Nabokov’s “skyscrape r” footnot es ...
March 25, 2009
Pushkin's library lyrics
The weighty ideas behind the light verse of Eugene Onegin – and a new direction in Pushkin studies
In a review for the New York Review of Books (July 15, 1965) which he knew would read as an attack on a personal friend, Edmund Wilson accused Vladimir Nabokov of failing to understand why Pushkin’s Evgeny Onegin killed his friend Lensky. For Wilson, this “failure of interpretation” was the most serious of the failures in Nabokov’s “uneven and sometimes banal” version of Pushkin’s great novel in verse, and in his erudite commentary, which vastly outweighed the translation. “There are no out-of-character actions in Evgeni Onegin. Nabokov has simply not seen the point”, Wilson complained. “He does not seem to be aware that Onegin, among his other qualities, is . . . decidedly nasty, méchant.” Wilson followed his criticism with deference to the learning and experience which made Nabokov a “cultural live wire which vibrates between us and [the] Russian past”. “I imagine that nobody else has explored Pushkin’s sources so thoroughly”, Wilson wrote. “Mr Nabokov seems really to have done his best to read everything that Pushkin could possibly have read.”
To do one’s best to read everything that someone else could have read is a particularly searching work of love. In Chapter Seven of Onegin, Tatiana visits the empty country estate of the hero, who has departed after the fatal duel with Lensky. Her encounter with Onegin’s books is the heart of the chapter, which is framed as a divagation by the incorrigibly wayward narrator, who risks forgetting Onegin as he lingers with Tatiana. “At last alone and free” in the silent room, with its portrait of Byron and statuette of Napoleon, Tatiana weeps “copiously”, and then begins to read “avidly”, exploring a “different world”, puzzling over the “true persona” of the cold man for whom she still sighs. Here is the twenty-third stanza in Stanley Mitchell’s masterly new translation:
There were preserved on many pages
The trenchant mark of fingernails,
With them the watchful girl engages
As if she were deciphering spells.
Tatiana saw with trepidation
What thought it was or observation
Had struck Onegin, what they meant,
To which he’d given mute consent.
And in the margins she encountered
His pencil marks by certain lines.
Throughout, his soul was by such signs,
Without his knowing it, expounded,
Whether by cross, by succinct word,
Or question mark, as they occurred.
Nabokov devoted a learned note to the impression made by Onegin’s manicured fingernails in the margins – a body’s faint hint at the contents of a soul – remarking in his literary-dandy fashion that the “art” of fingernail marginalia “is a lost one today”. Nabokov’s own curiosity about Onegin’s character was aroused by the scene, in which, as he says, Pushkin has “Tatiana learn – or think she learned – something of Onegin’s nature . . . from the marginalia in his books”. In his commentary, he too lingered in the study, wanting to get closer to the hero’s nature, regretting that Pushkin had not pursued the idea (played with in drafts) of having Tatiana find Onegin’s diary. Could Pushkin not have “let Tatiana turn away in all modesty from the discovered album while allowing the reader to dip into it behind her back?”. He then notes a variant from Pushkin’s draft, listing some of the authors Onegin took on his travels: Hume, Robertson, Rousseau, Mably, Baron d’Holbach, Voltaire, Helvétius, Locke, Fontenelle, Diderot, Lamotte, and Horace, Cicero, Lucretius.
In this rejected variant, Pushkin opened to view the world of his own reading, his own thought. (In Onegin, “there is everything and nothing of Pushkin”, Andrei Sinyavsky remarks in Strolls with Pushkin, “inasmuch as Onegin is a subject familiar to him right down to the fingertips, his own, completely his own, taken apart bone by bone by the poet, who has risen above the man”.) It is this unfamiliar world that Andrew Kahn explores with impressive familiarity in Pushkin’s Lyric Intelligence.
