Cultural Cohesion, p.15Clive James
And that my fondness must ignore
The headlong chute direct to war
Down which Japan was quickly gliding
With all its ravishingly queer
Compound of sensual and austere.
The rapacious hostesses of pre-war Shanghai and wartime Alexandria now find their perfectly appropriate rhythmic setting. One of the many things that attracted Johnston to his Russian exemplar must have been the way Pushkin gives full value to the glamour of imperial court life without romanticizing its meretriciousness. Nobody who admires both will ever tire of counting the ways in which Pushkin and Mozart are like each other. Each could see all the world as it was yet neither could reshape it in any way except by making masterpieces. Even their own disasters lifted their hearts. (Pushkin said that trials and tribulations were included in his family budget.) Everything that happened belonged. Johnston has something of the same defiant exuberance:
How Egypt’s hostesses detested
The victories in our campaign:
“Assez de progrès,” they protested,
“Vous étiez bien à Alamein”;
And then they’d stress in full italics
The point of being close to Alex,
The races and the gay weekends
Of bathing parties with one’s friends.
They saw no merit in advancing
Far from the nightclub and the beach
Out beyond invitation’s reach
To worlds remote from cards and dancing
With absolutely not a face
They’d ever seen in the whole place.
But the Onegin stanza enforces epigrammatic terseness. As a countervailing force, Johnston employs the Spenserian stanza to luxuriate in his visual memories. Without sinning against cogency, they amply exploit this traditionally expansive form’s magically self-renewing supply of pentameter—a copiousness of rhetorical space which is symbolized, as well as sealed, by the long sweep of the alexandrine at the end:
Mersa Matruh. A fathom down, the sun
Lights on the faintest ripple of the sand
And, underseas, decyphers one by one
The cursive words imprinted on the strand
In the Mediterranean’s fluent hand;
For eastern waters have the graceful trick,
By way of compliment from sea to land,
Of signing their imprint, with curl and flick
Of the vernacular, in floweriest Arabic.
An extended metaphysical conceit has been matched up to a rigorous physical form: two kinds of intellectual strictness, yet the effect is of a single, uncalculated sensory celebration.
The essence of classical composition is that no department of it gets out of hand. After aberrations in artistic history the classic principle reasserts itself as a balancing of forces. In “In Praise of Gusto” Johnston uses his Spenserian stanzas to specify his remembered visions, but he uses them also to unfold an argument. The same contrast and balance of perception and rhetoric was demonstrated by Shelley—a romantic with irrepressible classic tendencies—when he used the same stanza in “Adonais.” Shelley obtains some of his most gravid poetic effects by deploying what sounds like, at first hearing, a prose argument. The same applies, mutatis mutandis, to Johnston, when he remembers what the Western Desert looked like after the battles:
Such scenes have potency, a strange effect,
Contagion with an undefined disease.
They throw a chill on all whom they infect,
Touch them with sadness, set them ill at ease.
The sense that friends now dead, or overseas,
Fought here and suffered, hoped here and despaired,
Transports us outside time and its degrees.
Here is a new antique, already paired
With the most classic sites that scholar’s trowel has bared.
The poem begins in the Onegin stanza, takes a long excursion in the Spenserian and returns to the Onegin. Though tipping its plumed hat to a younger version of the author—a satirical youth who “shot down other people’s fun”—it conveys a wholehearted acceptance of the good life, which apparently includes plenty of foie gras, champagne and personally slain partridges. If Dr. Leavis were still with us it would be hard to imagine him appreciating any of this, especially when he noted the book’s dedication to Sacheverell Sitwell, familiarly addressed as Sachie. Yet the spine of the poem’s argument is that prepared pleasures, though it is churlish to eschew them, are not what inspires gusto, which is
Immediately sustained delight,
Short-lived, unhoped for, yet conclusive,
A sovereign power in its own right.
It lends itself to recognition
More aptly than to definition . . .
The reason it can’t easily be defined is that it is something more all-pervading even than a view of life. It is a way of being alive. Those gifted with it, if they have artistic gifts as well, can tell the rest of us what it is like. Reviewing his own life in search of its traces, Johnston now becomes one of those who have done so. The poem ends in a clear-eyed exultation.
The fourth long poem in the book is a translation of “Onegin’s Journey” which was originally designed to go between the present chapters 7 and 8 of Eugene Onegin. Pushkin eventually decided to leave it out, but it remains a logical subject for the translator of Eugene Onegin to tackle. He makes the accomplished job of it that you would expect, revelling in the inspiration engendered by the physical obstacles of the tetrameter and the rhyme that continually looms too soon. They help contain his prolific knack—so appropriate in a translator of Pushkin—for sonic effects.
