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POEM, PROBLEM, PRANK

Alexander ZHOLKOVSKY (USC, Los Angeles)

Among the hallmarks of Nabokov's stellar image are his metatextuality, literary gamesmanship, and multiple boundary-straddling—linguistic (Russian/English), generic (prose/poetry/non-fiction), and other. The problem in question involves all three.

1.

Chapter Eleven of Nabokov's autobiographical text (Conñlusive Evidence, 1951; Speak, Memory, 1967), narrating the creation of his first poem at age 15, is absent from the 1954 authorial Russian version, Drugie berega [Other shores]. But the post-Soviet discovery of Nabokov has finally supplied Russian readers with translations of the missing chapter (one by M. Malikova, followed by an insightful commentary, in Nabokov Pro et Contra, 1997: 741-71, another by S. Il'in, in the 1999 Simpozium edition). In that chapter, the memoirist portrays the gestation of his maiden verses with condescending/forgiving irony as he launches into a detailed formal analysis (which resulted in the piece's rejection by the New Yorker in 1948; Boyd, II: 686) of their slavish dependence on the 19th-century Russian poetic tradition. The theme of juvenile imitativeness is echoed by several other motifs.

Various sounds reached me in my various situations. It might be the dinner gong or something less usual, such as the foul music of a barrel organ. Somewhere near the stables the old tramp would grind, and on the strength of more direct impressions imbibed in earlier years, I would see him mentally from my perch. Painted on the front of his instrument were Balkan peasants of sorts dancing among palmoid willows. Every now and then he shifted the crank from one hand to the other. I saw the jersey and skirt of his little bald female monkey, her collar, the raw sore on her neck, the chain which she kept plucking at every time the man pulled it hurting her badly […]

The family phonograph, which the advent of the evening set in action, was another musical machine I could hear through my verse [… I]t emitted from its brass mouthpiece the so-called tsiganskie romansi beloved of my generation. These were more or less anonymous imitations of gypsy songs—or imitations of such imitations […] When silence returned, my first poem was ready. (1967: 223-4)

The barrel organ, the monkey, the phonograph, the gypsy songs are all served up as explicit variations on the “aping” theme. As usual, however, there is more to Nabokov's self-disclosing game than meets the eye, especially that of the English-language reader, although some clues are, of course, planted in the text. The central conceit of the barrel-organ paragraph is the paradox of seeing/non-seeing: the avowedly non-retinal gaze (“I would see mentally…”) yields a detailed—“Proustian”—close-up visualization (“I saw…”) of the scene based on earlier impressions. These may well have been “direct” or, for that matter, second-hand, borrowings from the 1907 poem “With a Monkey” by Ivan Bunin, whose poetry Nabokov acknowledges (in Chapter Fourteen) having loved since childhood. Another likely source is “The Monkey” (1918) by Vladislav Khodasevich (see G. Amelin and V. Morderer, The Worlds and Confrontations of Osip Mandel'shtam, Moscow, 2001), featuring a similar set of characters, but culminating in the persona's portentous handshake with the monkey. Khodasevich's poem was clearly not available to the budding poet, but very much so to the seasoned memoirist: the ties between the two major émigré writers in the 1920s and 1930s are a matter of record.

The affinities of Nabokov's “first poem” with Khodasevich's “Monkey” do not stop there. The opening paragraph of Chapter Eleven begins with the intention “to reconstruct the summer of 1914” (the year Nabokov turned 15), which in the second sentence is narrowed down to July. The historical relevance of the timing is sketched in at the end of the same long paragraph by the mention of “such jottings as: […] ''Down with Austria!''” on the door of the country house “pavilion”, the teen-age versifier's favorite venue (215-6). History then disappears from the narrative (except for the offhand reference to the Balkans in the description of the barrel organ) to resurface at the very end.

