Nabokov's Canon: From

Nabokov's Canon: From "Onegin" to "Ada"

by Marijeta Bozovic


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Nabokov's translation of Pushkin's Eugene Onegin (1964) and its accompanying Commentary, along with Ada, or Ardor (1969), his densely allusive late English language novel, have appeared nearly inscrutable to many interpreters of his work. If not outright failures, they are often considered relatively unsuccessful curiosities. In Bozovic's insightful study, these key texts reveal Nabokov's ambitions to reimagine a canon of nineteenth- and twentieth-century Western masterpieces with Russian literature as a central, rather than marginal, strain. Nabokov's scholarly work, translations, and lectures on literature bear resemblance to New Critical canon reformations; however, Nabokov's canon is pointedly translingual and transnational and serves to legitimize his own literary practice. The new angles and theoretical framework offered by Nabokov's Canon help us to understand why Nabokov's provocative monuments remain powerful source texts for several generations of diverse international writers, as well as richly productive material for visual, cinematic, musical, and other artistic adaptations.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780810133143
Publisher: Northwestern University Press
Publication date: 05/31/2016
Pages: 248
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

MARIJETA BOZOVIC is an assistant professor of Slavic languages and literatures at Yale University.

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Nabokov's Canon

From Onegin to Ada

By Marijeta Bozovic

Northwestern University Press

Copyright © 2016 Northwestern University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8101-3315-0


Pushkin's Evgenii Onegin: The Breguet Keeps Time

How the Romans Enriched Their Language: Imitating the best Greek authors, transforming themselves into them, devouring them; and after having well digested them, converting them into blood and nourishment, taking for themselves, each according to his nature, and the argument he wished to choose, the best author of whom they observed diligently all the most rare and exquisite virtues, and these like shoots ... they grafted and applied to their own tongue.

— Joachim du Bellay, The Defense and Illustration of the French Language, 1549

Pushkin never broke the skeleton of tradition — he merely rearranged its inner organs — with less showy but more vital results.

— Vladimir Nabokov, letter to Edmund Wilson, 1942

The Pursuit Motif

Evgenii Onegin was written and published between 1825 and 1832, in separate chapters and fragments "detailing (and willfully ignoring) events in its characters' lives between the late eighteenth century and 1825 ... and addressing the central literary and ideological issues of the time." Pushkin called the separately published first chapter a "description of the social [svetskaia] life of a young man from Petersburg at the end of the year 1819." The completed work contained enough tantalizing detail to allow Vissarion Belinsky to read it as an encyclopedia of Russian life.

Nabokov's famously idiosyncratic readings seize on the art and artifice of Pushkin's Evgenii Onegin instead. In an intriguing structural analysis of chapter 1, Nabokov identifies what he calls "The Pursuit" motif:

The series of nineteen stanzas from XVIII to XXVI may be termed The Pursuit. In XXVII Pushkin overtakes his fellow hero and reaches the lighted mansion first. Now Onegin drives up, but Pushkin is already inside ... Pushkin, the conventional libertine (XXIX) and the inspired preterist (XXX–XXXIV, ending on the initial flippant note), takes over so thoroughly that the troublesome time element in the description of Onegin's night is juggled away (since he is not shown wenching and gaming, the reader has to assume that seven or eight hours were spent by Onegin at the ball) by means of a beautiful lyrical digression, and Pushkin, after lagging behind at the ball (as he had lagged in Onegin's dressing room before it), must again overtake Onegin in his drive home (XXXV) — only to fall behind again while the exhausted beau goes to sleep (XXXVI). The pursuit that Pushkin started upon in XVIII–XX, when, on the wings of a lyrical digression, he arrives at the opera house before Onegin (XXI–XXII), is now over.

If the reader has understood the mechanism of this pursuit he has grasped the basic structure of Chapter One. (2:108)

In this chapter, I use Nabokov's insight as a springboard, and attempt to widen the pursuit theme as a way of grasping Pushkin's Onegin: in my reading, it is literary traditions and styles that pursue one another throughout the novel in verse. I thus return to and focus on Pushkin's Onegin, but with an eye to contemporary discussions of cultural capital and competition between national literatures. I reread Pushkin's Onegin as a narrative and meta-literary exploration of the processes of cultural competition and canon formation. In this light, Onegin seems less a story of unhappy love than of centers and peripheries, of fashions literal and literary; a novel preoccupied with timing, clocks, pursuit — and of course, in meter.

