Pedant: 1. A schoolmaster, teacher or tutor, 1704; 2. A person who overrates book-learning or technical knowledge, or parades it; one who has mere learning without practical judgement; one who lays excessive stress upon details or upon strict adherence to formal rules; one who is possessed by a theory, a doctrinaire 1596…
The scholiast who is overabundant and over-exact in his references may well be absurd…
Commentary to Eugene Onegin
Note to 1. V. 7
Unless every detail of the text is consciously assimilated, EO cannot be said to exist in the reader’s mind.
For Nabokov, one of the greatest verse translators of his time, translation was a pathetic business. Like Shostakovich, towards the end of his life and career Nabokov moved towards a position of ever greater sparseness in his translations, expressed with ever more dogmatism. For his translation of Pushkin’s masterpiece (published in 1964) Nabokov adopted a position of extreme severity. His aim as he stated it, ironically referring to Pushkin’s famous remark that translators are the post horses of enlightenment, was to produce a ‘pony’. This is a typical Nabokovian pun, as ‘pony’ is a synonym for ‘crib’, one meaning of which, according to OED, is a translation of a classic etc, for the illegitimate use of students. (1827)
Nabokov claims that any attempt to reproduce the rhymes and yet translate the entire poem literally is mathematically impossible. For Nabokov, these two ends are diametrically opposed to each other and may never meet. For Nabokov, searching for rhymes in Into Language is to traduce the original. His aim is to serve the truth through an ideal of literalism to which he sacrifices everything (elegance, euphony, clarity, good taste, modern usage and even grammar) that the dainty mimic prizes higher than truth. (Nabokov is, as always, a positivist- unlike lesser mortals, he knows, without any doubt, exactly what truth is.)
Perhaps the clearest indication of what has been sacrificed to Nabokov’s extreme position on verse translation is to look at three Onegin Stanzas from Canto 1, the famous ‘feet’ digression, comparing a translation made in 1945 (the only three stanzas surviving from this early, rhymed, version dating from the 1940s) with his 1964 unrhymed pony.
Diana’s bosom, Flora’s dimple
Are very charming, I agree –
But there’s a greater charm, les simple,
-the instep of Terpsichore.
By prophesying to the eye
A prize with which no prize can vie
‘tis a fair token and a snare
for swarms of daydreams. Everywhere
its grace, sweet readers, I admire:
at long hemmed tables, half-concealed,
in spring, upon a velvet field,
in winter, at a grated fire,
in ballrooms, on a glossy floor,
on the bleak boulder of a shore.
I see the surf, the storm-rack flying…
Oh, how I wanted to compete
With the tumultuous breakers dying
In adoration at her feet!
Together with those waves –how much
I wished to kiss what they could touch!
No – even when my youth would burn
Its fiercest – never did I yearn
With such a torturing sensation
To kiss the lips of nymphs, the rose
That on the cheek of beauty glows
Or breasts in mellow palpitation –
No, never did a passion roll
Such billows in my bursting soul.
Sometimes I dream of other minutes
By hidden memory retold-
And feel her little ankle in its
Contented stirrup which I hold;
Again to build mad builders start;
Again within a withered heart
One touch engenders fire; again
- the same old love, the same old pain…
But really, my loquacious lyre
Has lauded naughty belles too long
-for they deserve neither the song,
nor the emotions they inspire:
eyes, words- all their enchantments cheat
as much do their pretty feet.
Eugene Onegin Canto 1 Stanzas 32 -34
trans: Nabokov 1945
Diana’s bosom, Flora’s cheeks,
are charming, dear friends!
However, the little foot of Terpsichore
is for me in some way more charming.
by prophesying to the gaze
an unpriced recompense
with token beauty it attracts
the wilful swarm of longings.
I’m fond of it, my friend Elvina,
beneath the long napery of tables,
in springtime on the turf of meads,
in winter on the hearth’s cast iron,
on mirrory parquet of halls,
by the sea on granite of rocks.
