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The Strange Case of Pushkin and Nabokov

Eugene Onegin Volume IV, v + 316

A Novel in Verse by Alexandr Pushkin, Translated from the Russian, with a commentary, by Vladimir Nabokov
Bollingen Foundation, Volume I, xxvi + 345, Volume II, xvi + 547, Volume III, xvi + 540, pp., $18.50

This production, though in certain ways valuable, is something of a disappointment; and the reviewer, though a personal friend of Mr. Nabokov—for whom he feels a warm affection sometimes chilled by exasperation—and an admirer of much of his work, does not propose to mask his disappointment. Since Mr. Nabokov is in the habit of introducing any job of this kind which he undertakes by an announcement that he is unique and incomparable and that everybody else who has attempted it is an oaf and an ignoramus, incompetent as a linguist and scholar, usually with the implication that he is also a low-class person and a ridiculous personality, Nabokov ought not to complain if the reviewer, though trying not to imitate his bad literary manners, does not hesitate to underline his weaknesses.

Mr. Nabokov, before the publication of his own translation of Evgeni Onegin, took up a good deal of space in these pages to denounce a previous translation by Professor Walter Arndt.* This article—which sounded like nothing so much as one of Marx’s niggling and nagging attacks on someone who had had the temerity to write about economics and to hold different views from Marx’s—dwelt especially on what he regarded as Professor Arndt’s Germanisms and other infelicities of phrasing, without, apparently, being aware of how vulnerable he himself was. Professor Arndt had attempted the tour de force of translating the whole of Onegin into the original iambic tetrameter and rather intricate stanza form. Mr. Nabokov decided that this could not be done with any real fidelity to the meaning and undertook to make a “literal” translation which maintains an iambic base but quite often simply jolts into prose. The results of this have been more disastrous than those of Arndt’s heroic effort. It has produced a bald and awkward language which has nothing in common with Pushkin or with the usual writing of Nabokov. One knows Mr. Nabokov’s virtuosity in juggling with the English language, the prettiness and wit of his verbal inventions. One knows also the perversity of his tricks to startle or stick pins in the reader; and one suspects that his perversity here has been exercised in curbing his brilliance; that—with his sado-masochistic Dostoevskian tendencies so acutely noted by Sartre—he seeks to torture both the reader and himself by flattening Pushkin out and denying to his own powers the scope for their full play.

Aside from this desire both to suffer and make suffer—so important an element in his fiction—the only characteristic Nabokov trait that one recognizes in this uneven and sometimes banal translation is the addiction to rare and unfamiliar words, which, in view of his declared intention to stick so close to the text that his version may be used as a trot, are entirely inappropriate here. It would be more to the point for the student to look up the Russian word than to have to have recourse to the OED for an English word he has never seen and which he will never have occasion to use. To inflict on the reader such words is not really to translate at all, for it is not to write idiomatic and recognizable English. Nabokov’s aberrations in this line are a good deal more objectionable than anything I have found in Arndt. He gives us, for example, rememorating, producement, curvate, habitude, rummers, familistic, gloam, dit, shippon and scrab. All these can be found in the OED, but they are all entirely dictionary words, usually labeled “dialect,” “archaic,” or “obsolete.” Why is “Достойна старых обезьян” rendered as “worthy of old sapajous”? Обезьяна is the ordinary word for monkey. In the case of the common word нега, Nabokov has surpassed himself in oddity. It is true that нега has two distinct nuances: voluptuous languor and simple enjoyment; but, instead of using any of the obvious equivalents, Mr. Nabokov has dug up from the dictionary the rare and obsolete mollitude, a word which his readers can never have encountered but which he uses for the first of these meanings; and for the second he has discovered dulcitude. One wonders how Nabokov would translate the last line of Pushkin’s famous lyric, published after his death, “Пора, мой, друг, пора”…”В обйтель дальную трудов и чистых нег.” “To a faraway haven of work and pure mollitudes”? “dulcitudes”? And what does he mean in the commentary 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. In what way is Pushkin addicted to Stuss? And what can one gather from his statement that someone “had resolved in his lunes to exterminate all the Bourbons”? I find that lunes is an archaic word which may mean “fits of frenzy or lunacy”; but this statement will convey nothing to anyone who has not consulted a fairly comprehensive dictionary.

There are also actual errors of English. I had never seen the word loaden before, and I have found, on looking it up, that it is “Obs. exc. dial,” and that it is not a past participle, as Nabokov makes it: the past participle, it seems, is loadened. The past of dwell is dwelt, not dwelled; dwelled has long been obsolete. “Remind one about me” is hardly English.

