Tuesday, 30 August 2016

Marina Tsvetaeva: Night.—Northeaster

Night.—Northeaster.—Roar of soldiers.—Roar of waves.
Wine cellars raided.—Down every street,
every gutter—a flood, a precious flood,
and in it, dancing, a moon the colour of blood.
Tall poplars stand dazed.
Birds sing all night—crazed.
A tsar’s statue—razed,
black night in its place.
Barracks and harbour drink, drink.
The world and its wine—ours!
The town stamps about like a bull,
swills from the turbid puddles.
The moon in a cloud of wine.—Who’s that? Stop!
Be my comrade, sweetheart: drink up!
Merry stories go round:
Deep in wine—a couple has drowned.
Feodosia, the last days of October 1917
Translated by Boris Dralyuk.

Musical version of Tolstoy's Anna Karenina to open in Moscow

Leo Tolstoy’s novel Anna Karenina features passionate love, abject misery and a hundred emotions in between. The epic romantic saga does not, traditionally, involve any inline skating, but that will change when a new musical version hits the Moscow stage this autumn.

Anna Karenina the musical will open at the Moscow Operetta theatre in October, with specially written music and a new libretto. The producers say that although the whole of Tolstoy’s sprawling novel cannot fit into a two-hour show, they remain faithful to the text throughout. The cast will wear costumes that are “of the period, but with elements of haute couture”.

Not all the musical takes place on inline skates, which are used in place of ice skates for winter scenes. At a rehearsal this week, the cast went through a scene set at a Moscow ice rink, in which wealthy landowner Levin proposes to Kitty. She turns him down as couples around them perform acrobatic skating routines.

Tolstoy’s novel has been adapted for screen and stage on numerous occasions. There have also been operatic and musical renditions, though none have become well known. In a 2012 film version, with a screenplay by Tom Stoppard and starring Keira Knightley in the title role, the whole action takes place inside a theatre.

“The novel has everything. It’s maybe the most detailed exploration of relations between men and women,” said Vladimir Tartakovsky, the director of the Operetta theatre and one of the musical’s producers.

Tartakovsky said the character of Anna’s husband, Karenin – who has been portrayed as an unsympathetic villain in some film versions – is closer to the original in their musical; he can be sympathised with as a victim of his social situation.

“None of the characters are simplistic – they make the viewer think, and people can empathise with parts of all the characters,” said Alexei Bolonin, one of the co-producers of the musical.

Bolonin and Tartakovsky have staged several musicals at the Operetta theatre, including Count Orlov, a semi-factual tale about one of Catherine the Great’s nobles, which ran for four years and sold nearly 1m tickets.

Last year, a musical version of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment also appeared on the Moscow stage. Attempts to launch western musicals, such as Chicago, have been less successful in Moscow.

Until recently, there was little to fill the gap between pop music and high culture: there are four opera houses in Moscow but only three theatres that put on musicals. Bolonin said the popularity of musicals as a genre was growing in Russia.

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Tuesday, 23 August 2016

Dostoevsky’s idiom

The name of Russia’s greatest writer is Tolstoevsky—or so goes an old, and still popular, academic joke. The joke does, however, have a point. It satirizes a certain vague idea about Russian literature that is shared by many American readers: the idea that Russian literature is a confusing and ex otic, if not entirely alien phenomenon, a tan talizing exposure to the “mysterious Russian soul,” perpetually centered on what used to be known as “the ultimate problems of hu man existence”—those problems, at any rate, that are beyond the reach of our every day cares and concerns. This stereotypical perception allows for little difference be tween the individual authors, be they Ivan Turgenev or Boris Pasternak, and accounts for a telling comment made by one of my ac quaintances: “Why don’t all these guys [he meant typical characters from a Russian novel] just start looking for a job?”

As for the joke about “Tolstoevsky,” it cer tainly would have offended the author of The Brothers Karamazov. While it is true that Fyodor Dostoevsky and Leo Tolstoy were both impassioned idealists engaged in a religious quest, they privately distrusted and disliked each other. Dostoevsky, for ex ample, once called Tolstoy “a sugary talent” and complained that his characters “are uninteresting to the point of strangeness.”

