Book Diary: Letters to Véra (Vladimir Nabokov)

I have just started reading The Great Gatsby in Spanish.  It is my first experience of Fitzgerald and I am enjoying it a lot, despite being plagued by the feeling that I should really have read it in the original. The translator’s note which prefaces my edition disconcerted me right from the start, excusing itself as it does for the ‘strange use of adjectives’, which are apparently down to Fitzgerald’s style in English and the attempt to stay true to this in the translation. The translator states that the result is that it reads strangely in both English and Spanish. This somewhat negates the point of reading in Spanish in order to reinforce my knowledge, as it seems, after reading this novel, I will be walking around Madrid talking like a rich New Yorker from the 1920s.

 

This experience reminded me of something that a bilingual (Venezuelan) colleague told me. When I started reading Letters to Véra, I would arrive to work with such a dreamy look on my face, clasping the book to my heart, and immediately forcing her to read so many of my latest favourite paragraphs, that she decided it was time she read Lolita. I lent her my own precious copy (my copy is actually from the original UK publisher, although not a first edition and missing its cover. I bought it from an outdoor bookshop in Hay-on-Wye. It was mildewed and 50 pence, and I just thought, I’ve never read this – I probably should, a thought which turned out to be the beginning of an intense love affair with all things Nabokov. It was also after reading this very edition that I decided to write my Masters thesis on language and identity. So this book means an awful to me, both in it’s physical form and much more intangibly also) and although she is loving it, and although she has been speaking English since she was two years old, she finds she cannot read it for very long, or paragraphs take her longer than usual to read, due to the density and richness of the imagery and the high style of his writing.

Following that, another friend told me that he was so moved by the Kubrick/Nabokov film adaptation of Lolita that he cried, after which I urged him to read the novel itself. He bought it in the Spanish translation and I couldn’t help but feel a little sad for him that he would not have the experience of reading it in the glorious original (as an aside, my all-time favourite “review” of this book went thus: <person finishes Lolita, puts it down in their lap slowly and with meaning>  There is a pause.  I’m dying to hear what they think.  They look at me: “Why would anyone ever bother to write another book?” Indeed).  All these experiences, mine with The Great Gatsby and my friends with Lolita, make me never want to read Nabokov in anything other than the original (that is to say, the novels that he wrote in English and not Russian) for fear that either the beauty would be lost, or lost on me.

Ironically, one of the most notable things about Nabokov‘s writing is that he himself was not monolingual, a fact which leant his language such rich hues and make his use of it so innovative, that clearly one cannot deny the power of multilingualism. This is in full evidence in his letters to Véra (being as they were, Russians living in Berlin and making a living teaching English) where he often invented terms of endearment for her, or switched from Russian, to English and French, and even made up new words in Russian to make them sound comically German.  After his move to the United States, this verbal playfulness increased along with the linguistic opportunities, as Olga Voronina writes in the introduction to this book:

The letters are full of enthralling details of the writer’s linguistic adjustment to his post European American existence.  Unlike his Russian translation of Lolita, jammed with carefully chosen equivalents of English expressions, they boldly slip transliterated English into Russian grammatical slots.  This is especially noticeable in Nabokov’s reports of his adventures in the American South in 1941-2, which he peppers with such words as khintiki (‘little hints), prufsy (‘proofs’), glimpsnul (‘I’ve glimpsed’), brekfastayu (‘I am having breakfast’) and tribulatsii (‘tribulations’).

To the book itself: before I even started to read Letters to Véra, I was in love with it, I was being nourished by it, was excited to read it – but that was clearly nothing like the joy of reading it for real.  The cover says that the letters in this book reveal in the man what he also valued most in art: “curiosity, tenderness, kindness, ecstasy.”  I cannot think of a better description for either Nabokov’s works, or for this book of beautiful letters.  The letters are full of examples of these four virtues, of which the below are just a few.

Curiosity

In the Paris Métro: “I once asked a conductor what was in the composition of the stone steps that sparkled so nicely – the sparks were like the play of quartz in granite, and at this he, with unusual eagerness – giving me les honneurs du Métro, so to speak, – started explaining to me and showed me where to stand and how to look to enjoy the glitter at its best: if I described this, people would say I made it up.”

Tenderness

To Véra: “I love you, my Pussms, my life, my flight, my flow, darling pooch…” and my own particular favourite: “my pink sky”

Kindness

“what a cat they have! Something perfectly stupendous. Siamese, in colour dark beige, or taupe, with chocolate paws … and wonderful, clear-blue eyes, turning transparently green towards evening … An amazing, sacred animal, and so quiet – it’s unclear what he is looking at with those eyes filled to the brim with sapphire water.”

Ecstasy

“The weather this morning was so-so: dullish, but warm, a boiled-milk sky, with skin – but if you pushed it aside with a teaspoon, the sun was really nice, so I wore my white trousers.”

One of the most fascinating things about this book, is that Nabokov was clearly born a straight-up genius.  The joyousness with which he writes to Véra in 1926 is barely distinguishable from the literary style which made him the star he would later become.  This is across all the languages he spoke, as they ascended and receded respectively throughout his life. Olga Voronina:

From the first letter to the last, his writing remains buoyant and whimsical, lyrical and lucid, rich and nimble.  This stylistic consistency is one of the noteworthy features of the letters, especially in view of the fact that at the end of his life be became painfully self-conscious about his Russian.

This gift for describing, with great curiosity and joy, the small and beautiful details of life is exactly what the book gifts the reader too: the discovery of beauty in the mundane, in the unexpected and a reminder to be playful and to exalt.

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