Donald Rayfield

Pride, Prejudice & Pushkin

Think, Write, Speak: Uncollected Essays, Reviews, Interviews and Letters to the Editor

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This generous collection of 154 pieces of what Brian Boyd in the introduction calls Nabokov’s ‘public prose’ – mostly uncollected and sometimes also unpublished journalism – is presented chronologically. Where necessary, the pieces have been expertly translated from Russian and French by Boyd and Anastasia Tolstoy, and the notes and index make this book easy to negotiate. The text is marred only by a few idiosyncratic transliterations of Russian words. At first sight, the book may seem to be yet more of those scrapings from the barrel that have been served up over the four decades since Nabokov’s death. However, unlike the embarrassingly jejune fragments of his novels, such as The Original of Laura, that have been published posthumously, this collection includes some of his sharpest prose, as well as his most cursory. It spans Nabokov’s career, from juvenilia to senilia. In Germany, where Nabokov is revered enough for Rowohlt to have published his collected works in twenty-five volumes, a similar anthology of the author’s ‘public prose’ came out fifteen years ago with the title Eigensinnige Ansichten (probably best translated as ‘Stubbornly Held Views’ or ‘Prejudices’). Stubbornness, even perversity, certainly underlies Nabokov’s opinions.

A quarter of this collection shows Nabokov at his wittiest, most profound or most original. The rest is more ephemeral. A few pieces are barely worth including: the interviews with Nabokov from his periods in the USA and Switzerland too often reveal just merciless contempt for critics insufficiently well read or respectful. His observations can be wildly off the mark: in March 1941, he said in an interview with the Wellesley College newspaper, ‘Because the Russian-German friendship had its roots as far back as the Russian Revolution, there is little chance of its being dissolved in the near future.’ In other responses to student interviewers, he is merely condescending or slapdash. To judge by several samples of his lectures or teaching plans, he was inconsistent: he either treated his students as infants, teaching them to say ‘I love you’ and ‘very nice’ in Russian, or plunged them into the intricacies of Russian verbal prefixing. No wonder that Roman Jakobson protested, when Nabokov’s name was put forward for a full professorship of Russian, ‘Are we next to invite an elephant to be Professor of Zoology?’

In his years of impoverished exile, fifteen in Germany, then three in France, Nabokov scraped a living with reviews and literary essays for half a dozen Russian émigré journals. As a rule, he wrote fulsomely about fellow poets in exile – he believed Bunin and Khodasevich, for example, to be vastly superior to the ‘Soviet’ Pasternak and Mandelstam – and scathingly about Russian writers making a career in Russia. On the USSR, Nabokov, unlike other exiles, such as Stravinsky, was intransigent. He stuck to his declaration in ‘Anniversary’ (1927): ‘I despise the communist faith … as a denial of earthly and heavenly beauty, as something idiotically encroaching on my free “I”.’ In the 1960s, when émigrés could discreetly return to Russia as tourists, Nabokov refused to go. His Russia lived only in his memory and in the imaginary AntiTerra of Ada, where it had merged with New England and Soviet Russia had become just Tartary. Nabokov’s periodic denunciations of Soviet prose have, in fact, not lost their force: a long piece, ‘A Few Words on the Wretchedness of Soviet Fiction and an Attempt to Determine its Cause’ (1926), and the shorter ‘The Triumph of Virtue’ (1930) and ‘Soviet Literature’ (1940) all demolish the claims of ideologically governed literature to have artistic value. Ironically, the last of these essays was one of the few pieces that the American censors suppressed: once America entered the Second World War, criticism of the USSR was unwelcome.

Nabokov’s prejudices went beyond Russian authors. He maintains that Thomas Mann is a bad writer on a big scale (despite living so long in Germany, Nabokov claimed to have scant knowledge of its language and no respect for its culture, except Goethe). He is unrelenting in his mockery of Sigmund Freud: see, for instance, his essay ‘What Everyone Should Know’ (1931) and his insistence that there was ‘barely anything’ autobiographical in Lolita. Yet Nabokov’s own work often shows an adult protagonist in thrall to childhood eroticism. A similar state of denial underlies his suspicion of translators. He never found any foreigner’s Russian to have attained the level necessary to translate his or anyone else’s prose or verse. He disavowed even his own attempts to translate Pushkin into French and English: his four-volume English translation of Eugene Onegin was meant not just to shame all previous translators but also to prove Pushkin untranslatable (he certainly made it unreadable). Only his own self-translations escape his censure. But since Nabokov’s death, English translators of Pushkin (for example, Stanley Mitchell) and Turgenev (particularly Peter Carson) have exposed ‘untranslatability’ as a myth.

In his interviews Nabokov offers clear-headed evaluation of his own work. Of his Russian novels The Gift and of his English novels Lolita, Pale Fire and Pnin evoke the most pride. Only, perhaps, about that self-indulgent self-pastiche Ada did he delude himself. Nabokov could be blind to the merits of his fellow Russian authors: he loathed Dostoevsky, for instance. This is understandable, for Nabokov was a visual writer who found dialogue (unless it was imaginary) hard to reproduce or invent (a disability he overcame only in his film script for Lolita), whereas Dostoevsky had no eye, least of all for nature, yet wrote such good dialogue that his novels can be staged almost without a playwright’s intervention. More surprisingly, Nabokov is reluctant to see merit in Pasternak. True, Doctor Zhivago is a bad novel in every respect, but it should have evoked recognition of the fraternity between Pasternak and Nabokov: like Pale Fire, Dr Zhivago includes poetry, written ostensibly by the novel’s hero, which is far better than any verse written by the author in the previous decade. And when, in 1959, Nabokov and Pasternak were both being hounded, one for writing pornography, the other for anti-Sovietism, they protested their innocence in verse with remarkably similar naivety, bordering on disingenuousness. Nabokov asked, ‘What is the evil deed I have committed?/Seducer, criminal – is this the world/For me who set the entire world a-dreaming/Of my poor little girl?’, while Pasternak complained, ‘What sort of foul deed did I do,/Am I a killer and a villain?/I made the whole world weep/Over the beauty of my land?’

The later interviews contain some poignant personal details, also to be found elsewhere, notably in the biography of Nabokov by Boyd, who was an unusual combination of trusted friend of Nabokov’s widow and authorised biographer. Nabokov the man, he insisted, was stupid and clumsy, his hands apt only for netting and pinning butterflies; he could not drive or type – he wrote in pencil on index cards, and relied on his wife, Véra, to prepare fair copy. This places Nabokov in the ranks of Russian writers whose work was filtered through wives who transcribed their semi-illegible handwriting (Tolstoy) or took dictation (Dostoevsky, Bulgakov). One wonders if the idealised ‘whither thou goest I will go’ partners in the novels of Dostoevsky and Bulgakov may be a reflection of this. But in Nabokov’s case, as in Tolstoy’s, there is no sign of the author’s thoughts being refracted through the person of his wife. Few writers have been as impervious to extra-literary influence as Vladimir Nabokov.

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