Kahn has read systematically many hundreds of the titles in Pushkin’s own large library (in the same editions) in order to understand the nature of Pushkin’s engagement with current philosophical and aesthetic ideas. Of these titles, over 80 per cent are English and French works, in the original or in translation. Using B. G. Modzalevsky’s annotated catalogue of the library, which records the pages cut and the marginal notes and annotations made in them by Pushkin, Kahn seeks not to identify sources as past critics have done, but to trace the poet’s “thinking through lyric”. Kahn’s Pushkin is a poet of ideas, the intellectual heir of “a long eighteenth century”, but one who “suspends judgement”, using his deceptively simple and transparent poems as opportunities for the indirect dramatization of those ideas, and for “creating a lyric speaker who thinks aloud”. Allusive terms in the poems – “imagination”, “inspiration”, “fancy”, “will”, “strength” and “fame” – open up to the reader (the reader who is willing and able to read with Pushkin) the great conceptual framework that holds up their delicate lyric expressiveness.
Kahn has taken an exhilarating new direction in Pushkin studies. He draws fruitfully on the great mass of previous scholarship, discovering in the familiar lines of Pushkin’s light and exquisite lyric verse an unfamiliar world of weighty ideas. As his book advances, the exploration of these ideas dilates slowly and magnificently, taking in great reaches of history and philosophy, from the fate and image of Byron and Napoleon to the relationship of the body to the soul, as well as attending to (closely imbricated) matters of pressing daily concern to Pushkin, such as censorship, relations with the Tsar, literary celebrity, the gritty world of the growing book trade, professional enmities, and what Kahn aptly calls “the precarious consolation of friendship”.
Kahn’s book begins in difficult territory, examining, in the course of three subtly argued chapters, contemporary understandings of “classicism” and “romanticism”, terms with which Pushkin’s reputation has been caught up since the start of his poetic career in the 1810s. Among Pushkin’s early lyrics, composed at a time when “neoclassicism meant a command of the arts of imitation and parody”, were several highly allusive “dialogues of the dead”, addressed to the shades of poetic forebears. In the sonnet “The Muse”, in which the muse figures as a kindly but exigent divine flute teacher, Kahn finds an argument about “rooting the sources of art in the mastery of technique and craftsmanship”.
It is easy to share Nabokov’s impatience with “attempts to deal with literature in terms of literary ‘schools’”. In “literary history . . . vague terms such as ‘classicism’ and ‘romanticism’ straggle on and on, from textbook to textbook”, Nabokov railed, distracting “the student from direct contact with, and direct delight in, the quiddity of individual achievement (which . . . alone matters and alone survives)”. Kahn, however, grapples with these highly dynamic designations in the very terms in which Pushkin grappled with them, from his own student days throughout a lifetime of wide reading, and always in the practical manner of a working poet. Kahn reads Pushkin (who was tagged “classical” in his own day) as a poet engaged in unceasing inquiry about the powers of invention and imagination, talent and creative individuality. That path of inquiry began with textbooks at the lycée in Tsarskoe Selo (where Pushkin was taught by Alexander Galich, a prominent exponent of Enlightenment and early Romantic philosophy) and ended in the study in which he died, surrounded by his own much-cherished books.
Onegin is a supremely bookish work, playfully fascinated with the role of reading fashions in shaping character, social behaviour and states of soul. For all his bibliophile acquisitiveness, Onegin is unable to escape his khandra (fashionable boredom, spleen) through reading, so he abandons his books. Tatiana, reading those books – Byron and other “novels of the hour, / in which the epoch was displayed” – wonders whether “this angel, this proud devil” is not, after all, just “an imitation”:
A Muscovite in Harold’s cloak,
Of alien fads an explication,
Of modish words a lexicon,
A parody, when said and done?
Tatiana is herself shaped by her reading of fashionable literature: “The authors that she loves so seize her, / She feels herself their heroine” (Mitchell’s translation). Yet her love letter is no less passionate for being a parody.
When Chapter Seven was published as a separate volume in 1830, Pushkin’s enemy, the hack and schemer Faddei Bulgarin, sneered in a review that it was a “chute complète”, a total comedown for its celebrated author, that there was no poetry in its “picture of pots and pans”, that nothing whatsoever happened in its “57 small pages” but the removal of “Tanya” from the country to Moscow. Bulgarin missed the action in the study, where unsolvable puzzles about reading are so perfectly dramatized.
