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Letters: The Strange Case of Nabokov and Wilson

In response to:

The Strange Case of Pushkin and Nabokov from the July 15, 1965 issue

To the Editors:

As Mr. Wilson so justly proclaims in the beginning of “The Strange Case of Pushkin and Nabokov,” we are indeed old friends. I fully share “the warm affection sometimes chilled by exasperation” that he says he feels for me. In the 1940s, during my first decade in America, he was most kind to me in various matters, not necessarily pertaining to his profession. I have always been grateful to him for the tact he showed in refraining from reviewing any of my novels. We have had many exhilarating talks, have exchanged many frank letters. A patient confidant of his long and hopeless infatuation with the Russian language, I have always done my best to explain to him his mistakes of pronunciation, grammar, and interpretation. As late as 1957, at one of our last meetings, we both realized with amused dismay that despite my frequent comments on Russian prosody, he still could not scan Russian verse. Upon being challenged to read Eugene Onegin aloud, he started to do this with great gusto, garbling every second word and turning Pushkin’s iambic line into a kind of spastic anapaest with a lot of jaw-twisting haws and rather endearing little barks that utterly jumbled the rhythm and soon had us both in stitches.

In the present case, however, things have gone a little too far. I greatly regret that Mr. Wilson did not consult me about his perplexities (as he used to do in the past) instead of lurching into print in such a state of glossological disarray. Some time later I plan to publish a complete account of the bizarre views on the art of translation which have been expressed by some critics of my work on Pushkin. Mr. Wilson’s article in The New York Review of Books of July 15, 1965, will then receive all the friendly attention it deserves. The main object of this preliminary note is to undeceive credulous readers who might assume that Mr. Wilson is an expert in Russian linguistics. Here are some of the ghastly blunders he makes in his piece.

1. “Why,” asks Mr. Wilson, “should [Nabokov] call the word netu ‘an old-fashioned and dialect form’ of net. It is in constant colloquial use and what I find one usually gets for an answer when one asks for some book in the Soviet bookstore in New York.”

Mr. Wilson mistakes the common colloquial netu, which means “there is not,” “we do not have it,” etc., for the obsolete netu which he has never heard and which, as I explain in my note, is a form of net in the sense of “not so” (the opposite of “yes”). If Mr. Wilson had continued “All right, but can you get me that book?” and if the shopman had replied “netu” instead of net, only then would my friend’s attempt to enlighten me be not as ludicrous as it is now.

2. “The character…called and pronounced yo—but more like ‘yaw’ than as [N.] says like the ‘yo‘ in ‘yonder’….”

I do not think Mr. Wilson should try to teach me how to pronounce this or any other Russian vowel. The “yaw” sound he suggests is grotesque and quite wrong. It might render, perhaps, the German-Swiss affirmative (“yawyaw”) but has nothing to do with the Russian “yo” pronounced, I repeat, as in “yonder.” I can hear Mr. Wilson (whose accent in Russian I know so well) asking that bookseller for Myawrtvïe Dushi instead of the correct Myortvïe Dushi (Dead Souls).

3. “Vse and vsyo, the former of which is ‘all’ applied to people and the latter ‘all’ applied to things.”

This is a meaningless pronouncement. Vse is merely the plural of ves‘ (masculine), vsya (feminine) and vsyo (neuter). Examples: vse veshchi, “all things,” vse lyudi, “all men,” vsyo naselenie, “all the population”; vse hlopayut, “all applaud,” vsyo hlopaet, “all the audience applauds.” Eto vse ego oshibki? “Are these all his mistakes?” Net, ne vse, “No, not all.”

4. “Pushkin is always shifting these stresses [i.e., “the main stresses in the often so long Russian words”].”

Pushkin does nothing of the kind. We have in Russian a few words that can be, or could be in Pushkin’s day, accented in two different ways, but this has nothing to do with prosody. The “always shifting” is a pathetic, but quite nonsensical, grumble.

5. “What does [N.] mean when he speaks of Pushkin’s ‘addiction to stuss’? This is not an English word, and if he means the Hebrew word for nonsense which has been absorbed into German, it ought to be italicized and capitalized. But even on this assumption it hardly makes sense….”

This is Mr. Wilson’s nonsense, not mine. “Stuss” is the English name of a card game which I discuss at length in my notes on Pushkin’s addiction to gambling. Mr. Wilson should have consulted my notes (and Webster’s dictionary) more carefully.

