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by Vladimir Nabokov

I was given Nabokov’s Collected Poems for Christmas, a gem of a book with poems that span more than fifty years. Several of these poems reveal concerns of the author that aren’t much in evidence in the novels. For example, who would suspect the author of Lolita of being a kind of gnostic, closeted, Orthodox co-redemptionist? Well, the gnosticism wasn’t disguised, although the charge was very ably mocked. But I think it’s a fair reading of the following poem, at any rate.

The Mother

Night falls. He has been executed.
From Golgotha the crowd descends and winds
between the olive trees, like a slow serpent;
and mothers watch as John downhill
into the mist, with urgent words, escorts
gray, haggard Mary.

To bed he’ll help her, and lie down himself,
and through his slumber hear til morning
her tossings and her sobs.
What if her son had stayed at home with her,
and carpentered and sung? What if those tears
cost more than our redemption?

The Son of God will rise, in radiance orbed;
on the third day a vision at the tomb
will meet the wives who brought the useless myrrh;
Thomas will feel the luminescent flesh;
the wind of miracles will drive men mad,
and many will be crucified.

Mary, what are to you the fantasies
of fisherman? Over your grief days skim
insensibly, and neither on the third
nor the hundredth, never will he heed your call
and rise, your brown firstborn who baked mud sparrows
in the hot sun, at Nazareth.

On Pniniad: Vladimir Nabokov and Marc Szeftel by Galya Diment

This first-rate scholarly study of the relationship between Marc Szeftel and Vladimir Nabokov has been endorsed by such heavyweight academics as Brian Boyd and Robert Alter, and I can only add that if there is such a thing as required reading for non-specialists in Nabokovopolis, this should be at the top of the list. Galya Diment provides a fairly conclusive argument that Mark Szeftel was an important model for the Russian Master’s third novel written in English, the second in America.

The heart of the book consists of five chapters and a conclusion, and also contains appendixes from Marc Szeftel’s archive and own writings. The latter includes of selections from his diaries, which make it pretty obvious that Szeftel wasn’t nearly as comfortable a solipsist as the alter ego fate appears to have dealt him. And man, did he ever know it. Some of the passages included in Diment’s study read like outtakes from a rough draft of Kinbote’s, without the miniscule amount of self-awareness the fictive scholar was able to muster. They certainly exhibit nothing like the former king’s rather heady imagination, in which readers have taken so much delight. What is there, and what Diment makes all too clear, is a great deal of sadness. The sadness of an émigré, the sadness of a scholar, and perhaps even the sadness of a century.

Szeftel seems to have toiled long and hard in the academic vineyards, at times with scholars as notable as Roman Jacobsen, and for reasons that perhaps only Nabokov himself knows, never really achieved his due regard as an academic. More to the point, he seems to have settled just outside the realm of humiliation and some grand joke at the hands of everyone from the great writer to colleagues and even his students. The operative paradox here is that Szeftel would have remained one of life’s unknown little tragedies had it not been for his immortalization as the Russian specialist at Waindell, but as Diment evinces he may well have never felt himself to be quite so tragic a character at all if he hadn’t crossed paths with the accomplished poet-lepodiatrist-teacher-scholar-writer from St. Petersberg. One of Szeftel’s books was praised by Nabokov, he was once on the verge of actually working with Nabokov, and he long contemplated scholarly studies of Lolita even after he became one of the models for Pnin. In the end he produced a few anecdotes about exchanges with Nabokov during the time they shared together at Cornell.

Along the way, Diment notes that a case has been made for considering Pnin an even greater work than the now monolithic Lolita, and by no less a scholar than Michael Wood in `The Magician’s Doubts.’ The reason for this originates in the rather more organically developed theme of the Double, a theme Szeftel himself consciously noted and, like several others (to Nabokov’s own consternation) tied to Doeseovsky. She expertly employs the work of other scholars to illuminate what is particularly special, if not unique, about Pnin’s relation to the novel he inhabits:

“The most dramatic declaration of Pnin’s independence and VN’s [the self-identified narrator of the novel] “just deserts” comes from Charles Nicol… Nicol actually goes as far as to describe the two men as atgonists and their relationship as a struggle between the “devilish” narrator and the innocent protagonist, in which Pnin “has confronted Nabokov and won.” (p.56)

It seems to me that Nicol overstates his case a little here, but I do think that Diment’s account of the narratological ambiguity that grew as the novel progressed and its roots in the brief conjunction of the fates of Szeftel and Nabokov is illuminating.

