NABOKV-L post 0011557, Wed, 22 Jun 2005 14:56:26 -0700

Nabokov, Brodsky---bilingualism
Ethan FromeEDNOTE. Ran across this by chance. It is by an artist, Albert Fayngold whose web page address is below.
Nabokov, Brodsky, and the topography of Russian/English bilingual space


In life, one need not go far to begin thinking of bilingualism in spatial terms. Every time one sees a sign a New York subway with directions in English and Spanish, or every time one enters that mini-universe which some call “little Odessa” and where a supermarket, store, pharmacy displays the “My govorim po ryssky” and “We speak Russian” signs next to each other, one encounters through their juxtaposition a basic visual formula of bilingual condition. As far as bilingual writing, or bilingual poetry, are concerned, any bilingual edition opened at random may be said to personify the same visual-spatial solution by which two languages, tongues, voices (or, if one wishes, two cultures, continents, countries, and even times) find themselves to be coextensive. As an illustration, a recent Russian/English edition of Joseph Brodsky’s poems will suffice: it is an emblem, of sorts, - not merely because a codex form in itself is such a particularly lucky “solution” for bilingualism, but because it makes such a solution problematic. It seems to be implicitly suited to the demands of a bilingual audience: A Russian/English speaker is given an opportunity for a simultaneous, parallel or a comparative reading. But this type of a reading is often more informative then emotionally or aesthetically satisfying: it emphasizes disparities and inconsistencies in translation, it makes the two versions seem incompatible; in short, it illustrates the discordant gulf between two linguistic realms rather then their affinity.

Or, for an alternative model, one may turn to figurative metaphors which correlate language with space. If language is indeed a house, or a “prison-house”, then bilingualism is a bicameral space, or a room of “double occupancy”. And while we may not perceive its walls and partitions and its interior, we are immediately sensitized to these by cases of bilingual transitions. These transits signal the alarm and betray the intruder. Generally, whenever a writer – an exile, an émigré, etc., begins to write in a language other then his “mother tongue”, one encounters a resistance on behalf of the endogenous constituent which feels violated. One is held somehow suspect, as Conrad was when he began writing in English, or as Brodsky was in the U.S (“like a bear playing a flute, it’s embarrassing” – John Baley commented, and further, “the Muse is unforgiving”) (is she? Or is it Baley?) It is hard to say how much of critical reception is motivated in such cases by questions of authority, facility, etc, and how much by linguistic territoriality based on a hierarchical, spatial perception of language and a sensitivity towards the “other”. The line between the critical canon and a biblical one is blurred: whether we like it or not, we are influenced by the paradigms which view language as birthright that can be bought and sold, or as a house in which we live in and which we maintain jealously in its segregated state in order to keep it from becoming once again the Babel tower it once was. So we say “mother tongue” and “mother[-]land”, linking language conceptually with space through the feminine, or maternal, signifier, a kind of an umbilical chord of gender.

From the phenomenological standpoint, all of this makes perfect sense. The tongue-space relation is one of language’s original metaphors, a kind of ground zero of linguistic awareness. (Beyond it lies a prenatal darkness, or, if one wishes to be Platonic, a Lethe.) So, in order to describe its origins, to become present to itself, language summons up the image of uterine space, of primal womb-chamber. It is through the lens, or the prism, of this, in some sense, archetypal image, that I would like to begin examining the paths of Russian/ English bilinguals. Already at this bedrock level, the Anglophone and Russophone traditions are in many ways fundamentally different. And it is particularly interesting that the most dominant figures of Russian/English bilingual scene – Nabokov and Brodsky, have come up with entirely different solutions for this difference.

