Shrayer on Nabokov ...
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Maxim D Shrayer onPublished on the 13 June 2010
You’ve started with Nabokov’s collected short stories.
This is my favourite collection, and a lot of my own work on Nabokov deals with the stories. About 60 of them were written in Russian, ten in English. They cover four decades of Nabokov’s literary life and are representative of his dynamic as a writer both in Russian and in English, and as both a European and an American émigré. If you want to see his various predilections, the aesthetics and politics of Nabokov’s work, then the stories are a great place to go. Nabokov leaves a mark on the genre – some have argued that they are among the very best Russian, European, American short stories ever written. They are a great example of late, blazing modernism.
After Lolita made Nabokov famous, he oversaw the enterprise of Englishing his Russian works, and the stories are done very well. Back in the 1930s – he was already a famous émigré author but unknown in the English-speaking world – several stories had been translated, by Gleb Struve and others. In the 1940s Nabokov had collaborated with a man by the name of Petr Pertzoff, producing exemplary translations of his finest Russian stories. Subsequently, he worked closely with his son Dmitri Nabokov begin_of_the_skype_highlighting end_of_the_skype_highlighting, who is a dedicated son and a gifted translator. Vladimir Nabokov would say that, unless a translator was working directly from the Russian, they should work from an existing English translation – not necessarily a kosher procedure, strictly speaking, but a valid one in Nabokov’s case. If you were to compare some of the Russian originals with the English versions line by line, they would not be identical. But Nabokov got to have a second go at the stories, in a way, and he made changes. I don’t want to say he improved them, but they tell a more complete story – in English – of his literary career.
Nabokov’s stories go back to Chekhov and Bunin and the great Russian love story, in which desire and memories interact, mostly in unhappy ways for the characters, but happily for the reader. The writing displays the perfect command of the form. In ‘Spring in Fialta’, penned in 1936, an artist realises that the death of his beloved has been a turning point of his own artistic creativity. But the stories, art and artistry notwithstanding, do address politics and ideology, too. It amazes me to this day that some readers think of Nabokov as this ivory tower artist, a vertiginous craftsman above all, without knowing or acknowledging that at key points he was capable of expressing his strong ethical and historical views in no uncertain terms. He might have been the first American writer, for example, to write about the falsification of the Holocaust, in a story published in the New Yorker in June 1945. So there is a lot there in the stories. They are a treasure trove.
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