Diment is entirely evenhanded in her treatment of everyone involved, and the only particular bias consistently shown is her high regard for the Northwest, Szeftel’s final home and where she herself teaches (at the University of Washington, sponsors of the press that published this book). She notes that Szeftel never much enjoyed the region himself, and perhaps even saw it as the true boondocks, one of the many injuries to be suffered in a long and yet disappointing life. In its way, this is one of the saddest works of scholarship I’ve ever read. But it is gracefully written, and, as she says in the conclusion, a real tribute to the model, to the author, and to our ability to transform life through fiction. Marc Szeftel certainly did his best to partake of that transformation.

Hard Questions


In the comments to the previous post, Duffer asks some hard questions of writers and maybe a few readers of Korrektiv.

Can we please get over Walker Percy? How many Walker Percy conferences must one attend in a lifetime?

As for myself, I can only say to the first, “Not yet, I guess”, and to the second, “Well, three anyway. Three and a half, if we count the opening of the WPC back in 2010 (or thereabouts).

Not that I haven’t tried. There was that decade reading the classics of Greek and Latin literature, not to mention a number of extended trips to such exotic locales as Zembla and McLean Hospital (in search of the ghosts of Vladimir Nabokov and Robert Lowell, respectively). But for reasons I can’t quite fathom, I always find myself back with other dissenters from the dissent, in the scrambled geography of Feliciana Parish.

For instance, I’ve just started reading The Innovators by Walter Isaacson, author of the Steve Jobs biography and a former editor at Time. Isaacson himself explains the Percy connection here, and I suppose that’s one of the things that sparked my interest in the book. It’s pretty great so far, beginning with a chapter on Ada Lovelace, the daughter of Lord Byron and something of prophet of modern computers. A prophet and, as she herself would have it, a poet.

Her reengagement with math, she told her mother, spurred her creativity and led to an “immense development of imagination, so much so that I feel no doubt if I continue my studies I shall in due time be a Poet.” The whole concept of imagination, especially as it was applied to technology, intrigued her. “What is imagination?” she asked in an 1841 essay. “It is the Combining faculty. It brings together things, facts, ideas, conceptions in new, original, endless, ever-varying combinations….It is that which penetrates into the unseen worlds around us, the worlds of Science.” The Innovators, p18

This sounded awfully familiar to me. Where had I read this before? Oh, yes, of course … Percy wrote something similar to this in his last novel, The Thanatos Syndrome.

Little things can be important. Even more important is the ability——call it knack, hunch, providence, good luck, whatever——to know what you are looking for and put two and two together. A great scientist once said that genius consists not in making great discoveries but in seeing the connection between small discoveries. The Thanatos Syndrome, p3

Could that “great scientist” have been Ada Lovelace? Probably not, but the connection here is intriguing (to me, anyway). Ada Lovelace has an insight into the relationship between imagination and science in the early 19th century. Percy makes a comment based on a similar idea in a novel in 1987, by which time we might suppose Lovelace’s insight to be more commonplace——possibly picked up on by other mathematicians and scientists, some of whom Percy might have read.

But maybe an actual connection isn’t all that intriguing. Maybe it’s just true, or even a capital T Truth, but a Truth so general that anyone could make it, at almost any time. Causality and contingency be damned, maybe connections just are——between some things and other things, between people, between ideas, between propositions, between people and ideas and propositions … between anything and everything, so much so that I suppose there’s a possibility that in the end, none of it is much more than mildly interesting. Maybe it isn’t interesting at all.

But connections can take on a seemingly divine importance, as I was trying to get at in that poem last week, or as Catholics might more readily understand as the basis of the laying on of hands——we think, or at least hope that the Holy Spirit is guiding our way through these connections. Those we recognize, and probably many more that we don’t. Dash that “seemingly”!

Anyway, that’s one reason I can’t get over Walker Percy.

“The great chandeliers hang silent.”

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Courtesy of, a story in People magazine (!) on Nabokov at the Montreaux Palace Hotel. The ’70s were different.

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[Photo source]

Some Inspiration for the Author of Raskolnikov

First, this clip from one of Woody Allen’s funnier movies:

Then, this poem by Vladimir Nabokov:

On Translating Eugene Onegin

What is translation? On a platter
A poet’s pale and glaring head,
A parrot’s screech, a monkey’s chatter,
And profanation of the dead.
The parasites you were so hard on
Are pardoned if I have your pardon,
O, Pushkin, for my stratagem:
I traveled down your secret stem,
And reached the root, and fed upon it;
Then, in a language newly learned,
I grew another stalk and turned
Your stanza patterned on a sonnet,
Into my honest roadside prose–
All thorn, but cousin to your rose.