I recollect the sea before a tempest:
how I envied the waves
running in turbulent succession
with love to lie down at her feet!
How much I longed then with the waves
to touch the dear feet with my lips!
No, never midst the fiery days
of my ebullient youth
did I long with such torment
to kiss the lips of young Armidas,
or the roses of flaming cheeks,
or the breasts full of languishment –
no never did the surge of passions
thus rive my soul!
I have remembrance of another time:
in chary fancies now and then
I hold the happy stirrup
and in my hands I feel a little foot.
Again imagination seethes,
again that touch
has fired the blood within my withered heart,
again the ache, again the love!
But ‘tis enough, extolling haughty ones
with my loquacious lyre:
they are not worth either the passions
or songs by them inspired;
the words and gaze of these bewitchers
are as deceptive as their little feet.
Eugene Onegin Canto 1 Stanzas 32 -34
trans: Nabokov 1964
Nabokov notes how translating rhymed poetry into unrhymed prose robs a poem of its ‘bloom’. His Commentary goes someway to replacing this bloom with shine. A huge work of scholarship, this enormous book illuminates Pushkin’s great verse novel in obsessive detail and in doing so at the same time describes early 19th century Russia, presents to the English-speaking reader much of the literature of 18th century Europe, and reveals the character of Nabokov’s unique and strange mind as nothing else does.
Modelled on Chateaubriand’s famous French translation and interlinear of Milton’s Paradise Lost, Nabokov’s commentary consists of line-by-line notes on Pushkin’s poem, some of them no more than a sentence long, others of essay length. The notes may be conveniently categorised into six types, presented here in no particular order:
Type 1: Linguistic
Type 2: Textual
Type 3: Critical
Type 4: Referential
Type 5: Socio-historical
Type 6: Inset Narratives
Let’s look at these types in more detail, and give some examples of individual notes in the hope of capturing the scope and the unique flavour of the Commentary.
Type 1: Linguistic
In these notes, Nabokov focuses on the linguistic features of Pushkin’s text. He draws attention to features of sound, using a transliterated Russian rather than Cyrillic. For example:
2 / Moscow’s young graces / ‘Mladie gratsii Moskvi:’ A most melodious line. The first syllable lingers voluptuously on the ‘m’ before resolving itself in the liquid Oriental ‘la’ of the vowel; then another foot touches off the ardent roll of ‘gratsii’ (which has the full sound of the Italian ‘grazie’), flowing on to a dying scud in the third foot.
He also discusses the connotations of certain words used in the Russian. For example:
8-9 /Rvalas I plakala snachala: The verb’ rvat’sy’a (which comes from ‘rvat’, “to tear”) is saturated with far more expressive force than any one English verb can convey. It is not just “to fling oneself about”, but implies the violent agitation of a person who is restrained by others while indulging in a passion of grief, seeking an issue in desperate writhings and other wild motions. …
And concerns himself with problems of translation. For example:
a: 2-4 / art…heart: One of those very rare cases when the jinni of a literal translation presents one with a set of ready rhymes. A little judicious touching up may even produce the right meter: ‘Who, then, was she, the girl whose gaze / he charmed without a trace of art, / to whom he gave his nights and days, / the meditations of his heart?” The incorruptible translator should resist such temptations.
These notes together convey an impression of the linguistic and aural features of the Russian text which cannot be conveyed in English.
Type 2: Textual
In this type of note Nabokov conveys information on the genesis and first publication of the text, and the source of the text in Pushkin’s various notebooks and cahiers. These often take on the feeling of a codex, with abbreviations and numberings comprehensible only to the professional Pushkin scholar. Pushkin’s papers were confiscated and filed by the police immediately on his death, and were extensively documented and meticulously preserved during the Soviet era. For once the government bureau(c)rats were working in the interests of literature rather than against it.
