NABOKV-L post 0017752, Thu, 26 Feb 2009 15:19:53 -0300

THOUGHTS: Derzhavin's acrostic (was "New Republic" etc)
More excerpts from going on discussion:

Jerry Katsell ( to CK) If you can't recognize a knife job by a reviewer, Nemser, intent upon heaping dung and snide innuendo upon Nabokov to make his own name, then your finding that the review is "flawless" is itself fatally flawed.By the way, Vladimir Markov was my beloved teacher also, and in the year I was his research assistant he never claimed to have found Derzhavin's acrostic (Ruina chti). It surely had been noticed by many in the last couple of centuries.
C.Kunin( to J.Katsell): If I can't agree with you then I am fatally flawed? [...]I did use the word "flawless" as hyperbole, by the way.I studied with Professor Markov from 1970 to 1974 [...] he mentioned the Derzhavin acrostic once - - I would assume in a course on eighteenth century literature [...] He really did claim he deserved to win a Nobel Prize - - I didn't make that up.
J.Aisenberg: Nabokov's concept of translation[...] is an issue for debate, one that questions the ultimate value of any kind of translation whatsoever, though I suppose that this is just mere rhetoric since nobody's going to give up on it. Also, in terms of Nemser, he compared and contrasted a couple e.g.'s of other author's translated verses against N.'s, preferring the other author's attempts. Neither were exactly great shakes to this English reader's ear, but Nabokov's at least had the virtue of being sharper, more economical, and more rhythmic. Well not the ones from Onegin. To Nemser's credit[...]he actually demonstrated a little style and wit without falling into that typical kind of debilitating cuteness that mars so much reviewing...
Jerry Friedman: If I may go off on a tangent--"O God, Our Help" is by Isaac Watts[...]the imagery is from Psalm 90 (89 in the Vulgate). The image of time like a river is from verse 5, and I imagine Derzhavin got it from the same source.
Sergei Soloviev: I should notice (for all our "amateurs" of acrostichs etc) that in this case the acrostich is not perfect from the point of view of a russian reader - it looks doubtful even that Derzhavin was conscious that it is there[...][ eight lines is very short poem, and an approximative acrostich with doubtful meaning may very well be accidental.
A.Sklyarenko (to CK) I know about the acrostic. I doubt that it was intended by Derzhavin (although it is true that Derzhavin liked acrostics and had composed one or two of them in the past). Khodasevich's theory, according to which Derzhavin's eight lines are a beginning of an unfinished poem, is very convincing. By the way, the poem's imagery was influenced by the picture "The River of Time, ot the Emblematic Representation of the World History" that hung on the wall of Derzhavin's room.[...] If it is an acrostic after all, I suggest it is an unfinished..
M.Roth: I'm not sure how much it matters, but Sergei Davydov says the acrostic (insomuch as it exists) was "discovered by Morris Halle." See here:'Pushkin's Merry Undertaking and 'The Coffinmaker,' in Slavic Review, vol. 44, No. 1 (1985), 30-48.pdf. As for the review of Verses and Versions, I have to say that I admire Carolyn's remarks. I found the review a fair contribution to a larger conversation.

JM: After exagerations and hyperboles (Katsell's "...noticed by many in the last couple of centuries"; CK's "flawless," for example) I learned that, from the point of view of the Russian reader, Derzhavin's acrostic might be considered "not perfect", "accidental", "unfinished." So, either V.Markov's comment in class was a joke or another exageration: Kunin's testimony is valid anyway!

SKB's pointing out the similarity bt. Psalm 90 ( "O God our help") and Derzhavin's last lines is as important as it was for me to learn that D. might have been influenced by a picture hanging on the wall in his room. Somewhere else in the Old Testament ( Ecclesiastes?) we hear that "there's nothing new under the sun" and, even so, repetition and kryptomnesia may be often enlightening to an observer, to distinguish it from dated experiences inspired by a vast common source.

Nemser mentions VN's "sadism" towards the reader when he quotes Edmund Wilson who "goes on to assault Nabokov ...; accuses him of harboring 'sado-masochistic Dostoevskian tendencies' with which he 'seeks to torture both the reader and himself by flattening Pushkin out and denying to his own powers the scope for their full play' [...] The piece was so hostile and far-fetched that one reader wrote in proposing that the review had been crafted by Nabokov himself, as an appendix to Pale Fire. Like Wilson's review, Nabokov's rejoinder was wildly sharp..." From my relatively modest position I consider Nemser's reference very apt ( we may attribute the excess to E.W).
Nabokov's main characters are often cruel and sadistic ("Laughter in the Dark", "Lolita", etc). Nevertheless he keeps them under control as his "galley-slaves," and this project is sometimes be extended to the reader. If this "control" becomes a fundamental element in a novel, part of a dialectic and level for the interaction bt. novel, author, reader, this is not equally applicable to translations. In the latter, too many objective and factual informations engulf the more delicate subjective reaction to what words always convey ( form, sound, texture, rythm) concerning what exceeds their own ( the word's) power to express.
VN's French article about Pushkin, and his non-literal translation of one of his poems, brings out a different Nabokov who, perhaps, trusts more his reader's ability to access the "otherwordly" verbal dimension that permeates his work.
What would have caused such a radical change in Nabokov?

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