Melody drained from the muse

Alexan­der Nemser

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

VLADIMIR Nabokov, who through­out his ca­reer cul­ti­vated his rep­u­ta­tion as the most fa­mous lit­er­ary ex­ile since Ovid, was recog­nised in his life­time not only for his nov­els but also for his au­thor­ity on Rus­sian cul­tural mat­ters. He gave packed lec­tures ex­tolling Tol­stoy and an­ni­hi­lat­ing Dos­to­evsky, and pub­lished dozens of trans­la­tions of Rus­sian verse.

This new col­lec­tion con­tains trans­la­tions of lyric and nar­ra­tive po­etry from just af­ter his ar­rival in the US in 1940, when he was most in need of money, through his years of teach­ing Rus­sian and Euro­pean lit­er­a­ture at Welles­ley and Cor­nell, to his last years in Mon­treux, where he set­tled with his fam­ily in 1961 af­ter the un­ex­pect­edly great suc­cess of Lolita .

Nearly 20 poets are rep­re­sented, in­clud­ing all the sig­nif­i­cant poets who made up the first great pe­riod of Rus­sian verse in the 19th cen­tury — Alexan­der Pushkin, Mikhail Ler­mon­tov, Fy­o­dor Tyutchev, Afanasy Fet — reach­ing back to the mid-18th cen­tury poly­math Mikhail Lomonosov, the ‘‘ god­fa­ther of the iambic tetram­e­ter’’, and for­ward to the Soviet-era Ge­or­gian bard Bu­lat Okudzhava, who died in Paris in 1997.

A fa­mous scholar of Slavic lit­er­a­ture once de­plored the fash­ion for trans­la­tions that re­tained the me­ter and the rhyme of the orig­i­nal at the ex­pense of com­plete se­man­tic fi­delity. ‘‘ As a re­sult,’’ he wrote, ‘‘ the canned mu­sic of rhymed ver­sions is en­thu­si­as­ti­cally ad­ver­tised, and ac­cepted, and the sac­ri­fice of tex­tual pre­ci­sion ap­plauded as some­thing rather heroic.’’

Th­ese com­ments present a re­mark­able in­dict­ment of many of Nabokov’s trans­la­tions in Verses and Ver­sions , which is full of limply rhymed qua­trains and baf­fling tor­sions of sense. Yet the scholar who wrote that ar­ti­cle, in 1965, was Nabokov.

At a cer­tain point dur­ing his ca­reer as a trans­la­tor, Nabokov un­der­went a vi­o­lent shift in sen­si­bil­ity: from for­mal trans­la­tions in which the me­ter and the rhyme, but not the ex­act sense, of the orig­i­nal are pre­served to lit­eral trans­la­tions based on word-for-word fi­delity. Verses and Ver­sions is in part the story of that shift.

Ow­ing to the ed­i­to­rial choices, how­ever, the book fails to il­lus­trate vividly what was for Nabokov a mo­men­tous re­nun­ci­a­tion, one that put him at odds with much of the lit­er­ary es­tab­lish­ment and pegged him as an ec­cen­tric in the grip of a nos­tal­gic ob­ses­sion. It set off a bit­ter and re­mark­ably en­dur­ing lit­er­ary feud be­tween Nabokov and the man who was ar­guably his clos­est lit­er­ary com­pan­ion.

Nabokov’s trans­la­tions can be di­vided roughly into two groups: for­mal trans­la­tions up to about 1950 and lit­eral trans­la­tions af­ter 1950. The shift took place while Nabokov was in the process of trans­lat­ing Pushkin’s Eu­gene One­gin , the verse novel con­sid­ered the great­est po­etic ac­com­plish­ment in the Rus­sian lan­guage.

Nabokov, fed up with mis­lead­ing and in­el­e­gant ver­sions of the book, be­gan trans­lat­ing One­gin as early as 1945.

In the next two decades, dur­ing which he pub­lished, among other works, Lolita and Pnin , Nabokov worked in­ter­mit­tently on a scrupu­lously word-for-word ver­sion. He fi­nally pub­lished it in 1964, ac­com­pa­nied by a sec­ond vol­ume con­tain­ing 500 pages of ex­ten­sive notes on ev­ery­thing from the dishes con­sumed by Pushkin’s char­ac­ters to the dance steps and the ex­act lo­ca­tions of their strolls ( which, Nabokov is care­ful to note, were some of his own favourite spots as a child). I CAN imag­ine three sets of read­ers for Verses and Ver­sions : peo­ple in­ter­ested in Nabokov, peo­ple in­ter­ested in Rus­sian lit­er­a­ture and — th­ese may be hit the hard­est — peo­ple in­ter­ested in po­etry. The first group, pre­sum­ably com­ing to the book be­cause of their ad­mi­ra­tion for Nabokov’s prose, will be dis­mayed to en­counter pages of dull con­struc­tions and lack­lus­tre dic­tion. Nabokov’s nov­els, en­joyed for their lin­guis­tic vir­tu­os­ity, in­duce at their best the sen­sa­tion of be­ing taken in by the work of a rare il­lu­sion­ist.

Verses and Ver­sions , by con­trast, pro­duces the dis­com­fit­ing feel­ing of watch­ing a Hou­dini

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