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Cultural cohesion, p.16
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       Cultural Cohesion, p.16

           Clive James

  Following Gautier, Nabokov thought the ideal translation should be an interlinear lexicon. The theory is ably expounded by Jane Grayson in her painstaking Nabokov Translated, a book which has the additional merit of showing that in the case of his own writings the master is tactfully flexible about putting it into practice. But where Eugene Onegin is concerned there can apparently be no departure from dogma. Throughout the commentary, Nabokov is forever telling you the words he might have used in the translation if he had set out to do anything so misguided as convey the spirit of the original. But no, he has resisted against overwhelming odds: awkwardness is not only not to be avoided, it is positively to be sought, if that happens to be the price of exactitude.

  There is something in this view, although not as much as Nabokov thinks. It is true that a translator who sets out to render the “spirit” is likely to traduce the original author. But Nabokov’s paroxysms of accuracy traduce Pushkin’s spirit as thoroughly as any academic poetaster has ever done. He makes Pushkin sound like a Scrabble buff. Certainly there are words in Pushkin that don’t now mean what they once did, and even words that would have seemed odd at the time. Hence the modern foreign reader’s need for more help than an ordinary dictionary can provide. But none of this means that Pushkin wants to be puzzling. On the contrary, what impresses you about him is his unforced naturalness of tone. The sad thing about Nabokov’s translation is that he is not really capable of echoing such a quality. Instead, he dithers pedantically in the very area of verbal sophistication which for Pushkin was never more than a playground.

  It is well known that Nabokov keeps saying “mollitude” where either “bliss” or “languor” would have done. Sometimes you can make a better case for “bliss” than for “languor” and sometimes vice versa, but what nobody normal can doubt is that there is no case to be made for “mollitude.” Yet after all the uproar which greeted his use of “mollitude” in the first edition, here it still is in the second, having the effect, every time it appears, of wrinkling the reader’s brow. The idea behind using “mollitude” is evidently to convey something of the Russian word’s Frenchified feeling. But “mollitude” does nothing to make the English reader think of French influence. It just makes him think about the weight of the OED.

  At least he can find “morgue” in the Concise, defined in roughly the same way Nabokov uses it, to mean “arrogance.” But arrogance is scarcely the first thing an English reader thinks of when he sees the word “morgue.” He thinks of dead bodies on zinc tables. Why not just use “arrogance”? The answer, I’m afraid, is that Nabokov wants to indulge himself in the Euphuism of “I marvelled at their modeish morgue.” (In the introduction we learn of Onegin and Lensky that “both are blasé, bizarre beaux.” Always the virtuoso of his adopted tongue, Nabokov never quite grasped that half the trick of composing in English is not to write alliteratively.)

  Why use “trinkleter” where “haberdasher” would have done? Why “larmoyant” for “lachrymose”? What does “debile” give you that “feeble” doesn’t? Why “cornuto” for “cuckold”? Certainly the Russian word has horns which the Italian word reproduces. Unfortunately the Italian word is not in English. Nor is Nabokov correct in supposing that there is any word in Inferno III, 9, which might mean “forever.” He quibbles so relentlessly himself that you would have to be a saint not to quibble back.

  On this showing, Nabokov has no call to despise those less informed translators who have had the temerity to cast their versions in rhyme. His unrhyming version sounds at least as weird as the very worst of theirs. But as a crib it is the best available, especially in this second edition, where each line matches a line in the original—even, in many cases, to the extent of reproducing the word order. Worse than useless for the reader without Russian, for the learner Nabokov’s translation would be just the ticket, if only the commentary were better balanced. But Nabokov’s ambitions as a scholar are thwarted by his creativity. He starts shaping the facts before he has fully submitted himself to them. He is immensely knowing, but knowingness is not the same as knowledge.

