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Pushkin, or the Real and the Plausible


Two great poets of two nations—Pushkin and Leopardi—died 150 years ago, each scarcely older than his century. As multiple coincidence would have it, these lines of introduction to a piece Vladimir Nabokov wrote about Pushkin on the one hundredth anniversary of the Russian poet’s death are being drafted on an Italian street named after Giacomo Leopardi, on July 2, 1987, ten years to the day since Nabokov himself died.

Pouchkine ou le vrai et le vraisemblable” began life as a speech. Nabokov recalls:

One night in Paris [old friends] brought [James Joyce] to a lecture I had been asked to deliver under the auspices of Gabriel Marcel…. I had to replace at the very last moment a Hungarian woman writer, very famous that winter, author of a bestselling novel. I remember its title, La Rue du chat qui pêche, but not the lady’s name. A number of personal friends of mine, fearing that the sudden illness of the lady and a sudden discourse on Pushkin might result in a suddenly empty house, had done their best to round up the kind of audience they knew I would like to have. The house had, however, a pied aspect since some confusion had occurred among the lady’s fans. The Hungarian consul mistook me for her husband and, as I entered, dashed towards me with the froth of condolence on his lips. Some people left as soon as I started to speak. A source of unforgettable consolation was the sight of Joyce sitting, arms folded and glasses glinting, in the midst of the Hungarian football team.1

Nabokov wrote to his mother in Prague that his talk turned into a triumph as the evening progressed. The lecture’s warm reception resulted in its appearance in the Nouvelle revue française for March 1, 1937. It remained one of the rare works that Nabokov wrote in French. The best known of these is “Mademoiselle O,” an autobiographical story originally published in a Paris periodical in 1936, and subsequently translated by the late Hilda Ward with the author for The New Yorker and Speak, Memory. Its original version, reprinted in Paris in 1982 together with French translations of the other stories from Nabokov’s Dozen, was hailed as a paragon of French style. Nabokov’s French had a special compactness and originality that might well have made him a major writer in that language had history and life taken a different course.

In March of 1937 Nabokov was staying in Paris with a friend, the emigré man of letters Ilya Fondaminski. The future of the Nabokovs—and of Europe—was very uncertain. Besides lecturing, Nabokov was meeting with publishers, agents, patrons of the arts, and other literary figures in an effort to arrange at least a temporary home for his family in France or England. His wife and small son were still in Nazified Berlin, which they would leave at the end of April to visit for a time with Nabokov’s mother in Prague. Upon completing the laborious and exasperating procedure of obtaining French visas for them amid an “avid bureaucratic hell,” as he puts it in Speak, Memory, Nabokov joined his family several weeks later. Thereupon the three Nabokovs departed to live for some months in the South of France before moving to Paris, which would remain their base until they sailed for New York in May of 1940. Nabokov would never see his mother again. From a letter dated April 15, 1937, one of a great number written to his wife during his travels that year,2 one learns that “my ‘Pushkin’ “—the essay presented here—was “having a very gratifying success.”

While my translation of the prose is as literal as I could make it, it is true that the special personality of the French language, where a nuance lurks behind the turn of every phrase and a botched idiom is idiotic, requires minor adjustments in order to obtain at least plausible English. A separate problem was what to do about Nabokov’s examples of Pushkin’s verse in French. Together with his considerations regarding the translation of Pushkin from Russian into French, they are specific and intimately related to the character of both the “from” and “into” languages. At the same time they reflect a general approach to translation that was to evolve substantially in the years that followed. Therefore I retained the French examples for the bilingual reader, and hoped to provide the ideal supplement: Nabokov’s own English versions from various periods. A search of readily accessible manuscripts and typescripts amid a treasure-trove of his translations revealed, alas, that he seems to have Englished only one of the four samples—the stanza which is misidentified, through an editorial error or a rare absentminded lapse of the author’s, as being from Eugene Onegin, but which is actually from “Yezerski” (begun by Pushkin in 1830, when he was finishing Onegin).

Nevertheless, this excerpt does make it possible to present, alongside Nabokov’s French illustrations of what he explains in his text, an additional peek into the evolution of his theory and technique as applied to the translation of Pushkin’s poetry, and poetry in general. Presumably done in connection with his US university courses, this English fragment reflects a partial transition from the accommodations, made in the name of rhyme and musicality in the French verses and in other early translations, to the unflinching fidelity of his Onegin (which Nabokov deliberately conceived as an uncompromisingly literal “crib”).