Reflected words can only shiver
Like elongated lights that twist
In the black mirror of a river
Between the city and the mist.
Elusive Pushkin! Persevering,
I still pick up Tatiana’s earring,
Still travel with your sullen rake.
I find another man’s mistake,
I analyze alliterations
That grace your feasts and haunt the great
Fourth stanza of your Canto Eight.
This is my task–a poet’s patience
And scholastic passion blent:
Dove-droppings on your monument.

How You Found Korrektiv

M. 76.212.172 of San Diego, California (1001 miles south of Seattle, if you didn’t know) went searching for answers to the question, “What is gnostic turpitude?”, and wouldn’t you know it but that our humble blog came up as no. 8 on the Google hit list. This because of Potter’s insightful comments on Percy’s semiotic, whatever that is.

As it happens, “gnostic turpitude” was a condition dreamt up by Nabokov for one of his best novels, Invitation to a Beheading. That still doesn’t really answer 76.212.172’s question, but my advice would be to stay away from stuff like this and go for a walk.


“The productive careers, or the public reputations, of two of the American writers just mentioned went into notorious decline, that of Hemingway (1899-1961) after about 1945 no less than that of O’Hara (1905-70) after 1949. This kind of thing can happen to anyone, agreed, but many people would see something typically American about those declines, set against the examples of, say, Anthony Powell or Iris Murdoch. As can be seen, whatever it is afflicts not merely the drop-outs…those of slender achievement or none, but the once-established, the highest hopes of their time. Too much success, the old scapegoat? Perhaps the American fondness for size, for big books, for large statements, subjects, themes, a desire for greatness now rather than after a few decades of work – very demoralizing and exhausting. Is it a gentles’ weakness in a literary culture more and more dominated by Jews? No to that one: for every couple of continuingly successful Jewish writers (Bellow, Roth) there are a couple of failures (Mailer, Salinger), not to speak of durable gentiles (Nabokov, Updike). But something does happen.”

Kingsley Amis, Memoirs

Coda via Terry Teachout:

“I got on with the task of turning myself into a brief professional writer. The term professional is not meant to imply a high standard of commitment and attainment: it meant then, as it still does, the pursuit of a trade or calling to the end of paying the rent and buying liquor. I leave the myth of inspiration and agonised creative inaction to the amateurs.”

– Anthony Burgess, You’ve Had Your Time, Being the Second Part of the Confessions of Anthony Burgess

Dostoyevsky’s Demons

I’ll raise some questions that have come up for me in the first few chapters, but here first is the opening, as translated by Constance Garnett:


IN UNDERTAKING to describe the recent and strange incidents in our town, till lately wrapped in uneventful obscurity, I find myself forced in absence of literary skill to begin my story rather far back, that is to say, with certain biographical details concerning that talented and highly-esteemed gentleman, Stepan Trofimovitch Verhovensky. I trust that these details may at least serve as an introduction, while my projected story itself will come later.

I’d be interested in how this compares with the more recent P&V translation, which I haven’t yet got my hands on, but some things strike me as likely to remain, being the voice of Dostoyevsky himself. One is the sarcasm, or at least irony, of that opening description. Perhaps it’s only ordinary to introduce any man as “that highly respected gentleman”, but to follow tht with “talented and highly esteemed” seems to be gilding the lily, without even describing the man. And in the chapters that follow it’s hardly true that Verhovensky is revealed to be highly esteemed, respected, or talented. In fact, he’s something of a buffoon, isn’t he? Or at least a dandy? Perhaps the rest of the novel will reveal him as something different, but that’s my impression so far. Another element is the self-deprecation, especially with regard to the actual writing: “I find myself forced in absence of literary skill…” Few would agree (Nabokov being a notable exception), and the comment itself seems disingenuous, as the narrator decorates these sentences with more than a few formalities. Some of them might be quirks attributable to a middling type of writer Dostoyevsky might mean to parody, others are less likely so. In the sentence, “I trust that these details may at least serve as an introduction, while my projected story itself will come later”, he reveals something of a plan.

And who is this narrator? What exactly is his point of view? He’s a resident of the town in which strange incidents have taken place, but what relation does he have to those incidents? Could he be drawing such a careful portrait of Verhovensky to avoid scrutiny of himself? What does the narrator share with Dostoyevsky? Assuming he isn’t simply Dostoyevsky. Is there an explanation for his awareness of the intimate details and conversations of other characters that follow, or should the story presented be simply understood as fiction?

More generally, what is the relation or correspondence between the Demons in the story from the gospel of Luke (in the epithet) and the Demons in the novel? As I understand it, Dostoyevsky believed in a kind of Messianic version of Russian Orthodoxy; is this what he thought would save Russia, as Jesus saved the man possessed by Demons? Assuming this is true, what would Dostoyevsky think if he saw what has become of Russia today?