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Vladimir Nabokov. Anniversary notes

My first intention was to write an elaborate paper on this TriQuarterly number (17, Winter 1970, Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois) which is dedicated to me on the occasion of my seventieth birthday. I soon realized, however, that I might find myself discussing critical studies of my fiction, something I have always avoided doing. True, a festschrift is a very special and rare occasion for that kind of sport, but I did not wish to create even the shadow of a precedent and therefore decided simply to publish the rough jottings I made as an objective reader anxious to eliminate slight factual errors of which such a marvelous gift must be free; for I knew what pains the editors, Charles Newman and Alfred Appel, had taken to prepare it and remembered how firmly the guest co-editor, when collecting the ingredients of this great feast, refused to show me any plum or crumb before publication.


Butterflies are among the most thoughtful and touching contributions to this volume. The old-fashioned engraving of a Catagramma-like insect is delightfully reproduced twelve times so as to suggest a double series or "block" of specimens in a cabinet case; and there is a beautiful photograph of a Red Admirable (but "Nymphalidae" is the family to which it belongs, not its genus, which is Vanessa-- my first bit of carping).


Mr. Appel, guest co-editor, writes about my two main works of fiction. His essay "Backgrounds of Lolita" is a superb example of the rare case where art and erudition meet in a shining ridge of specific information (the highest and to me most acceptable function of literary criticism). I would have liked to say more about his findings but modesty (a virtue that the average reviewer especially appreciates in authors) denies me that pleasure. His other piece in this precious collection is "Ada Described." I planted three blunders, meant to ridicule mistranslations of Russian classics, in the first paragraph of my Ada: the opening sentence of Anna Karenin (no additional "a," printer, she was not a ballerina) is turned inside out; Anna Arkadievna's patronymic is given a grotesque masculine ending; and the title of Tolstoy's family chronicle has been botched by the invented Stoner or Lower (I must have received at least a dozen letters with clarifications and corrections from indignant or puzzled readers, some of them of Russian origin, who never read Ada beyond the first page). Furthermore, in the same important paragraph, "Mount Tabor" and "Pontius" allude respectively to the transfigurations and betrayals to which great texts are subjected by pretentious and ignorant versionists. The present statement is an amplification of Mr. Appel's remarks on the subject in his brilliant essay "Ada Described." I confess that his piece was a great pleasure to read, but one error in it I really must correct: My Baltic Baron is totally and emphatically unrelated to Mr. Norman Mailer, the writer.


Mr. Karlinsky's "N. and Chekhov" is a very remarkable essay, and I greatly appreciate being with A. P. in the same boat-- on a Russian lake, at sunset, he fishing, I watching the hawkmoths above the water. Mr. Karlinsky has put his finger on a mysterious sensory cell. He is right, I do love Chekhov dearly. I fail, however, to rationalize my feeling for him: I can easily do so in regard to the greater artist, Tolstoy, with the flash of this or that unforgettable passage (". . . how sweetly she said: "and even very much' "-- Vronsky recalling Kitty's reply to some trivial question that we shall never know), but when I imagine Chekhov with the same detachment all I can make out is a medley of dreadful prosaisms, ready-made epithets, repetitions, doctors, unconvincing vamps, and so forth; yet it is his works which I would take on a trip to another planet. In another article-- on "N.'s Russified Lewis Carroll"-- the same critic is much too kind to my Anya in Wonderland (1924). How much better I could have done it fifteen years later! The only good bits are the poems and the word-play. I find an odd blunder in the "Song of the Soup": lohan'^ kind of bucket) is misspelt by me and twisted into the wrong gender. Incidentally, I had not (and still have not) seen any other Russian versions of the book (as Mr. Karlinsky suggests I may have had) so that my sharing with Poliksena Solovyov the same model for one of the parodies is a coincidence. I recall with pleasure that one of the accidents that prompted Wellesley College to engage me as lecturer in the early forties was the presence of my rare Anya in the Wellesley collection of Lewds Carroll editions.


Mr. Alter's essay on the "Art of Politics in Invitation to a Beheading" is a most brilliant reflection of that book in a reader's mind. It is practically flawless so that all I can add is that I particularly appreciated his citing a passage from The Gift "that could serve as a useful gloss on the entire nature of political and social reality in the earlier novel."


Mr. Hyman in his first-rate piece "The Handle" discusses Invitation to a Beheading and Bend Sinister, the two book-ends of grotesque design between which my other volumes tightly huddle. I am a great admirer of Ransom's poem about Captain Carpenter aptly mentioned by Mr. Hyman.