Through highly semioticized behavior, dress, and reading material, the heroes and heroines of Pushkin's text race and pursue one another. In the process, they grow painfully aware that fashions are relative, perceiving their distance from the trendsetting centers and cosmopolitan capitals in temporal terms. Like James Joyce's culturally colonized Irishmen in Ulysses, Pushkin's heroes gaze at each other, or are in turn examined by the narrator, with the growing suspicion that they are the crooked copies of foreign originals.

Meanwhile Onegin echoes with (parodic?) warnings to do things at the appropriate time, advice that the text itself seems unable or unwilling to follow. The novel begins with a death and ends in medias res, praising the writer wise enough to know when to stop. Only in chapter 7 does the narrator finally remember to include: "Bless my long labor, / O you, Muse of the Epic ... Enough! The load is off my shoulders! / To classicism I have paid my respects: / though late, but there's an introduction." Meta-literary digressions question the timeliness and adequacy of the elegy versus the ode, or the short lyric versus the novel; mourn the dearth of an adequately expressive Russian lexicon; and even lodge complaints about the poet's changing reception in the culturally conservative Russia of the 1830s.

Does the motif of timeliness reflect an outsider's anxiety that Russian letters lagged behind the developments of European romanticism, and an innovator's scorn for common sense and convention? Onegin performs sleights of hand across space and time: English, French, and German literary traditions clash, contradict, and seduce one another on Pushkin's pages, miraculously resulting in a great work of Russian literature.

The Russian literary canon in turn came to rest on Pushkin and Evgenii Onegin to such an extent that the poet and his most famous work can stand in metonymically for Russian culture in its entirety (hence the recurring avant-garde cry to throw Pushkin off the steamship of modernity). Tome after tome of Onegin exegesis concludes that Pushkin is doing something with the Western literatures that he imitates and engulfs; and that something is often linked with Russia's late arrival on the international literary scene. By rereading the text with a focus on fashion and timeliness, we can recontextualize those insights in a coherent and productive framework.

Time Flows Differently in the Provinces

Nineteenth-century Russia was hardly singular in suffering over perceived cultural backwardness, and Pushkin's attempt to enliven a national literature through meta-literary synthesis hardly the first of its kind. We might remember, for example, Herder's eighteenth-century dictum for German self-fashioning: "If we do not become Greeks, we will remain barbarians." Similarly, the impulse on both sides of the East/West culture wars raging in Russian letters was "to locate the present in relation to (sacred) origins, to reinvent a national genealogy" both authentically local and rooted in authoritative models. But we might also compare Pushkin's work to various projects that shaped Europe centuries before. Pushkin's Russian does just what Joachim du Bellay proposed for sixteenth-century French: it imitates, transforms, and devours foreign sources, "and after having well digested them, convert[s] them into blood and nourishment."

Pascale Casanova's The World Republic of Letters offers a global perspective for such national concerns. Casanova spatializes Pierre Bourdieu's concept of cultural capital: by combining Bourdieu with the geographical thinking of world systems, she models the distribution of literary capital around the world. The central hypothesis is that there exists a world republic of letters, divided by literary frontiers into

territories whose sole value and resource is literature ... a world that has its own capital, its own provinces and borders, in which languages become instruments of power. ... Rival languages compete for dominance; revolutions are always at once literary and political. The history of these events can be fathomed only by recognizing the existence of a literary measure of time, of a "tempo" peculiar to literature; and by recognizing that this world has its own present — the literary Greenwich meridian.