To begin with, to the extent that both Nabokov and Brodsky are native speakers of Russian, what is their common linguistic inheritance? The Russian Language, with its inflexions and gender system, represents a system where such notions as “the point of origin” are either incredibly simple or incredibly complex, depending on how one looks at it. In English, when one says “Mother tongue” and “motherland”, identifying with the maternal, or feminine, source of ones’ linguistic origins, one establishes a system of signification based on meaning but not on form. “Mother land” and “Mother tongue” reflect the feminine but do not embody it: they are both neuter-based nouns. By contrast, if we enter the gender-specific economy of Russian, we encounter confusion. For one thing, Russian differentiates between the masculine “yazyk” – tongue and the feminine “rech’” – speech. At the same time, the word for motherland - “rodina”- remains unmistakably feminine, deriving from rod, which is both “gender” and “bloodline”, or “clan” – or, actually, the classical gens. And as if this was not enough, in addition to rodina, there is also ottchizna – fatherland, from otets – father, - which already pushes the envelope because it refers to masculine gender in meaning but remains formally feminine (otchizna is a she, not a he) So, a native speaker of Russian inherits an incredibly complex phraseological and semantic range; one feels at once extremely close and somehow at a certain “spatial-cognitive remove” from the maternal core. It is as if the very bond of consanguinity, of rod, already implied, or contained, the notions of separation or exile. In dredging up this original image, language encloses it in its own linguistic unit, a word, a phrase, or a “Part of Speech”; tautologically, the motifs of separation, of primal scream, of “The Tongue Set Free”, are accompanied by the gesture of appropriation, of encapsulation, of incestual self-referentiality. Thus, already at this perceptual stage, language is at once itself and its own phantom, the Other, the mirror image of itself in primal space.

All of the above should not lead one to suspect some kind of fatality embedded into the semantic structure of the Russian language. It would be absurd to presume that every native speaker of Russian would grow up harboring the makings of an “exilic” sensibility[1]. On the contrary, it is, if anything, the very lack of determinism that defines Russian linguistic landscape: one is given a space where, as Brodsky puts it, “verbs and nouns change place as freely as one dares to have them to do so” (Less the One, 9). At the same time, it is precisely this vastness, this open contingency, this indeterminacy that, under special conditions, may lead to the antenna-sharp sensitivity (“hyper-consciousness” of the Underground Man), or to what Said calls a “contrapuntal thinking” of an exile. As David Bethea explains, applying Said’s notion to Nabokov’s case, the contrapuntal sensation is something that Ganin, the autobiographical hero of Nabokov’s Mashenka, experiences as he finds himself in his present, that is in the bed of a room in Berlin Boarding house, and in the past, with his first love left behind in Russia. Of course, if one agrees with Seidel that “an exile is someone who inhabits one place and remembers or projects the reality of another”, than a whole plethora of characters subject to reverie, from Turgenev’s to Tolstoy’s could be added to this category of “mental” exile. But more importantly, in the situation where the flexibility of Russian is enlisted in the service of Soviet authority, the semantic vertigo leads to what Brodsky calls “an overwhelming sense of ambivalence”, and, most surprisingly, to being “wounded in one’s …sense of prosody”. Regardless of circumstances, the Russian language endows one with an “exilic potential”, but not with exilic destiny.

To say, then, that both authors – Nabokov and Brodsky, share a “common ground” in Russian language, is to say very little. The notion of commonality of their linguistic roots is likely to have been arbitrary but understandable misperception based on the “retro-prospective” convergence of their exilic trajectories: both left Russia largely due to political circumstances, both eventually landed in the U.S., both became “the highest and most dazzling crests of the “first” and “third” waves of Russian émigré literature” (Bethea, 218), both found, and founded, a new voice in Anglo-American tradition. But actually, it is not difficult to see, that beyond the nominal linguistic “habitat”, their respective homes were situated, so to speak, in the entirely separate “quarters.”; that their respective dwellings were separated not only by space but also by time and by sensibility. Indeed, can we even say with authority that they spent their childhood in the same metropolis when we do know in fact that Saint-Peterburg and Leningrad are separated by that gulf of purposeful amnesia which Brodsky describes in A Guide to a Renamed City? The difference is not merely that Nabokov's city is a capital and Brodsky’s isn’t; that one bears a “maiden-name” and the other an “alias”, but that each author observes and absorbs the city through an entirely different lens. In other words, it is a question of “point of view” and of the individual social, architectural and linguistic “niche”. Nabokov inherits a worldview that is still Empyrean in its origin, a world that looks back to Russian patriarchy and forward to the West; a world where the Old Russian textual patterns are rivaled and often eclipsed by the sounds and pages of English, German and French. Whereas Brodsky’s is the world of eternal ambivalence, cut off from the past and the future, at once spacious and claustrophobic, a world whose denizens address their native city, given a choice between a “maiden-name” and an “alias”, “tend to use neither”.