  Expending too much of his energy on being bitchy about other writers, scholars and critics, Nabokov the commentator sounds at best like. A. E. Housman waspishly editing an obscure classic. At worst he sounds like A. L. Rowse trying to carry a daft point by sheer lung-power. Calling Dostoevsky “a much over-rated, sentimental and Gothic novelist” is dull if it is meant to be funny and funny if it is meant to be serious. We are told that Balzac and Sainte-Beuve are “popular but essentially mediocre writers.” I can’t pretend to know much about Balzac, but I am reasonably familiar with Sainte-Beuve, and if he is mediocre then I am a monkey’s uncle. Madame de Staël is thoroughly patronized (“a poor observer”) without any mention being made of the fact that Pushkin himself thought highly of her. As for Tchaikovsky’s version of Eugene Onegin, it is not a “silly opera.” It is a great opera.

  But most of this is casual snidery. Distortions of Pushkin’s meaning are less forgivable. Commenting on the exchange of dialogue between Tatyana and her nurse, Nabokov, forgetting even to mention Romeo and Juliet, concentrates on discrediting the official Soviet view of the nurse as a Woman of the People. Yet that view is part of the truth. When the nurse talks about being given in marriage without regard to her own wishes, she is illuminating the condition of slavery. Tatyana might not be really listening to her, but Pushkin is listening, and so should the reader be. This acute social awareness runs right through Pushkin, building up all the time, until in the later prose he provides the model for the social consciousness of all the Russian literature to come. There is nothing naive about taking cognizance of this elementary fact. Nabokov is naive in trying to avoid it. Pushkin really is the Russian national poet, even if the Soviet regime says so. Above all, he is the national poet of all the people who have been persecuted by that regime in the name of an ideal of justice which Pushkin’s very existence proves was once generous and merciful.

  Nabokov seems determined to miss the point of what is going on even among the main characters. He tells us all about the books Tatyana has read but fails to notice her gifts of psychological penetration. He can’t seem to accept that Tatyana ends by slamming the door in Onegin’s face. He claims to detect in Tatyana’s final speech “a confession of love that must have made Eugene’s experienced heart leap with joy.” Incredibly, the moral force of Tatyana’s personality seems to have escaped him. Nor can he see that Onegin is arid and Lensky fruitful; that the difference between them is the same difference Pushkin saw between Salieri and Mozart; and that the outcome is the same—envy and revenge. Presuming to avoid sentimentality, Nabokov’s homage diminishes its object, limiting the reader’s view of the range of emotion which Pushkin embraced. Pushkin’s artistic personality was the opposite of Nabokov’s. Pushkin had negative capability. Not that Pushkin can be equated with Keats, even if you think of Keats’s sensibility combined with Byron’s airy manner. Eugene Onegin’s stature is Shakespearean: you have to imagine a Shakespeare play written with the formal compactness of a poem.

  On technique Nabokov gives us what we had a right to expect from the man who invented John Shade. (If only Shade, instead of Charles Kinbote, had written this translation!) There is a long disquisition on prosody which is ruined by pseudoscience. (The spondee is proved mathematically not to exist.) But when Nabokov calls Pushkin’s tetrameter “an acoustical paradise,” and takes time to examine the miracle of simple words producing great sonorities, he is writing criticism of the first order. He is also good on trees, houses, carriages, visitors’ books, methods of travel, manners—although even here he can’t resist going over the top. He finds himself saying that Pushkin was not especially sympathetic with the Russian landscape. There is a certain pathos about that, as if Nabokov were trying to insert himself into the physical reality of the old, lost Russia that will never now return. A doomed attempt and a superfluous one, since by pointing to the source of its literary tradition Nabokov has helped re
mind us of the Russia that really is undying, and in which his place is now secure.

  New Statesman, 1977 ; later included in

  From the Land of Shadows, 1982


  Edmund Wilson was no fool, but his magisterial self-confidence could make him do foolish things, and one of the most foolish was to lay himself open to Nabokov’s genius for aggressive pedantry by suggesting that Nabokov might have lost his grip on the Russian language. Wilson was merely a gifted amateur student of languages. Nabokov was a Russian, and thus well qualified to make Wilson’s pontifications on the subject look ridiculous. In the subsequent outburst of hilarity, it was forgotten that Wilson had generously helped Nabokov to secure his position in the United States. It was also forgotten that Nabokov himself was capable of the misplaced self-confidence of the autodidactic crank. For an appreciation of the resources Nabokov could bring to his prose when writing fiction, there is nothing better than Martin Amis’s introduction to the Everyman reissue of Lolita. But I still think Kingsley Amis had a point when he took a passage of that novel apart and detected as much self-admiration as evocation. Nabokov would have to be rated as a writer of sublime talent if he had composed nothing else except Speak, Memory. But there is such a thing as getting so close to language that you can no longer keep your distance from what you are writing about with it, and that awkward propensity really shows up in Nabokov’s version of Eugene Onegin.

