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Wilson’s Russian Usage

In response to:

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

To the Editors:

May I add a few remarks to the controversy over my Pushkin-Nabokov article? The non-Russian student of Russian, if he consults several Russians about some problems, is likely to find that they all give him different explanations. This, I think, is partly due to discrepencies between the usages and pronunciations of different localities, partly due to the different language of different milieux—a lot of “U” and “non U” discrimination goes on in the Russian-speaking world—and partly due to the differences between the style of old Russia and that of the Soviet Union. The ninety-year-old Kornei Chukovsky, in his recent book, Zhivoy kak Zhizn, has a whole list of new usages which he warns the reader to avoid. I find that Mr. Leon Dennen, in his letter to The New York Review, after implying that his mastery of Russian surpasses not only mine but even Mr. Nabokov’s, asserts that the Bessarabian city is prounced Kishinev not Kishinyov, though I have never known any Russian or anyone who has been in Russia to give it anything but the latter pronunciation. He seems equally to disapprove of Khrushchyov—though, as I indicated in my article, this is actually the official pronunciation. Neither he nor another correspondent, a teacher of Russian, seems ever to have heard the current netu in the sense of “Il n’y en a pas” or “Il n’y en a plus.” What is the explanation of this?

In regard to my mistake about pochuya, the situation has not been made clear even by Mr. Nabokov. For the benefit of other strugglers with this expressive but preposterous language, it should be said that since pochuyat‘ is a perfective verb which can have only a past or a future, a gerund from it, though present in form, can have only a past meaning. Pochuya is the same as pochuyav. The present can only be chuya. In regard to the horse and the wolf, it is natural for a Russian not to be able to see why sensing is not the right word for translating pochuya. In Russian, the words that apply to the senses are considerably vaguer than ours. Chuyat‘ may mean to hear as well as to smell just as slyshat‘ may mean to smell, to taste, or to feel by touch as well as to hear.

But in English, it has to be one thing or the other. It is possible to say that one sensed that something has gone wrong in a household—that is, that one has been able to detect this by the way in which the people behaved, by the things that they said and did. But to say the horse senses the wolf really means that in some indefinable way he becomes aware of the wolf, which to an English-speaking reader seems blurry and slightly ridiculous.

I am sorry that the discussion has been further confused in my reply to Mr. Nabokov, by the printer’s putting in a Greek phi instead of a simple o.

Edmund Wilson

Wellflect, Massachusetts

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