There is, of course, a hint of a common blueprint in these diverse universes: one wrought via the dynamic of cognitive, linguistic and ideological maturation, and by the author’s articulation of their respective experiences. Both, for example, in their mature work, turn to the archetype of the house, or a unit of inhabitable space. Should one be surprised to discover that this unit, what a phenomenologist Bachelard calls “a natal house”, still retains, imagistically, vestiges of the prenatal house, the womb-chamber? In Bachelard’s exposition,

Even beyond memories, the natal house is psychically inscribed in us. It is a group of organic customs. After an interval of twenty years, despite all the anonymous staircases, we will recapture the reflexes of the “first staircase”, we will not stumble over that one step that’s a little too high. The entire being of the house will deploy itself, faithful to our being. (CC, 144.)

For Nabokov, the natal house takes on an emblematic (heraldic) as well as a near-mythic quality – largely due to its association with the “legendary Russia of my boyhood”. There are, of course, several of them, one being the Nabokov house in St. Petersburg with whose photograph Speak Memory opens, and the one of the Vyra estate whose position Nabokov specifies through the ”Sketch Map of the Nabokov Lands in the St. Petersburg Region” on a preceding page. Both the map and the photograph are crammed with an almost obsessive Nabokovian detail: apart from highways and railways, the map flaunts a butterfly, and the photograph is accompanied not only by the address –47, Morskaya, near Hertsen street, but manages to squeeze in the location of Nabokov’s room – “the third floor, above the oriel”, the “second-floor east corner window of the room where I was born”, the subsequent history of the house itself, the history of the photograph, and – why not indeed – a brief biography of Hertzen. Is this kind of a visual catalogue a way of honoring the past, or of memory itself? Or is it the pictorial awareness that precedes the text – a kind of third language – neither Russian nor English but the one that underlies the two?[2]

The fact is, regardless of the precise significance of the visual element in description, it is definitely an extra dimension, separate from the prose but grafting itself to it. This fact in itself is significant because there always seems to be something “extra” about Nabokov. The text that alternates between narrating, evoking and describing, in a language that explores now English, now Russian, while not forgetting forays into German and French, - this polyglot plurality and iridescence are peculiarly Nabokovian. So is, one might say, the life split between Russia, Europe and America; and so is the childhood memory, between the St. Petersburg house, the Vyra estate, the spas of Biarritz and Paris. There are, due to the family’s “traditional leaning toward the comfortable products of Western civilization”, “Pears soap, the English toothpaste that says “We could not improve the cream, so we improved the tube”, and Golden Syrup imported from London – all those “snug, mellow things that come in a steady procession from the English Shop on Nevski Avenue. In this eclectic pastiche that approaches, at times, a Proustian melange,

where everything Russian has an English equivalent, where after all, does one belong? Or is cosmopolitanism the very definition of self?

As far as linguistic commitment is concerned, Nabokov’s early exposures to several languages (at least we know that, with English, Russian and French spoken at home, Nabokov and his brother grew up trilingual) can be considered an impediment or on the contrary, an advantage. “I learned to read English before I could read Russian” is certainly as significant a biographical note as one could make with regard to one’s early linguistic “orientation”, and we can’t help thinking of this polyglot condition as harboring a kind of inequality, of this Babel tower leaning as it were, a la the tower of Pisa, towards the West. Which is not to make a grandiose claim that Nabokov’s Russian was somehow compromised by this Babel with an emphasis – on the contrary, once the language acquisition process was complete, Nabokov was not only a native speaker in a generic sense, but one with an extraordinary ear for verbal nuance – to which his early work in Russian and his very fussy translation of Pushkin, with its notorious insistence on its essential non-translatability, are proofs. But the vintage of Russian he learns is in the same league as Tolstoy’s – serene and Olympian, with the necessary admixtures of and detours into, French and English. At least, one can see why, when Nabokov begins to attend the Tenishev school, he quickly finds himself, as he will recall in Speak Memory, accused of “showing off” (mainly by peppering my Russian papers with English and French terms, which came naturally to me)”(185). (One only has to compare him with another linguistic virtuoso and same-time Tenishev student, Osip Mandelshtam who, incidentally, also comes to Russian through German, to appreciate the difference). So, when Nabokov calls Russian his “natural idiom”, one should take him not only at his word, but at the word in its full proper literal meaning of “idiolect” – a private language, a language which is, like the object of desire in Lolita, already “solipsized”.