At the same time, a jocular amalgamation of the two authors into one “Tolstoevsky” points to an additional problem, less phil osophical, perhaps, but no less perplexing—and this time not the reader’s fault. It con cerns the endemic inferiority of the extant English translations from the Russian, most of which do little justice to the verbal beauty of the originals. Too often great Russian prose, past or present, has been “Englished” in conformity with some prevailing literary fashion, which naturally results in language lacking the personal inspiration and stylistic imprint of the original. Not surprisingly, the result is a “Tolstoevsky,” a more or less characterless composite. Ironically, this ap proach to translation has on occasion im proved upon Tolstoy, a writer who professed (and practiced) a lack of interest in formal refinement. But when applied to Dosto evsky, this procedure has had a disastrous ef fect, often aggravated by the translator’s in ability to appreciate or convey the multiple semantic and syntactical nuances that make the language of Dostoevsky’s novels so su perbly individual.

The introduction to the new translation of The Brothers Karamazov promises to remedy this fault.[1] At almost eight hundred pages, the translation was a risky and noble venture on the part of a small publishing house, North Point Press—and one cannot help being saddened by the news that North Point will no longer be publishing new books. The husband-and-wife team who translated The Brothers Karamazov anew seems well suited for the task. Richard Pevear is a poet of repute who has also translated both poetry and prose from several tongues; Larissa Volokhonsky is a Russian émigrée, a professional translator, and a student of theol ogy (a clear advantage when approaching Dostoevsky). The pair has chosen to adopt an elevated view of their craft, following in this a practice still common in Russia, where translation is considered an art requiring born talent and professionalism. The dif ficulties they faced were formidable indeed. Here it may suffice to indicate only a few.

The Russian literary language was created early in the nineteenth century largely through the efforts and genius of Alexander Pushkin, who enjoys in the eyes of Russians a status comparable to that which Shakespeare or Goethe enjoys here. This language was developed by the great stylists of the later nineteenth century, notably Ivan Turgenev and Anton Chekhov, and in this century by those who (like Ivan Bunin or Mikhail Bul gakov) realized their stylistic aims by further refining the idiom approved by literary tradition. Insofar as their work reproduces this “classical” idiom they can be rendered accurately into standard literary English.

This must be sharply contrasted with Dos-toevsky’s writing. Drawing on the example of Nikolai Gogol, Dostoevsky fashioned a literary technique with a whole new set of priorities. Instead of working with the es tablished idiom, writers in this tradition —among them such prominent modern writers as Evgeny Zamyatin and Andrei Platonov or, for that matter, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn—proceeded to explore and ex ploit unconventional layers of the vernacular: dialect, jargon, slang, cant, and the like.

Already in his very first publication, the short novel Poor Folk, Dostoevsky surprised “readers with a skillful imitation of semi-edu cated speech, and in his later work he revealed an unsurpassed mastery over his medium, employing an incredible variety of stylistic means. It remains uncertain whether Dostoevsky actually possessed—as did some of his followers—a conscious and articulate program regarding language and style. But his notebooks leave no doubt that he paid ex ceptional attention to vocabulary, register ing characteristic or unusual words, playing them out, placing them in different contexts, plagiarizing, with equal relish, from a priest or a policeman or a streetwalker.

In any event, it seems likely that Dostoevsky owes much of his verbal virtuosity to intui tion rather than deliberate strategy. In every case, his word choice, however bizarre it first appears, makes the most accurate and mean ingful response to the momentary situation created by the plot or a character’s im mediate experience. A striking replacement of an anticipated commonplace is fraught with subtle implications, often recognized by the reader only in retrospect. Much of Dostoevsky’s magic spell lies in the unpredic tability of his narrative, extending from philosophical or psychological argument to matters of syntax and even grammar. The result is that the idiosyncrasies of content and style for which he was berated in his own time are things for which he is admired by posterity. In fact, reading Dostoevsky in the original, one has to fight the impression that he writes in a language that no one speaks and, very possibly, no one ever spoke. His idiom is principally derived from the vo cabulary of the period’s petty urban officials, the milieu Dostoevsky knew best. When this peculiar idiom is applied to grand, meta physical questions, it is transformed and sud denly acquires a higher significance. The ef fect is uncanny, verging on the irrational and the fantastic. This accounts in part for the peculiar ambiance, so easily lost in transla tion, of the Dostoevskian world, where characters, though graphically shaped, ap pear, as if “through a glass darkly,” both smaller and larger than life.