  I was careful, when reviewing it, not to claim too much knowledge of the original and thus fall into the same trap in which Wilson’s corpse already lay impaled, with plenty of bamboo stakes left unoccupied for further victims. But I wouldn’t have needed a word of Russian—except perhaps nyet—to know that something weird was going on. Nabokov had scrupulously registered the minor meanings from moment to moment but the grand meaning (or moral: there is no other word for it) he had either missed or misinterpreted. Why he should have done so remains a puzzle, but the clue might lie somewhere in the absurdity of his remarks about Tchaikovsky’s opera. Among Russians familiar with both opera and poem, there are not many who would say that either makes the other trivial: in the light of historical events, they would rather count their blessings, and leave the two masterpieces in fruitful, complementary contention. Nabokov admitted that he had a tin ear for music, so why did he not disqualify himself in this instance? The answer might be elementary: he couldn’t bear the competition. If he thought an area was his, he would turn his full firepower on anyone else who strayed into it. He was solipsistically proprietorial about Russia, the novel and art itself. Perhaps forced exile encourages that condition. But we can’t expect every great artist to have a great soul. If more of them were like Verdi, we could read artists’ biographies for uplift; but we would be so repelled by Wagner that we would forget to listen, or by Picasso that we would forget to look.

  Reliable Essays, 2001



  Stevie: A Biography of Stevie Smith by Jack Barbera

  and William McBrien

  Some would say that Stevie Smith was as daft as a brush. Others would say that she was pretty much of a bitch. Calling her mad was always the best way to get out of admitting that she could be cruel, just as calling her naive was always the best way to get out of admitting that her poetry made almost everybody else’s sound overwrought. It was an effect she intended, and was not above occasionally crowing about.

  Many of the English,

  The intelligent English,

  Of the Arts, the Professions

  and the Upper Middle Classes,

  Are under-cover men,

  But what is under the cover

  (That was original)

  Died . . .

  Few people except the Queen, who gave her a medal and asked her to tea, were brave enough to let on in public that Stevie Smith’s poetry was the kind they liked best because it didn’t sound like poetry at all. In private, however, she always had a following, which in her later years grew to embrace a large minority of Britain’s intelligent readers, so that she became something of a living treasure. Sir John Betjeman was more widely loved—he was more lovable—but the bookish were proud of Stevie as the British sometimes are of an old concrete pillbox that is allowed to go on disfiguring an otherwise perfect cow pasture because it reminds them of a time when they felt united.

  Perhaps England our darling will

  recover her lost thought

  We must think sensibly about our

  victory and not be distraught,

  Perhaps America will have an idea,

  and perhaps not.

  She fitted in by not fitting in at all. Least of all did she fit into modern literary history, and that is probably why there has always been a certain amount of interest in her across the Atlantic from where she lived and wrote. Some of the brighter young American academics, hankering for a less deterministic version of their subject, would like to see it refocused on the individual talent. A more individual talent than Stevie Smith’s you don’t get.

  This excellent biography originated in the United States. Its authors cherish Stevie in the same intense way as those American liberal-arts professors on sabbatical leave who, having booked into a different West End theatrical production every night, end up, sometimes at the expense of their judgement, more in love with London than anyone who lives there could ever be. But the tireless Messrs. Barbera and McBrien—they even sound like a pair of sleuths—have cracked the case. They have fallen all the way for Stevie’s marvellous spontaneity without being seduced by that little-girl act of hers or overawed by the ostentatiously suicidal Weltschmerz that for most of her long adult life made it seem unlikely she would get through another day without trying to end it all under a bus. To what degree her naivety was false and her vulnerability tougher au fond than an old boot will remain conjectural, although nobody from now on will want to conjecture without adducing at least some of the evidence that Barbera and McBrien so meticulously provide. But there cannot now be, if there ever was, any doubt about her poetry. It was never naive and seldom out of control. Stevie Smith was an artist of the utmost sophistication, pursuing the classic course of returning to simplicity through refinement, calculating her linguistic effects with such precision that they sound as innocently commanding as a baby’s cry in the night.