Indeed, a closer look at this “natural idiom” casts it in a somewhat spectral, or, to quip, sinister light (“Bend Sinister”?): as a language hopelessly suspended or arrested at its development, a language already “ghostly” even before it was being sacrificed, as it were, to English as a primary linguistic vehicle. Nabokov himself may describe the sacrifice as his “absolutely tragic situation” of having to give up his “untrammeled, rich, and infinitely docile Russian tongue for a second-rate brand of English.” Still, he will acknowledge not only that the “second-rate brand” was to his liking but that his Russian poems improved “rather oddly in urgency and concentration” as a result of his abandonment of Russian prose. Moreover, even as he dramatizes his “loss”, he will rather enjoy his occasional “trysts” with the abandoned Muse. Much later, translating his autobiography and Lolita into Russian, he will find himself “after fifteen years of absence, wallowing in the bitter luxury of my Russian verbal might”. “Bitter” – because – to his dismay, his “marvelous Russian language” had proved to be non-existent. Had the magic evaporated? Had the Russian muse grown tired of playing mistress in these nights of passion, of these trysts arranged “on the sly” and, as many a mistress would, decided one day it was time to go? Or was she still there, but grown homely, overshadowed by her formidable opponent of an English Muse, the Muse of prose, the Muse who became a wife?

Nabokov provides another clue, as if in passing, in yet another of the domicile metaphors he has found so effective at expressing his trans-linguistic passage. Moving from his “palatial Russian” to the “narrow quarters” of his English was, he says, “like moving from one darkened house to another on a starless night during a strike of candlemakers and torchbearers”. The dramatic economy of this superbly drawn visual image – it is certainly Rembrant’s, Caravagio’s, or Goiya’s with a stark chiaroscuro revealing the travesty of the subject by concealing it – is, for all its synthetic – and kinesthetic, imagery, is yet another code. That is, through revealing the major drama, or tragedy, of this Exodus, another, seemingly minor drama, is concealed: that of the original linguistic situation. At the “first degree” of meaning the metaphor subsists on darkness, a purgatorial, or infernal darkness, which convey the sense of a blind, mute injustice; very well. But why is this darkness all-encompassing? Why does it cover not only the “narrow quarters” but the “palatian” home as well? As Michael Wood comments in his Preface to the “Magician’s Doubts”, “the houses are both dark, presumably, because Russian was already a language of exile, a language in shadow”(4). Which is forceful, if risqué, but only partly illuminating. Which Russian does Wood mean? The Russian language in its general exilic modality, or in its pre-Revolutionary, post-Tolstoy- pre-Gorky transition? Or is Russian to be taken in the possessive, as in “Nabokov’s Russian”? The latter would certainly tally with David Bethea’s assertion that “Nabokov’s poetic training is at best late Victorian, or in the Russian context, symbolist (Blok, Bely) and slightly postsymbolist (Gumilyov, Khodasevich), at which point it was, linguistically if not temperamentally, arrested”.

The point, in spite of substantial amount of biographical and textual evidence that Wood and Bethea have accrued, may ultimately remain moot; but it may be somewhat clarified, if not validated, by its contrast with another transitional case, that of Brodsky. Here we have a command of, and an ear for Russian that could only have been the result of (apart from native training and native talent) a long-standing immersion and an experience of a tradition: the tradition that begins with the Silver Age but is mostly rooted in the flowering of “high modernism” of Mandelshtam, Pasternak, Akhmatova and Tsvetayeva. Especially Mandelshtam. For Mandelshtam picks up the thread of Russian poetry precisely where Nabokov’s inchoate connection to it is radically cut - nipped, literally, in the bud. The metalinguistic struggles with ones “foreign” past that we glimpse in Mandelstam’s memoirs – the struggles with one’s Jewishness, Polish-ness, German-ness, and essential Other-ness, are antithetical to Nabokov’s polyglot struggles: for where Mandelshtam emerges victorious and in many ways enriched by his very origins at the “omyt” – the “dark pond”, - or a “Judaic chaos”, a ”Talmudist’s syntax”(Shum vremeni,2:67) of his linguistically confused heritage, Nabokov remains – whether by circumstances or by choice, a tenuous presence in Russian poetry, with a very peculiar take on prosody. What is at stake here is not simply Nabokov’s poetic gift – which , unlike his gift for prose, is something open to doubt, but his entire personal take on national sensibility, his “feel” for “the spirit of the language”. (one might recall, in this regard, numerous and suggestive, albeit only partially fair, reviews of Nabokov’s Russian works in the Russian émigré press, all but unanimously complaining of Nabokov’s essential “Un-Russianness”). It is somewhat of a paradox, it seems, that both Mandeshtam and later Brodsky – both, it might be remembered, Jews, have come to embody the Russian twentieth-century poetry, whereas Nabokov, a Russian by birth, has not.