I carried [the poem] homeward, still unwritten, but so complete that even its punctuation marks were impressed on my brain […] The possibility of [my mother's] being much too engrossed, that particular night, in other events to listen to verse did not enter my mind at all […] A white telephone gleamed on the glass-topped table near her. Late as it was, she still kept expecting my father to call from St. Petersburg where he was being detained by the tension of approaching war. (225-6)

Now, war against Russia was declared on July 19/August 1—“on the very day,” as the punch line of Khodasevich’s poem has it, of that poet’s memorable rendezvous with a monkey. The setting of Khodasevich’s poem is a dacha near Moscow, that of Nabokov’s “first poem,” one near St. Petersburg. Thus the time and, in a sense, the place coincide, as does the monkey-cum-barrel-organ motif—the latter in both cases probably on loan from Bunin (Bunin has a Croatian barrel organist; Khodasevich, a Serb; Nabokov averages the two into generic “Balkan peasants”). Further parallels are, however, not traceable, since Nabokov’s poem appears to have stayed “unwritten.” The alleged first publication of his poetry (1914) has either disappeared or never existed (Malikova, 769), while none of the extant early collections (imitative, to be sure) contain a poem answering the description provided by the memoirist (rhymed iambs; the phrases poeta gorestnye gryozi [the poet’s melancholy daydreams] and vospominan’ia zhalo [memory’s sting], and a reference to “the old-world charm of the distant barrel organ” [221, 225]). All that has been netted by Nabokov scholars are some similarities in the early poem “Dozhd' proletel” [The rain had flown], 1917 (Boyd, I: 108, Malikova: 769-70), to which one can add a monkey and a caged animal (tushkanchik [jerboa]) appearing in the poems “Obez'ianu v sarafane…” (A monkey in a sarafan…), and “V zverintse” (At the Zoo) respectively, both published already in emigration, in 1923.

In all likelihood, we are faced not just with a twist of “fictitiousness” in autobiographical writing (much discussed in Nabokov criticism, e. g. in John Burt Foster’s book) but with a fully blown mystification: a covert appropriation—aping—of a fellow poet’s work, and a “Monkey” at that. Chapter Eleven as a whole would then forfeit its claim to a documentary account of a first creative experience, ending up instead as an archly fictionalized tall tale (somewhat similar to Isaak Babel’s Spravka/Moi pervyi gonorar [Answer to inquiry/My first fee], 1928/1937, where “aping” a friendly senior’s work—in that case, Maxim Gorky’s Childhood—also looms large). In fact, Chapter Eleven was originally published as a short story (“First Poem”, Partisan Review, September 1949).

2.

As if one appropriation were not enough, Nabokov works into his narrative yet another secret borrowing—to underscore the conventionality of his juvenile poetic exertions and further test the readers' literary competence. Played in the paragraph leading up to the reciting of the finished poem to his mother, this intertextual game helps both to enhance, on the surface, the episode's emotional intensity, and, at a deeper—literary connoisseurs'—level, to ironically deflate it.

My nerves were on edge because of the darkness of the earth, which I had not noticed muffling itself up, and the nakedness of the firmament, the disrobing of which I had not noticed earlier. Overhead […] the night sky was pale with stars. In those years, that marvelous mess of constellations, nebulae, interstellar gaps and all the rest of the awesome show provoked in me an indescribable sense of nausea, of utter panic, as if I were hanging from earth upside down on the brink of infinite space, with terrestrial gravity still holding me by the heels but about to release me at any moment. (225-6)

The episode reads (certainly in view of “The Monkey” business) as a disguised—English—prose rendering of an 1857 poem by Afanasii Fet, well-known to educated Russians:

Upon a haystack one southern night/ I lay facing the firmament,/ and the choir of stars, live and harmonious,/ was spread around trembling.// The earth, mute as a vague dream,/ was mysteriously racing away/ And I, like the denizen of paradise/ alone beheld the night face to face. // Was I racing towards the midnight abyss,/ or were the hosts of stars racing towards me?/ It seemed as if I were held in a mighty hand/ suspended above the abyss.// And with trepidation and bewilderment/ I spanned with my gaze the depth/ into which with every moment/ I am sinking ever more irrevocably.

Fet, along with Tiutchev, is mentioned in Chapter Eleven as a major player in the tradition's hypnotizing spell, and a strong influence of both is quite evident in Nabokov's early poems, among them “O noch', ia tvoi…” [Oh, night, I am yours…], 1918, which features the persona's nocturnal sailing/swimming across the firmament, a motif shared by the two 19th-century greats.

Thus, Nabokov not only datelines his “poem” a la Khodasevich, but also walks the talk of Fet.

3.

