"But lapidary epithets are few./We do not deal in universal rubies."
November 29, 2012 8:20 PM   Subscribe

Vladimir Nabokov reads his poem "An Evening of Russian Poetry."

Mentioned in the article:

Timofey Pnin. "The same afternoon, one of Pnin’s students, Charles McBeth (‘A madman, I think, judging by his compositions,’ Pnin used to say), zestfully brought over Pnin’s luggage in a pathologically purplish car with no fenders on the left side, and after an early dinner at The Egg and We, a recently inaugurated and not very successful little restaurant which Pnin frequented from sheer sympathy with failure, our friend applied himself to the pleasant task of Pninizing his new quarters."

Mentioned in the poem:

Alexander Pushkin. Widely held to be the greatest Russian poet. Frequently subjected to internal exile by the imperial government.

Nikolay Nekrasov. Poet of the generation following Pushkin's. In "Notes on Prosody," Nabokov describes the distinctive hiatus after the second foot in Nekrasov's iambic tetrameter.
posted by Rustic Etruscan (11 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
That is just what I needed to hear tonight, as it happened.
posted by LucretiusJones at 8:40 PM on November 29, 2012

Here is a recording of Nabokov reading a poem from The Gift. In one interview, he called it his favorite Russian poem.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 9:07 PM on November 29, 2012

Some thoughts:
1. It gets so much better if you know Russian (Just like with "Clockwork Orange").
2. Wish I could speak\understand\write English half as good as Nabokov. :(
posted by usertm at 9:16 PM on November 29, 2012

I've heard Nabokov in recording several times, and every time I was struck by how peculiar-sounding his Russian is, with its uvular R and strangely shifted vowels.
posted by Nomyte at 9:24 PM on November 29, 2012

I wrote a paper on this poem for 10th grade English class. I had a similar recording of this poem, but I have since lost it.
posted by azarbayejani at 12:02 AM on November 30, 2012

And here it is!
posted by azarbayejani at 12:05 AM on November 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

He sounds a bit like Peter Sellers is doing an impression of him
posted by iotic at 5:35 AM on November 30, 2012

I've never warmed to Nabokov as a poet, especially in English, where he always seems to be trying too hard (some of his Russian poems are very nice, although Nina Berberova says of his early work "But his verse at that time did not interest Khodasevich [her husband, a friend of Nabokov's and one of his favorite poets]: it was a pale and at the same time self-assured scanning of verse, as it was written in Russia by cultivated amateurs, sounding nice and imitative, recalling no one in particular and at the same time everyone"), but it's certainly fun to hear him read this with his accustomed brio (not, pace the linked site, "passion"; and when they talk about "the plainspeaking tone most poets adopt," they should say "most Anglo-American poets," because the Russian poetic tradition is much more bardic—listen to Mandelstam or Akhmatova read sometime). Some notes:
Well, Emmy, our pentameter may seem
To foreign ears as if it could not rouse
The limp iambus from its pyrrhic dream.
This is a dig at Edmund Wilson, whose lack of understanding of how Russian verse worked annoyed Nabokov (I wrote about this, as well as about Nabokov as poet and prose magician, here).
Amorphous sallow bushes called rakeety
The Russian word (the singular is ракита [rakita]) means 'brittle willow, Salix fragilis.'
Had I more time tonight I would unfold
the whole amazing story – neighukluzhe,
nevynossimo – but I have to go.

