Discussion:
Vladimir Nabokov's what-if about himself
(too old to reply)
David Tenner
2017-07-28 17:27:51 UTC
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From *Twentieth Century Russian Poetry: Silver and Steel: An Anthology,* p.
374:

"When Bella Akhmadulina visited Nabokov in Switzerland not long before his
death, he told her: 'It's a pity I didn't stay in Russia, that I left...'
Nabokov's wife shook her head and replied: 'But they would have surely rotted
you away in the camps. Isn't that right, Bella?' Suddenly Nabokov shook his
head. 'Who knows, maybe I would have survived even. But then later I would
have become a totally different writer and, perhaps, a much better one...'"
--
David Tenner
***@ameritech.net
Alex Milman
2017-07-28 21:11:50 UTC
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Post by David Tenner
From *Twentieth Century Russian Poetry: Silver and Steel: An Anthology,* p.
"When Bella Akhmadulina visited Nabokov in Switzerland not long before his
death, he told her: 'It's a pity I didn't stay in Russia, that I left...'
Nabokov's wife shook her head and replied: 'But they would have surely rotted
you away in the camps. Isn't that right, Bella?' Suddenly Nabokov shook his
head. 'Who knows, maybe I would have survived even. But then later I would
have become a totally different writer and, perhaps, a much better one...'"
"Different", definitely. 'Lolita' would be impossible. Then, goes his biography:
having secretary of the Russian Provisional Government as a father definitely
was not the best recipe for survival. Of course, there would be a chance
involving public denouncing of his family and becoming a loudmouthed
"revolutionary writer" but that breed was always in danger of barking too
loudly and on a wrong tree. Being 18 in 1917, he was neither famous (as some
of the survivors) nor connected abroad (which probably saved Korney Chukovsky)
so he would have to make it on his own (like Bulgakov who narrowly survived).

Another option would be to return as a famous writer but here, again, was a
risk: some of those did fantastically well like A. Tolstoy but quite a few
had been executed in 1937. To prosper within this scenario he'd have to become
a complete a-hole (like "Aleshka") AND/OR to have valuable contacts abroad (as
Erenburg).

In both cases subjects of his writings would be quite different and in the 1st
scenario the same goes for their quality.
David Tenner
2017-07-30 15:32:55 UTC
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Post by Alex Milman
Post by David Tenner
From *Twentieth Century Russian Poetry: Silver and Steel: An
"When Bella Akhmadulina visited Nabokov in Switzerland not long before
his death, he told her: 'It's a pity I didn't stay in Russia, that I
left...' Nabokov's wife shook her head and replied: 'But they would
have surely rotted you away in the camps. Isn't that right, Bella?'
Suddenly Nabokov shook his head. 'Who knows, maybe I would have
survived even. But then later I would have become a totally different
writer and, perhaps, a much better one...'"
"Different", definitely. 'Lolita' would be impossible. Then, goes his
biography: having secretary of the Russian Provisional Government as a
father definitely was not the best recipe for survival. Of course, there
would be a chance involving public denouncing of his family and becoming
a loudmouthed "revolutionary writer" but that breed was always in danger
of barking too loudly and on a wrong tree. Being 18 in 1917, he was
neither famous (as some of the survivors) nor connected abroad (which
probably saved Korney Chukovsky) so he would have to make it on his own
(like Bulgakov who narrowly survived).
Another option would be to return as a famous writer but here, again,
was a risk: some of those did fantastically well like A. Tolstoy but
quite a few had been executed in 1937. To prosper within this scenario
he'd have to become a complete a-hole (like "Aleshka") AND/OR to have
valuable contacts abroad (as Erenburg).
In both cases subjects of his writings would be quite different and in
the 1st scenario the same goes for their quality.
He actually wrote a poem about his being executed in Russia, though he
warned against misinterpretations (in a characteristically Nabokovian
footnote):



The Execution

On certain nights as soon as I lie down
my bed starts drifting into Russia,
and presently I'm led to a ravine,
to a ravine led to be killed.

I wake--and in the darkness, from a chair
where watch and matches lie,
into my eyes, like a gun's steadfast muzzle,
the glowing dial stares.

With both hands shielding breast and neck--
now any instant it will blast!--
I dare not turn my gaze away
from that disk of dull fire.

The watch's ticking comes in contact
with frozen consciousness;
the fortunate protection
of my exile I repossess.

But how you would have wished, my heart,
that *thus* it all had really been:
Russia, the stars, the night of execution
and full of racemosas the ravine!

Berlin, 1927
Translated by Vladimir Nabokov

Notes

Lines 17-20. Freudians have found here a 'death wish,' and Marxists, no
less grotesquely, 'the expiation of feudal guilt.' I can assure both
groups that the exclamation in this stanza is wholly rhetorical, a trick
of style, a deliberately planted surprise, not unlike underpromotion in a
chess problem. [V.N.]

