Arthur Wilderson, who knows more about guns that almost anyone, reminded me that Vladimir Nabokov died 36 years ago this week.

After I praised his English, more fluid and colloquial than his only rival as a non- native English- speaking  novelist in the language (VN would have said American I think), Arthur agreed: “I was always a little irked when he would complain of his “second-rate”
command of English in the forward of some of his novels.  As though he
could possibly have anything to complain about in that regard!”

Right– tell me what other “American” could have written Pale Fire— yeah, odd, but an impossible tour de force. The same un- degreed Russian emigre wrote at least two more essential American novels: Lolita (with On the Road as its crude brash kid brother and Roger Tory Peterson’s ‘s Wild America its overlooked one, one of the three essential road and motel novels of the fifties, the road and motel decade); and Pnin, the only academic satire I can stand– well, maybe Lucky Jim. All the while analyzing butterfly genitalia in the Harvard Museums while being condescended to there as well, doing so well with traditional taxonomic methods that his classification of the Blues is confirmed by today’s DNA studies fifty years and more later.

I picture his burly tweed- clad figure racing off from his tiny office to some unnecessary meeting imposed on him and stumbling impatiently over a little kid who is seated cross- legged on the floor in front of a glass case containing awkwardly stuffed specimens of Neotropical birds, trying to figure out THEIR taxonomy and wondering why the taxidermist has chosen yellow eyes for the bat falcon…

4 thoughts on “VN”

  1. A few days ago, in honor of the anniversary of Nabokov's death I pulled out his August 1941 New Republic essay "The Art of Translation". He makes the familiar apology for his shortcomings in English ("The English at my disposal is certainly thinner than my Russian; the difference being, in fact, that which exists between a semi-detached villa and a hereditary estate, between self-conscious comfort and habitual luxury.") But, this nice analogy comes after many paragraphs of his usual brillance and some fine taxonomizing on the varieties of translators, along with asides easily missed, I would guess, by many readers. We should all have such poor command of English!

  2. ' and as a young man, he studied Slavic and romance languages at Trinity College, Cambridge, taking his honors degree in 1922',(wikipedia) which may count as a degree and may have given him some sense of the self-deprecation common in native English speakers…


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