Re: American writing; translation parrots; BS
Suellen Stringer-Hye wrote:
While I'm not prepared to enter into a serious discussion of whether VN was
an American writer or not, it must be pointed out that VN himself often
commented on his "Americanness" in Strong Opinions. Here's just one example of
pg. 26 Mc-Graw Hill 1973. Alvin Toffler: Though born in Russia, you have
lived and worked for many years in America as well as in Europe. Do you feel any
strong sense of national identity?
VN: I am an American writer, born in Russian and educated in England....
This is an interesting quote. VN’s response seems precise, truthful and
diplomatic; but if that’s all he said, then it evades Toffler’s question, and
fails to answer it. Perhaps there is some other quote where VN specifically
replies to the question about his strong sense of national identity. I assume
VN carried an American passport in 1973 (if that’s when the interview took
place). Presumably Albert Einstein and Wernher von Braun also carried American
passports, but I find it extremely difficult to think of either of them as
Americans, or as in any way products of American cultural values and educational
There are numerous American writers who express the essence of America and
its literature: Updike, Salinger, Mailer, Hemingway, Cheever, Carver; the list
could be extended indefinitely, but VN doesn’t belong on it. VN doesn’t,
to my mind, write in any kind of a recognizably American idiom.
Unsurprisingly, since he didn’t come to America until he was 41 years old. Three of VN’s
novels with an American setting come to mind: Lolita, Pnin and Pale Fire. All
three feature misfit Europeans, quite out of place in their environment.
All three could be seen as grossly distorted caricatures of VN himself. In
fact, that’s the way I see them. I firmly continue to believe that VN in America
was never more than a European/Russian, living a cultural frontier life.
That was his self-definition.
Carolyn wrote (regarding VN’s bedrock beliefs on translation --- literal or
We don't have to guess - - VN wrote some remarkable lines
What is translation? On a platter
A poet's pale and glaring head, etc
these marvelous lines …. may well be the best thing VN ever wrote in
I trust Carolyn's words have been fairly edited and extracted. VN’s “parrot”
lines are quite well-known in literary translating circles, where they are
regarded as an entertaining jeu d’esprit. Is Carolyn being serious? Is her
critical acumen sparking on all six cylinders? If these lines are marvellous,
and “the best thing VN ever wrote in English”, then, taken along with “
English poetry has few things better to offer than ‘Pale Fire’”, and “VN's
adjectival precision and aptness have no rival”, we might as well throw the rest of
English literature into the trash-can.
Still; one man’s poison is another man’s poisson; what’s goose for the
gander is gravy for the gourmet; disgustibus non disputanderum.
Nabokov, in Bend Sinister prefered to describe "dream producers" as..."
usually several, mostly illiterate and middle-class and pressed by time" , but
thankfully his animistic trait which I've been coming across over and over in
the first chapters of this novel drops down and off in in VN's other novels
to become brilliant metaphors.
He sounds as at his most "foreign" in BS…..
The last sentence seems to me 100% true. In speaking of “dream producers”
did VN have Hollywood in mind? Or was he talking about novelists in general?
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