If it is a question of picking on Germanisms in Arndt, it is not difficult to find Russianisms in Nabokov. You cannot “listen the sound of the sea” in English; this is a Russianism: in English you have to listen to something.

Buyanov, my mettlesome cousin,
toward our hero leads Tatiana
with Olga…

The natural English here would be and not with. If Tatyana had been telling about doing something with Olga, she would have said “Мы с Ольгой,” meaning “Olga and I,” and I suppose that we have here the same idiom, which Nabokov has translated literally. In the commentary, you find “a not-too-trust-worthy account that a later friend of Pushkin’s…left us,” where the English requires “has left”; but there is only one past tense in Russian where we have three, and Russians often make these mistakes. The handling of French is peculiar. The heroine of La Nouvelle Héloïse is given on one page as Julie and on the next as Julia; and he always speaks of “the monde,” instead of either “the world” or “le monde.” And why “his sauvage nature” when no French word exists in the Russian? As for the classics: his Eol and Zoilus ought to be Aeolus and Zoïlus; and his “automatons and homunculi” ought to be “automata,” etc. And although he quotes Virgil in Latin, his speaking of the eclogues of “the overrated Virgil” as “stale imitations of the idyls of Theocritus” would seem to demonstrate that he cannot have had any very close acquaintance with this poet in the original, since Virgil, unlike Theocritus, is particularly accomplished in those qualities—tight verbal pattern and subtle effects of sound—which Nabokov particularly admires.

And then, there is the unnecessarily clumsy style, which seems deliberately to avoid point and elegance. “The ache of loss chases Tatiana” (as he chooses to spell her)—why not “pursues,” which would at least give a metrical line? “Well, this now makes sense. Do not be cross with me, my soul”—“makes sense” and “my soul” do not go together.

You will agree, my reader,
That very nicely did our pal
act toward melancholy Tatiana…

This is vulgarly phrased: “very nicely,” “our pal,” “act”—and so is “two-three pages.” And surely, from the point of view of style, it was unnecessary for anyone with so fine an ear for words to write:

Although we know that Eugene
had long ceased to like reading,
still, several works
he had exempted from disgrace…

Farewell, pacific sites!
Farewell, secluded refuge!
Shall I see you?

Nabokov translates literally “Увижу ль вас” where the English would be, “Shall I ever see you again?” Such passages sound like the products of those computers which are supposed to translate Russian into English.

Since Mr. Nabokov is the least modest of men, I do not hesitate to urge my own rival claims against him. I once, for the purpose of an essay on Pushkin, made a version of three stanzas of Evgeni Onegin, which Mr. Nabokov is kind enough to include in his notes and to compliment as “well translated.” He italicized, however, words and phrases of which he does not approve. Now, these versions of mine were done, as is sometimes Nabokov’s version, in rhythmic prose with a strong iambic base. I thus aimed to avoid padding, which is the almost inevitable penalty of trying to put Pushkin into English verse and which inevitably adulterates his quality, and which I believe I avoided completely when I later translated the whole of The Bronze Horseman. But in these stanzas from Evgeni Onegin, I have put in a few unimportant words in order to sustain the rhythm—such as “farm girl” for “girl,” “little boys” for “boys”—and Nabokov has pounced upon these. But, aside from them, my departures from the “literal” which have been obelized by Mr. Nabokov (I hope he has to look up that word) were dictated by the desire to do justice to Pushkin in preserving some poetic tone. When I say, for example, that “the caravan of loud-tongued (крикливых) geese stretched (тянулся) toward the south,” it is almost as literally accurate as and a good deal more poetically vivid than Nabokov’s “the caravan of clamorous geese was tending southward.” Again, with the description of the horse becoming aware of the wolf—“Его почуя, конь дорожный / Храпит”—I translated it “Sniffing him, the roadhorse snorts.” Now, the primary meaning of почуять is given by the small Müller-Boyanus dictionary and two others that I have consulted as to scent, to smell. Segal’s larger dictionary gives to scent, smell, hear; to get, have in the wind; Daum and Schenk’s Die Russischen Verben gives simply wittern. The great Russian dictionary of V. I. Dahl gives one of its meanings as нюхать, with an example, which is precisely to the point, “Почуя серого (волк), псы эалились!” “Smelling the gray one, the dogs began to bark.” The Soviet Pushkin Dictionary defines the word as “to feel, to perceive by the senses, principally by the sense of smell.” This word is used three times in Onegin in connection with the behavior of horses. Besides its occurrence in the passage above, we have it when the horses shy at Lensky’s corpse and in the passage describing winter. Nabokov always translates it “sensing.” Now, it is true that почуять, may mean to become aware of something by other ways than by smelling, but it is quite obvious in these passages that smelling is meant, and the three translators quoted by Nabokov for the passage describing winter who deal directly with the word at all make it either sniff or scent. Sniff goes a little further than scent, but it does not violate the sense. What we get here, however, from Nabokov is an egregious example of his style at its most perversepedantic impossible:

Winter! the peasant celebrating
in a flat sledge inaugurates the track;
his naggy, having sensed the snow,
shambles at something like a trot.