Four: I – VI The first four stanzas, under the heading “Women: A fragment from Eugene Onegin,” appeared in the Moscow Herald (Moskovskkiy vestnik), pt. 5, no. 20 (1827), 365-67; the fair copy is in MB 3515. Sts. v and vi are represented by drafts in Cahier 2370, ff, 31r, 32v and 4iv.
We are also given information on variant and excised drafts. For example, the highly fragmentary Canto 10, which is usually omitted from published versions (of the other English translators, only Mitchell includes it) and which contains highly explosive political material, most of which Pushkin destroyed, is presented, every surviving scrap of it, fully annotated with sources and comments. A lot of material was eventually omitted by Pushkin from the various published versions, for political, poetic or personal reasons, and Nabokov’s inclusion of them in The Commentary reveals many great wonders which add different colours to the established text. For example, we learn that there is an alternative to Stanza XXVII in Canto 8 which runs:
And in the Ballroom bright and rich,
When into the hushed close circle;
akin to a winged lily,
balancing, enters Lalla Rookh,
and above the bending crowd
is radiant with the regal head,
and gently weaves and glides-
a starlike Charis among Charites,
and the gaze of commingling generations
streams, glowing with devotion,
now towards her, towards the Tsar-
for them no eyes has only Eugene;
struck only by Tatiana,
only Tatiana does he see.
‘Lalla Rookh’ was the court nickname of the Empress Alexandra. Nabokov tells us in his note to this excised variant: Naturally the stanza would never have been allowed to appear in print as long as Onegin preferred Tatiana to the imperial couple.
Nabokov also describes in detail the illustrations which Pushkin was in the habit of doodling in the margins of the text.
Taken together, these textual notes form the foundation for Nabokov’s formidable achievement as a textual scholiast.
Type 3: Critical
In these notes Nabokov illuminates certain structural and thematic aspects of the text. Nabokov is an excellent and perceptive critic of literature, as his Lectures on Russian Literature and Lectures on Literature show. For example, he notes (in Six: XL 5 – 14)…the ‘ideal’ in the last stanza of the novel recalls the adjectival “Ideal” of the Prefatory Piece. There is a conspiracy of words signalling to one another, throughout the novel, from one part to another.
He is also especially brilliant at teasing out the connections between Onegin’s biography, and Pushkin’s, looking in detail at the internal chronology of the novel and the chronology of its composition and noting astonishing correspondences between art and life. For example, in Canto 1 Onegin arrives late at the theatre, just missing a performance by the famous ballerina Istomina (a real person). Nabokov tells us that (One: XX5-14) seven cantos later [Onegin] will be told [in a review of her performance] what he missed when (as described in Eight: XXXV : 9, 12-13) he reads, during the winter of 1824, the Russian magazines for that year… In Bulgarin’s Literary Leaflets, IV (Feb. 18, 1824) [a famous journal of the time, in which Pushkin first published excerpts of his novel] he then may find these ten lines – the very first passage ever published of Pushkin’s novel…..In other words, the imaginary character Onegin is described in the novel as reading in the paper in the winter of 1824 the first published 10 lines of the novel in which he features as the protagonist and which describe the performance of a real dancer which he missed. Pushkin was so post-modern.
In these notes Nabokov also lambasts previous commentators of Pushkin, reserving his especial bile for the Soviet school.
These kind of structural and critical insights situate his criticism within the larger school of Russian Formalism, and are some of the most fascinating features of the Commentary.