  Nobody heard him, the dead man,

  But still he lay moaning:

  I was much further out than you thought

  And not waving but drowning.

  Stevie spent most of her almost seventy years looking after her aunt in Palmers Green, which in the course of time graduated from being near London to being well inside it but without getting any closer to the centre of the literary action. She would journey in by public transport to her stuffy job as secretary to a publisher, and, at the end of a tiresome day, journey back out again. Weekends in the country—she had Rilke’s knack for securing invitations, although nothing like his punctilio as a guest—provided what little adventure she ever knew. Her pre-war Novel on Yellow Paper (an unforgettable work that has nevertheless needed to be rediscovered several times since the day it was first greeted, correctly, as a masterpiece) contains most of whatever had happened to her up until then, and altogether too much of what had happened to her friends, some of whom never forgave her for putting embarrassing facts unaltered into her fiction. She had been to Germany and found out something about it, although not enough to help her realize that the old-style anti-Semitism of Hilaire Belloc had irrevocably lost whatever charm it had ever had. For a while she was fashionable, but she did not live fashionably. On those smart country weekends her only function was that of spare wheel. Her sexuality was either infantile or uncommonly well hidden for someone who made a practice of saying unfortunate things. What she really knew about was books.

  She read prodigiously, absorbing the whole of English poetry right down to the level of its technique. At school, she had been obliged to get poems by
heart. Sayability was her criterion, even during the ten years it took her to find her own voice. After she found it, she never wrote a line that could not be read aloud by a bright child. No child, though, has ever had her range of allusion. In Novel on Yellow Paper the narrator—called Pompey but otherwise indistinguishable from the actual Stevie—wonders whether she has read too much. Stevie probably did read too much for her own happiness, but for her poetry the result was a well of association sunk through centuries. She also read a great deal outside English, particularly in French, and especially Racine, whose decorous example helped inspire the finely calibrated play of tone which permitted her to run wild in an ordered manner. A line of hers may look as shapeless as a holdall but it can take a long time to unpack.

  Come death, you know you must come

  when you’re called

  Although you’re a god.

  It is meant to be Dido speaking, but you can’t, and aren’t meant to, read the words “Come death” without thinking of the song “Come away, come away, death” in Twelfth Night. On the page opposite “Dido’s Farewell to Aeneas” in the Collected Poems (Oxford, 1976), the first line of “Childe Rolandine” shows how the frame she constructed for her seemingly primitive pictures was, in the strict sense, a frame of reference:

  Dark was the day for Childe Rolandine the artist

  When she went to work as a secretary-typist . . .

  It was a dark tower to which Shakespeare’s—and, later, Browning’s—Childe Roland heroically came. Stevie, unheroically rotting behind a secretarial desk, has found a way to raise her lament beyond the personal. In this borrowed poetic context, a prosaic complaint brings the reader bang up to date:

  It is the privilege of the rich

  To waste the time of the poor . . .

  Throughout her work, free-verse poems alternate with more formal compositions, but the free verse always gestures towards form and the forms always wander off. She strove industriously to make it look as if she didn’t quite know what she was doing. She knew exactly. Her poetry has the vivid appeal of the Douanier Rousseau’s pictures or Mussorgsky’s music, but where they lacked schooling she only pretended to lack it. Closer analogies would be with Picasso painting clowns or Stravinsky writing ballets. She knew everything about how poetry had sounded in the past, and could assemble echoes with the assurance of any other modern artist. Clearly, her historicism was, in her own mind, the enabling justification for plain utterance. How the two things were technically connected is more problematic. When she uses the cadences of the Bible to promote her atheism, the trick is obvious, but often the most an admiring reader can do is ruefully admit that she somehow reminds him of every poet since Chaucer while speaking so naturally that she might be just coming round from a general anaesthetic.

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