'Racemosa' is the name I use for the Russian cheryomuba, the 'racemose
old-world bird cherry,' Padus racemosa Schneider (see my commentary to
Eugene Onegin, vol. 3, p. 11). [V.N.]

***

On the subject of emigration, btw, one thing that occurred to me: If
Gumilyov had emigrated, he might still be writing poems in the 1960's or
even the 1970's...
--
David Tenner
***@ameritech.net
Alex Milman
2017-07-30 18:36:30 UTC
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Post by David Tenner
Post by Alex Milman
Post by David Tenner
From *Twentieth Century Russian Poetry: Silver and Steel: An
"When Bella Akhmadulina visited Nabokov in Switzerland not long before
his death, he told her: 'It's a pity I didn't stay in Russia, that I
left...' Nabokov's wife shook her head and replied: 'But they would
have surely rotted you away in the camps. Isn't that right, Bella?'
Suddenly Nabokov shook his head. 'Who knows, maybe I would have
survived even. But then later I would have become a totally different
writer and, perhaps, a much better one...'"
"Different", definitely. 'Lolita' would be impossible. Then, goes his
biography: having secretary of the Russian Provisional Government as a
father definitely was not the best recipe for survival. Of course, there
would be a chance involving public denouncing of his family and becoming
a loudmouthed "revolutionary writer" but that breed was always in danger
of barking too loudly and on a wrong tree. Being 18 in 1917, he was
neither famous (as some of the survivors) nor connected abroad (which
probably saved Korney Chukovsky) so he would have to make it on his own
(like Bulgakov who narrowly survived).
Another option would be to return as a famous writer but here, again,
was a risk: some of those did fantastically well like A. Tolstoy but
quite a few had been executed in 1937. To prosper within this scenario
he'd have to become a complete a-hole (like "Aleshka") AND/OR to have
valuable contacts abroad (as Erenburg).
In both cases subjects of his writings would be quite different and in
the 1st scenario the same goes for their quality.
He actually wrote a poem about his being executed in Russia, though he
warned against misinterpretations (in a characteristically Nabokovian
The Execution
On certain nights as soon as I lie down
my bed starts drifting into Russia,
and presently I'm led to a ravine,
to a ravine led to be killed.
I wake--and in the darkness, from a chair
where watch and matches lie,
into my eyes, like a gun's steadfast muzzle,
the glowing dial stares.
With both hands shielding breast and neck--
now any instant it will blast!--
I dare not turn my gaze away
from that disk of dull fire.
The watch's ticking comes in contact
with frozen consciousness;
the fortunate protection
of my exile I repossess.
But how you would have wished, my heart,
Russia, the stars, the night of execution
and full of racemosas the ravine!
Berlin, 1927
Translated by Vladimir Nabokov
Notes
Lines 17-20. Freudians have found here a 'death wish,' and Marxists, no
less grotesquely, 'the expiation of feudal guilt.' I can assure both
groups that the exclamation in this stanza is wholly rhetorical, a trick
of style, a deliberately planted surprise, not unlike underpromotion in a
chess problem. [V.N.]
'Racemosa' is the name I use for the Russian cheryomuba, the 'racemose
old-world bird cherry,' Padus racemosa Schneider (see my commentary to
Eugene Onegin, vol. 3, p. 11). [V.N.]
***
On the subject of emigration, btw, one thing that occurred to me: If
Gumilyov had emigrated, he might still be writing poems in the 1960's or
even the 1970's...
Yes, this was a terrible loss. I did not know that his poetry was translated
into English.
David Tenner
2017-08-01 22:47:30 UTC
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Post by Alex Milman
Post by David Tenner
On the subject of emigration, btw, one thing that occurred to me: If
Gumilyov had emigrated, he might still be writing poems in the 1960's
or even the 1970's...
Strictly speaking, he didn't even have to emigrate; he could just have
decided not to return to Russia in 1918. (He was in Paris at the time; to
someone who urged him not to return, he is said to have replied, "I have
hunted lions and I don't believe the Bolsheviks are much more dangerous."...)

Incidentally, Gumilyov was AFAIK the only well-known Russian poet who
actually fought in the First World War. This is a contrast with France where
for example Eluard, Cendrars, Apollinaire and Peguy all fought (and the
latter two did not survive) and the UK (where the roll call of dead poets is
only too well-known: Edward Thomas, Wilfred Owen, Rupert Brooke, Isaac
Rosenberg, as are the survivors Robert Graves, Siegfried Sassoon, and Edmund
Blunden). Perhaps it was easier for an educated young Englishman or Frenchman
to persuade himself in 1914 that it was a glorious crusade for freedom than
for a Russian to do so?
Post by Alex Milman
Yes, this was a terrible loss. I did not know that his poetry was
translated into English.
In additon to appearing in numerous anthologies of translated Russian poems
(some of them bilingual), there is a volume of *Selected Works of Nikolai S.
Gumilev* (Albany: State University of New York Press 1972).which includes
not only poems but stories, deama, and literary criticism. (I would say from
the anthologies I have read--or at least skimmed--that the most translated of
his poems is "The Lost Tram.")

