Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0010903, Wed, 12 Jan 2005 12:51:12 -0800

Dmitri Nabokov's comments "Madama Butterfly" etc.
----- Original Message -----
From: Dmitri Nabokov
To: 'D. Barton Johnson'
Sent: Wednesday, January 05, 2005 4:36 PM
Subject: "Madama Butterfly" etc.

I, too, thank Jansy for providing the excellent essay on translation, and think you have found the perfect adjective for it: "thoughtful," which so many writings on translation are not.

Sloppy translation, no matter how it "reads" to monolingual critics, misleads the gullible reader with a counterfeit of the original, much like the capsules of "biography," "background," and astrological conjecture, all based on hearsay, third-hand research, or pseudo-science that clatter like wedding-day cans in the wake of famous people. A nasty piece founded on woefuI ignorance, by an astrologer named Antonia Bonomi, appears in the Personaggi section of the online publication Arcobaleno ("Rainbow"). Despite the tin-eared title "Vladimir Nabokov through the looking-glass: a teacher's mentality and a desire to be seduced," one hopes against hope it will all be tongue-in-cheek as astrological squibs sometimes are, but no luck -- and Professor Nabokov would have quickly invited the astrologers to leave the room together with the Freudians. Four paragraphs in, Mme Bonomi gets off (sorry, but that's the mot juste) on VN's predilection for the phonetically liquid sound of "Lolita," of its vague echo in "lollipop" (an extant title, by the way), and of its Italian equivalent, "lecca-lecca" (a less-than-liquid translation of "lick-lick," which she cites with benefit of exclamation and question marks as if she had discovered a cunning lingual lust of VN's in her looking-glass). She continues with a brief but rambling discourse about how her astrological chart lumps Nabokov's "paper ladies" with his earnest yearnings for the real thing, fueled by his "dissolution" and "erotomania," against a background of contempt for women in general, while positing that bourgeois constraints were all that kept him from real-life fulfillment of his naughty fantasies. I learn, along the way, that my beloved father, the most normal, disciplined and decent of men, was transformed, in Madame's morbid doll-house of celestial bodies, into a "schizoid, lascivious" wretch with "disorderly cravings for orgasm," and, apparently as a clincher, that he was bald. Her conclusion, about women and butterflies, is a gem: the lustful acts of Humbert and of Van Veen represent VN's subconscious, speaking coldly and ironically in black on white. "Remember?" she asks [remember what? -- her own affirmation in the sentence before last, or perhaps those of her ouija board?] -- "Nabokov had little consideration for women....his characters are like butterflies....that one catches and impales on a pin so they will die without damage [?] to their wings. Thus Nabokov the bourgeois pervert metaphorically killed these women, detested but necessary for his obsession with sex." First of all, Mme.Bonomi should keep very still where her knowledge is zero. It is a myth among the undereducated -- and a notion on a par with the low-brow "science" practiced by astrologers -- that collectors kill butterflies by transpiercing them with pins. In the real world, the specimens are permanently put to sleep in a humane manner, and it is only much later, when they have long been dead (up to twelve years in the case of the 1,323 Nabokov lepidoptera given posthumously to the Lausanne Museum), that they are first moistened and mounted on spreading boards, then pinned, wings intact, in display cases. But apparently this lady needs to bend the truth by inept metaphor to squeeze out her inane conclusion. The real Nabokov despised the cruel as well as the petit bourgeois, including the non-science of astrology. Was he perverse? Only according to Mme. Bonomi's interpretation of her own nonsensical charts, and to certain Evangelicals who would expurgate, or simply abolish Joyce, Flaubert and Shakespeare along with Nabokov. Did he "hate" his female characters? In what way were they "essential to his obsession with sex"? See Nabokov first-hand, Madame, whom I'll wager you've never read, for words about women that are ineffably tender, lyrical, and full of pity. "Hate" and "obsession" are big guns, and your astro-logic is pretty flimsy. Perhaps Madame's astrological favors would be more at home on the same page as the classifed ads for Thai massages, etc.? Then again, is she writing mainly for women, and does she perhaps project her own love-hate syndrome because her charts forbid her to rid herself of her sexual obsession with them? Take care, Madame Baloney, lest Nabokov pop, ogre-like, out of your ouija board, armed with butterfly net and with pins so can you commit hara-kiri like a modern-day Madama Butterfly. Unless I get there first.

There was a posting recently about a whole book, required by a critic with a name so Polish that I can't recall it, to list the extracurricular foibles of ten writers. The juiciest pieces, apparently, were Joyce's smelly feet (deliberately kept that way, it seems, so that he wouldn't have to bed his wife) ; and Nabokov's "pedophile" tendencies. To define these juiciest pieces more exactly one would have to read the book I have better things to do, even if I would be curious to have some real-life corroboration with regard to my father.

Then there is Number Three, a St-Petersburg ("Yanuary" 3) issue of some tourist guide, I guess, with a title made illegible to me by a circular zagagulya in its middle. Here we find no malice, only incompetent approximation: the overblown claim that nostalgia for the city had always been VN's "essential inspiration"; the April 22 birth date;"etymology" as one the "natural sciences" Father studied at home; Tenishevsky "College," misleading for the American reader; "1910ths," a typo; Lolita called "scandalous" as in the Soviet-Encyclopedia days; "...he kept his Russian alive by translating ino Russian all his originally English works" [ ! ]; an inane evaluation of the EO translation; "Ada, or Passion"; instead of VN's grave, the clearly recognizable tomb of his father at the Tegel Cemetery in Berlin.