Alexander Herzen

Submitted by Shakeeb_Arzoo on Fri, 08/23/2019 - 14:50

Has Nabokov commented explicitly on Alexander Herzen elsewhere apart from Speak, Memory? The nod to Herzen's From the Other Shore has been noted long ago as is this passage (as a caption to their Petersburg address):

"Aleksandr Ivanovich Hertzen (1812–1870) was a famous liberal (whom this commemoration by a police state would hardly have gratified) as well as the talented author of Bïloe i Dumï (translatable as “Bygones and Meditations”), one of my father’s favorite books."
Searching in the forum this thread comes up:

The beggar, bugger mistranslation seems awfully familiar, I seem to have read it somewhere in VN, just can't put my finger on it. There's a brief mention of Herzen and Belinsky in Nabokov's EO, but it is too tangential. The most intriguing and wonderful essay on Herzen is of course, by Isaiah Berlin and one wishes to do an entry in Nabokov's Reading.


Okay, found it; it was commented on by the late Simon Karlinsky, in the Nabokov-Wilson Letters (pg. 39). A more explicit version occurs in The Gift:

"He read Herzen and was again better able to understand the flaw (a false glib glitter) in his generalizations when he noticed that this author, having a poor knowledge of English (witnessed by his surviving autobiographical reference, which begins with the amusing Gallicism “I am born”), had confused the sounds of two English words “beggar” and “bugger” and from this had made a brilliant deduction concerning the English respect for wealth." (Chapter 3)


Alexey if so disposed, can perhaps clarify the meaning of the "amusing Gallicism" from Herzen's My Past and Thoughts that Fyodor mentions.

If I may, the amusing Gallicism refers to the French phrase Je suis né(e), which means "I was born" but translated literally would be "I am born." Herzen knew how to say "I was born" in French and assumed that it would be similar in English (the present tense of "suis"...influenced the present tense of "am"), hence the Gallicism.

I published a small article on Nabokov and Herzen (Nabokovian 53, Fall 2004) that you may find useful.


Thank you, Sergey Karpukhin for your reference and the article. And for clarifying the joke.

Best wishes,