What did I say under my breath? I spoke
to a blind songbird hidden in a hat,
safe from my thumbs and from the eggs I broke
into the gibus brimming with their yolk.
His neighukluzhe and nevynossimo are idiosyncratic Englishings of неуклюже [neuklyuzhe] 'clumsily, awkwardly' and невыносимо [nevynosimo] 'unbearably.' And a gibus is a collapsible top hat, invented by Antoine Gibus in 1812.
once in a dusty place of Mora county
Mora County is in New Mexico, where Nabokov hunted butterflies in 1941 (and, per Brian Boyd, "was nearly arrested for painting a farmer's trees with sugar to attract a certain kind of moth").
Bessonitza, tvoy vzor oonyl i strashen;
lubov' moya, outsoopnika prostee
This is his rendering (marred by the typo "outsoopnika" for otstoopnika [otstupnika]) of his original Russian lines (which evince both his genuine poetic gift and the imitativeness Berberova talked about): "Бессонница, твой взор уныл и страшен;/ Любовь моя, отступника прости."
Among the animals that haunt our verse,
that bird of bards, regale of night, comes first
And this evinces the kind of thing I dislike in his English verse: "regale of night" is silly, and "bird of bards" is just awful.
posted by languagehat at 8:09 AM on November 30, 2012 [2 favorites]

Oops, forgot to respond to this:

> I've heard Nabokov in recording several times, and every time I was struck by how peculiar-sounding his Russian is, with its uvular R and strangely shifted vowels.

That's the way Petersburg aristocrats talked a century ago; Berberova mentions "the burr of his Petersburg enunciations," and any number of Russians who visited him came away astonished by his preservation, as if in amber, of a way of speaking long vanished in Russia itself).

While I've got Berberova out, let me quote at some length from her discussion of Nabokov, because it illustrates how he exploded on the emigré literary scene at the end of the 1920s (as well as her love of bitchy gossip):
Once, in the middle of a conversation in 1929, one of the editors of Contemporary Annals announced suddenly that in the coming issue of the magazine there would be a 'stupendous thing'. I remember how all pricked up their ears. Khodasevich was sceptical of this adjective; he did not have too much faith in Mark Vishniak's taste; the elder prose writers took the news with a certain discomfort. I was already publishing prose in Contemporary Annals, and suddenly felt a burning curiosity and very strong agitation: Indeed! If this were only the truth!



Slight disappointment. Disbelief. No, this man will very likely not become 'the émigré Olesha'. [Olesha was one of the very few Soviet writers truly respected by emigrés, including Nabokov, and Berberova took justified pride in having been the first reviewer to talk about his greatness in the emigré press.]


The issue of Contemporary Annals, with the first chapters of Nabokov's The Defence, came out in 1929. I sat down to read these chapters, and read them twice. A tremendous, mature, sophisticated modern writer was before me; a great Russian writer, like a phoenix, was born from the fire and ashes of revolution and exile. Our existence from now on acquired a meaning. All my generation were justified. We were saved.

I never told Nabokov my thoughts about him. I knew him well in the 1930s when he began to visit Paris (from Berlin) and when finally, before the war, he settled there with his wife and son, I gradually got used to his manner (not acquired in the U.S.A., but always there) of not recognizing people, of addressing Ivan Ivanovich, after knowing him many years, as 'Ivan Petrovich', of calling Nina Nikolaevna [Berberova's name and patronymic] 'Nina Aleksandrovna', the book of verse In the West [Na západe] 'In One's Ass' [Na zádnitse], of washing someone from the face of the earth who had been kind to him, of mocking in print a man well disposed to him (as in his review of Aldanov's The Cave), of taking something from a great author and then saying he had never read him. I know all that now; here, however, I am discussing his books not him. I stand at the 'dusty crossroads' and look at his 'royal procession' with thanks and awareness that my generation (including of course myself) will live in him, and it did not disappear, did not dissolve itself between the Billancourt cemetery, Shanghai, New York, and Prague. All of us, with our entire weight, be we successful (if there are such) or unsuccessful (a round dozen), rest on him. If Nabokov is alive, it means that I am as well!
(The last line, in italics, is from Tolstoy's "Master and Man": "Жив Никита, значит, жив и я" [If Nikita is alive, that means I too am alive].)
posted by languagehat at 8:34 AM on November 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

To me, he sounds like the Caterpillar from Disney's Alice in Wonderland. Since Nabokov was an avid lepitopterist, it seems fitting.
posted by juniper at 3:25 PM on November 30, 2012

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