I must point out two fascinating little mistakes in Mr. Stuart's very interesting "Laughter in the Dark: Dimensions of Parody": (1) The film in which my heroine is given a small part in the 1920s has nothing to do with Garbo's Anna Karenina (of which incidentally I have only seen stills); but what I would like my readers to brood over is my singular power of prophecy, for the name of the leading lady (Dorianna Karenina) in the picture invented by me in 1928 prefigured that of the actress (Anna Karina) who was to play Margot forty years later in the film Laughter in the Dark, and (2) Mr. Stuart cleverly toys with the idea that Albert Albinus and Axel Rex are "doubles," one of his main clues being that Margot finds Albinus' telephone number not under "A" but under "R" in the directory. Actually that "R" is a mere slip or type (the initial corresponds correctly to the man's name in the first English-language edition of the novel, London, 1936).


Mr. Steiner's article ("Extraterritorial") is built on solid abstractions and opaque generalizations. A few specific items can be made out and should be corrected. He absurdly overestimates Oscar Wilde's mastery of French. It is human but a little cheap on his part to chide my Van Veen for sneering at my Lolita (which, in a transfigured form, I magnanimously turned over to a transposed fellow author); it might be wiser for him to read Ada more carefully than did the morons whom he rightly condemns for having dismissed as hermetic a writer's limpid and precise prose. To one piece of misinformation I must strongly object: I never belonged to the "haute bourgeoisie" to which he grimly assigns me (rather like that Marxist reviewer of my Speak, Memory who classified my father as a "plutocrat" and a "man of affairs"!). The Nabokovs have been soldiers and squires since (at least) the fifteenth century.


In her otherwise impeccable little piece "Spring in Fialta: The Choice that Mimics Chance," Mrs. Barbara Monter makes a slight bibliographic mistake. She implies that I wrote the Russian original of the story sometime around 1947, in America. This is not so. It was written at least a dozen years earlier, in Berlin, and was first published in Paris ("Vesna v Fial'te," Sovremennyya Zapiski, 1936) long before being collected in the Chekhov House edition, New York, 1956. The English translation (by Peter Pertzov and me) appeared in Harper's Bazaar, May, 1947.


I am not sure that Mr. Leonard has quite understood what Van Veen means by his "texture of time" in the penultimate part of Ada. First of all, whatever I may have said in an old interview, it is not the entire novel but only that one part (as Alfred Appel correctly points out elsewhere) in which the illustrative metaphors, all built around one viatic theme, gradually accumulate, come to life, and form a story turning on Van's ride from the Grisons to the Valais-- after which the thing again disintegrates and reverts to abstraction on a last night of solitude in a hotel in Vaud. In other w'-ords, it is all a structural trick: Van's theory of time has no existence beyond the fabric of one part of the novel Ada. In the second place, Mr. Leonard has evidently not grasped what is meant by "texture"; it is something quite different from what Proust called "lost time," and it is precisely in everyday life, in the waiting-rooms of life's stations that we can concentrate on the "feeling" of time and palpate its very texture. I also protest against his dragging "Antiterra," which is merely an ornamental incident, into a discussion whose only rightful field is Part Four and not the entire novel. And finally I owe no debt whatsoever (as Mr. Leonard seems to think) to the famous Argentine essayist and his rather confused compilation "A New Refutation of Time." Mr. Leonard would have lost less of it had he gone straight to Berkeley and Bergson.


In Miss Berberov's excellent article on Pale Fire I find a couple of minute mistakes: Kinbote begs "dear Jesus" to relieve him of his fondness for faunlets, not to cure his headache, as she implies; and Professor Pnin, whose presence in that novel Miss Berberov overlooks, does appear in person (note to line 949, Pale Fire), with his dog. She is much better, however, at delineating the characters in my novels than in describing V. Sirin, one of my characters in "real" life. In her second article, on "N. in the Thirties" (from her recent memoirs, The Italics Are Mine), she permits herself bizarre inaccuracies. T may be absentminded, I may be too frank about my literary tastes, okay, but I would like Miss Berberov to cite one specific instance of my having read a hook that I had never read. In my preface (June 25, 1959) to the English-language edition of Invitation to a Beheading I have more to say about that kind of nonsense. Then there is a sartorial detail in her memoir that I must set straight. Never did I possess, in Paris or elsewhere, "a tuxedo Rachmaninov had given [me]." I had not met Rachmaninov before leaving France for America in 1940. He had twice sent me small amounts of money, through friends, and I was eager now to thank him in person. During our first meeting at his flat on West End Avenue, I mentioned I had been invited to teach summer school at Stanford. On the following day I got from him a carton with several items of obsolete clothing, among which was a cutaway (presumably tailored in the period of the Prelude), which he hoped-- as he said in a kind little note-- 1 would wear for my first lecture. I sent back his well-meant gift but (gulp of mea culpa!) could not resist telling one or two people about it. Half a dozen years later, w-hen Miss Berberov migrated to New York in her turn, she must have heard the anecdote from one of our common friends, Karpovich or Kerenski, after which a quarter of a century elapsed, or rather collapsed, and somehow, in her mind, the cutaway was transformed into a "tuxedo" and transferred to an earlier era of my life. I doubt that I had any occasion in Paris, in the thirties, when the short series of my brief encounters with Miss Berberov took place, to wear my old London dinner jacket; certainly not for that dinner at L'Ours (with which, incidentally, the "Ursus" of Ada and the Med'ved'of St. Petersburg have nothing to do); anyway, I do not sec how any of my clothes could have resembled the doubly anachronistic hand-me-down in which the memoirist rigs me out. How much kinder she is to my books!


