Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0001401, Fri, 1 Nov 1996 10:08:41 -0800

Review of Barzakh Article in Mitin Zhurnal (fwd)
---------- Forwarded message ----------
EDITOR'S NOTE. Some weeks ago, NABOKV-L ran a bibliographic notice about
a critical study of Nabokov called _Obratnyi perevod:(neskol'ko
soobrazhenii o proze V.V. Nabokova)_ ("Reverse Translation: Some Thoughts
on Nabokov's Prose") by Anatolii Barzakh. It appeared as a small booklet
(43pp with a printing of 300 and apparently subsidized by the=20
Petersburg-based Nabokovskii fond) in a series entitled "Literaturnye
prilozhenye k Mitinomu zhurnalu i drugie knigi nashikh avtorov." The
series is "a supplement" to _Mitin zhurnal_, Mitya's Journal,) one of many
small journals that sprung up after glasnost'
=09 Anat BenAmos <abenam@essex.ac.uk> has generously allowed NABOKV-L
to run her review-essay on Barzakh's study. The Russian version of her=20
article ran in _Mitin zhurnal_ #53 (1996) and is accompanied by Anatolii=20
Barzakh's reply to his critic.


A Review by Anat Ben_Amos of Anatolii Barzakh's "Obratnyi perevod",=20
Published in "Mitin Zhurnal" no. 53:

Anatolii Barzakh=92s "Obratnyi perevod" is supposed to represent a return=
to the authenticity of first impressions, an attempt to re-translate them=
from the ready-made terms of literary analysis. Might one be allowed to=20
open a review of this essay with ones own first impressions of it? The=20
temptation is great, and the flesh is weak. These impressions mainly=20
consist of attempts to decipher the misty repetitious body of this work=20
and to find in it its main point (one is even more tempted to suspect that=
such a main point would likely not be found, but temptation must be=20
overcome). The reader=92s frustration is accentuated by the fact that the=
essay is directed toward important issues in the study of Nabokov=92s=20
literary method, so that the "one" whose first impressions are=20
mentioned here is even denied the primitive pleasure of ending the=20
reading. One continues to read, laboriously and hopefully.

Barzakh=92s essay focuses on the poetic nature of Nabokov=92s language,=20
that is, his frequent use of metaphorical discourse and sound patterns,=20
which is indeed a major characteristic of Nabokov=92s literary work.=20
Special attention is devoted to "Dar", in relation to which two acute=20
observations on the relationship between prose and poetry in the novel=20
are presented: the fact that puns and double-meanings of words=20
correspond to the double meanings of events in the novel, that is their=20
coincidental nature, and that poetry, or more exactly the process of=20
poetic creation, is the material out of which the prosaic narration is=20
compiled. This observation reverses the Aristotelian classical, and the=20
still to a large extent accepted view of art as mimesis. This is the view=
firmly presented in Godunov-Cherdyntsev=92s quotation of=20
Chernyshevskii: "soiazaemyi predmet deistvuet gorasdo sil=92nee=20
otvlechennogo poniatiia o nem." The non-Chernyshevskian reader is of=20
course expected to realise that not tangible objects but rather=20
"memories and fantasies," which Tsetlin once defined as the sources of=20
Russian literature of the First Emigration, are the clay that provides=20
material for Nabokov=92s urn, as beautiful and eternal as Keats=92 Grecian=

In the process of creating prose out of versified material Nabokov=20
chooses the most evocative and yet the most exact words,=20
self-reflecting and inter-textual. The main fault of Barzakh=92s essay,=20
however, is that although he himself relates to the notion of truthfulness=
and exactness quite often, he seems to forget to apply what he=20
preaches in his own text. In order to discover these pearls of fine=20
literary observations one risks being drowned in an ocean of personal=20
affected digressions, a swamp of vagueness.

Barzakh attempts to approach the Nabokovian text from the "inside"=20
rather than the "outside", using key words which immediately evoke in=20
the reader familiar with Nabokov the whole web of associations related=20
with the world of the writer. Yet this method must be handled with care,=20
lest it turns into a parody of itself. Referring to Nabokov=92s poetical=20
relation to words as "tiazhelyi dym," awakening the memory of this=20
short story which centres on a young poet=92s joy of creativity that=20
surpasses everything else, including human empathy, is surely a=20
happy choice. On the other hand, a constant repetition of=20
Godunov-Cherdyntsev=92s "mertsanie" no less than ten times in a text of=20
forty pages (including long and elaborated notes) is somewhat=20