Several pivotal chapters in The Brothers Karamazov exhibit a complex and careful in terplay of stylistic elements alien to common speech. Pevear and Volokhonsky’s response to the challenge of these complexities makes palpable both the felicities and the failures of their new translation. Dostoevsky articulated some of his deepest spiritual commitments in those portions of the novel devoted to the elder Zosima, who was meant to portray the ideal Christian. Dostoevsky’s success with Zosima—so far as generations of Russian readers are concerned, at least—owes much to his judicious use of the archaisms and poeticisms provided by the residue of Church Slavonic that continues to function, even for present-day literature, as a source of occasional verbal enrichment. The very tenor of Zosima’s speech, his collected sayings, his “hagiography” composed by Alyosha Kar amazov, are highly stylized and permeated with Slavonicisms. The difficulty of render ing all this into English is exceedingly for midable. One promising device that has not been sufficiently exploited by translators —possibly out of the fear of sounding con trived—is adopting a pattern of allusion to the King James version of the Bible. This might sometimes create an effect comparable to that of Church Slavonic.

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Monday, 22 August 2016

Celebrating a tireless champion of Joseph Brodsky's poetry

There are numerous Joseph Brodsky experts, but the scale of Valentina Polukhina's work in this field eclipses them all. She has interviewed nearly 100 of the world's best-known poets, writers, translators, scholars, artists, filmmakers and philosophers who knew Brodsky, were friends with him and understood the value of his poems and essays. The result was three books, collectively called Brodsky Through the Eyes of his Contemporaries. They are fascinating reading for anyone who is interested in Brodsky and his texts.

There is more to Valentina Polukhina than this, however. She was friends with Brodsky and he held her research in high regard. He frequently visited London, loved the city and often stayed with Polukhina and her husband Daniel, a Brodsky translator. This cozy house in the north of the British capital has long been a driving force in Brodsky research, producing numerous texts on his life and work.

I also stayed with Daniel and her. I was admitted into the holy of holies – Valentina Platonovna's small study on the second floor, completely filled with shelves of books by and about Brodsky in different languages, with dozens of rare photographs of the poet hanging on the walls. Brodsky himself once visited this study. He looked at the walls with an ironic smile and said, in didactic fashion: "You're still missing a photograph, Valentina. The one of me as a baby lying on the couch without pants."

She tried to take care of him in every possible way when he was alive and came to London. Now she takes care of his and daughters and granddaughters, who also visit her welcoming home. I could not resist asking her a highly insolent question: whether she was sure she did not exaggerate Brodsky's importance.

Her reply was as follows:

"As you know, Alexander Pushkin brought French poetry to Russia. This is understandable: French was the mother tongue of the Russian aristocracy at that time. But neither Pushkin nor the poets who followed him took anything from the rich English poetry except, perhaps, Byron's romantic image of the poet. Joseph Brodsky did all of this two centuries later. This is a huge contribution to Russian poetry, literature, culture, and, finally, language. Russian needed this contribution, this new blood and it got it thanks to Brodsky. If he had not done anything besides this, he deserves a monument for this contribution alone."

After a pause, she continued: "But you know, I sometimes feel that Brodsky was the Russian language's deliberate choice."

"What do you mean by that?" I replied with surprise.

