Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0023436, Mon, 29 Oct 2012 00:40:59 -0400

Collected Poems by Vladimir Nabokov ...


Collected Poems by Vladimir Nabokov, ed by Thomas Karshan: review
Nabokov’s poems show off his passion for language, finds Duncan White, reviewing the novelist's Collected Poems.

Nabokov, whose Collected Poems are newly reissued, was also an accomplished lepidopterist. Photo: The Natural History Museum, Lond
By Duncan White
7:00AM GMT 28 Oct 2012Comment
‘Lolita is famous, not I,” said Vladimir Nabokov. “I am an obscure, doubly obscure, novelist with an unpronounceable name.” He was not wrong: the last serious estimate at Lolita sales put them at 50 million copies. Even during his lifetime, Nabokov had to face the cultural ubiquity of his creation. In 1976, he wrote in bewilderment to one correspondent, having been “shown an advert in an American rag offering a life-sizeLolita doll with ‘French and Greek apertures’”. Literary aesthetes are not supposed to generate merchandise.
It is the fame of Lolita that has fixed Nabokov in the public imagination as a writer of the Fifties, a merciless satirist of commodified Americana, whose marriage of high style, provocative subject matter and formal experimentation spawned a generation of post-modern imitators. Yet Nabokov was 56 when Lolita was published in Paris in 1955, by which time he had already published 11 novels (nine of them in Russian), dozens of short stories and five collections of poems.
While Nabokov’s novels have been regularly reissued, his poetry has been neglected, certainly for an English readership. The solitary 1971 collection Poems and Problems has long been out of print, so the publication of Collected Poems is a welcome corrective.
As with so many of the finest prose writers of his vintage, Nabokov started out as a poet. In his memoir, Speak, Memory, he looked back with disbelief at the “monstrous regularity” with which he churned out his juvenilia as a precocious schoolboy in St Petersburg. He was an aristocrat and could afford to self-publish his first collection in 1916, a year before the revolution would force him to flee his home.
In the Crimea, on the periphery of the Russian Civil War, he underwent an intense education in Russian poetry and prosody, immersing himself in Pushkin and the Symbolists. Reading the Georgian poets as a Cambridge undergraduate, he continued to compose in Russian.
In 1922 Nabokov published his first collection of mature poems, the same year Joyce published Ulysses and Eliot The Waste Land. It was also the year in which his father was killed when trying to protect a political rival from assassination.
With the death of his father, his exile attained a sense of permanence and his poetry was infused with nostalgia and loss. While his output fell off sharply once he began writing novels in the late Twenties, Nabokov would continue to compose poems in his various seats of exile: Berlin, Paris, Boston, Ithaca (New York), Montreux.
This book sweeps from the derivative poems of his youth to the light verse he composed in English for The New Yorker. Thanks to the scrupulous editing of Thomas Karshan, who also writes an elegant introductory essay, this collection does not simply present the poems in chronological order but divides the Russian poems between those translated by Nabokov and those by his son.
Dmitri Nabokov was an experienced translator of his father’s work and his rendering of “The University Poem”, about a love affair in Cambridge, is a triumph of understated felicity. There are, however, occasions when his versions prove intrusive. Take the translation of “Easter”, a poem written in the weeks after Nabokov’s father’s death, which begins as follows:
I see a radiant cloud, I see a rooftop glisten
like a mirror, far away… I listen
to breathing shade, light’s stillicide…
“Stillicide” is not only a recherché way to translate the original’s “dripping light” but it is also a word that Nabokov used with great particularity in the poetic section of his 1962 novel Pale Fire. For all its musicality, in terms of Nabokov’s poetic diction its use here is an ostentatious anachronism.
Poetic translation, and its impossibility, is one of the themes Nabokov himself develops. In “An Evening of Russian Poetry”, published in English in 1945, he wrote about the particularity of Russian rhymes:
love automatically rhymes with blood,
nature with liberty, sadness with distance,
humane with everlasting, prince with mud,
moon with a multitude of words, but sun
and song and wind and life and death with none.
After his father, and his land, it is this third loss, of his language, that is the subject of his best poetry. While he gave up writing fiction in Russian after arriving in the United States in 1940, he kept on composing poems in his mother tongue and it is in “Fame” and “The Paris Poem”, written in the early Forties, that this loss is most strongly felt. In these poems, Nabokov permits himself to doubt himself in a way his controlled and ironic fictions forbid.
In comparison to those two long works, his other poems can appear slight. Faulkner said that every novelist is a failed poet. If that is true of Nabokov then he certainly fails in an interesting way: as he matured his poems became stories and these narrative poems, in turn, helped shape the novels.
Inevitably, one returns to Lolita. The strange and smutty “Lilith” (1929) is an early draft of the controversial subject he would bring to final development in his most famous novel. While Lolita continues to sprout bizarre new growths – from a Japanese gothic fashion style to illicit Iranian book clubs – the reading of Nabokov’s poetry affords a deeper understanding of his work to take root.

Collected Poems
by Vladimir Nabokov
ed by Thomas Karshan
215pp, Penguin Classics, t £18 Buy now from Telegraph Books (RRP £20, ebook £11.99)

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