Type 4: Referential
In this type of note, Nabokov sounds the echoes of other poems and literatures which are woven into the text. Pushkin was extraordinarily well-read in Russian and Classical and European literatures (in French translations) and Eugene Onegin is a tapestry of references to French, English-through-French, Latin-through French, and Russian literature. Nabokov with his net hunts down every fluttering reference and explicates and cites in full. The Commentary is a glorious treasure trove of European Romantic literature, quoted at length, in French, German and English. Especially interesting are the quotations from Russian literature. The first 30 years of the 19th Century was the Golden Age of Russian verse, and Pushkin refers in passing or directly to the output of his friends and contemporaries. Nabokov’s Commentary is the only English source for much of this stuff. For example, in a note to Four: XXXII 1 he quotes a poem by Pushkin’s friend and schoolmate Kuchelbacher: On the Destiny of Russian Poets:
… thrown into a black prison;
killed by the frost of hopeless banishment;
or sickness overcasts with night and gloom
the eyes of the inspired, the seers!
Or else the hand of some vile lady’s man
Impels a bullet at their sacred brow;
Or the deaf rabble rises in revolt-
And him the rabble to pieces tear
Whose winged course, ablaze with thunderbolts,
Might drench in radiance the motherland.
A prophetic utterance indeed, especially when one considers the deaths of Pushkin and Griboedov, the fate of the intellegentsia under Nicholas 1st, later under Stalin, and today under Putin and the oligarchs. Nabokov also draws out echoes from the rest of Pushkin’s oevre, quoting extensively his own translations.
The Commentary includes essay length notes on the influence on Pushkin of Voltaire, Madame De Stael, Rousseau, Richardson, Goethe, Horace, Theocritus, Coleridge, Gothic literature, and of course Byron. He offers long meditations on the nature of Romanticism, and how Pushkin and his contemporaries saw it, and discourses at length on Pushkin’s position in the literature of his time. He also analyses the presence in the Russian text of Gallicisms: French phrases which have been literally translated and then assimilated into Russian. For example:
Four: V 8 the word / ‘slovo’: A Gallicism, ‘le mot de l’enigme’. One wonders what was its simple solution. Perhaps: “Le fruit de l’amour mondain n’est autre chose que la jouissance…” (Pierre de Bourdeilles, Seigneur de Brantome, “Recueil des dames,” pt. II, “Les Dames galantes’, Discours II).
Nabokov’s trilingual erudition is ferocious, and this aspect of the Commentary is awe- inspiring and gorgeous.
Type 5: Socio-historico
In these notes Nabokov gives background information and context on various aspects of the social historical cultural and political background to the text and its composition. Together, these notes build up a picture of early 19th century Russian life and culture, knowledge which would be familiar to the (educated) (contemporary) Russian reader of the text, but which cannot be assumed in an English reader. For example, we are given background information on types of carriages, the state of communications in the countryside, methods of illumination and heating in Russian houses, peasant superstitions and beliefs, food and drink, clothes and cosmetics, card games, duelling, courtesans, the topology of Russia’s two capitals, the reading habits of the Russian aristocracy, early revolutionary activity, music making, jam, botany…
Three IV 8-9: By 1820 ingenious horticulturalists were replacing with metal pipes and hot steam the old-fashioned flues of forcing houses, and already the mandarin orange was being ripened in Edinburgh, St Petersburg, and Riga. Peaches were found to be much hardier than it had been thought; and pineapples were amazed at what they were made to do.
The information in these notes comes from Nabakov’s reading or, as he tells us, his own family legends and personal memories of his Pre-Revolutionary childhood.
Type 6: Inset Narratives
In this type of note, Nabokov presents narratives giving background information on real personages who appear in the poem, narratives about Pushkin’s friends, family and contemporaries, as well as Pushkin’s biography and how it effected the composition and genesis of the poem. We are treated to biographical interludes on the dancer Istomina, whose lover was murdered in a duel, in his ire and agony, the poor fellow flapped and plunged all over the snow like a large fish. “Vot tebe i repka” [Well, that’s the end of your little turnip] said Kaverin [his opponent] to him sadly and colloquially. (One XX 5-14); to stories about the Raevsky family who played such a huge part in Pushkin’s early exile, and who introduced him to Byron’s poetry; to stories about the Osipov/Wulf family, Pushkin’s neighbours, whose various daughters were at one time or another Pushkin’s paramours; to a narrative on poor, meek, genial Delvig and his harassment by the secret police resulting in his eventual death through stress; on the final meeting between Pushkin and his dearest friend and school chum Pushchin, who was exiled to Siberia for the rest of his life for his part in the December 1825 aborted coup.