I have inserted in the text, together with Nabokov’s translation of a section of “Yezerski,” my English versions of the other three examples. They are based on the Russian originals, with occasional assists from the solutions adopted in Nabokov’s French (e.g., the substitution of the Fate Lachesis for Pushkin’s generic Parca). One stringent test of rhymed translations, and of rhymed poetry in general (although most versifiers seem to prefer playing on a netless, unlined court these days) is to check how obvious it is that one part of a rhyme came first, and to what degree the other part protrudes like a sore toe of the prosodic foot. “Sing not, my fair” best lent itself to an attempt at preserving not only meter but also rhyme, or at least assonance, and is to a degree analogous to the general method used in Nabokov’s somewhat freer French samples, which seem to pass that test with flying colors.

In the remaining two poems I made no compromise whatever for the sake of rhymes, welcoming them only if they tumbled of their own accord into my lap, while the relative simplicity of the Russian originals allowed literality to cohabit pretty well with meter. Even though his English version of Onegin codified a rhymeless and meterless scholarly precision, what Vladimir Nabokov had indicated elsewhere about poetic translation suggests that, even in later years, he, too, might have chosen to retain at least the meter of these particular poems. Would that there were a Volapük or Esperanto rich enough for poetry.

A word is in order about the little scenes Nabokov presents as instances of life’s “revelations and delights.” The astute reader will recognize at least three of them, in slightly different form, in Nabokov’s fiction. One of these vignettes, in fact, is the key to a short piece of prose he had written in 1925.

Nabokov guessed right that early “sedentary photography” with its “grotesque folds” and “funereal clothing” would one day seem an “artistic prevarication with its own special flavor.” An early death did preserve Russia’s great poet from such depiction. Yet, if he had lived to a “fabulous age,” and technology had switched into fast forward, even Nabokov might have been tempted by a video-cassette of Pushkin, wearing an “ordinary jacket” of his day, but—as he puts it in the story “A Guide to Berlin”—appearing to the modern eye to be “dressed up for an elegant masquerade.”

Dmitri Nabokov

Life sometimes proffers invitations to festivities that will never occur, and illustrations for books that will never be published. On other occasions it presents us with something for which we shall discover an unexpected use only much later.

I once knew an odd character. If he still exists, which I doubt, he must be the pearl of some lunatic asylum. When I met him he was already teetering on the verge of madness. His dementia, presumably precipitated by a fall from horseback in his earliest youth, was of a type that erodes the brain, giving it an artificial sensation of age. My patient not only believed he was older than he was, but was convinced he had taken part in the events of another century. Fortyish, husky, ruddy, glassy-eyed, this man related to me, with that little nodding motion characteristic of dreamy oldsters, how my infant grandfather used to clamber onto his lap. My rapid calculations, as he talked, yielded a fabulous age. The most fascinating and bizarre part was that, as his malady progressed year by year, he retreated into an ever more distant past.

When I saw him again some ten years ago, he spoke of the fall of Sebastopol. A month later he was already regaling me with General Bonaparte. Another week and we were in the middle of the Vendée.3 If he is still alive, my maniac, he must be far off indeed, among the Normans and their Conquest perhaps, or even—who knows—in the arms of Cleopatra. Poor, itinerant soul, rolling away ever faster down the slope of time! And, all the while, what an abundance of words, what verve, what roguish and knowing smiles.

He remembered the real events of his own lifetime perfectly, only he transplanted them in a bizarre way. Thus, when speaking of his accident, he kept shifting it back in time, progressively altering its setting, as in those classical dramas whose costumes are idiotically updated to suit a given period. One could not name a single personage from the past in his presence without his adding, with an old codger’s formidable loquacity, some recollection of his own. Yet he had been born in a poor, provincial milieu, had served in some unspecified regiment, and the education he had picked up rather than received had remained extremely skimpy. Ah, what an overwhelming spectacle, what an intellectual feast it could have been had a refined culture, a good knowledge of history, and a modicum of natural talent accompanied his peripatetic dementia! Just think what a Carlyle would have extracted from such madness! Sad to say, my chap was fundamentally uncultured and woefully underequipped to profit by this rare psychosis, and was reduced to nourishing his imagination with a hodgepodge of banalities and general ideas that were more or less erroneous. Napoleon’s crossed arms, the Iron Chancellor’s three lone hairs, or Byron’s melancholy, plus a certain number of those so-called historical anecdotes historians use to sweeten their texts, provided, alas, all the detail and color he needed, and all the great men he had known intimately resembled each other like brothers. I know of no stranger spectacle than a mania whose very nature seems to demand a whole world of knowledge, inspiration, and refinement, but which finds itself obliged to orbit in a vacant head.

  1. 1

    From an interview with Alfred Appel, Jr., in Wisconsin Studies in Contemporary Literature (Spring, 1967), reprinted in Nabokov’s Strong Opinions.

  2. 2

    Included, in part, in a volume of correspondence to be issued by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich/Bruccoli Clark in 1988.

  3. 3

    A hotbed of counterrevolutionary insurrection in 1793.

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