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The Strange Case of Pushkin and Nabokov

The Russian iambic tetrameter [the meter in which Onegin is written] is a solid, polished, disciplined thing, with rich concentrated meaning and lofty melody fused in an organic entity: It has said in Russian what the pentameter has said in English, and the hexameter in French. Now on the other hand, the English iambic tetrameter is a hesitating, loose, capricious form, always in danger of having its opening semeion chopped off, or of being diluted by a recurrent trimeter, or of developing a cadential lilt. The English form has been instrumental in producing a quantity of admirable short poems but has never achieved anything approaching, either in sheer length or artistic importance, a stanzaic romance comparable to Eugene Onegin.

The commentary, also, to some extent, suffers from being overdone. It is impossible for Nabokov to mention any poem without specifying its stanza form, meter, and rhyme scheme—information which is generally quite useless, since it can give us no real idea of the poem; and he supplies us with more information than we need—one sees the lepidopterist here—about the flora and fauna mentioned in Onegin, to a degree that we are almost surprised that we should not be given the zoölogical data on the bear in Tatyana’s dream. One is grateful to him, however, for identifying, dendrologically, the черëмуха, so much celebrated in Russian literature—it figures very effectively in one of Nabokov’s own Russian poems—but impossible to be visualized by the foreigner, who will have found it defined as “bird cherry.” It is, it seems, the European Padus racemosa, which Mr. Nabokov describes as follows:

The Russian word, with its fluffy and dreamy syllables, admirably suits this beautiful tree, distinguished by its long racemes of flowers, giving the whole of it, when in bloom, a gentle pendulous appearance. A common and popular woodland plant in Russia, it is equally at home among the riverside alders and on the pine barren; its creamy white, musky, Maytime bloom is associated in Russian hearts with the poetical emotions of youth.

This is the Nabokov we know. The Nabokov who bores and fatigues by overaccumulation contrasts with the authentic Nabokov and with the poet he is trying to illuminate. It has always seemed to me that Vladimir Nabokov was one of the Russian writers who, in technique, had most in common with Pushkin. (I turn with relief to this aspect of our marvelously accomplished editor who is perhaps not ideally qualified to be one.) No poet surpasses Pushkin—not even Dante—for the speed, point, and neatness of his narrative. How much ground in how short a space Onegin covers! How compact and yet easy in every stanza! The fairy tale of the Tsar Sultan—one of the great triumphs of style in literature—tells a story in its first eighty lines—too charming to be called “exposition”—and creates the whole situation with which the rest of the poem will be occupied. I first read Pushkin’s Gypsies on a short railroad journey and then, talking about it with a Russian friend who had not reread it for years, discovered that she was surprised to learn that it was not a poem of considerable length. Pushkin has moved so quickly that you feel, in its few pages, that you have spent as much time with the gypsies as the fugitive hero has and have been witnessing a fully developed drama. Now, Nabokov himself can do this. The best of his short stories and novels are masterpieces of swiftness and wit and beautifully concealed calculation. Every detail is both piquant and relevant, and everything fits together. Why, then, should this not be true of his commentary and his two appendices (for the one on Pushkin’s Negro great-grandfather also makes rather heavy weather of Gannibal’s African provenance)? It is as if this sure hand at belles lettres, once resolved to distinguish himself as a scholar, has fallen under an oppressive compulsion to prove himself by piling things up. The truth is that in the Onegin his brightest moments occur when, as in the passage just quoted, the author of Conclusive Evidence slips into a shimmering sentence or performs a sly feat of prestidigitation.

Mr. Nabokov’s most serious failure, however—to try to get all my negatives out of the way—is one of interpretation. He has missed a fundamental point in the central situation. He finds himself unable to account for Evgeni Onegin’s behavior in first giving offense to Lensky by flirting with Olga at the ball and then, when Lensky challenges him to a duel, instead of managing a reconciliation, not merely accepting the challenge, but deliberately shooting first and to kill. Nabokov says that the latter act is “quite out of character.” He does not seem to be aware that Onegin, among his other qualities, is, in his translator’s favorite one-syllable adjective, decidedly злой—that is, nasty, méchant. This note is sharply struck in the opening stanza, when Onegin complains about the slowness in dying of the uncle from whom he is to inherit. This is quite in Evgeni’s character, and so is his provoking Lensky by making advances to his fiancée. You are told, just before this happens, that Evgeni is “secretly laughing.” that he is “approaching the moment of revenge.” What revenge? His revenge on Lensky for being capable of idealism, devoted love, when he himself is so sterile and empty. He has just rejected Tatyana when she offered him her own love, which was so much better worth having than Olga’s. He thinks Lensky a fool yet he envies him. He cannot stand it that Lensky—fed on German romantic literature—should be fired by ecstatic emotion. So, taking a mean advantage—raising slowly, we are told, his pistol, in malignant cold blood—he aims to put out that fire. There are no out-of-character actions in Evgeni Onegin. Nabokov has simply not seen the point.

