Annals of Nabokov

Yesterday was the 110th anniversary of Vladimir Nabokov‘s birth, an occasion that inspired the New Republic to open up its sizable vaults an showcase a handful of reviews that Nabokov wrote for the magazine, as well as a raft of critical assessments of his work. I was struck by his list of requirements in his 1941 piece, “The Art of Translation.” The bar’s set high:

First of all he must have as much talent, or at least the same kind of talent, as the author he chooses. In this, though only in this, respect Baudelaire and Poe or Joukovsky and Schiller made ideal playmates. Second, he must know thoroughly the two nations and the two languages involved and be perfectly acquainted with all details relating to his author’s manner and methods; also, with the social background of words, their fashions, history and period associations. This leads to the third point: while having genius and knowledge he must possess the gift of mimicry and be able to act, as it were, the real author’s part by impersonating his tricks of demeanor and speech, his ways and his mind, with the utmost degree of verisimilitude.

The critical pieces, for their part, are largely expressions of enthusiasm. For a literary culture that was apparently hurting for a new Faulkner or Hemingway in the late 50s and early 60s, Nabokov was the chosen successor; note the opening of John Updike‘s 1964 piece, in which he dismisses Norman Mailer and James Jones as “homegrown cabbages loyally mistaken for roses.” Writing on Pale Fire in 1962, Mary McCarthy enthused that it was “one of the very great works of art of this century, the modern novel that everyone thought dead and that was only playing possum.” Conrad Brenner in 1958 was given to even broader proclamations, writing that Nabokov “will never win the Pulitzer Prize or the Nobel Prize [true in both cases], yet Lolita is probably the best fiction to come out of this country (so to speak) since Faulkner’s burst in the thirties. He may be the most important writer now going in this country. He is already, God help him, a classic.”

Nabokov, on the evidence, didn’t seem to be anxious for divine intervention to handle all of this acclaim—he simply kept writing, when he wasn’t chasing butterflies. And he clearly kept his sense of humor. In 1999 Jed Perl noted Nabokov’s semi-famous, semi-serious 1972 recipe for boiling eggs (aka “Eggs a la Nabocoque”), displayed in an exhibit at the New York Public Library:

“Boil water in a saucepan (bubbles mean it is boiling!),” he begins. A few lines later, the two eggs have slipped “soundlessly into the (boiling) water. Consult your wristwatch. Stand over them with a spoon preventing them (they are apt to roll) from knocking against the damned side of the pan. If, however, an egg cracks in the water (now bubbling like mad) and starts to disgorge a cloud of white stuff like a medium at an old fashioned seance, fish it out and throw it away.”

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