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Nabokov's Grand Folly

Eugene Onegin: A Novel in Verse by Aleksandr Pushkin

translated from the Russian, with a commentary, by Vladimir Nabokov
(Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, and Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey)

Nabokov Translated: A Comparison of Nabokov's Russian and English Prose

by Jane Grayson (Oxford University Press, London and New York)

In the week of his death, it is instructive to remember that Nabokov’s translation of Eugene Onegin was a project dear to his heart. Expert opinions of the recent second edition were not much more favourable than they were for the first, mainly because the translator had not done enough to eliminate what were earlier judged to be eccentricities of diction, while the commentary obstinately remained unmodified in all its idiosyncrasies. There is undoubtedly a sense in which the whole enterprise is a great folly. But even those Russianists who have been most inclined to question Nabokov’s success in transmitting the essence of Pushkin are usually willing to concede that this cranky monument of scholarship might at least come in useful to the beginner.

As it happens, I am in a position to test this idea, being very much a beginner with Pushkin, and therefore in dire need of a good crib. Pushkin is never wilfully complicated, but his simplicities can be highly compressed. There are times when eyen an advanced student of the language is certain to need help, while the stumbler is likely to bog down completely. I should say at the outset that in several respects Nabokov’s Folly serves the turn. It is a work to be valued, although even the tyro is bound to find it silly as well as brilliant.

The ideal crib, of course, should merely be the servant of the original. But Nabokov was incapable of being anybody’s servant, even his admired Pushkin’s: in paying homage to his giant predecessor he did his best to keep his own ego in the background, but ever and anon it shouldered its way forward. Nabokov’s theory of translation was based on ‘humble fidelity’ to the original, yet try as he might to give us nothing more pretentious than a word-for-word equivalent, he still managed to make Pushkin sound like Nabokov.

Nor is the commentary free from quirks. In fact it is largely made up of them. He has set out to be more scholarly than the scholars; it is doubtful whether anybody else inside or outside Russia knows as much about Pushkin; but you don’t have to know a thousandth as much to realise that Nabokov is no more reasonable on this subject than on any other. I switch to the present tense because it would be unfitting to talk about the author of so cantankerous a commentary as if he were not alive — he is at you all the time, continually asserting himself against those hordes of translators and academics who have either misunderstood Pushkin or, worse, understood him too quickly. But there are limits to how far insight can go without common sense to back it up.

Following Gautier, Nabokov thought the ideal translation should be an interlinear lexicon. The theory is ably expounded by Jane Grayson in her painstaking Nabokov Translated, a book which has the additional merit of showing that in the case of his own writings the master is tactfully flexible about putting it into practice. But where Eugene Onegin is concerned there can apparently be no departure from dogma. Throughout the commentary, Nabokov is forever telling you the words he might have used in the translation if he had set out to do anything so misguided as convey the spirit of the original. But no, he has resisted against overwhelming odds: awkwardness is not only not to be avoided, it is positively to be sought, if that happens to be the price of exactitude.

There is something in this view, although not as much as Nabokov thinks. It is true that a translator who sets out to render the ‘spirit’ is likely to traduce the original author. But Nabokov’s paroxysms of accuracy traduce Pushkin’s spirit as thoroughly as any academic poetaster has ever done. He makes Pushkin sound like a Scrabble buff. Certainly there are words in Pushkin that don’t now mean what they once did, and even words that would have seemed odd at the time. Hence the modern foreign reader’s need for more help than an ordinary dictionary can provide. But none of this means that Pushkin wants to be puzzling. On the contrary, what impresses you about him is his unforced naturalness of tone. The sad thing about Nabokov’s translation is that he is not really capable of echoing such a quality. Instead, he dithers pedantically in the very area of verbal sophistication which for Pushkin was never more than a playground.

It is well known that Nabokov keeps saying ‘mollitude’ where either ‘bliss’ or ‘languor’ would have done. Sometimes you can make a better case for ‘bliss’ than for ‘languor’ and sometimes vice versa, but what nobody normal can doubt is that there is no case to be made for ‘mollitude’. Yet after all the uproar which greeted his use of ‘mollitude’ in the first edition, here it still is in the second, having the effect, every time it appears, of wrinkling the reader’s brow. The idea behind using ‘mollitude’ is evidently to convey something of the Russian word’s Frenchified feeling. But ‘mollitude’ does nothing to make the English reader think of French influence. It just makes him think about the weight of the OED.

At least he can find ‘morgue’ in the Concise, defined in roughly the same way Nabokov uses it, to mean ‘arrogance’. But arrogance is scarcely the first thing an English reader thinks of when he sees the word ‘morgue’. He thinks of dead bodies on zinc tables. Why not just use ‘arrogance’? The answer, I’m afraid, is that Nabokov wants to indulge himself in the Euphuism of ‘I marvelled at their modeish morgue’. (In the introduction we learn of Onegin and Lensky that ‘both are blasé, bizarre beaux’. Always the virtuoso of his adopted tongue, Nabokov never quite grasped that half the trick of composing in English is not to write alliteratively.)