And now for the positive side. The commentary, if one skips the longueurs, does make very pleasant reading, and it represents an immense amount of labor—labor which the author, in a letter, once described to me as “аховый,” a delightful Russian adjective which means that something makes you say “ach.” This I can well believe. I imagine that nobody else has explored Pushkin’s sources so thoroughly. Mr. Nabokov seems really to have done his best to read everything that Pushkin could possibly have read, and has shown that he took over from poetry and fiction a good many current phrases. He underrates Pushkin’s knowledge of English and quite disregards the evidence. There is a tradition—I have not been able to trace it to its origin—that Pushkin, in the early Twenties, began to read Byron with the young Raevskys, who had an English governess. Mr. Nabokov scoffs at this, but it seems extremely plausible. It was at this time that Pushkin began to write his Byronic tales, The Prisoner of the Caucasus and The Fountain of Bakhchisara. and he could hardly have given them this form if he had not known something of them in the original. And though Nabokov finds the rhyme pattern of the stanza of Onegin occasionally embedded in La Fontaine’s Contes, it would hardly have been possible for Pushkin to have arrived at this stanza—though it is, of course, not identical with Byron’s—if he had not had some firsthand acquaintance with Don Juan. He could certainly not have got this, as Mr. Nabokov seems to suppose, entirely from Pichot’s French prose translation. Nabokov himself notes that Pushkin had English books in his library, but asserts that he could not read them. Of the most important evidence he says nothing at all. The volumes of Pushkin’s notes and miscellaneous papers published by the Soviet government—Tetradi Pushkina and Rukoyu Pushkina—contain many extracts from English writers which Pushkin has copied out in English: passages or whole poems by Byron, Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Barry Cornwall and a quotation from Francis Bacon. Mr. Nabokov does not seem to want to admit that Pushkin’s competence in languages was considerable. These volumes contain passages, poems, and documents in French, German, Italian, Spanish, and Polish, and show that with Hebrew and Arabic he had at least got as far as the alphabets. He was capable of composing Latin epigrams and at the time of his death had been studying Greek. He had transcribed and translated two odes of Sappho.

Nabokov has also studied exhaustively Pushkin’s relations with his Russian predecessors and contemporaries, and there is a good deal of excellent literary criticism. I except from this the literary obiter dicta which are partly the result of Nabokov’s compulsion to give unnecessary information: he cannot mention a book, however obscure, which has influenced or been mentioned by Pushkin or which contains something similar to something in Onegin without inserting his opinion of it; and partly the result of his instinct to take digs at great reputations. In one paragraph, we are told, for example, that a novel by Mme. de Staël is “insipid,” one by Nodier “lurid but not quite negligible,” and that Balzac’s La Femme de Trente ans is a “much overrated vulgar novelette.” Dostoevsky is identified as “a much overrated, sentimental, and Gothic novelist of the time” (what is Gothic about Dostoevsky?); Balzac and Sainte-Beuve as “popular but essentially mediocre writers.” Le Rouge et le Noir, also, is “much overrated,” and Stendhal has a “paltry style” (Stendhal’s unadorned style is as much “a part of his act” as Nabokov’s Fabergé fanciness). Chaikovsky’s Evgeni Onegin is first a “silly,” then a “slapdash” opera—though Nabokov has always declared that he does not like music and knows nothing about it, and the fact that Chaikovsky’s libretto has no more to do with Pushkin’s poem than Gounod’s Faust has with Goethe is of no importance whatever. But when Nabokov is not being merely snide and silly but taking his subject seriously, he gives us excellent little essays—on Derzhavin, on Baratynsky, on Zhukovsky, on Karamzin, and a comparison of the character of Onegin with Benjamin Constant’s Adolphe. Before trying to formulate some definition of what is usually meant by classicism and romanticism, he is good on the inadvisability of trying to deal with literature in terms of literary “schools”:

As happens in zoölogical nomenclature when a string of obsolete, synonymous, or misapplied names keeps following the correct designation of a creature throughout the years, and not only cannot be shaken off, or ignored, or obliterated, within brackets, but actually grows on with time, so in literary history the vague terms “classicism.” “sentimentalism,” “romanticism,” “realism,” and the like straggle on and on, from textbook to textbook. There are teachers and students with square minds who are by nature meant to undergo the fascination of categories. For them, “schools” and “movements” are everything; by painting a group symbol on the brow of mediocrity, they condone their own incomprehension of true genius.

I cannot think of any masterpiece the appreciation of which would be enhanced in any degree or manner by the knowledge that it belonged to this or that school; and conversely, I could name any number of third-rate works that are kept artificially alive for centuries through their being assigned by the schoolman to this or that “movement” in the past.

These concepts are harmful chiefly because they distract the student from direct contact with, and direct delight in, the quiddity of individual artistic achievement (which, after all, alone matters and alone survives); but, moreover, each of them is subject to such a variety of interpretation as to become meaningless in its own field, that of the classification of knowledge. Since, however, these terms exist and keep banging against every cobble over which their tagged victims keep trying to escape the gross identification, we are forced to reckon with them.