As a Jew and a native speaker of Russian, Brodsky may be said to inherit a Mandelshtamian sense of sociolinguistic ambivalence, enhanced by his life-long self-confessed and in part self-maintained status as a homo soveticus. In a world where “a word’s fate depends on the variety of its contexts, on the frequency of its usage”, one learns very early on how to use words in order to lie. One does not have to go as far as Classical Greece to conceive of lying as one’s first poetic practice: Mandelshtam’s motifs of “double-dealing”, of being a “horse-thief” are well-known, if uncanny, metaphors for this condition. For Brodsky, one can make a case for an immediate conversion of duplicities of politics into duplicities of language; of blows to one’s identity to have been sublimated even before they inflict wounds:” I wasn’t ashamed of being a Jew, nor was I scared of admitting it… I was ashamed of the word “Jew” itself – in Russian, “yevrei” – regardless of its connotations”.

“Regardless of its connotations”?! Explains Brodsky: “I remember that I always felt a lot easier with a Russian equivalent of a “kike” – “zhyd” (pronounced like André Gide): it was clearly offensive and thereby meaningless, not loaded with allusions. A one-syllable word can’t do much in Russian. But when suffixes are applied, or endings, or prefixes, then feathers fly”. So what is affected , and offended, is not the Ego, but one’s “sense of prosody”. So one’s linguistic, and poetic training, begins with weaving in and out – not simply a web of lies but a web of poetic meanings, sounds, symbols. This is not, of course, the bilingual training – that would come later; this is an apprenticeship within the realms of onus’s mother tongue. And yet, it may also be construed as an early analogue of translation: George Steiner, for instance, argues in After Babel that “inside or between languages, human consciousness equals translation”(47). Or, one might say, Brodsky self-translates: from the language used against itself to the language rehabilitated , restored to one’s ontological, spiritual, poetic reality. From the language of the Father (yazyk?) to that of the Mother (rech’, poesiya). Is this what D.M. Thomas means when he postulates “One can translate only into one’s mother tongue – at least this is true for poetry, because there is something primordial in poetry which can not be captured in any other way”[3] One is tempted to say yes, even at the risk of waxing Platonic.

However, metapoetics aside, there is still a square biographical fact of Brodsky’s original, or native, monolinguism, so typical of the homo soveticus. In sharp contrast to Nabokov, Russian is the language, not a language. So linguistic ambivalence is reserved to the “Native Realm”; one’s energies are spent on establishing one’s statue as a poet within this realm. Everything else – learning and translating form, Polish and English, will come later, pre-or post-exile, respectively (although Brodsky begins his training in the Anglophone tradition while in Russia, the decisive linguistic breakthrough will come only in America, where he begins to write essays – and – although less frequently, poems – in English). I would agree with Bethea that Brodsky’s identity in Russia and now, in emigration, has always been that of a poet. His bilingualism, as opposed to Nabokov’s, has nothing “natural” or “nurtured” or “old world” about it. It has been earned, syllable by syllable, word by word, over the heads and against the express wishes of the Soviet literary establishment. It was learned, haltingly and through great personal sacrifice, during periods of intense solitude, for example, in his northern exile (Norinskaya), by pouring over an anthology of Anglo-American poetry and by trying to parse and piece together sounds and meanings” (226) So, Nabokov ‘s ‘secret trysts” with the Russian Muse have no place in Brodsky: what we see, instead, is a defiant an unreconstructed bigamy, which amounts linguistically to what Dorfman, on a somewhat similar occasion, calls “straddling” the two languages and two cultures, or a constant ”shuttling” between the two.