Especially prominent are notes on the kind of guessing games that other commentators have indulged in as to the real identity of some of the characters and episodes in the text, notably: Pushkin’s muse, the owner of those pretty feet, and the references to Odessa and the Crimea, where Pushkin spent the first two years of his exile and where Eugene Onegin was conceived. Nabokov is contemptuous of this kind of criticism. Here is his note on one of the three stanzas we looked at earlier.
One: XXXIII: The search for a historically real lady, whose foot the glass shoe of this stanza would fit, has taxed the ingenuousness or revealed the simplicity of numerous Pushkinists.
The Commentary is a monumental work of genius. It slowly and methodically, and with the attention borne of love, adds layer upon layer of meaning and understanding to Pushkin’s great poem, bringing it as close as it ever can get to a non-Russian reader. However, marvellous and magnificent though it is, it is marred by three faults. First, is Nabokov’s formalist insistence that Eugene Onegin bears no relation at all to real life, but is merely a collage of Romantic texts. It is not a ‘a picture of Russian life”; it is at best the picture of a little group of Russians, in the second decade of the last century, crossed with all the more obvious characters of western European romance and placed in a stylized Russia, which would disintegrate at once if the French props were removed and if the French impersonators of English and German writers stopped prompting the Russian-speaking heroes and heroines. Generations of Russians have of course disagreed with him, seeing themselves and their culture reflected in the poem. Your Onegin will be a pocket mirror of St Petersburg youth, remarked Pletnev, Pushkin’s publisher and friend after the publication of the first chapter, echoing a sentiment that was widely held; and even Belinsky, the critic most hostile to Pushkin and his aristocratic milieu remarked that Eugene Onegin was an encyclopedia of Russian life.
Second, Nabokov takes every opportunity to pour scorn on his rivals, critics, other Pushkinists and translators. (The only version which lives up to his standards is Turgenev and Viardot’s French version.) At first, this is amusing and adds zest to the book, but after a while it begins to sour. He also insists with strident dogmatism that only his view of translation is correct, that only his commentary is valid. In this way, he turns his useful pony into a hobby horse which he rides roughshod with too much stubborn insistence over those who have other approaches, other insights to offer. Ironically, Pushkin himself would not have agreed with Nabokov’s view of translation. In an 1836 review of Chateaubriand’s translation and commentary of Milton, Pushkin wrote: A literal translation can never be true to its original. Every language has its own locutions, its accepted rhetorical figures, its assimilated expressions which cannot be translated into another language simply by using the corresponding words.
Third, he is not content to simply benefit us with the enormity of his erudition but must mar it with the eccentricity of his opinions. He cannot simply tell us who X is, but must qualify this information with an adjective, usually derogatory. In this way, for example, Madame De Stael becomes a writer who is unendurable under any circumstances; and Dostoevsky becomes a much overrated, sentimental and gothic novelist of the time (!) Nabokov’s aversion to Dostoevsky is well known, and while Dostoevsky’s stature remains untroubled by these mosquito stings, less well-known writers such as De Stael –one of the most interesting women/writers of European Romanticism - are not able to defend themselves; and both they, and the reader are not well served by Nabokov’s pedantry.
Truly profound education breeds humility.
Come is the moment I craved: my work of long years is completed.
Why then this strange sense of woe secretly harrowing me?
Having my high task performed, do I stand as a useless day labourer
Stands, with his wages received, foreign to all other toil?
Or am I sorry to part with my work, night’s silent companion
Golden Aurora’s friend, friend of the household gods?
Boldino Sept. 25 1830. 3:15.