In one special department of criticism, Mr. Nabokov is supremely competent. With all the recent combing of literature for masked symbols and significant images, with all the exegesis of texts in which the critic diagrams ideas, philosophical, theological, and political, which can never have entered the author’s head, there has been shown remarkably little sensitivity to the texture and rhythm of writing, to the skill in manipulating language, for the rendering of varied effects. The explanation of such effects, with illustrations from Pope and Milton, used to be part of the apparatus of the “rhetoric” of old-fashioned grammars; but they have lately been so much neglected—really, so little understood, as one can see from the current non-versified “poems” which yet do not have the virtues of well-managed prose—that Edith Sitwell has been foolishly ridiculed for devoting attention to the subject. Mr. Nabokov—although, for the purpose of his “literal” translation of Pushkin, he has condemned himself to wear a hair shirt—has this sensitivity highly developed. He is himself adept at such effects, and is enormously appreciative of his poet’s skill in assonance, alliteration, enjambment, changing the tempo by speeding or retarding, and all sorts of other subtle devices for fitting the language to the matter. Nabokov’s discussion of such achievements seems to me the department of his commentary which is most valuable to the student of Pushkin or to the student of any kind of poetry.

There is, however, also, a good deal of detailed information on the manners, habits, and costumes of the period, and succinct and, I believe, mostly accurate accounts of the main events of Pushkin’s life. Particularly satisfactory I found the extensive discussion of Pushkin’s relations with the Decembrist conspirators. The poet had planned a Tenth Canto, in which he was to make Onegin try to give his futile life an aim and to banish his chagrin from the past by joining the small band of rebels who wanted the Tsar to grant Russia a constitution. To have such a work around, of course, involved a serious risk, and a note on one of Pushkin’s manuscripts shows that at some point he burned it. But fragments of a draft have survived, some of them in cryptogram. Mr. Nabokov—though not telling us, as we should like to know, exactly what this cryptogram was—has minutely examined these fragments, and, in some cases, come to conclusions that differ from those of previous editors. There is also a full discussion of the omitted and unfinished canto on Onegin’s travels, and all variants, first sketches and discarded stanzas—though only in translation—are included. One wishes that Nabokov had omitted certain parts of the appendices and commentary and included Pushkin’s drawings on the margins of his manuscript, of which only descriptions are given.

This Onegin, it is important to mention, has, aside from its instrinsic merits, a special interest as a part of Nabokov’s whole “oeuvre.” The principal theme of his work—from his early novel in Russian Mashenka to the English Pnin, Lolita, and Pale Fire—is the situation, comic and pathetic, full of embarrassment and misunderstanding of the exile who cannot return, and one aspect of this is the case of the man who, like Nabokov, is torn between the culture he has left behind and that to which he is trying to adapt himself. Nabokov, the product in Russia of an English-speaking household, the son of an Anglophile father who led the struggle, as the leader of the “Kadet” party, for a constitutional monarchy in Russia, Nabokov, with his Cambridge education and his extraordinary command of English, had already, in his first English book, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, which still seems to me one of his best, written a parable of the hide-and-seek of his Russian and English personalities. And there is a drama in his Evgeni Onegin which is not Onegin’s drama. It is the drama of Nabokov himself attempting to correlate his English and his Russian sides. As in The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, they continue to elude one another. When he tries to invent a prosody in which both languages will be at home, English poetry will not submit to it; when he tries to translate Onegin “literally,” what he writes is not always really English. On the other hand, he sometimes betrays—in his ignorance or misapprehension of certain matters—that he is not quite at home with Russia. Yet Nabokov’s work, here as elsewhere, has been serving a useful function of interpretation, cross-fertilization. In spite of his queer prejudices, which few people share—such as his utter contempt for Dostoevsky—his sense of beauty and his literary proficiency, his energy which seems never to tire, have made him a cultural live wire which vibrates between us and that Russian past which still provides for the Russian present a vitality that can sometimes inspire it and redeem it from mediocrity.

Finally, it ought to be said that these volumes have been admirably produced. They are not, like so many American books, tastelessly bound and too heavy, with pages of type so wide that the eye finds it an effort to follow the line. The ordinary New York publisher would no doubt have crammed all the material into a single volume which would have been cumbersome to carry around, to travel with, to read in bed. But these volumes, with their narrow measure and their sharp and distinguished type, together with their sky-blue covers and their titles stamped in gold on red, are among the most attractive books that have recently been brought out in this country.

Letters

Translation January 20, 1966

Other Comment August 26, 1965

Other Comment August 26, 1965

Other Comment August 26, 1965

Other Comment August 26, 1965

Other Comment August 26, 1965

Letters: The Strange Case of Nabokov and Wilson August 26, 1965

Other Comment August 26, 1965

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