The appropriation pulled on Khodasevich is especially noteworthy in the context of Dar [The Gift], 1936, with its doubles relationship between Fedor Godunov-Cherdyntsev (a fictionalized alter ego of Nabokov-Sirin) and Koncheev (a “Khodasevich”). In his Foreword to Speak, Memory, Nabokov claimed that the reason for omitting Chapter Eleven from Other Shores was “the psychological difficulty of replaying a theme elaborated in my Dar” (12). The author's reference to a common pool of motifs being carefully distributed between Speak, Memory and The Gift explicitly erases the boundary separating his fiction and non-fiction; it echoes Nabokov's other statements to the same effect, e. g. his programmatic decision to write not a pure autobiography but “rather a new hybrid between that and a novel” (Nabokov, Selected Letters, 69; quoted by Foster, 179, and Malikova, 763).

The Gift does, indeed, exhibit numerous parallels to Chapter Eleven: an imitative elegy written by Fedor at 15; the banal versifying by his other Doppelgaenger—Yasha Chernyshevsky (who plays Lensky to Fedor's Onegin); comments on the dated poetic tradition and the protagonist's indebtedness to Fet, involving a mention of his “Babochka” [A Butterfly] (butterfly poems by Fet and Bunin are quoted and praised in the lepidopterological Chapter Six of Speak, Memory)—but not of Fet's “Upon a Haystack…” or, for that matter, of a barrel organist with his monkey! That pair was to make its appearance only in 1949, and then in an English-language publication, in America—at a safe distance from both its donors: ten years after the death of Khodasevich and far away from Bunin (still living in France). Apparently, the parallel existence of two versions of his creative beginnings—autobiographical and novelistic (the authorized English translation of The Gift came out in 1963)—did not bother Nabokov as long as it took place in a foreign idiom or across the language barrier. It was their meeting on Russian linguistic soil that gave him psychological pause and that he had successfully avoided—until his posthumous Russian comeback.

As for eluding Khodasevich's notice, the success of the appropriation was as complete as it was prompt. Just two years after his death and one year into Nabokov's American avatar, Nabokov published translations of several poems by Khodasevich, “The Monkey” among them! In other words, almost a decade before implicitly claiming that poem as his own in a fictitious non-fiction, he actually had penned it—in English. Here it is, his “first poem”—arguably, his first in his newly adopted literary medium:

The Monkey

The heat was fierce. Great forests were on fire./ Time dragged its feet in dust. A cock was crowing/ in an adjacent lot. As I pushed open/ my garden-gate I saw beside the road/ a wandering Serb asleep upon a bench/ his back against the palings. He was lean/ and very black, and down his half-bared breast/ there hung a heavy silver cross, diverting/ the trickling sweat. Upon the fence above him,/ clad in a crimson petticoat, his monkey/ sat munching greedily the dusty leaves/ of a syringa bush; a leathern collar/ drawn backwards by its heavy chain bit deep/ into her throat. Hearing me pass, the man/ stirred, wiped his face and asked me for some water./ He took one sip to see whether the drink/ was not too cold, then placed a saucerful/ upon the bench, and, instantly, the monkey/ slipped down and clasped the saucer with both hands/ dipping her thumbs; then, on all fours, she drank,/ her elbows pressed against the bench, her chin / touching the boards, her backbone arching higher/ than her bald head. Thus, surely, did Darius/ bend to a puddle on the road when fleeing/ from Alexander's thundering phalanges./ When the last drop was sucked the monkey swept/ the saucer off the bench, and raised her head,/ and offered me her black wet little hand./ Oh, I have pressed the fingers of great poets,/ leaders of men, fair women, but no hand/ had ever been so exquisitely shaped/ nor had touched mine with such a thrill of kinship,/ and no man's eyes had peered into my soul/ with such deep wisdom… Legends of lost ages/ awoke in me thanks to that dingy beast/ and suddenly I saw life in its fulness/ and with a rush of wind and wave and worlds/ the organ music of the universe/ boomed in my ears, as it had done before/ in immemorial woodlands. And the Serb/ Then went his way thumping his tambourine:/ on his left shoulder, like an Indian prince/ upon an elephant, his monkey swayed./ A huge incarnadine but sunless sun/ hung in a milky haze. The sultry summer/ flowed endlessly upon the wilting wheat.//

That day the war broke out, that very day.