In fact, I think all of the major Silver Age Russian poets have books of
their poetry available in English. For a while the emigres (other than
Tsvetaeva) were relatively neglected, but even they now have their volumes:
https://www.amazon.com/Border-Snow-Melt-Selected-Georgy/dp/097748694X
https://www.amazon.com/Selected-Poems-Vladislav-Khodasevich/dp/1468308106
--
David Tenner
***@ameritech.net
Alex Milman
2017-08-02 18:33:04 UTC
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Post by David Tenner
Post by Alex Milman
Post by David Tenner
On the subject of emigration, btw, one thing that occurred to me: If
Gumilyov had emigrated, he might still be writing poems in the 1960's
or even the 1970's...
Strictly speaking, he didn't even have to emigrate; he could just have
decided not to return to Russia in 1918. (He was in Paris at the time; to
someone who urged him not to return, he is said to have replied, "I have
hunted lions and I don't believe the Bolsheviks are much more dangerous."...)
I know. According to the people who knew him, he did not have a sense of
fear. Probably this clouded his judgement.
Post by David Tenner
Incidentally, Gumilyov was AFAIK the only well-known Russian poet who
actually fought in the First World War.
Not just "fought": he got 2 (soldier) crosses of St. George which indicates
well above the usual bravery.
Post by David Tenner
This is a contrast with France where
for example Eluard, Cendrars, Apollinaire and Peguy all fought (and the
latter two did not survive) and the UK (where the roll call of dead poets is
only too well-known: Edward Thomas, Wilfred Owen, Rupert Brooke, Isaac
Rosenberg, as are the survivors Robert Graves, Siegfried Sassoon, and Edmund
Blunden). Perhaps it was easier for an educated young Englishman or Frenchman
to persuade himself in 1914 that it was a glorious crusade for freedom than
for a Russian to do so?
As far as I can tell, being patriotic in Russia circa WWI was not a very popular
thing among the Russian intellectual elite and, if they had been forced to
participate, avoidance of the real service was OK: Mayakovsky was working in
propaganda <whatever>, Block in a hospital, Esenin - hospital train,
Pasternak, Bryusov and Mandelstam - AFAIK, did not serve.
Post by David Tenner
Post by Alex Milman
Yes, this was a terrible loss. I did not know that his poetry was
translated into English.
In additon to appearing in numerous anthologies of translated Russian poems
(some of them bilingual), there is a volume of *Selected Works of Nikolai S.
Gumilev* (Albany: State University of New York Press 1972).which includes
not only poems but stories, deama, and literary criticism. (I would say from
the anthologies I have read--or at least skimmed--that the most translated of
his poems is "The Lost Tram.")
One of his latest and probably the most important one. What about his
African cycle?
Post by David Tenner
In fact, I think all of the major Silver Age Russian poets have books of
their poetry available in English. For a while the emigres (other than
https://www.amazon.com/Border-Snow-Melt-Selected-Georgy/dp/097748694X
https://www.amazon.com/Selected-Poems-Vladislav-Khodasevich/dp/1468308106
--
David Tenner
jerry kraus
2017-07-31 13:40:07 UTC
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Post by David Tenner
From *Twentieth Century Russian Poetry: Silver and Steel: An Anthology,* p.
"When Bella Akhmadulina visited Nabokov in Switzerland not long before his
death, he told her: 'It's a pity I didn't stay in Russia, that I left...'
Nabokov's wife shook her head and replied: 'But they would have surely rotted
you away in the camps. Isn't that right, Bella?' Suddenly Nabokov shook his
head. 'Who knows, maybe I would have survived even. But then later I would
have become a totally different writer and, perhaps, a much better one...'"
--
David Tenner
Hard to say, David. Stalin could be remarkably tolerant of artists who he deemed useful, for one reason, or another, particularly if he didn't see them as a threat to himself. Look at what he put up with from Boris Pasternak, of Dr. Zhivago fame, for example? There's a legend that Stalin actually vetoed the arrest of Pasternak, scrawling over the warrant "Don't touch this cloud-dweller!". And look at the open defiance he tolerated from composer Dimitri Chostakovitch! Another interesting example is composer Sergei Prokofiev, who was an exile for many years, and then voluntarily returned to the Soviet Union in the 1930's. It's far from clear whether this decreased or increased his effective creative output.
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