Review of "Verses and Versions"
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Verses and Versions: Three Centuries of Russian Poetry
by Vladimir Nabokov
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 480 pp. $40
By Marta Figlerowicz
Nabokov's hallmark as a novelist is an insistent voice at once painfully intimate and painfully self-conscious about intimacy, endlessly trusting as well as endlessly suspicious. Such is the impossibly touching sensitivity of the nympholept Humbert Humbert, the ravings of the insane footnoter of Pale Fire, the nervous, mockingly autobiographical meanderings of Pnin.
Reading Nabokov's more academic work, it is hard not to hear these voices in the back of one's mind. As a critic, Nabokov shares many of the qualities which make his characters endearing but also unsettling: a sharpness of insight combined with a self-conscious eccentricity of focus; a blind, passionate love of the objects of his attention mingled with a distrust of the reader's ability to appreciate them.
If it is inherently difficult to draw the line between Nabokov the narrative voice and Nabokov the critical voice, Verses and Versions: Three Centuries of Russian Poetry, edited by Brian Boyd and Stanislav Shvabrin, muddles this distinction even further. This posthumously edited volume collects excerpts of Nabokov's many years' worth of struggles with Russian poetry translations (and, in an epilogue, a few of his French ones). In their introduction, the editors present it as a continuation and fulfillment of one of Nabokov's last wishes: that he be able to introduce the English-speaking audience to a wider, more carefully chosen array of Russian poets.
Nabokov wanted to complete this project in what he foresaw as the last decade of his life. His unexpected illness and premature death in 1977 (following an alpine butterfly-hunting trip) left the translations and analytic introductions a jigsaw of snippets. More of an archive or personal scrapbook than a critical work in its own right, the collection is unlikely to storm into the canon of Russian poetry translations. It skirts a border many of Nabokov's novels used to skirt: one between careful study and delighted self-absorption. In its strange mixture of genius insights and emotional outbursts, it is a fascinating study - if not of Russian poetry per se - of Vladimir Nabokov's mind at work in grappling with it.
The volume opens with a series of essays and poems in which Nabokov comments on the work of the translator. We see the writer at his most snide and - since, for him, the two usually come together - at his most self-conscious. Some of the pieces are witty anathemas thrown at misguided translators. Methodical as always, Nabokov meticulously classifies them into groups. He then throws each group into its own more or less sultry circle of hell, labeled with a cameo example of the typical sin its inhabitants commit:
Vronski had asked Anna what was the matter with her. "I am beremenna (the translator's italics), replied Anna, making the foreign reader wonder what strange and awful Oriental disease that was; all because the translator through that "I am pregnant" might shock some pure soul.
Other pieces in this section are verse meta-commentaries on the difficulty of translating. Nabokov's poems, though attempting to be as snappy as his prose, are far more effortful and constrained:
Pity the elderly gray translator
Who lends to beauty his hollow voice
And - choosing sometimes a second-rater -
Mimes the song-fellow of his choice.
At best Pynchonian, at worst downright farcical, these verses function as both a show of mastery and a caveat. Flexing his rhyming muscle, Nabokov is also showing us what limits his verse can and cannot reach. We can expect from him an accuracy of form and meticulousness of word choice, but not the kind of melodic facility that clearly makes him love Russian poetry. His is a language which will exaggerate its own stops and starts, and gesture all the more theatrically, to make us realize that a crucial piece of the beauty it is trying to imitate remains beyond our Anglophone understanding.
The translations that follow are a medley of early attempts (youthful, but not amateurish; this is the man whose first published work was a Russian rendition of Alice in Wonderland), their more mature reformulations and developments, and what seem to be excerpts of his lectures or articles about each of the poets he translates.
The introductory notes are a strong echo - occasionally a pull quote - of Nabokov's now-classic Lectures on Russian Literature. Idolizing a few (Pushkin, above all) and patronizing many, Nabokov tours us through his personal pantheon of Russian poets with easy grace and confident, if frequently emotional, judgment. Of early Romantics, he is begrudgingly dismissive: "Zhukovski owned a strong and delicate instrument that he had strung himself, but the trouble was he had very little to say."
Of Pushkin, he is endearingly protective at the expense of the reader:"It seems unnecessary to remind the reader that Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837) was Russia's greatest poet but it may be preferable not to take any chances."