As stated by Berkeley Professor Robert P. Hughes, who reprinted and prefaced this and two other poetic translations by Nabokov from Khodasevich, along with the writer's 1973 translation of his own 1939 laudatory obituary/essay on Khodasevich (The Bitter Air of Exile: Russian Writers in the West, 1922-1972, ed. by Simon Karlinsky and Alfred Appel, Jr., Berkeley: UC Press, 1977: 52-87; originally published as Russian Literature and Culture in the West: 1922-1972, Volumes 27 and 28 of TriQuarterly, Northwestern UP, 1973):

Nabokov's translations, published a year after his arrival in America, appeared in James Laughlin's New Directions 1941 (Norfolk, Conn., 1941), pp. 596-600. Professor Nabokov would distribute mimeographed copies of these translations to his students at Cornell University. It should be noted that these are verse renderings rather than the literal “ponies” Nabokov has insisted upon since undertaking and publishing his Eugene Onegin translation (67).

[According to Robert Hughes' e-mail communication to me [9/13/01], “It must have been Alfred Appel—who was Nabokov's student at Cornell—who supplied the information” about the distribution of mimeographed copies to students.—A. Zh.]

Remarkably, these translations, despite having appeared in print at least thrice (1941, 1973, 1977), have failed to attract proper attention. Boyd discusses the fictitiousness of the “first poem” (I, 108-9), lists The Bitter Air of Exile in his Bibliography, and mentions Nabokov's translations from Khodasevich in passing (II: 319), but never connects the three. The name of Professor Robert. P. Hughes, unlike that of Robert Hughes the art critic and Nabokov interviewer, does not appear in the Index (although it does make the Bibliography in a different connection).

4.

Nabokov is known to have liked playing games on unsuspecting readers and later taunting them with their lack of discernment. In the 1967 Foreword to Speak, Memory, he wrote:

Reviewers read the first version more carelessly than they will this new edition: only one of them noticed my “vicious snap” at Freud in the first paragraph of Chapter Eight, section 2 [i. e. the “Sigismond Lejoyeux” bilingual pun, p. 156,—A. Zh.] and none discovered the name of a great cartoonist and a tribute to him in the last sentence of section 2, Chapter Eleven [219; according to commentators, the reference is to Otto Soglow, 1900-1975; the rather desperate pun is in the words ''so glowing''—A. Zh.]. It is most embarrassing for a writer to have to point out such things himself” (15).

“The writer himself” has not been as forthcoming with another of his put-ons: the intimation that

[t]he first little throb of Lolita went through me late in 1939 or early in 1940, in Paris, [… p]rompted by a newspaper story about an ape in the Jardin des Plantes, who, after months of coaxing by a scientist, produced the first drawing ever charcoaled by an animal: this sketch showed the bars of the poor creature's cage (“On a book entitled Lolita”, Lolita, 1955: 313).

As a result, Nabokov scholars are still trying to track down the alleged press item, probably unaware that there is no trace of such a landmark case in the relevant area of expertise, i. e. the history of monkey painting (see, for instance, Thierry Lenain, Monkey Painting. With an Introduction by Desmond Morris. London: Redaktion Books Ltd., 1997 [original French edition, Paris, 1990].)

Be that as it may, on solving a couple more Nabokov charades, one is tempted to ask the otherworldly VN whether he himself has noticed that hiding in the scholarly name of his Eupithecia Nabokovi is a “good monkey”, Gr. eu-pithekos (which, to an extent, is also true of the bluntly English label Nabokov Pug, as it is from Gr. simos [flat-nosed, pug-nosed] that Lat. simia [monkey, ape] is derived). He must have, for that particular butterfly, the act of labeling, and the image of aping all converge on the closure of the poem celebrating VN's most cherished lepidopteral catch:

Dark pictures, thrones, the stones that pilgrims kiss,/ poems that take a thousand years to die/ but ape the immortality of this/ red label on a little butterfly (“A Discovery”, 1943; in reciting this poem, Nabokov especially stressed the word “ape”).

Having joined the ranks of professional crackers of Nabokov's conundrums one also wonders whether a better tack would not have been to play on their arch composer the antithetical game of ignoring the challenge. After all, they are not age-old enigmas wrapped in mysteries of artistic creation, but rather, to continue paraphrasing the Churchillian description of Russia, hoaxes surrounded with riddles inside puzzles. Well-made, but man-made.