Throughout his work Johnston is to be found exploiting prosodic conventions (such as eliding “the” into the initial vowel of the next word) for all they are worth. Sometimes he overcooks it, so that you have to read a line twice to pick out the rhythm. Sometimes the conversational stress and the metrical stress separate to the point where the reader must strain to put them back in touch with each other. Usually, though, Johnston maintains the old rules only in order to increase the number of ways he can speak freely. All those ways are on view in his rendition of “Onegin’s Journey.” But anyone wanting to acquaint himself with Pushkin would be advised to turn in the first instance to the Eugene Onegin translation itself, which Penguin has now brought out.
The appearance of this great translation in a popular format is made even more significant by the fact that it carries a twenty-page introduction specially written by John Bayley. The author of the most distinguished book on Pushkin in any language, Bayley here gives the essence of his thoughts on Pushkin in general and Eugene Onegin in particular. Bayley’s book has always been the best full-length introduction to Pushkin, but until now Edmund Wilson’s essay in The Triple Thinkers (backed up by two further pieces in A Window on Russia) has been the best short one. Now Bayley has captured the second title as well as the first. I recommend this essay without hesitation as the first thing to read on Pushkin.
As for the translation itself, it is what it was hailed as when it came out, and what it will go on being for the foreseeable future. Johnston knows better than I do what it lacks of the original. When, in chapter 8, he makes Tatyana tell Onegin, “Today it’s turn and turn about,” he is well aware that there is an element of artificiality. In the original, Tatyana says just, “Today it is my turn,” and it is one of the mightiest lines in all poetry. There is endless artifice in Pushkin but no artificiality. Yet by patient craft Johnston has kept to a minimum those necessarily frequent occasions when the painfully demanding form of the stanza forces an awkward phrase. Much more often he hits off the correct blend of intricate contrivance and easily colloquial expression. He catches the spirit of the thing, and a large part of the spirit of the thing is the formal spirit of the thing.
To a remarkable extent, Johnston possesses, not just the same sort of temperament as his model, but the same sort of talent. We had no right to expect that any English poet
One of the things art does is to civilize the recent past. In Poems and Journeys there are poems, both long and short, which add significantly to the small stock of works that have helped make sense of the British Empire’s passing and of Britain’s part in the Second World War. Johnston’s voice might have been more often heard in this respect, but he chose perfection of the life rather than of the work. As Auden noted, some artists have everything required for high distinction except the desire to come forward.
If Johnston had come forward earlier and more assertively, there can be no doubt that he would have received a hearing. In some of his short pieces he makes fun of the “Trend Police” and describes the poems turned out by himself and his fellow gifted amateurs as “catacomb graffiti.” In fact, the Trend Police would not have stood much chance of shouting down work done to this standard. The locus classicus is in no more danger of being obscured than the privileged orders are in danger of losing their privileges, although Johnston would have you think, in his more predictable moments, that the contrary was true in each case.
The best reason for Johnston to think of himself as a part-time poet was that as a full-time diplomat he was well placed to write the kind of poetry which is necessarily always in short supply—the poetry of the man who spends most of his day being fully professional at something else, the poetry for which the young Johnston so admired Marvell.
Yours to restore the wasted field
And in distress to health
To serve the Commonwealth;
Yet with a wider-sweeping eye
To range above the land, and spy
The virtue and defect
Of empires, to detect
In vanquished causes, and in kings
Dethroned, the tragedy of things,
And know what joys reside
Where the Bermudas ride.
In recent times we have grown used to the externally formless epic—Berryman’s Dream Songs, Lowell’s History—and striven to convince ourselves that it possesses an internal form which makes up for its lack of shape. But this pious belief has become harder and harder to sustain. The virtues of the informal epic are prose virtues, not poetic ones. Only discipline can give rise to the full freedom of mature art. Charles Johnston has given us a better idea than we had any right to hope for of what Pushkin’s epic sounds like. But his long poems suggest that he has it in him to write an epic of his own. Even if he does not, his small but weighty output of original work, now that we have at last come to know it, enriches the poetic legacy of his generation and helps clarify that nebulous, nearby area of literary history where uninspired innovation creates its permanent disturbance.