6. “His poor horse sniffing the snow, attempting a trot, plods through it.”

This is Mr. Wilson showing me how to translate properly ego loshadka, sneg pochuya, pletyotsya rïs’yu kak-nibud‘ (which in my correct literal rendering goes “his naggy, having sensed the snow, shambles at something like a trot”). Mr. Wilson’s version, besides being a gross mistranslation, is an example of careless English. If, however, we resist the unfair temptation of imagining the horse plodding through its own trot (which is rather what Mr. Wilson is trying to do here), and have it plod through the snow, we obtain the inept picture of an unfortunate beast of burden laboriously working its way through that snow, whereas in reality Pushkin’s lines celebrate relief, not effort! The new snow under the sleigh facilitates the horse’s progress and is especially welcome after a long snowless autumn of muddy ruts and reluctant cartwheels.

7. “That [i.e. N.’s translation ‘having sensed’] would be pochuyav, not pochuya [which Mr. Wilson thinks should then be ‘sensing’]. Where is our [i.e., N.’s] scrupulous literalness?”

Right here. Mr. Wilson is unaware that despite the different endings, pochuyav and pochuya happen to be interchangeable, both being past gerunds and both meaning exactly the same thing (“having sensed”). Compare zametiv and zametya, which both mean “having noticed,” or uvidev and uvidya, which both mean “upon seeing.”

Let me stop here. I suggest that Mr. Wilson’s didactic purpose is defeated by the presence of such errors (and there are many more to be listed later), as it is also by the strange tone of his article. Its mixture of pompous aplomb and peevish ignorance is certainly not conducive to a sensible discussion of Pushkin’s language and mine.

Vladimir Nabokov
Montreux, Switzerland

Edmund Wilson replies:

In reply to Mr. Nabokov’s courteous letter, I must acknowledge two errors. I should have said that vsyo was the neuter nominative singular and vse the nominative plural for all three genders, and I ought to have found out that the present gerund may be used in the sense of the past. I think that it is just as well that Mr. Nabokov should be able to tax me with these mistakes, for, in rereading my article, I felt that it sounded more damaging than I had meant it to be, and this has given him a chance to score. As for netu, all the examples given in Dahl seem to be of the current colloquial sense—it seems to be a contraction of netut, “not here”; the Slovar’ Yazyka Pushkina, on the other hand, makes the distinction between this meaning and the one that Nabokov notes. The line between the two is evidently very fine, and in view of the fact that Nabokov is avowedly writing for English-speaking readers interested in Russian, who are likely to have heard the current netu, he might well have explained this difference.

I am glad to be enlightened about stuss, a word which is not included in the O.E.D. (I never use Webster), and I am sorry to have missed the account of it in connection with Pushkin’s gambling, but my attention, as I read the commentary, did occasionally flag a little. Mr. Nabokov misunderstands my statement that Pushkin’s main stresses are “always shifting.” This was not, as he says, a “grumble,” and I did not mean that the same word was always being stressed in different ways. I meant that, in Pushkin’s poetry, the main stresses come at different points in different lines. It was Mr. Nabokov himself who called my attention to this phenomenon. It is, in fact, the main subject of his appendix on prosody, where he tries to show that this principle is also dominant in English verse. He also misunderstands my criticism of his guide to pronunciation. I am not, of course, “trying to teach him” how to pronounce the Russian vowels but complaining of his attempt to describe them in terms of English. It has occurred to me since I wrote, that, in words like lot and not, the English have a vowel sound which we do not, something between our short o and aw, and that Mr. Nabokov’s reason for thinking that stressed Russian φ is the same as the first o in cosmos and that ë sounds like yo in yonder is due to his pronouncing these words in this way; but I am confirmed in my impression that these two sounds are not the same by a professional English linguist who specializes in Russian. In any case, Nabokov’s present advice is quite at variance with that of his book on Gogol, in which he tells us with equal assurance that the name is to be pronounced “Gaw-gol”. I might add that I have found no one who agrees with him that t and d with the soft sign “sound somewhat like ts and dz.” (He says nothing about the soft sign after terminal r in such a word as tsar‘, which, in this connection, is the foreigner’s chief problem.) I am told that this ts effect is a feature of Byelo-Russian. Now, I have heard Mr. Nabokov insist on the superiority of the Petersburg pronunciation to that of Moscow, and I am rather surprised to find him recommending the pronunciation of Minsk.

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