Dominant languages and literatures violently suppress or consume minor ones, and a chasm separates capitals from the provinces. Casanova suggests that in all periods of Western history, an über-capital such as Rome or Paris emerges as the center of the cultural world and establishes the "now" of fashion. Distance from the capital reads as distance in time or backwardness; the aesthetic distance of a work from the center reads as a "temporal remove from the canons that ... define the literary present." On the contrary, a work is said to be "contemporary, that it is more or less current (as opposed to being out of date — temporal metaphors abound in the language of criticism), depending on its proximity to the criteria of modernity."

While necessarily reductive, the expansive global model for canon formation and cultural rivalries remains very useful in the case of Russian (and émigré) literary experiences in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. While granting the literary world a relative independence, Casanova politicizes what is too often depicted as "peaceful internationalism, a world of free and equal access in which literary recognition is available to all writers, an enchanted world that exists outside time and space and so escapes the mundane conflicts of human history." (Franco Moretti, in the Atlas of the European Novel 1800–1900, similarly argues that "geography is not an inert container ... but an active force, that pervades the literary field and shapes it in depth.")

Casanova draws particular attention to the agonizing decision that writers from culturally colonized spaces are often called on to make: to assimilate to a foreign ideal and perpetuate an oppressor culture's dominance, or to work as national writers with a limited local audience, languishing in the obscurity of their minor (forgotten, neglected, or newly reinvented) native tongue. The Algerian writer Mohammed Dib in "Thief of Fire" rawly describes the dilemma of such a cultural outsider:

The poverty of the means granted to him is so impossible to imagine that it appears to defy all credibility. Language, culture, intellectual values, scales of moral values, none of these gifts that one receives in the cradle are of any possible use to him ... What to do? The thief gets hold at once of other instruments, ones that have been forged neither for him nor for the ends that he means to pursue. What matters is that they are within his reach and that he can bend them to suit his purposes. The language is not his language, the culture is not the heritage of his ancestors, these turns of thought, these intellectual, ethical categories are not current in his natural environment. How ambiguous are the weapons at his disposal!

Only the greatest writers escape their immediate context for a hard-won creative autonomy: "The modern work is condemned to become dated unless by achieving the status of a classic, it manages to free itself from the fluctuations of taste and critical opinion ... by being declared timeless and immortal."

Eastern Europe figures little in The World Republic of Letters: most of the territories discussed are either western European or former colonies. For Casanova, the paradigmatic twentieth-century writers to escape the national/collaborator aporia are Joyce and Beckett. Unwilling to remain in Dublin or to out-English the English in London, Joyce and Beckett both found refuge in the international capital of Paris. Beckett famously chose to write in French or to self-translate into English, seeking a language that felt nonnative, while Joyce found an English idiom that was his alone. However, as I will argue in this and subsequent chapters, the longing for autonomy and timeless status marks nineteenth- and twentieth-century Russian culture's conscious negotiations and competition with western European centrality. In strikingly similar terms, the Francophile Pushkin, and Nabokov a century later, prove archetypal members of the intellectual International.

Marshall Berman looks specifically to Russian literature to suggest another model for cultural appropriation. He draws from Pushkin, Gogol, Dostoevsky, and others to find in nineteenth-century St. Petersburg a prescient "modernism that arises from backwardness and underdevelopment":

This modernism first arose in Russia, most dramatically in St. Petersburg, in the nineteenth century; in our own era, with the spread of modernization — but generally, as in old Russia, a truncated and warped modernization — it has spread throughout the Third World. The modernism of underdevelopment is forced to build on fantasies and dreams of modernity, to nourish itself on an intimacy and a struggle with mirages and ghosts. ... It turns in on itself and tortures itself for its inability to singlehandedly make history — or else throws itself into extravagant attempts to take on itself the whole burden of history. It whips itself into frenzies of self-loathing, and preserves itself only through vast reserves of self-irony. But the bizarre reality from which this modernism grows, and the unbearable pressures under which it moves and lives — social and political pressures as well as spiritual ones — infuse it with a desperate incandescence that Western modernism, so much more at home in the world, can rarely hope to match.

Berman emphasizes the self-ironizing imitation arising from political and cultural backwardness, and from the paradox or double marginalization of the Russian writer. However, if Casanova's thief of fire only rarely escapes his circumstances and breaks into a state of autonomy, Berman argues that the unbearable pressures of belatedness may in fact lead to better literature. He considers Russian literature the paradigmatic modernism of underdevelopment, something of an unofficial movement to spread from St. Petersburg through much of the Third World in the course of the next century.

