BOOKS AND ARTS JANUARY 20, 1958
By Vladimir Nabokov
Vladimir Nabokov, author of the Russian translation of Alice in Wonderland, has now provided his native literature with another little girl, his own Lolita. This latter accomplishment is not only a victory of art but also a potential victory for criticism, for whenever we are faced with a thing that cannot be measured by the tools we have, we must invent others. Beckett's and Nabokov's rewriting of their own works in their other languages is a very special form of literary work, closely resembling but not identical with translation. The difference between these feats and ordinary translation--and let me not suggest that our present tools are up to "ordinary translation"--can only be surmised, but one suspects that it is like the little abyss between zero and one. The Japanese and Arabic Lolitas (which exist) are merely other books variously dependent upon the original, but Nabokov's own Russian Lolita (first drafted as a brief Russian sketch in wartime Paris) is in truth the same book, which we see now in one of its manifold dormant aspects, hitherto withheld by the author. One may salute the valor of some literate Arab, hunched in the humid night of Cairo over that impossible Nabokovian pun, but one will not permit him to get away with some invention of his own. Either the same or silence … nothing else! From Nabokov, however, we get the same or something else, and that "something else" becomes, jure auctoris, an additional fact in the biography of the book Lolita. There are times, of course--"as the Bard said, with that cold in his head, to borrow and to borrow and to borrow"--when even Nabokov, after what exertions one can only imagine, has to admit defeat (in the present instance he refers less hilariously to Pushkin, who is functionally the same as Shakespeare.)
I should immediately add that insofar as the conventional aspects of translation are concerned, one can only repeat what should by now be common knowledge, that Nabokov is incomparably resourceful in both languages. Offhand tour de force is the rule. Humbert tries, with famously flawed result, to drug Lolita in preparation for the night at The Enchanted Hunters. The "pill-spiel" Nabokov wrote in English. He Russians it with inspired imprecision as "piljul'ka-Ijul'ka," which might be brought back into English with the same freedom as "lullaby-lozenge." "The rapist was Charlie Holmes; I am the therapist," puns the incorrigible Humbert. For the benefit, I realize, of very few readers of this journal, I transliterate the translation: "Rastleniem zanimalsja Charli Khol'ms; ja zhe zanimajus' rasteniem." The italic words, with their uniliteral difference, mean, respectively, "corruption" and "growth." To convey their phonic natures, of course, one must have recourse to "deflowering--flowering," "prostitution-restitution," and so on. If you will take my word for it that Nabokov is routinely brilliant at this sort of thing, I will spare you an inventory of examples that ought to become touchstones of translation for years to come.
Fans of the English book will no doubt be more interested to know what has become of the characters in their new incarnation. Lolita herself, if I correctly calculate the old-fashioned unit of linear measurement that Nabokov employs, is one-and-one-half inches shorter in Russian, but I am sufficiently apprehensive of Nabokov's painstaking ingenuity to fear that he may have looked up the tables on physical stature of American and Russian twelve-year-olds and concluded that she could be shorter by that much. Humbert Humbert and Charlotte Haze, by a long-standing tradition of transposition, are Gumbert Gumbert and Shariotta Gejz, though one can virtually see Nabokov culling all the dark roots of Russian umbrage before deciding to leave them in possession of their names. What will John Shade become when Nabokov gets around to masterpiece number two? Quilty is still "Kuil'ti," but his author has had to find other means than "Q," "Cue," and so on, to suggest the slinking presence of this double just beyond the margin of so many pages. Vivian Darkbioom, Quilty's mistress, an actress and authoress of the memoir My Cue (Kumir moj in Russian, which means either My Idol or Q is My World), was once, back in the thirties, Vivian Calmblood, another anagram of "Vladimir Nabokov" and his pseudonym in some appearances. (According to one of the several additions to the Russian epilogue, it appears that Nabokov once thought of publishing Lolita under that nom de plume.) In the Russian Lolita she has become Vivian Damor-BIok and acquired a little more biography that will be precious to all Nabokovians (Damor is her stage name, Blok that of one of her first husbands). It was she, by the way, as the Russian version makes rather clearer than the English, who turned the camera before which the nude boys and girls cavorted in Quilty's blue movie operation.
Between the English and Russian versions there is one immense, pervasive difference towards which one can no more than gesture. It derives not from these two sides of the one book but from the gulf of literary tradition that separates them. With my own unfinished, never-to-be-finished approximation of the language lobe in a Russian brain I read Humbert's casual hymning of illicit love (bezzakonnaja Ijubov'!) with a shock never occasioned by his English. The potentialities of the linguistic environment are simply different, for, like the letter "Q," there are certain attitudes and emotions unknown to Russian literature. It is not that the theme is new in a Russian environment. As with so many of Nabokov's themes, Dostoevsky, despised "Old Dusty" himself, was there first with an obsessive iteration of sexual union between a grown man and a girl child. It is the treatment- the mad joviality of Humbert's jocund art instead of squalid nastiness--and above all the language itself that are different.
There is a slighter shock of a different kind in the new postscript to the Russian translation. In one curtain speech after another Nabokov has regretted that circumstances force him to come before the public in English garb, ill-fitting and unbecoming. If we could but see those gorgeous Russian clothes in the attic! In the epilogue to the English Lolita it goes thus: " ... that I had to abandon my natural idiom, my untrammeled, rich, and infinitely docile Russian tongue for a second-rate brand of English." ... Conscientiously, Nabokov translates this word for word, knowing that he will then have to face the question whether the performance just concluded has in fact shown his Russian to be all that untrammeled and docile. In the postscript for Russian readers he concludes sadly and honestly that it has not. His Russian has been in those trunks for too long, and they have proved to be imperfectly proof against moths.
I am moved by the crusty old Olympian conjurer when he seems for a moment to drop his defenses and admit to his Russian audience that the luminous and supple style, the occasion of so much homesickness, has lost some resilience in its long disuse. It is moving and, if I am any judge, it is only very slightly justified. But with this writer it is best to be most on one's guard when he seems to be least on his. For when you think of it, how could he better translate (in one sense) those apologies for his English (Nabokov's English!) than by apologizing for his Russian. The difference is in the degree of appropriateness. Since Nabokov is the living master of English prose, and knows that he is, his enactment of an apology is just that, a part of his supremely skillful act. For a writer who makes no distinction between life and art, who has said that "reality" is the one word that must always be used in quotes, there is nothing outside of the act.
Although Nabokov is at pains to explain to the Russian readers things which he rightly despairs of their tumbling to for themselves (allusions to T. S. Eliot, Poe, and other writers; for "somewhere near the Madeleine" he writes "in the center of Paris," and so on) it must be said, in sum, that no amount of explaining will make Lolita available to more than a tiny handful of present Russian readers. And it should be remembered that on the whole Nabokov has been treated about as obtusely in the emigre press as in the Soviet.
What makes this latest enterprise so much more than a literary curiosity is Nabokov's sure knowledge that he is writing (as perhaps also in English) for the same hypothetical reader that kept his countrymen Baratynsky and Mandelstam going: for the "friend in posterity," as they both explicitly put it. But to write for the future implies a faith that there will be a future and that the "ever-never-changing same" canons of art are supremely above the trivial contingencies of mere time. It is a moral act. The English Lolita, Nabokov's greatest book, links the moralities of precise art with that profounder morality enjoined by one of the most magnanimous human spirits of our time. The Russian version now adds to the history of his masterpiece a dimension that can only be called--if the word is still available--patriotism.
By Clarence Brown