London Review of Books , 1980; later included in
From the Land of Shadows, 1982
To meet, Sir Charles Johnston was something out of the past, and the past wasn’t even mine. He was an empire builder, and I came out of the empire he built. Somebody like him probably stepped ashore in Botany Bay with Captain Cook and explained to the Aboriginal reception committee, in a very clear voice, that he could recommend a good tailor. Upon his retirement from the diplomatic service he set about publishing, in small volumes under his own imprint, all the poetry he had written, and writing a lot more. But he never overproduced. Every poem was the finished product, four-square and deeply polished, like a rosewood military chest neatly packed with an administrator’s kit. The total effect was formal, confidently traditional, expensively turned out and unapologetically direct, and as such was duly ignored by most of the regular reviewers. But one of his little books was dedicated to his translation of Eugene Onegin. Much occupied with Pushkin at the time, I was able to recognize the Johnston version as a success, and am still proud of having been among the first to say so. Having tried to write in the Onegin stanza myself, I was in a position to salute Johnston’s astonishingly high level of sustained technical accomplishment, and having used the original as one of my textbooks for learning Russian, I knew Pushkin’s meaning well enough to spot that his translator had worked the miracle of transferring it almost intact. So it was not entirely out of naivety that I hailed Johnston’s translation without reserve. Making it clear that unstinting praise was the kind he liked—he was direct in that way too—he invited me round to his flat. We were four for lunch. Johnston’s wife, a Russian princess descended by not too many generations from one of the military heroes in War and Peace, had had a stroke by that stage which rendered her silent, but she was a keen observer. She observed me as if she had last seen someone like me on the wrong side of a barricade. The Johnstons made a majestic couple: an appropriate adjective, because their other guest, and therefore my opposite number across the tiny table, was the Queen Mother.
Conversation, except of course from the princess, was free and often funny, but there was no denying that the scene harked back to a vanished era. I wouldn’t have been surprised if the lady in the hat had picked up a bottle of champagne by the neck, walked out on to the balcony and launched a battleship. I wouldn’t even have wondered how the battleship had got there. I was too busy wondering how I had got there. It was an eloquent demonstration of what art can do to join worlds. Johnston’s world was on its way out, my world was on its way in, and my suspicion of his must have been nothing beside his of mine. But classically ordered verse provided a common ground. Perhaps because of the phenomenon that Freud calls Doppelgängerscheu, our personal acquaintance didn’t develop much beyond that date. Like any writer, of whatever background, he was concerned with himself above all things, and I soon felt bound to make it clear to him how in that respect, if in no other, he had met his match. In the daunting energy of his Indian summer he went on turning out his little volumes, and forthrightly indicated his belief that a further instalment of publicity from my pen would not come amiss. (He wasn’t rude, he just had no notion of how the literary world is supposed to work, lacking as he did even the slightest connection with it.) Cravenly I never found the words to convey that I thought this might be a bad plan. I just made myself scarce. But his work stayed with me as an extreme example of what I have always held—presumably by instinct, considering that the contrary evidence begins with Shakespeare—to be a truth about poetry: that it can release its full force only within a framework. Frameworks don’t come more framed or fully worked than they do in the verse of Charles Johnston. At first reading, his meticulous carpentry looks like his main concern. But then you notice, singing inside it, phrases that would never have been there otherwise. Build the cage well enough and it will fill itself with rare birds. It takes a rare bird to do it, but he was certainly one of those.
Reliable Essays, 2001
NABOKOV’S GRAND FOLLY
Eugene Onegin: A Novel in Verse by Aleksandr Pushkin,
translated with a commentary by Vladimir Nabokov
Nabokov Translated: A Comparison of Nabokov’s Russian and
English Prose by Jane Grayson
In the week of his death, it is instructive to remember that Nabokov’s translation of Eugene Onegin was a project dear to his heart. Expert opinions of the recent second edition were not much more favourable than they were for the first, mainly because the translator had not done enough to eliminate what were earlier judged to be eccentricities of diction, while the commentary obstinately remained unmodified in all its idiosyncrasies. There is undoubtedly a
As it happens, I am in a position to test this idea, being very much a beginner with Pushkin, and therefore in dire need of a good crib. Pushkin is never wilfully complicated, but his simplicities can be highly compressed. There are times when even an advanced student of the language is certain to need help, while the stumbler is likely to bog down completely. I should say at the outset that in several respects Nabokov’s Folly serves the turn. It is a work to be valued, although even the tyro is bound to find it silly as well as brilliant.
The ideal crib, of course, should merely be the servant of the original. But Nabokov was incapable of being anybody’s servant, even his admired Pushkin’s: in paying homage to his giant predecessor he did his best to keep his own ego in the background, but ever and anon it shouldered its way forward. Nabokov’s theory of translation was based on “humble fidelity” to the original, yet try as he might to give us nothing more pretentious than a word-for-word equivalent, he still managed to make Pushkin sound like Nabokov.
Nor is the commentary free from quirks. In fact it is largely made up of them. He has set out to be more scholarly than the scholars; it is doubtful whether anybody else inside or outside Russia knows as much about Pushkin; but you don’t have to know a thousandth as much to realize that Nabokov is no more reasonable on this subject than on any other. I switch to the present tense because it would be unfitting to talk about the author of so cantankerous a commentary as if he were not alive—he is at you all the time, continually asserting himself against those hordes of translators and academics who have either misunderstood Pushkin or, worse, understood him too quickly. But there are limits to how far insight can go without common sense to back it up.
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