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.

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 …

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Letters

Nabokov and Jolán Földes November 10, 1988