Friday, September 4, 2015

The Nabokovian Singularity

Consider the singularity of Vladimir Nabokov's achievement: the Humbutterfly Hunter went from being one of the major Russian writers of the twentieth century to being an even more major English-language writer. If he had never written an English word (not a single plaintive and, not a single breathy the) his Russian novels alone would have assured his canonical status in world literature--and the same is arguably true of his English novels, if, by some strange historical accident, he had never written a Cyrillic nyet or a funny-looking da. It's a critical commonplace that Lolita, Pnin, Transparent Things, and (for some critics) even Ada are uncommonly fine, but less common, for some reason, is the idea that Despair, The Defense, Invitation to a Beheading, and The Gift can stand alongside any other Russian-language works of the grey and gloomy Soviet years--even Bulgakov's supreme The Master and Margarita and (to name a work Nabokov surely despised from the Olympian height of his brow) Doctor Zhivago. Offhand, I can think of no analogous case of a dual-language major novelist. There are multiple examples of novelists writing in 'non-native' languages: Conrad, Beckett and Kundera form a very strange troika of such double-tongued ones. But Conrad, as far as I know, wrote little of note in Polish; Beckett's English work is (probably unfairly) less highly regarded than the books he wrote originally in French; and Milan K. seems to have traded his position as a major Czech novelist for a late-life minor niche in the cathedral of French literature. Is Vlad the Inscriber's achievement unique, or is there an analogous case that's stubbornly staying out of my mind?

(A half-hour after sending out this post, a possible contender comes to mind: Ngugi wa Thiong'o, who has written major works in both English and the Gikuyu language of his native Kenya. And there are surely other examples from the formerly-colonized world...)


nnyhav said...

I'd put Beckett and Nabokov in roughly the same league. The earlier works you cite are mostly minor classics (limited to an emigre audience, and would have disappeared with, Ardis Press notwithstanding), as Beckett's are likewise perceived; both also benefited from self-(or in N's case also filial) translation, though in opposite directions.

There's also the matter of much of the Russian competition having been roughly winnowed out (not just Bulgakov, but Yury Dombrovsky, Vasily Grossman ... Solzhenitsyn, among the roughly contemporaneous).

Not that it makes it any less remarkable.

BRIAN OARD said...

From iMary and Glory through Transparent Things and Look at the Harlequins, Nabokov was a remarkably consistent writer. His English-language novels are perhaps a bit more baroque, maybe more self-conscious, but I don't see a quality differential that would justify calling the Russian works minor and the English ones major. And as far as Beckett goes, I'd argue against the received opinion with regards to his first novel, Murphy, a marvelous tragicomic invention that sounds the major, true Beckettian note in its very first lines: "The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new. Murphy sat out of it, as though he were free, in a mew in West Brompton..." But Beckett's original-English oeuvre has neither the size nor the variety of Nabokov's Russian works. Nabokov in Russian is a body of work; Beckett in English is an arm, a leg or two, maybe half a torso. Even Emily Deschanel would have a hard time finding a full body there.