Nabokovʼs admission in a 1971 interview that at some point in 1918, before leaving Russia, he translated certain lieder by Heinrich Heine (1797–1856) has been cited in a number of contexts. Almost invariably, however, this is done with the all-too-predictable aim of casting into doubt Nabokovʼs self-professed lack of knowledge of German on the one hand, and to serve as a springboard for highly speculative suppositions concerning the writerʼs alleged indebtedness to this or that putative German source, on the other. Surprisingly, prior to the commencement of the research effort that lent impetus to the present study, no attempt has been made to delve into the facts and consequences of Nabokovʼs creative engagement with the giant of the German cultural tradition whose distinct kind of lyricism and poetic diction exerted a singularly powerful, indeed formative, influence on Russian letters.
Below, I introduce and interpret concrete textual data pertaining to Nabokovʼs dialogue with the German-Jewish poet that first took place in the medium of translation, continued in Nabokovʼs original work written in his imitation, and eventually left an indelible mark on some of the writerʼs most consequential creations. Nabokovʼs contribution to Russian Heineana, his life-long appreciation of Heine, shed new and unexpected light on the writerʼs relationship with his artistic paragons, while representing a fascinating manifestation of Nabokovian intertextuality.