Why “having sensed”? That would be почуяв not почуя. Where is our scrupulous literalness? The trouble is that since the horse, once outside the stables, would not merely have sensed the snow, but have become directly aware of it, the translator is forced to violate his principles by putting the gerund in the past. For the rest, “inaugurates” is improperly used, and “naggy” (лошадка) is another of those dictionary words which can only appear grotesque. Borrowing from the versions that Nabokov scorns, I should prefer to translate the passage as follows:

Winter! the peasant, rejoicing,
Breaks a new track with his sledge;
His poor horse, sniffing the snow,
Attempting a trot, plods through it.

I am sorry to say that, though Arndt is no great poet and that his effort to stick to the rhyme scheme sometimes leads him to a certain farfetchedness, his version is, in general, much closer to Onegin than any of the others I have sampled and is likely to give the reader a better idea of what the poem sounds like in Russian than Nabokov’s so tortured version. Here is Arndt’s translation of the quatrain above:

Winter…the peasant, feeling festive,
Breaks a fresh fairway with his sleigh,
Snow underfoot, his nag is restive
And, barely trotting, plods his way.

There is nothing in the Russian about the nag being restive, but I believe that “feeling festive” is the best thing that anyone has hit upon to render “торжествуя.” (Another new translation by Eugene M. Kayden, published by the Antioch Press, is by no means so good as Arndt’s. He has only a sprinkling of rhymes, and he perpetrates one terrible one: feet-weep. Here is his version of the peasant and his horse:

Winter!…the peasant-man, re- joicing.
Breaks fresh the highway with his sleigh;
His pony, sniffing the new snow,
Trots easily along the way.

The peasant-man” is awful, and “trots easily” is definitely wrong: the horse is having trouble.) It must be said that Nabokov’s style and rhythm somewhat improve beginning with Tatyana’s dream. The translator gets into a kind of stride and does not so often stumble over his self-implanted impediments.

The most curious feature of Nabokov’s Onegin is the tricks which the commentator plays in dealing with his own native language. Why should he call the word нету “an old-fashioned and dialect form” of нет? 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. He twice asserts that the adjective злой is the only one-syllable adjective in Russian (in the feminine and neuter, it may be noted that it has two syllables). But how about the one-syllable predicative adjectives: рад, горд, пьян, добр, мëртв, etc? In his guide to the Russian alphabet, he tries to explain the character ë, called and pronounced yo—but more like yaw than, as he says, like the yo in yonder—which has caused so much trouble in transliteration. Except in dictionaries, grammars, and schoolbooks, the ë is rarely given its dots but is simply written like e, because the Russians know where it occurs and do not feel they need go to the trouble of making their language easier for foreigners. Ordinarily, it is never written except when there is a chance of misunderstanding, as when it is necessary to distinguish between все and всë, the former of which is all applied to people and the latter all applied to things. The name Khrushchyov has, so far as I know, never been properly transliterated except in the Moscow Daily News, the Soviet paper in English, and, consistently, in the Canadian press, because, in the latter case, the Soviet Embassy, I have been told, complained and set the journalists right. We, however, are stuck with Khrushchev, as we already were with Potemkin and Budenny, which ought to be Potyomkin and Budyonny. Now, Mr. Nabokov arouses one’s hopes when we find such correct transliterations as Lyov, Pyotr, Pletnyov, and Oryol; but then he discourages these hopes by writing—except in the index, where, for some reason, both spellings are given—what ought to be Kishinyov and Mogilyov as Kishinev and Mogilev.

On certain points, I volunteer suggestions. May not some light be thrown on the fact—which Mr. Nabokov discusses—that the adjective красный mears both red and beautiful by the custom in old Russia, described in Hakluyt’s Voyages, of the peasant women’s painting large red spots on their cheeks in order to beautify themselves? In connection with the “pensive vampire” of Onegin, III, 12, Nabokov takes account of certain vampires which figure in romantic literature and with which Pushkin may have been familiar, but he fails to mention the legends of vampires translated by Pushkin in his Songs of the Western Slavs from the forged folk ballads of Merimée, which Pushkin took to be genuine. I would call his attention, also, to the fact that the application by the French of the word goddams to the English did not, as he seems to think, begin in the eighteenth century. The French were referring to the English as “goddams” in their wars with them in the fifteenth century.

