75 at 75: Brian Boyd on Vladimir Nabokov
Posted on Jul 18, 2013
Many have rated Nabokov the best prose stylist ever, at least in English. I’m too immersed in him to rank his surface levels, or his depths, against those of others, although I’d have to say that Shakespeare has written not just better verse but better prose, phrase for phrase, than anyone else. But for continuous prose, nobody has made language more like magic kite-surfing than Nabokov: long soars, rapid bumps and flips and splashes, new takeoffs and loop-the-loops, along coasts, across lakes, up colored canyons, and before you know it over deserts and jungles and tundras.
Yet for all the power of his prose, Nabokov, on his last visit to the America he still thought of as his new homeland, in his penultimate public reading ever, at the 92nd Street Y in April 1964 (the last was just a week later, at Harvard), read five poems and just one passage of prose:
- “The Ballad of Longwood Glen,” one of his greatest poems, and his most unprecedented, all-American and eerily ethereal, satirical sit-com side by side with surreal metaphysics, and with laughter here clapping the close of almost every couplet;
- the one prose sample, from Pale Fire, Kinbote’s first encounters with the Shades, exasperated denizens of New Wye, and his readers, again rousing laughter sentence after sentence in the Y, among the delighted denizens of New Y;
- the central section of Shade’s autobiographical poem “Pale Fire,” describing his uncomely daughter’s morose childhood and adolescence and her early adult suicide after one humiliation too far;
- “An Evening of Russian Poetry,” an exile’s homage in a new tongue to the language he has left behind and his audience cannot fathom;
- Humbert Humbert’s “Wanted, wanted: Dolores Haze,” on Lolita’s disappearance, a self-proclaimed “maniac’s masterpiece”;
- and a last poem, “Rain,” adding a final flash of unexpected sun.
Nabokov always thought of himself as a prose poet, not in the sense of writing artificial prose poems, but in the sense of always having leaps of surprise or sudden impulses of imagery, alongside the gleefully prosaic, among the untrammelled turns of his prose. Writing his biography, I listened to his voice wherever I could find it recorded. But when I once more hear him reading at the 92nd Street Y what strikes me all over again is that Nabokov’s love of language and wizardry with words constantly bumps against his awkwardness with spoken English. Even knowing the texts well enough to anticipate what he was about to say, I could often barely recognize what he actually said. Perhaps I’m simply over-anxious that passages I love should shine on stage with the full gleam of the page, and I must admit I was often relieved, and surprised, that the audience obviously responded to the humor of the lines even when whole phrases seemed to me too distorted by Nabokov’s accent and intonations to be grasped on the fly.
Nabokov had been a star performer for decades. After reciting to a Berlin émigré audience a poem he had written just in time for Russian Culture Day, 1926, the undying applause made his minders push him back on stage three times, “and the hall didn’t want to quiet down,” he confided to his wife: “they shouted ‘encore’ and ‘bravo’ and ‘Sirin.’ Then I repeated my poem again and recited it even better—and again a boom of applause.”
In the 1920s, though, he was writing and reciting in the language of his birth. Anyone who hears recordings of him reading in English and then the same text in Russian (like the poem “One night between sunset and river” from The Gift, or the start of Lolita, first in Humbert’s native tongue, then Nabokov’s) will be surprised by the roar of passion that suddenly explodes in the Russian, as if the language of his childhood were igniting to rocket him back to his past.
Not trusting himself impromptu, unlike Susan Sontag as she introduced him, Nabokov crafted every phrase for the Y. His first offering, he announced, was written in “Wyoming, one of my favorite states . . . of existence.” Playing with immodesty, as he loved to do, he added: “It is also one of my favorite ballads.” He quickly sketched in the background to the next reading, from Pale Fire, “for those who committed the grave mistake of not reading my novel.”
But to me the readings themselves seem more revelatory than successful. He pounds the consonants, he growls the vowels, often giving them the wrong values: tie-aras (tiaras); ex-pahnse; proh-ducts; vessel and con-tent. “Power-mowed”—a mark of his American mastery, that he can put this into American high verse—reached me as “Palermoed,” and I had to translate back to the text I knew.
Listening to Nabokov’s voice, I find two questions lingering:
Just how did the incomparable English he wrote sound in his mind’s ear?
And how could anyone think Nabokov—who could simultaneously create steamy Humbert and sadly stoic Pnin—short of feeling, after hearing him hurl his heart into these words, even if he doesn’t always quite get his tongue around them?
Brian Boyd is author of a two-volume biography of Vladimir Nabokov. He has also written Stalking Nabokov: Selected Essays and edited numerous Nabokov-related works. To hear him talk about his biography or see him present at our 2009 Nabokov Tribute, please click here and here.