"Well, if you follow Joseph's own logic," she said, "language is something given to us from above, a certain entity that is both deeper and more extended in time than man, or even mankind. Here let us assume that this enormous living being – the Russian language – matures to the point where it needs a poet who can help record contemporary language in a perfect form – who can open up possibilities for the language's future development. And this language chooses a small Jewish boy in an anti-Semitic country, knowing that he will suffer; it breathes poetry into him, knowing that in this country a true poet either dies or is exiled. It lets him survive, become famous and fulfil the mission entrusted to him..."

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Sunday, 14 August 2016

Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s Doomed City finally published in English

The Strugatsky brothers, Boris and Arkady, were celebrated Soviet science fiction writers; their best-known book, Roadside Picnic inspired Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Stalker. Many of their novels have been available in English for years, but The Doomed City, audaciously dystopian, finished secretly in 1972, and widely thought to be their greatest novel, is out for the first time in English, using Andrew Bromfield’s skilful translation. The book was so controversial that the Russian version did not see the light of day until the more tolerant perestroika era of the late 1980s.

Andrei Voronin, whose everyman viewpoint the novel follows, is a 1950s Soviet astronomer; he finds himself in a mysterious sociological “Experiment” with a selection of other people from different countries and decades. All these characters have been abducted and assembled in the eponymous city, as part of an endless, incomprehensible experiment with their lives: a metaphor for Soviet communism.

The characters live in a menacing Truman Show-style construct, an enclosed space, between a wall and a void, with a sun that can be switched on and off. The novel predominantly follows Voronin’s evolution, as a communist true believer, from garbage collector to “top‐ranking bureaucrat … and arbiter of human destiny.” This trajectory was what made the book so dangerous when it was first written. Voronin gradually becomes a man suspended “in an airless ideological void.” This, Boris Strugatsky writes, in the novel’s late 1980s afterword, was a trajectory the authors and many like them were familiar with: the path of an entire post-war generation.

Overseeing the Experiment are the equally mysterious “Mentors”; some characters believe their captors are aliens, watching them as “in a fish tank or … zoological garden”. Voronin is convinced that they are “human beings from a different dimension”, benevolently aiming “to create a model of communist society”; others that they are future colonizers of earth, studying the psychology of their slaves. The characters spend hours debating the nature of the Experiment and the city they find themselves in, arguing about war and politics, morality and religion. In places the novel feels like a surreal dream; elsewhere it is a thinly veiled account of bureaucratic reality. An old man compares their city to scenes by Hieronymus Bosch and Dante; their discussions produce some of the novel’s comic moments: “You’re a Manichean!” the old man interrupts. “I’m a Komsomol member!” Voronin protests.

Russia has a rich tradition of philosophical novelists, from Fyodor Dostoevsky to Viktor Pelevin, but The Doomed City also prefigures global trends in speculative fiction. The pioneering writers built up an agenda of moral, social, and ethical problems, which has influenced the genre since, from Star Trek’s dilemma-based episodes to Ursula K. Le Guin’s explorations. The subjects’ helplessness and the chillingly allegorical quality of their situation is reminiscent of Kazuo Ishiguro’s unfortunate clone-students in Never Let Me Go. At other times, with the violent streets full of inexplicable baboons or “shark wolves” and controlled by sinister overlords, the scenarios resemble Suzanne Collins’ dystopian fantasy series, The Hunger Games.

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Thursday, 11 August 2016

Ludmilla Petrushevskaya: Our Savior

My eldest son, Kirill, was expelled from Moscow State University in 1983. In a flare of youthful maximalism, he had announced to his English instructor that she possessed no knowledge of her subject, which happened to be entirely true.

Now, imagine if someone had told me I didn’t know how to speak Russian—I’d simply laugh. But insecure people don’t forgive such statements. The English instructor happened to be good friends with the provost and the matter was settled swiftly—my son was expelled. To provide for his family, wife and little daughter, he took work as a janitor and orderly at a hospital. According to Soviet law, as he no longer studied in any college, he was going to be drafted.