Why use ‘trinkleter’ where ‘haberdasher’ would have done? Why ‘larmoyant’ for ‘lachrymose’? What does ‘debile’ give you that ‘feeble’ doesn’t? Why ‘cornuto’ for ‘cuckold’? Certainly the Russian word has horns which the Italian word reproduces. Unfortunately the Italian word is not in English. Nor is Nabokov correct in supposing that there is any word in Inferno III, 9, which might mean ‘forever’. He quibbles so relentlessly himself that you would have to be a saint not to quibble back.

On this showing, Nabokov has no call to despise those less informed translators who have had the temerity to cast their versions in rhyme. His unrhyming version sounds at least as weird as the very worst of theirs. But as a crib it is the best available, especially in this second edition, where each line matches a line in the original — even, in many cases, to the extent of reproducing the word order. Worse than useless for the reader without Russian, for the learner Nabokov’s translation would be just the ticket, if only the commentary were better balanced. But Nabokov’s ambitions as a scholar are thwarted by his creativity. He starts shaping the facts before he has fully submitted himself to them. He is immensely knowing, but knowingness is not the same as knowledge.

Expending too much of his energy on being bitchy about other writers, scholars and critics, Nabokov the commentator sounds at best like A. E. Housman waspishly editing an obscure classic. At worst he sounds like A. L. Rowse trying to carry a daft point by sheer lung-power. Calling Dostoevsky ‘a much over-rated, sentimental and Gothic novelist’ is dull if it is meant to be funny and funny if it is meant to be serious. We are told that Balzac and Sainte-Beuve are ‘popular but essentially mediocre writers’. I can’t pretend to know much about Balzac, but I am reasonably familiar with Sainte-Beuve, and if he is mediocre then I am a monkey’s uncle. Madame de Staë1 is thoroughly patronised (‘a poor observer’) without any mention being made of the fact that Pushkin himself thought highly of her. As for Tchaikovsky’s version of Eugene Onegin, it is not a ‘silly opera’. It is a great opera.

But most of this is casual sniderry. Distortions of Pushkin’s meaning are less forgivable. Commenting on the exchange of dialogue between Tatiana and her nurse, Nabokov, forgetting even to mention Romeo and Juliet, concentrates on discrediting the official Soviet view of the nurse as a Woman of the People. Yet that view is part of the truth. When the nurse talks about being given in marriage without regard to her own wishes, she is illuminating the condition of slavery. Tatiana might not be really listening to her, but Pushkin is listening, and so should the reader be. This acute social awareness runs right through Pushkin, building up all the time, until in the later prose he provides the model for the social consciousness of all the Russian literature to come. There is nothing naïve about taking cognizance of this elementary fact. Nabokov is naive in trying to avoid it. Pushkin really is the Russian national poet, even if the Soviet regime says so. Above all, he is the national poet of all the people who have been persecuted by that regime in the name of an ideal of justice which Pushkin’s very existence proves was once generous and merciful.

Nabokov seems determined to miss the point of what is going on even among the main characters. He tells us all about the books Tatiana has read but fails to notice her gifts of psychological penetration. He can’t seem to accept that Tatiana ends by slamming the door in Onegin’s face. He claims to detect in Tatiana’s final speech ‘a confession of love that must have made Eugene’s experienced heart leap with joy’. Incredibly, the moral force of Tatiana’s personality seems to have escaped him. Nor can he see that Onegin is arid and Lensky fruitful; that the difference between them is the same difference Pushkin saw between Salieri and Mozart; and that the outcome is the same — envy and revenge. Presuming to avoid sentimentality, Nabokov’s homage diminishes its object, limiting the reader’s view of the range of emotion which Pushkin embraced. Pushkin’s artistic personality was the opposite of Nabokov’s. Pushkin had negative capability. Not that Pushkin can be equated with Keats, even if you think of Keats’s sensibility combined with Byron’s airy manner. Eugene Onegin’s stature is Shakespearean: you have to imagine a Shakespeare play written with the formal compactness of a poem.

On technique Nabokov gives us what we had a right to expect from the man who invented John Shade. (If only Shade, instead of Charles Kinbote, had written this translation!) There is a long disquisition on prosody which is ruined by pseudo-science. (The spondee is proved mathematically not to exist.) But when Nabokov calls Pushkin’s tetrameter ‘an acoustical paradise’, and takes time to examine the miracle of simple words producing great sonorities, he is writing criticism of the first order. He is also good on trees, houses, carriages, visitors’ books, methods of travel, manners — although even here he can’t resist going over the top. He finds himself saying that Pushkin was not especially sympathetic with the Russian landscape. There is a certain pathos about that, as if Nabokov were trying to insert himself into the physical reality of the old, lost Russia that will never now return. A doomed attempt and a superfluous one, since by pointing to the source of its literary tradition Nabokov has helped remind us of the Russia that really is undying, and in which his place is now secure.

(New Statesman, 1977)