The translations that follow each such audacious critical entrance are usually fragmentary, and invariably uneven. Some do not go far beyond a formally accurate, more or less literal rendering. Scattered among them are unexpected gems which suddenly open up before us the beauty Nabokov is constantly afraid of not doing justice to.
Among the unexpectedly gripping parts of Verses and Versions is Nabokov's re-translation into English of a Russian poem closely modeled on an early British Romantic ballad. The author of the Russian original, Zhukovski, was an early Russian Romantic whose work developed primarily under the influence of the more rapidly developing Western European Romanticism.
Not only is the work among Nabokov's most melodically successful ones. Fascinating in its own right is the degree to which the Russian poet alters the landscapes presented by his British model, creating a drastically different vision of Romantic nature, the oddity of which Nabokov is quick to grasp and underscore:
Now who be ye would cross Lochgyle
this dark and stormy water
Oh, I'm the chief of Ullva's isle
and this Lord Ullin's daughter.
Fisherman, take us in your boat
fisherman, save us from our pursuers,
Ooleen with his horsemen is not far,
we hear their shouts, the trampling of their
(Zhukowski, trans. Nabokov)
In Zhukovski's rendition, the perspective and the landscape change radically from Campbell's original. A curious fisherman interrogating a silent warrior is converted into an impassive, influential boat owner addressed by a desperate boy. The impersonal whistling and shrieking of stormy weather is converted into the trampling and shouting of the couple's pursuers. The landscape becomes both more alive and more hostile to the two main protagonists attempting to traverse it. For Campbell, the couple are awe-inspiring individuals making their way through a dangerous but generally indifferent landscape; in Nabokov's translation of Zhukovski, the two lovers become insignificant human specks trying to communicate with a conscious, demonic external universe in which even the humble fisherman becomes slightly larger than life.
Another curious episode is a series of Nabokov's attempts at translating the same poem, "The Journey," by "the gentle" Fyodor Tyutchev. The first two were composed in the early forties; the third, about a decade later. Across the three versions Nabokov's syntax gradually loosens, moving away from a strict conformance to Russian metrics towards a more confident rhythm of its own.
Blacker and denser the wildwood grows.
What a comfortless neighborhood!
Moody night peers like a hundred-eyed beast
out of every bush in the wood.
The forced syntax of the first sentence, and the metrically awkward second line (coined as if only to preserve the rhyme) are saved by the sudden fluidity of the second stanza. The text seems majestic but also forcedly foreign, self-consciously estranged from the modern reader. Similar problems haunt version two:
In denser masses the black trees rise.
What a comfortless neighborhood!
Grim night like a beast with a hundred eyes
peers out of the underwood.
After these first attempts, the third version of the poem comes as a considerably surprise. Nabokov renounces entirely his attempt at keeping a fixed meter. The translation is free to find its own tone and melody. The results are syntactically and rhythmically calmer and more restrained, closer to what seems to have been the heart of the original poem:
Blacker and denser is the deep pine wood.
What melancholy country!
Grim night like a hundred-eyed beast
looks out of every bush.
The collection is ostensibly organized in chronological order, as if it were the masterful run-through of Russian poetry Nabokov intended to create. Yet, in reading the volume, what most draws one's attention are those episodic, far more personal histories of drafting and re-drafting: small insights into Nabokov's thinking process or into a curious difference between the two languages and their corresponding cultures. This string of matter-of-fact, seemingly accidental discoveries, details Nabokov would have dismissed as no more than chips flying off of the literary monument he is carving, keeps one's attention even though we soon realize that the book's central sculpture is never going to attain its promised form.
We leave Verses and Versions with an amazed confusion similar to one we feel at the end of many of Nabokov's novels. Wherever Nabokov fails, he fails nobly. Even if he does not bring us to the heart of the poem, he gives it a theatrical confidence and a stiff dignity that saves it from bathos or ridicule. In his successes, he achieves heights not only of translation, but also of self-revelation: allowing the essays, commentaries, and poems to flicker with what is both a reflection of their subjects' brilliance and the eccentric wit of their critic-translator. We make a step towards a better understanding of Russian poetry, and a leap towards admiring - and genuinely liking - the obsessively ironic, frequently indignant guide who condescended to accompany us there.
Marta Figlerowicz '09 is zaspana, but hopes it is not too shocking.
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