The multicolored inklings offered by Mr. Lubin in his "Kickshaws and Motley" are absolutely dazzling. Such things as his ""v ugloo" [Russ. for "in the corner"] in the igloo of the globe [a blend of "glow" and "strobe"] are better than anything I have done in that line. Very beautifully he tracks down to their lairs in Eliot three terms queried by a poor little person in Pale Fire. I greatly admire the definition of tmesis (Type П) as a "semantic petticoat slipped on between the naked noun and its clothing epithet," as well as Lubin's "proleptic" tmesis illustrated by Shakespeare's glow-worm beginning "to pale his ineffectual fire." And the parody of an interview with N. (though a little more exquisitely iridized than my own replies would have been) is sufficiently convincing to catch readers.


The extent to which I was concerned with the fragility of my English at the time of my abandoning Russian in 1939 may be gauged by the fact that even after Mrs. Lйon had gone over the manuscript of my Sebastian Knight in Paris where it was written, and I had moved to the USA, I begged the late Anes Perkins, the admirable Head of the English Department at Wellesley, to assist me in reading the galleys of the book (bought for $150 in 1941, by New Directions), and that later, another kind lady, Sylvia Berkman, checked the grammar of my first English stories that appeared in The Atlantic in the early forties. I am sorry that Lucie Lйon in her amiably modulated "Playback" does not speak more than she does of her brother Alex Ponizovski of whom I was very fond (I particularly like recalling the streak of quiet eccentricity that endeared him to fellow students at Cambridge, such as the time he casually swallowed the contents of a small bottle of ink that happened to be within reach while we sat and talked by the fire). In her account of a dinner with James Joyce in Paris, I found it refreshing to be accused of bashfulness (after finding so frequently in the gazettes complaints of my "arrogance"); but is her impression correct? She pictures me as a timid young artist; actually I was forty, with a sufficiently lucid awareness of what I had already done for Russian letters preventing me from feeling awed in the presence of any living writer. (Had Mrs. Lйon and П met more often at parties she might have realized that I am always a disappointing guest, neither inclined nor able to shine socially.) Another little error occurs in the reference to the palindrome that I wrote in her album. There was nothing new about a reversible sentence in Russian: the anonymous sandglass "a roza upala na lapu Azora"' ("and the rose fell upon Azor's paw") is as familiar to children as, in another nursery, "able was I ere I saw Elba." The first line of my Kazak is, in fact, not mine (T think it was given me by the late Vladimir Piotrovski, a wonderfully skillful poet); what I claimed was new referred to my expanding the palindrome into a rhymed quatrain with its three last verses making continuous sense in spite of each being reversible.


Curiously enough, the note appended to my Kazak by lrwin Well (who contributes an interesting essay on my "Odyssey" elsewhere in the volume) also requires correction. His statement that "the third and fourth lines are each palindromes if one excludes the last [?] syllables" is quite wпong; all four lines are palindromes, and no "last syllables" have to be excluded. Especially regrettable is Mr. Well's mistranslation of one of them. He has confused the Russian word for aloes (a genus of plant) with aloe, which means "red" or "rosy," and that, too, is mistranslated, becoming "purple"! I must also question an incomprehensible statement in Mr. Weil's article "Odyssey of a Translator." The Russian lawyer E. M. Kulisher may well have been "an old acquaintance" of my father's, but he was not "close to the Nabokov family" (I do not remember him as a person) and I have never said anywhere what Mr. Weil has me indicate in the opening paragraph of his article.