As it comes, Brodsky himself will construct models for his own bilingual condition along the similar lines. The important qualifier, however, is that he finds himself, as the quintessential Other, not only in between, but never fully in, the two cultures:

The fact of the matter is that this attachment to two cultures, or to put it more simply, bilingualism, either you are condemned to it or the opposite, either it is a blessing or it is a punishment, right? This is, if you wish, a totally wonderful situation psychologically. Because you are perched as it were on a mountain peak and you see both its slopes. I’m not sure if this is correct in my case or not, but my coign of vantage is not a bad one… You see both slopes and that is a completely different sensation. If a miracle were to happen and I were to return to Russia to live permanently, I would be exceedingly bothered by the inability to use an additional language. (Bethea, 228.)

“A blessing”, a “totally wonderful situation”, “not a bad one” – this catalogue of superlatives piled on in one breath, in a characteristically Brodskian mix of the academic and the colloquial, - is startling because of its (real or apparent) lack of all tragedy, of the nadryv that one finds in Nabokov. It is typical , of course, of Brodsky the man, with his cult of stoicism, irony, and paradox. But then from we know about Nabokov’s biographers, he is also a man equally prone to the creation of a reclusive private persona and to the dissolution of tragedy into laughter (“Laughter in the Dark” is, in this sense, emblematic). And while it is true that, while Nabokov and Brodsky are self-constructed exiles, their sense of exile is profoundly different, it has little bearing on bilingualism per se. The crux of the matter is that for the two exiles qua poets (or writers), the mapping of bilingual space operates on entirely different premises; the bilingual realms are constructed according to separate geometrical principals – separate temporally as well as spatially. If Nabokov’s rigid bipolarity is rooted in Euclidean geometry and Newtonian physics, than Brodsky’s epicene stance partakes of Lobachevsky’s geometry and of physics of Einstein and Heisenberg. Before this analogy is dismissed as just another arbitrary post-modern simile, it should be allowed to “play itself out” fully through more specific instances of both authors’s bilingual production.

For Nabokov, space has largely displaced time : “I confess I do not believe in time. I like to fold my magic carpet, after use, in such a way as to superimpose one part of the pattern upon another. Let visitors trip”. What is most significant here is a seemingly minor “after use”. That is, the experience of timelessness, of the purging of time, which happens on a page, is possible only after the vector has pointed, retro-prospectively, à la Proust, into the past, with the necessary caressing of details. So the slight of hand has an illusionist quality: the two-dimensionality of the page compensates for the banishment of time by adopting an extravagant visual diapason: a kind of “heightened” low mimetic. As Proustian as Caroll-esque, this transformation – or, to use a Christian term, transubstantiation, is a miracle in a rather poor taste. For while it summons reduction (folding), it does so in the service of attaining plenitude, however illusory: two times two, in this case, is five. Now before one compares it to Brodsky’s poetic economy, one would be well advised to turn to Madelshtam:

My desire is to speak not about myself but to track down the age, the noise, and the germination of time. My memory is inimical to everything personal… [Its] labor is not to reproduce but to distance the past. A raznochinsts needs no memory – it is enough for him to tell of the books he has read, and his biography is done. Where for happy generations the epic speaks of hexameters and chronicles, I have merely the sign of the hiatus, and between me and the age lies an abyss, a moat filled with clamorous time, the place where a family and reminiscences of family ought to have been. (Noise, 109-10.)

“Not to reproduce but to distance the past… memory inimical to everything personal…” The geometry, or trigonometry, is in some respect, polar to that of Nabokov: time and memory are acknowledged not to be conjured or transformed but to be simply bracketed, “walked out on”. This is what is so often referred to as an aesthetics of diminishment (vychitaniye), or the metaphysics of absence, according to which two times two is not five but three; and it is here that we find istoki (the wellsprings) of what Brodsky will call his “trimming of self”(Less Than One, 9). There is no real trick here: for Brodsky, “the poet’s biography is in his twists of language”. The “twisting”, unlike “folding” is less a part of a visual then of an auditory phenomenology. One does not do anything to language but one is a language. At the same time, one is somehow – although in a different sense – exiled from language: here Brodsky is emphatically with Tsvetayeva’s celebratory postulation of poetic Exilium: “Poety – zhidy”(“Poets are Yids”). So one is already “Less then One”, no more then “A Part of Speech”. Unlike physical exile, this exile is not only metaphysical and/or metapoetic, it is – unlike Nabokov’s localized/bipolar psychic pain (a “wound”, as Kristeva would say) – a dispersed, generalized ache: not an event, but a “condition”.