The commentary, the appendices, and the scholarly presentation suffer in general from the same faults as Nabokov’s translation—that is, mainly from a lack of common sense—something that is not detrimental to the fantastic fiction he writes, of which it is, in fact, an essential element, but which in an erudite work of this kind is a serious disadvantage. The first requisite for such an enterprise as Nabokov has here undertaken would have been to print the Russian text on the opposite page from the translation; but, instead of this, he gives us a facsimile of the edition of 1837, which, with the index, takes up the whole of Volume Four but of which the print is too small to be read without a magnifying glass. He has elsewhere invariably transliterated the Russian—a procedure which is confusing and useless. Transliterated Russian means as little to anyone who does not read Russian as if it were printed in Russian characters, and for anyone who does read Russian it is an unnecessary nuisance to have to transpose it back into the Cyrillic alphabet before one can recognize it. This alphabet, since five useless characters were got rid of at the time of the Revolution, is one of the only features of Russian that are really convenient and logical—far more practical than the English alphabet. And there can be no really simple and satisfactory way of transposing it into English. The one system by which it has been possible to provide a full set of Roman equivalents for the characters of the Russian alphabet, with its varied combinations of vowels, is the laborious scholarly one which, since it produces such outlandish effects as a Dostoevsky that ends in ij, is impractical for ordinary use. There is a workable standard system established by the Oxford publications, and we might as well stick to this—though the system employed by Nabokov does have the distinct advantage that it transliterates xa, the Greek chi, as h instead of kh, except when there is something like a k sound, and is thus closer to the real pronunciation. Hemingway and Khrushchyov in Russian begin with the same letter. Mr. Nabokov, in explaining his system, has provided a guide to pronunciation which he evidently imagines to be useful to the reader with no Russian since he prefixes it to each volume except the last. But this guide is strangely unreliable. An accented o is not pronounced like the first o in cosmos; the variable Russian e, which is one of the principle problems for a foreigner, is not invariably, if ever, pronounced like the first two letters of yellow; there is nothing about the difference between the hard and the soft l, the instructions for managing the soft sign would be certain to mislead the student.

In a tedious and interminable appendix—or rather, one that terminates only at the end of ninety-two pages—Nabokov expounds a system of prosody, also invented by himself, which he claims may be accommodated to both English and Russian verse. In the vocabulary of this system, a syllable becomes a “semeion.” This is a Greek word that is not to be found in the English dictionary. It usually means sign or signal but one finds in the last definition in the complete Liddell and Scott that it has also been used by one Aristoxenus, a fourth-century B. C. writer on music, to mean a “unit of time, a note.” A “scud” is made by Nabokov to refer to “an unaccented stress”—that is, what we call a secondary accent. But this system is ridiculous and will not work. The point is that when Russian versification took over from German versification the technique of accentual stress, this system did not really fit the rhythms of the language, which, in turn, produced in Russian poetry something quite distinct from German or English verse. The English-speaking foreigner is at first surprised, if he takes to scanning Pushkin’s blank verse, to find that there are few substitutions of feet—hardly even a trochee for an iamb. Such blank verse is unthinkable in English. We remember the virtuosity of Shakespeare and Milton, who can maintain the basic iambic rhythm while constantly, with the utmost flexibility, manipulating other kinds of feet. Yet the effect of Pushkin’s poetry is never monotonous, and this is because the main stresses in the so often long Russian words are more emphasized than they are in English—the other syllables seem likely to go more or less slithering—and Pushkin is always shifting these stresses. This Nabokov understands very well, but a prosody designed to deal with it cannot be used for English poetry, which Nabokov does not quite understand, as he occasionally betrays, in his otherwise delightful English verse, when he momentarily runs off the rails, and as he makes very plain in this essay. In order to deal with English verse, you need to talk about only five feet: the iambus, the trochee, the anapaest, the dactyl, and the spondee. The very conception of the spondee seems for some reason to irritate Nabokov. He denies that real spondees exist, for the strange reason that “no poem, not even a couplet, can be wholly made up of them.” He cannot see that two lines which he quotes—Tennyson’s “On the bald street breaks the blank day” and Marvell’s “To a green thought in a green shade”—both contain pairs of spondees. The way that Nabokov has accented these lines shows that he has not heard them correctly. This appendix, however, contains admirable pages on the differences between Russian and English. For example:

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.


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

  1. *

    A Dutton paperback published in 1963.

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