Vladimir Nabokov Nabokov, Vladimir (Vol. 8)

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Nabokov, Vladimir (Vol. 8)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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Nabokov, Vladimir 1899–1977

Nabokov was born in Russia, educated in England, became a U.S. citizen in 1945, and lived the last years of his life in Switzerland. His eclectic nature is evident in his mastery of many genres, having written, in both Russian and English, novels, short stories, poetry, essays, and plays, as well as biography, autobiography, criticism, and translations. The wit, ingenuity, and genius of his work have earned Nabokov a permanent place in world literature. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 6, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.; obituary, Vols. 69-72.)

[In Poems and Problems Nabokov] not only translates but brings in the theory of translation. He has collected thirty-nine poems written by himself in Russian and translated by himself into English; fourteen poems written in English; and eighteen chess problems. The book is presented in the manner of a "classic," with line numbers for the Russian poems, introduction, some notes, and a "bibliography," which is not really that but a full record of previous publication. Nabokov refuses to apologize for including the chess problems. I welcome them, but refuse to apologize for not reviewing them.

The Russian poems are, we are told, only a small selection from a much larger body. The earliest is dated 1917, the latest 1967, overlapping those composed in English. Nabokov testily deplores émigré poetry and tries not to be wistful, even pleads insincerity, but many of these pieces fail to escape a feeling of lost Russia and lost childhood, the difficulty a Russian poet forever outside Russia finds in writing poetry…. What of the self-translation? Here, as elsewhere, Nabokov insists on strict fidelity. With and for this, we have to put up with oddities. There are many, many inverted phrases. For instance: "To my alarm clock its lesson I set." Whatever excuses may be offered, that is a pretty awful line…. Foreign idioms and constructions can come into English and generate new dimensions and new English, as in the King James Bible, but these versions by Nabokov seem unassimilated and uncomfortable. Further, anapests, Nabokov's "beloved anapests" have a way (despite the example of Swinburne) of coming out bumpy in English …, like driving on a flat. Also, as Nabokov describes the metre, "tra-tá-ta tra-tá-ta tra-tá," the lines are not really anapests, they're amphibrachs.

In most of the English-composed poems (but not in the unaccountable "Ballad of Longwood Glen"), the awkwardness vanishes. Nabokov's virtuosity in English is manifest from his prose, tiresome as that can sometimes be. "Ode to a Model" has charmed me long since, but Nabokov seems really at his best in "An Evening of Russian Poetry" as he lectures to an imaginary girls' school on the qualities of that poetry…. Always the one-upman, Nabokov patronizes his imaginary audience and his reader; this poem is, nevertheless, mellow, beautiful, and wise. (pp. 506-08)

Richmond Lattimore, in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1971 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXIV, No. 3, Autumn, 1971.

Of Nabokov's works, Lolita …, Pale Fire …, and Ada … belong to the Literature of Exhaustion. [Elsewhere in his book, The Literature of Exhaustion, Stark defines the Literature of Exhaustion, using a label supplied by John Barth. The identifying characteristic of the Literature, according to Barth, is that writers of it pretend that it is next to impossible to write original—perhaps any—literature. In other words, some writers use as a theme for new works of literature the hypothesis that literature is finished.]

Nabokov constructs Chinese boxes … to undermine the conventional distinctions between the real and imaginary domains. (p. 63)

Nabokov uses Chinese boxes most subtly in Pale Fire, and in that book he makes them crucial to the meaning. In this novel, Nabokov is the outermost layer, followed by Pale Fire , which … contains the dividing line between the real and the imaginary. Botkin, the...

(The entire section is 13,427 words.)