Barzakh=92s style is a conscious attempt to imitate Nabokov=92s style of=20
circular writing, "a spiral within a circle." Unfortunately, an excessive=
use of the device of "etc." is not enough to achieve the eternal flow of=20
time to which Godunov-Cherdyntsev is aiming in his "Life of=20
Chernyshevskii" and of course in "Dar". An essay should draw attention=20
to hidden secrets in the text, to highlight its core, which could indeed be=
done by using the author=92s method of narration, in the way that "Dar"=20
ends with the Onegin stanza: Nabokov recalling Pushkin recalling=20
Byron. Barzakh attempts to imitate Nabokov=92s method, the=20
deconstruction of the temporality of narration as it is noted by Linetskii=
(in his "Anti-Bakhtin - Lutschaia kniga o Vladimire Nabokove"). Yet in=20
critical discourse deconstruction does not imply disintegration. A text=20
can evoke, allude, but it should not blur.
As for the distinction between "motivated" and "un-motivated" poetic=20
elements in Nabokov=92s prose, there is a serious problem of=20
self-contradiction, or rather a crime against "Occam=92s Razor"=20
("Gnoseologicheskaia gnusnost=92"). If Nabokov=92s narration consists=20
essentially of poetic prose, as rightly, in my opinion, stated by Barzakh,=
then its use of poetic elements is a fundamental feature, not dependant=20
on the subject matter of plot. Yet Barzakh claims that while in texts like=
"Dar" it is justified by the fact that the protagonist himself is a poet, i=
texts like "Oblako, ozero, bashnia" it is un-motivated and thus more=20
surprising, making it more original. One can hardly accept such a=20
Chernyshevskian separation of form and content. Poetical language is=20
used in Nabokov=92s work as a whole in order to shed light on the hidden=20
layers of evident existence. Metaphors, puns, rhymes, consonants and=20
assonaces are all the keys for what Nabokov describes as the mystery=20
of flashes of consciousness (and keys are of course another key-word=20
which Barzakh could have used in his Nabokovian imitation - why didn=92t=20
he?). The fact that Vasilii Ivanovich of "Oblako, ozero, bashnia" is not a=
professional poet has nothing to do with the subject matter of the story,=
the struggle of poetic individualism against the vulgarity of totalitarian=
masses. And it is this struggle, fought again and again in Nabokov=92s=20
work, which is the real motivation Barzakh should have looked for.

Remembering Barzakh=92s personal tone of narration, one feels inclined=20
to abandon the objective tone of writing and turn to a personal enquiry.=20
Could for example someone provide an explanation as to why a "ferry"=20
is described by him as "wild"? And what is the major difference between=20
"balagurstvo" and "skomoroshina", offered but never justified in page=20
9? (one would like to mention the context of this distinction rather than=
its page reference, if there were a clear division of themes in the essay).=
And finally, why should the reader bother with a summary of European=20
literary history, repeated a few times in different forms in the course of=
the essay, in order to note that Nabokov=92s use of poetic elements is=20
original in its being an integral part of his narration rather than his=20
subject matter? On this point one recalls Barzakh=92s distinction between=
"motivated" and "un-motivated" use of poetic elements mentioned in the=20
last paragraph. The theme of self-contradiction is developed: if the use=20
of poetic elements is what distinguishes Nabokov=92s narrative from=20
earlier Romanticism and Realism, it surely cannot be a matter of=20
motivating it according to plot and characters=92 identities.

Looking back on the essay (and one might be allowed to proceed to a=20
second impression of the work, regardless of Barzakh=92s insistence on=20
first impressions) it is gratifying to find in it interesting observations=
regarding the use of poetics as the raw material of prose, a point=20
relevant especially to "Dar" with its transformation of=20
Godunov-Cherdyntsev=92s early poetry into mature prose (though it is=20
surprising to find Barzakh comparing these poems to Mandel=92shtam=92s=20
work and complaining that while Mandel=92shtam=92s poems are better than=20
his commentaries, it is the opposite in Godunov-Cherdyntsev=92s case.=20
Does Barzakh really ignore the fact that Godunov-Cherdyntsev=92s poetry=20
is an early stage in his creative development, not to be compared with=20
the poetical achievements of one of the major poets of the early 20th=20
century?). It must be regretted, nonetheless, that the rest of the essay is=
misty enough to almost conceal these observations. A blocking of =20
prosvet rather than a desired mertsanie.

Anat Ben-Amos

Department of Literature
University of Essex
Colchester CO4 3SQ
United Kingdom
E-mail: abenam@essex.ac.uk