Thursday, June 24, 2010

Hiding Behind A Hero Of Our Time

I have been reading Mikhail Lermontov's novel A Hero of Our Time in a translation by none other than Vladimir Nabokov. Nabokov, in typical fashion, intrudes himself upon the narrative through his lengthy preface and numerous footnotes, giving a running commentary not only on possible variant meanings (that is, translation-related items) but also on Lermontov's writing style, story structure, character development and so on. Little by little, Nabokov places himself between the reader and the text until he is a constant presence, whispering into the reader's ear.

The two most obvious things Nabokov is doing with his editorial footnotes are showing his erudition (does the reader really need to know, for example, that Pushkin's poem "The Cloud," which Lermontov briefly quotes, is written in amphibrachic tetrameter in the original Russian?) and pointing out the flaws of Lermontov's technique. The erudition is no surprise, as Nabokov can't help but point out that he's smarter than his reader; it's just what he does in all his works and why I can only read one Nabokov in a calendar year else I become too vexed. The sometimes-harsh criticism of Lermontov struck me, at first, as simply more of the same stuff: "Look how much better a writer I am than Lermontov," Nabokov seems to be saying.

But I realized this morning that Nabokov is only pretending to sneer at Lermontov's book. Consider that Nabokov valued good writing above most other human endeavors, and had little patience with books that he considered to be rubbish (read his lectures on literature if you don't believe me). If Nabokov wished--as I believe he did--to throw all the rubbish onto the fire and rid the world of it, why would he make the effort to translate the Lermontov if he didn't prize it?

My theory now is that Nabokov liked A Hero of Our Time, wanted it to be widely read in a good translation, and wanted the reader to like it. But Nabokov realized that Lermontov wasn't among the best of the 19th-century Russian novelists and his desire to share the book, and his enthusiasm for it, embarrassed him rather. And Nabokov, instead of simply being brave and putting his translation out into the world with sincere wishes that we'll love it as dearly as he does, puts on a show of disdain for the book to protect himself in case we don't like it.

So I adjust my mental image of Nabokov and extend this fairly childlike desire to be appreciated to all of Nabokov's writing and I think it makes sense. Nabokov wanted us to fall in love with his novels the way he fell in love with his own favorites, but just in case we didn't--and he was sure we wouldn't--he distanced himself emotionally from us and hid behind a veil of contempt. Which is, when you think about it, sad.


  1. I think that any person that holds everyone else to their own standards risks distancing themselves. Much better to maintain your standards for yourself, but allow that everyone else has their own heights to reach, their own sense of belonging and satisfaction. If you don't, you really do chance missing out on the good things in people, and it IS really sad. ♥

  2. Ali, I agree that being judgemental is a quick way to alientate everyone around you. The thing about Nabokov, I think, is that he was sort of torn between being very shy and being highly opinionated and aware of his genius, so he wanted to tell everyone everything he knew, even show off, but he embarrassed himself and so he put on a protective shell, so to speak. It's like he never grew out of his awkward nerdy adolescent phase, no matter how successful and respected he became. A bona fide genius wracked with self doubt.

  3. This is interesting. I've never read Nabokov. I will someday, and seeing your perspective on his writing and possible character, I'll see things in a different light. That's not a bad. thing.

  4. Michelle: Everyone should read Nabokov! I'd start with "Transparent Things" or "Invitation to a Beheading" or maybe "Pnin." His first novel in English was "The Real Life of Sebastian Knight" which is really cool and strange. People think of him as a dirty old pedophile because of "Lolita," but that's just people who either haven't read the book or misunderstand what it's about.

  5. Thanks for the recommendations! I'll put Transparent Things on my goodreads list. I have way too many books on there and not enough time to read them all.