Assuming all of the above applies to a language, language in general; but what of the language, of one’s “native tongue”? Strictly speaking, the overlapping realms of exile and bilingualism do not have to be coextensive or coeval: one is exiled from a country but not from a language. To this extent, Nabokov’s decision to give up writing prose in Russian seems to be less overdetermined then Nabokov himself makes it sound. As Wood puts, it “he ‘had to’ give up Russian, it seems, not only in order to cell books in English but in order to write the English he wanted to write, to shake off the spectre of his Russian”.(5) So what Nabokov calls his “absolutely tragic situation”(Wood, 5), and what I would call a linguo-martyrial complex, is more likely to have resulted from the sentimental loss of Russian as his first love than as his self-perceived linguistic destiny. By contrast, it is precisely because Brodsky feels, or would feel, with Mandelshtam and Tsvetayeva, as a permanent izgoi (outcast) within any language, that he is able to reinforce a linguistic and spiritual commitment to Russian as his native tongue. And even if, politically speaking, all the bridges have been burnt behind (Brodsky never does return to Russia, nor has a chance to see his parents during their lifetime), linguistically they have not: he continues to write in Russian. All the writing in English will come later, as an “extra-lingual”, and bilingual, supplement to a continuous and monumental contraction of self that began monolingually.

In a sense, then, it is difficult to speak of a “cross-over”: in Brodsky’s case, the Russian and English Muse cooperate in what appears to be a case of consensual cohabitation. Of course – and this is where Brodsky and Nabokov meet – what enables it is a strict regiment of compartmentalization where English is reserved for prose writing, while in poetry – even though there is a great deal of interpenetration (tmesis), parallel production, self-translation, and mutual enrichment (English as a ‘truth serum” for Russian) – Russian verse maintains its autonomy. There is no vows, however, to give up anything or to begin anything. Instead, one day Brodsky simply finds himself – or so he tells us – in front of a portable “Lettera 22” and setting out “to write (essays, translations, occasionally a poem) in English”. As for the ostensible motivation, Brodsky himself gives a reason as ostensibly humble as it is unique: “to please a shadow”. He expands:

When a writer resorts to a language other than his mother tongue, he does so either out of necessity, like Conrad, or because of burning ambition, like Nabokov, or for the sake of greater estrangement, like Beckett… My sole purpose then, as it is now, was to find myself in closer proximity to the man whom I considered the greatest mind of the twentieth century: Wystan Hugh Auden. (in Less than One, 356.)

Needless to say, Auden’s is not the only shadow the exiled poet finds himself in. There is also the shadow of Dante, the great Florentine exile, of the Alexandrian Cavafy, of Ovid, exiled from Rome (not to mention Mandelshtam and Tsvetayeva); and in Anglo-American tradition there are Donn, Hardy, Crane, Eliot, Frost, Lowell. Aligning oneself with shadows means surrounding oneself with umbrellas that foster one’s still “keening” foreign Muse; it is also manufacturing a kind of lingua franca encompassing English and Russian, something akin to what Steiner calls an “eclectic cross-weave” and what Elizabeth Klosty Beaujour, referring to genuine bilingual writers in general, describes as a “third language at their command which overarches the others; and the existence of that third language enables them to reconcile the other two”. The result may be in part responsible for the “palimpsest” surface of so many Brodsky’s poems:

In a dusty café, in the shade of your cap,

Eyes pick out frescoes, nymphs, cupids on their way up.

In a cage, making up for the sour terza-rima crop,

A seedy goldfinch juggles his sharp cadenza.

A chance ray of sunlight splattering the palazzo

And the sacristy where lies Lorenzo

Pierces thick blinds and titillates the veinous

Filthy marble, tubs of snow-white verbena;

And the bird’s ablaze within his wire Ravenna. (Part, 120.)