My old friend Morris Bishop (my only close friend on the campus) has touched me very deeply by his recollections of my stay at Cornell. I am assigning an entire chapter to it in my Speak On, Mnemosyne, a memoir devoted to the 20 years I spent in my adopted country, after dwelling for 20 years in Russia and for as many more in Western Europe. My friend suggests that I was bothered by the students' incompetence in my Pushkin class. Not at all. What bothered and angered me was the ineptitude of the system of Scientific Linguistics at Cornell.


I remember most of the best students in my Cornell classes. Mr. Wetzsteon was one of them. My "Bleak House diagram," which he recalls so movingly, is preserved among my papers and will appear in the collection of lectures (Bleak House, Mansfield Park, Madame Bovary, etc.) that I mean to publish some day. It is strange to think that never again shall I feel between finger and thumb the cool smoothness of virgin chalk or make that joke about the "gray board" (improperly wiped), and be rewarded by two or three chuckles (RW? AA? NS?). JULIAN MOYNAHAN Mr. Moynahan in his charming ^Lolita and Related Memories" recalls his professor of Russian, the late Dr. Leonid Strakhovski (most foreign-born lecturers used to be "doctors"). I knew him, he did not really resemble my Pnin. We met at literary parties in Berlin half a century ago. He wrote verse. He wore a monocle. He had no sense of humor. He dwelt in dramatic detail on his military and civil adventures. Most of his yarns had a knack of fading out at the critical point. He had worked as a trolley car driver and had run over a man. The rowboat in which he escaped from Russia developed a leak in the middle of the Baltic. When asked what happened then, he would wave a limp hand in the Russian gesture of despair and dismissal.


Ellendea Proffer's report on my Russian readers is both heartening and sad. "All Soviet age groups," she observes, "tend to feel that literature has a didactic function." This marks a kind of dead end, despite a new generation of talented people. "Zhalkiy udel (piteous fate)," as the Litera-turnaya Gazeta says а propos de bottes (March 4, 1970).


Several passages in Mr. Elkin's "Three Meetings," a parody of an "I remember . . ." piece, are extremely funny, such as the farcical variety of repetition or the casual reference to the "lovely eggal forms" he and I encountered on "an expedition up the Orinoco." And our third meeting is a scream.


Mr. Hughes in his "Notes on the Translation of Invitation to a Beheadings is one of the few critics who noticed the poetry of the Tamara terraces with their metamorphosed tamaracks. In the trance of objectivity which the reading of the festschrift has now induced in me, I am able to say that Mr. Hughes' discussion of the trials and triumphs attending that translation is very subtle and rewarding.


Mr. Proffer, who discusses another translation, that of my much older Korol', Dama, Valet, tackles a more ungrateful task, first because King, Queen, Knave "does not surmount its original weaknesses," and secondly because revision and adaptation blur one's interest in faithfulnesses. He wonders what "worse sins" (than planning the murder of his uncle) cowardly and brutal Franz could have committed between the twenties and sixties in Germany, but a minute's thought should reveal to the reader what the activities of that type of man could have been at the exact center of the interval. Mr. Proffer ends his "A New Deck for Nabokov's Knaves" by saving he expects the English version of Mashenka to be quite different from the Russian original. Expectation has been the undoing of many a shrewd gambler.


I had read and hugely enjoyed Mr. Scott's essay on my EO translation, "The Cypress Veil," when it first appeared in the Winter, 1965, issue of the TriQuarterly. It is a most refreshing piece. My improved cab is now ready for publication. Mr. Scott is also responsible for the last item in the volume, a letter addressed by Tirnofey Pnin to "Many respected Professor Apple [sic]," a stunning affair in which scholarship and high spirits interlace to produce the monogram of a very special masterpiece. And that frozen frenzy of footnotes!


There is magic in every penstroke and curlicue of the delightful diploma that Saul Steinberg has drawn for my wife and me.


Mr. Adams' letter about me addressed to "M. ie Baron dc Stendhal" is an extremely witty piece-- reminding me, I do not know why, of those macabre little miracles that chess problemists call suimates (White forces Black to win in a certain number of moves).


In Mr. Burgess' poem I particularly appreciate his Maltese grocer's cat that likes to sit upon the scales and is found to weigh 2 rotolos.


"Not even Colette," says Mr. Guerard in his tribute to Ada, "rendered fleshly textures and tones with such grace." The lady is mentioned in Ada.