Taken together, Casanova and Berman offer politically charged models for mapping literary patterns, and draw our attention to the anxieties and paradoxical opportunities available to the local writer working from a position of cultural and economic belatedness. It is the potentially marginalized members of the world republic of letters who are most aware of the "literary Greenwich meridian" and of their own fraught relationship with literary fashion: to avoid being provincial and backward, they must become cosmopolitan and timeless.

"Blest Who Was Youthful in His Youth"

On the narrative level alone, that is to say, on the level of romantic fabula, Pushkin's Onegin reads as a veritable parable about the untimely man. The eponymous hero seems to do everything at the wrong time, affecting blasé cynicism in his youth and falling in love too late. The poem's narrative digressions and didactic asides reinforce the building anxiety over belatedness and poor timing, as we shall see. The most striking and memorable stanza on the topic of timeliness occurs late in the novel:


    Blest who was youthful in his youth;
    blest who matured at the right time;
    who gradually the chill of life
    with years was able to withstand;
    who never was addicted to strange dreams;
    who did not shun the fashionable rabble;
    who was at twenty fop or blade,
    and then at thirty, profitably married;
    who rid himself at fifty
    of private and of other debts;
    who fame, money, and rank
    In due course calmly gained;
    about whom lifelong one kept saying:
    N.N. is an excellent man. (8:X)

Here are the practical man's beatitudes, parodying the Gospel of St. Mark: blessed are the reasonable and the conformists, for theirs is the kingdom here and now on earth. The stanza's repetitions and list structure enhance the commonsensical authority of the content. Internal sound echoes hint at an innate reasonableness to such logic; round dates punctuate a philosophy of civilized normality; and the second line's "matured" (sozrel) links the timely human life to natural rhythms. Characters are likened to flora throughout this novel in verse, and nearly always in the context of portraying timeliness: Onegin is prematurely withered; Lensky is blighted on the vine; whereas Tatiana ripens when her time comes.

The list offered in the "Blest who" stanza thus offer a natural timeline and a template for the timely life. However, there is noticeably no room for childhood in this scheme. We meet Pushkin's characters only at a marriageable age and as budding participants in society. The reader is tricked into sharing the point of view of the provincial matchmakers who see in any new bachelor an opportunity: "Wealthy, good-looking, Lenski / was as a suitor everywhere received: / such is the country custom" (2:XII). The lines are reminiscent of Jane Austen's equally tongue-in-cheek opening to Pride and Prejudice: "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife."

On the surface, at least, Pushkin's stanza suggests that the accoutrements of age are to be acquired sequentially: fashionable society, wife, money, status. Life is a straight line, a clear and comprehensible trajectory, and time can be measured and broken into controlled intervals. The repeated sounds "Blazhen, kto," "kto," "o kom," are reassuringly liturgical, and the rhymes are simple: nouns mainly rhyme with nouns, verbs with verbs of the same masculine past tense ending, one genitive plural with another. The final rime riche (vek/chelovek) or compound rhyme (tselyi vek/chelovek) ends the stanza with the same suggestive logic: the duration of life and man himself are equivalent and mutually containing. The model life even stops short with summarizing definition, avoiding the less pleasant logical conclusion — a model death.


Excerpted from Nabokov's Canon by Marijeta Bozovic. Copyright © 2016 Northwestern University Press. Excerpted by permission of Northwestern University Press.
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Table of Contents


Introduction. What Mad Pursuit: Nabokov and Canon Formation

Chapter One. Pushkin’s Evgenii Onegin: The Breguet Keeps Time

Chapter Two. Nabokov’s Eugene Onegin: The Chateaubyronic Genre

Chapter Three. Nabokov’s Ada, or Ardor: Translating the Russian Novel

Chapter Four. Ada in Pursuit of Proust and Joyce

Chapter Five. Bergson and The Texture of Time

Conclusion. World Literature and the Butterfly Man



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