Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0000375, Sun, 13 Nov 1994 13:17:59 -0800

Romantic novel II (fwd)
From: Dieter E. Zimmer <100126.2576@compuserve.com>

I would like to thank everybody who has offered me his thoughts on the "romantic
Post festum, I want to explain why I posed such a seemingly naive and actually
hopeless question. It was for an eminently practical reason. When once more
working on the German *Lolita*, I suddenly shrank back from rendering "romantic
novel" by "romantischer Roman". That's what the former translators had and what
I did not alter when I revised their version for Rowohlt in 1989.
Whatever it may be, *Lolita* certainly is not a "romantischer Roman" in the
German sense. "Romantische Romane" would be *Lucinde* by Friedrich Schlegel or
*Heinrich von Ofterdingen* by Novalis, and in some important ways they would
have to be considered just about the opposite of *Lolita* (though, of course,
there are always levels at which one could discover analogies). The German
schools of Romanticism stressed the cult of personal feeling as contrasted to
the spirit of pragmatics and rationalism that supposedly had reigned during the
preceding decades. The favorite feeling of the German romantics was a mellow and
melancholic longing for some very far-away object, a distant beloved, the
countries beyond the horizon, God, the medieval past. The works of art that
probably best sum up the German romantic spirit for a foreigner are the song
cycles of Schubert and Schumann to the lyrics of Heine, Eichendorff or Mueller.
In the German vernacular of today, "romantisch" seems to mean something like
"prone to highly unpractical and somewhat sad ruminations", like pensively
loitering in the moonshine and pining for womanhood instead of getting youself a
gal at the disco. In EO, VN aptly though unkindly describes the German brand of
romanticism: "The pictorial grading into the metaphysical. Lofty sentiments
couched in a flaccid and nebulous idiom. The expression in poetry of the soul's
endless approach to a dimly perceived perfection." (I myself would like to
exempt the best of German Romantic poetry from the verdict that calls it
"flaccid and nebulous". But the novel decidedly was not the form of literature
where "Romantiker" could best express what they wanted to say. In a way,
"romantischer Roman" is a contradictio in adiecto.)
Now if *Lolita* is not a "romantischer Roman" -- what is it then? What, as a
matter of fact, is a "romantic novel" in the English sense? That's the point
where I got stuck, especially after studying Webster III.
The formula (*Lolita* as a "record of Mr.Nabokov's love affair with the romantic
novel") which VN calls "elegant" but rejects -- as he would have rejected any
formula -- is from a review by John Hollander (*Partisan Review*, Fall 1956). In
the second part of the same sentence, not quoted by VN, Hollander said of the
romantic novel that it was "as short-lived of beauty as it is long of memory".
That to my mind bars every definition which included *Tristan and Iseult* or
*Don Quijote*. I suppose he had something much narrower in mind, the 18th and
19th novel of passion-love, works like *Manon Lescaut* (which by the way
tragically ends in the Louisiana territories) or *La dame aux camelies* or
*Carmen*, of course.
Now Michael Juliar just salvaged a 1958 TV interview on *Lolita* which sheds
some oblique light on the question. In it, Lionel Trilling brings up his theory
about *Lolita* which VN contests: that passion-love is not to be reconciled with
marriage. Then they go on to discuss one example: *Anna Karenin*, Trilling
emphasizing the illicit relationship, VN the marital one, and Trilling ending
the exchange by remarking that after all the title of that book is not *Kitty*.
However one chooses to view this issue, it seems to me that the definition of
Hollander's romantic novel must by all means be wide enough to include *Anna
Karenin*. That again goes against the German way of categorizing literary
history, for nobody in Germany would ever call Tolstoi's novel romantic (it
would of course be the very incarnation of "Realismus", the antithesis to
Now in another interview (the one with Alain Robbe-Grillet, 1959), VN has this
to say: "Mais il y a eu de tres belles critiques [de *Lolita*], ou l'on parlait
tres bien du _romantisme_ du livre. C'est comme chez vous, dans *Jalousie*.
C'est le plus beau _roman d'amour_ depuis Proust" (emphasis mine). Having read
quite a few of the early reviews of *Lolita*, I suppose that VN is again
referring mainly to Hollander's article, and that this time he seems to be quite
content with the formula. I am not sure to what extent he is taking into account
the French meaning of "romantisme". In France as in Germany, the term is applied
mainly to a historical period, but in spite of Mme de Stael's efforts to bridge
the two, they are not wholly consistent with each other. The way VN concludes
his remark suggests to me that he was chiefly thinking of the "roman d'amour"
when he spoke of "romantisme", and using the term "romantisme" at all may have
chiefly been due to Hollander's formula.
The new Italian *Lolita* supervised by Dmitri Nabokov has *letteratura
romantica*, and I don't know what to make of that. If I translated *Lolita* from
the Italian, I would surely have to render it by "romantische Literatur", basta.
On the other hand, Kahane's French *Lolita* which was checked by VN does _not_
have "roman/litterature romantique" but "litterature romanesque" which simply is
"novelesque literature" (both romanticism and passion-love gone).
In short, this seems a perfect illustration of a well-known German sarcasm: The
closer you look at a word, the farther away it will stare back at you.
What do I gather from all this? That "romantischer Roman" certainly will not do;
and that there being no equivalent term, the translation will have to be a
descriptive one. But "Liebesroman" may not be appropriate either. I still hope
very much that writing a note will not be the only way out of the dilemma.
I am at work on *Lolita* again because a Swiss-and-German publishing house
(Artemis & Winkler) is preparing a de luxe edition scheduled to appear in the
spring of 1995. I have once again revised the translation quite thoroughly, and
I have corrected and expanded the notes, with kind help especially from Sasha
Dolinin and Jeff Edmunds. Right now I am trying to write an afterword detailing
the Rezeptionsgeschichte -- by the way, a nice topic for a Ph.D. thesis some day
(which should not be too distant, as the remaining witnesses will not stay
around forever to be interviewed). So hopefully next year there'll be another
German *Lolita* without some of the flaws of the former ones.
-- Dieter E.Zimmer --