet could use some of Kinbote’s passion—but instead gets the bullet intended for Kinbote. As so often in our author’s books, it takes two men to make a Nabokovian man—two men who, however, rarely get together. With a writer, if he is a genius, the duality may be made to work for him, just as the Siamese twins in the story, “Scenes from the Life of a Double Monster,” are finally put to work by Uncle Novus. Nabokov has done the same with the poet-novelist in him, made of them a team. Thus he has been able to perfect an English prose medium whose flexibility is adapted to the astonishing range, the endless contradictions, of his nature, of Nature itself. Some of those future novels of which Fyodor’s poems were the models have, we know, already come into being. After the translation of Pushkin’s novel in verse, others may follow.

  1. *

    It is Busch’s fault, not the proofreader’s, that Thales becomes Phales and Heraclitus becomes Heracles.

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