This is from December in Florence, a good example as any of what Bethea defines as Brodsky’s “triangular vision”. Here, references to Dante, Mandelshtam and Brodsky himself interweave and their exilic and poetic “vectors”(Brodsky’s favored term) intersect in a full stop of “wire Ravenna” ( Ravenna being the place of Dante’s exile and death and “wire” that could easily be, in the context of Mandelshtam’s exile and death, “barbed”) that entraps the “seedy goldfinch”(who is unmistakably Mandelshtam). Although this dense intertextuality requires a familiarity with the original poetic and biographic subtexts, it is nevertheless recognizable to a Western ear, although in the author’s self-translation it does not come across nearly as well as in the original. Not only “provolochnaya Ravenna” is more immediate as the kolyuchaya provoloka of the concentration camps, but “Cолнечный луч, разбившийся о дворец, о / купол собора, в котором лежит Лоренцо” has the syncopated breath, punctuated by commas and the repeated “disembodied vowel” of “o”s in propositions as well as in “cолнечный”, “дворец”, “купол”, “собора”, “котором”, witch gets lost in the English version; not to mention the bold insertion of a caesura after “o” and not after the serendipitous but more conventional “palazzo”, and the accusative (vinitel’nyi) in “луч, разбившийся о (crushed against) дворец” being stronger, in the context, then “a chance ray of sunlight splattering the palazzo”. In part, this may be one example of Brodsky- the translator taking excessive liberty with his original material during its reinvention, which comprises one of the barriers to his total bilingualism. Many of his poems written directly in English are so much more successful because they manage to avoid the problem of translating a complex rhythmic structure. For example, “Elegy: for Robert Lowell” opens with

In the autumnal blue

Of your church-hooded New

England, the porcupine

Sharpens its golden needles

Against Bostonian bricks

To a point of needless

Blinding shine. (Part, 135.)

This sounds like a compromise between the still barely audible rhythmic structure and rhyme scheme of Russian and a free/blank verse tradition of American poetry to which Brodsky is usually inimical; the total integration is achieved through the mediation of slant rhyme: (needles – needless, bricks – breaks (in the next line). At the same time, while evoking New England to the point of painfulness, this manages to be, miraculously, a reiteration of the “Russian Brodsky’s motifs of “whittling off” of self to a “point” that is existentially lucid (“blinding shine”) but also metaphysically “needless”. This point is, of course, typical of the marginality Brodsky has sought in each linguistic realm he successively inhabited; this point is the quintessence of exile. This time, in American incarnation, and in another’s (Lowell’s “shadow”) the metamorphosis seems to be complete.

Works Cited:

Beaujour, Elizabeth Klosty. Alien Tongues: Bilingual Russian Writers of the “first” Emigration. Ithaka, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1989.

Bethea M., David. Joseph Brodsky and The Creation of Exile. Princeton 1994

Brodsky, Joseph. Less Then One: Selected Essays. New York: Farrar, Straus, and

Giroux, 1986

________. A Part of Speech. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1980.

________. Chast’ rechi. Stikhotvoreniia 1972 –1976. Ann Arbor: Ardis, 1977

Hoffman, Eva. The New Nomads. In Letters of Transit: Reflections on Exile, Identity, Language, and Loss, ed. By André Aciman. The New Press, New York, 1997

Mandelstam, Osip. The Prose of Osip Mandelstam: The Noise of Time, Theodosia, The Egyptian Stamp. Trans. by Clarence Brown. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1965.

Nabokov, Vladimir. Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited. New York: Putnam’s Sons, 1966.

Said, Edward W. The Mind of Winter: Reflections on Life in Exile. Harper’s 269, #1612 (September 1984):49-55

Seidel, Michael. Exile and the Narrative Imagination. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986.

Steiner, George. After Babel. New York: Oxford University Press, 1975

Volkov, Solomon. Coversations with Joseph Brodsky, Trans. by Marian Schwatz. New York, The Free Press, 1998.

Wood, Michael. The Magician’s Doubts: Nabokov and the Risks of Fiction. Princeton University Press, 1994


[1] As Eva Hoffman points out with regard to Speak, Memory, it would be equally dangerous, not to say absurd, to misconstrue Nabokov’s “ poetic, or the playful speculation” that “Russian children before the Revolution – and his exile – were blessed with a surfeit of sensual impressions to compensate them for what was to come. Of course, fate doesn’t play such premonitory games, but memory can perform retrospective maneuvers to compensate for fate. Loss is a magical preservative (from Lost in Translation: A Life in a New Language, reproduced in The New Nomads, from Letters of Transit, 35)

[2] As shall be seen in more detail later, in comparison with Brodsky, Nabokov’s confession “ I think in images” seems to be what George Steiner calls an “eclectic cross-weave” (After Babel; cited in Beaujour, 54-55)

[3] [Original in French] Actes, 162; cited in Beaujour, Alien Tongues, 213, n.44)