It is the pots-and-pans “homeliness”, the always contemporary and “unpoeticized” quality of Pushkin’s verse, that Stanley Mitchell aims to preserve in his translation, which supersedes Charles Johnston’s influential version (now thirty years old) for Penguin Classics. In eschewing Johnston’s nostalgic “poeticized” language and cadence, Mitchell has retained more of the thrilling verbal precision of Pushkin’s thinking verse. Yet, as he admits, no English line can do justice to Pushkin’s taut simplicity. In the study scene, Mitchell renders Pushkin’s “togo, po kom ona vzdykhat’ / Osuzhdena” (“of the one, for whom she is fated to sigh”) as “the true persona / To sigh for whom it is her lot”. “The true persona” renders Pushkin’s single word togo, which is all quiddity, and all about quiddity, the essence of a person or thing.
A translation is a portrait; it hints at the essence of an original. The more likenesses the better, then, for, as Wilhelm von Humboldt said, “many translations result . . . in a cumulative approximation”. Since Oliver Elton’s archaic rendition, published in 1937, Pushkin’s centenary year, there have been several English versions of Onegin: most recently, James Falen’s fine version for Oxford University Press (1995). As Mitchell explains with cheerful humility in his introduction, the idea of translating Onegin began for him in a university seminar (soon after the publication of Nabokov’s version), as part of a collective questioning of the notion of Pushkin’s untranslatability.
In any given instance, a translator’s gain is paid for with loss. Mitchell is faithful to Pushkin’s unique fourteen-line stanza form. Like Falen, he eases the rhythms of contemporary English speech into conformity with Pushkin’s strict versification. Like the original, his Onegin is a delight to read aloud. In rhyming, Mitchell frees himself from the pattern of the original just enough to keep his iambic tetrameter from falling into the jingling rhythm that often besets the four-stress metre in English, which, while more wordy than inflected Russian, is poorer in rhyme. Mitchell sometimes seeks out a euphonious half-rhyme, particularly when rendering feminine rhymes (where the final syllable is unstressed). In the very first stanza, before the narrator introduces Onegin, we are given access to the hero’s idly callous thoughts as he awaits the death of his uncle:
Ego primer drugim nauka;
No, bozhe moi, kakaya skuka
S bol’nym sidet’ i den’ i noch’
His example to others a science;
But, my God, what boredom
With a sick man to sit both day and night
This witty juxtaposition of nauka (science or knowledge) and skuka (boredom) ripples throughout Chapter One, which describes Onegin’s schooling, his high society life of ennui, and his only “true genius” – in the nauka of “tender passion”.
While Mitchell keeps the feminine endings (nauka, skuka) with an ingenious near-rhyme, he forfeits the piquant relationship between science and boredom that Pushkin sets in play:
Let others profit by his lesson,
But, oh my God, what desolation
To tend a sick man day and night
In the final stanza of Chapter Seven, Pushkin’s narrator, who enjoys everything that bores Onegin, jokingly reminds his readers that the novel is meant to be about Onegin, not Tatiana, and in a mock-epic invocation asks the Muse to put a strong staff in his hand, to help him “not wander on so waywardly”. In Johnston’s translation, the last lines of the chapter run: “I’ve paid my due to classic art: / it may be late, but it’s a start”. Mitchell stays closer to Pushkin: “Thus, classicism I placate: / An Introduction’s here, though late”.
For it is not to vague “classic art”, but to the stubborn textbook term klassitsizm that the narrator “renders honour”, teasing conventions that Pushkin knows inside out from a lifetime’s study, but will not now deliver without his own knowing, errant slant.
Thinking again, as Andrew Kahn does, about textbook words like “classicism” in Pushkin’s lexicon makes our contact with the quiddity of his individual achievement more direct, more delightful. By measuring the intellectual-historical weight of Pushkin’s verse, Kahn’s book emphasizes the risk and excitement involved in any attempt to bring that verse closer to the non-Russian reader through translation, which should attend to “science” as well as art. Like Nabokov’s “skyscraper” footnotes, Kahn’s close readings remind us just how much lingering in the study lay behind the creation of Pushkin’s fleet-footed lines.
Translated by Stanley Mitchell
244pp. Penguin. Paperback, £9.99 (US $14).
978 0 14 044810 8
PUSHKIN’S LYRIC INTELLIGENCE
392pp. Oxford University Press. £55 (US $110).
978 0 19 923474 5
Rachel Polonsky is the author of English Literature and the Russian Aesthetic Renaissance, which appeared in a new edition last year.
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