Blending fact and fiction in a kind of slat-sign shimmer, Mr. Gold recalls our meetings in upstate New York and in a Swiss hotel. I recall with pleasure my correspondence with the puzzled йditeur of the Saturday Evening Postior which he had written what I had thought was to be an interview with me-- or, at least, with the person I usually impersonate in Montreux.


Mr. Howard's poem "Waiting for Ada" contains a wonderful description of a Grand Hotel du Miroir very like some of the "nearly pearly nougat-textured art-nouveau" places where I have been "working wickedly away" during recent sйjours in Italy.


I am grateful to Mr. Updike for mentioning, in his stylish tribute, the little Parisian prostitute whom Humbert Humbert recalls so wistfully. On the other hand there was no reason at all for that harsh and contemptuous reference to a small publishing house which brought out excellent editions of four books of mine.


Mr. Dillard's poem "A day, a country home" is most attractive-- especially the "light through the leaves, like butterflies" in the fourth stanza.


Miss Calisher's contubernal contribution expresses in a sophisticated metaphor her readiness to share the paranoia of her fellow writers. Oddly enough, even the best tent is absolutely dependent on the kind of country amidst which it is pitched.


I remember, not without satisfaction, how fiercely and frequently, during my last year of high school in Russia (which was also the first year of the revolution), most of my teachers and some of my schoolmates accused me of being a "foreigner" because I refused to join in political declarations and demonstrations. Mr. Ludwig in his splendid little article indicates with great sympathy and acumen the possibility of similar accusations being made by my new fellow-citizens. They could not vie with Vladimir Vasilievich Gippius, my fiery, redhaired teacher of Russian literature.


Dear Mr. B.: Thanks for your birthday greetings. Let me wish you many returns of the same day. How many nice people crowd around my cradle! It is pleasant to know you like Max Planck. I rather like him, too. But not Cervantes! Yours cordially, V. N.


Lines 31-32 of Mr. Brown's fascinating poem in Russian display a looping-the-loop inversion of which old Lomonosov might have been proud: "Why, better of Dante's Hell for him to burn in the seventh circle" if translated lexically. His cartoons in a British weekly are marvelous.


The editor of the TriQuarterly, in "Americanization of V. N." (an exhilarating physical process in the present case!) recalls taking Pale Fire "to Basic Training in hot Texas," tearing it from its binding, and keeping it "pure and scrolled in my Fatigues' long pocket like a Bowie knife" safe from the Barracks Sergeant. It is a beautifully written, and most touching, epic.


Laughter in the Dark is paid a suitable tribute in Mr. Wagoner's sinister poem.


I like the epithets "opulent, triplicitous," in Mr. Stern's lines, but I am not sure that any of the four Karamazovs (grotesque, humorless, hysterical, and jejune, respectively) can be defined as "triste."


My good friend, Mr. Field, has contributed some brilliantly worded remarks, one of which refers to V.N.'s being "counted upon to observe the hoisting of his statue (Peter the Great seated upon an invisible horse)." This reminded me suddenly of a not-unsimilar event in California where some fancy statuary, lovingly erected by a Russian group to commemorate Pushkin's duel, partly disintegrated after a couple of years' exposure, removing Pushkin but leaving intact the figure of magnificent Dantes pointing his pistol at posterity.


The "socio-political nature" of Mr. Brewer's tribute to Lolita, far from being repugnant to me (as he modestly assumes), is more than redeemed by the specific precision of his artistic touch.


In his "Advice to a Young Writer," Mr. Shaw draws his examples from the life, labors, and luck of "Vladimir N., perched on a hill in Switzerland." To lrwin S., perched on a not-too-distant hill, I send by Alpine Horn my best greetings.


In a very pretty little poem, Mr. Neugeboren seems to rhyme, somewhat surprisingly, "Nabokov" and "love." I would suggest "talk of" or "balk of" as more closely conforming to the stressed middle vowel of that awkward name ("Nabawkof"). I once composed the following rhyme for my students: The querulous gawk of A heron at night Prompts Nabokov To write


Mr. Oilman's tribute to Ada comes at a time when I still think that of all my books it is the one that corresponds most exactly to its fore-image; and therefore T cannot help being affected by his kind words.


Among my short stories, "Signs and Symbols" still remains an old favorite of mine. I am happy that Mr. Elliott has singled it out for comment with a phrase from Ada heading his pithy piece.


A final splendid salute comes from one of my friendliest readers. It ends on an emotional note which I inwardly respond to without being able to formulate my response with Mr. Kazin's force and feeling.
Written on March 10, 1970, and published in the Supplement to TriQuarterly 77, Northwestern University Press, 1970.

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