I was summoned to the local draft board. I produced Kirill’s medical history, which listed asthma and chronic pneumonia. In principle, that diagnosis freed him from the draft. But the chief recruiting officer laughed in my face: They had hospitals in the army, he informed me, where my son’s illnesses would be successfully treated. He was lying, of course. A cure for asthma didn’t exist. Years later Kirill’s daughter, Masha, died of asthma at the age of eighteen.

At the time the Soviet Union was engaged in a war with Afghanistan. We all had heard rumors that the newest recruits, young boys without any experience, were immediately sent to the front line as cannon fodder, while experienced soldiers, already known to their superiors, were kept behind, protected. In addition, my son was very nearsighted and terrible at any fighting.

Hiding from the army, my son and his family rented a temporary residence. I began to receive visits from patrolmen who would spend nights in my kitchen, waiting for Kirill to show up.

I asked for help—at the theaters, where else? I’m a playwright. I knew that prominent theater directors managed to save their young actors from the draft through their connections among recruiting boards.

None of them were interested in helping me. I had a dreadful reputation as a forbidden author, an anti-Soviet author. My plays were regularly shut down, even though theaters fought for them with intermittent success and a one-act play, Love, was running in seven different theaters. I knocked on office doors, begged, cried. During that time Kirill’s wife became pregnant with a second child. By Soviet law, a father of two children couldn’t be drafted. But Kirill was still tracked down by the draft board (probably through his phone) and was handed a summons to be at the recruitment office the next day at seven in the morning.

Around that time the Moscow theater Lenkom had accepted my new play, Moscow Choir, on a sensitive subject: the return of political exiles who had been sent to the gulag by Stalin in 1937. Lenkom’s chief director, who had seen nothing but trouble from associating with me—my previous play, Three Girls in Blue, was shut down for four years and the theater was regularly inspected by the authorities—refused to help my son.

Moreover, no one from Lenkom’s higher management showed up for the read-through of the new play. Instead, it was attended by unfamiliar young men of nontheatrical appearance, with crew cuts. I asked who they were and was told that they had come on an unrelated matter, to discuss stage designs. I got up and left, taking with me my play.

(I suspected I was followed by the KGB and that my phone was bugged. That suspicion was confirmed years later, when the KGB’s archives were opened and the papers published lists of those under physical and phone surveillance. My name was on both lists.)

I set out on my final quest. The next day my son was to be taken from us; he was to be sent to the slaughter. I went to our country’s leading theater, the Moscow Art Theater, to seek an audience with its chief director, Oleg Yefremov. By an incredible stroke of luck, he was in his office and agreed to see me. A star of screen and theater, Yefremov was always traveling—shooting or rehearsing.

I told him everything. I didn’t cry. He heard me out, then picked up the receiver, dialed a number, and began a conversation with “It’s me—again.” He listed my son’s illnesses and complications, that Kirill’s wife was in her third month of pregnancy with a second child. He ended the conversation with “Got it. Take care.” Then he told me this: “Let him get a doctor’s note saying that his wife can’t have an abortion for medical reasons.”

I couldn’t believe my ears. I was in the presence of a man who immediately, without preamble, set out to protect me and my son. My gratitude was beyond expression.

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Saturday, 6 August 2016

Nabokov and epilepsy

The first time I had what was later determined to be a mild epileptic seizure – acute anxiety in the pit of my stomach and in my chest, accompanied by a dazed sensation, and followed by a bewildering and alarming sense that I was entering a kind of a parallel, déjà-vu universe, where I knew exactly what the person I was talking to (and whom I had just met for the first time) was going to say before he said it – was at a Nabokov conference organized by Nabokov’s biographer, Brian Boyd, in New Zealand, in January 2012. It lasted no more than a couple of minutes but left me feeling nauseous, disoriented and scared. After my return to the United States, similar episodes started occurring every thirty days or so. They were always brief, and were preceded not just by dazedness and disorientation, or “cephalic auras” as they are called, but also by “olfactory auras”, a very sharp and acrid smell. Finally I was diagnosed with Temporal Lobe Epilepsy. I was stunned. To me, epilepsy was what Fyodor Dostoevsky and his characters experienced: stupor, frothing at the mouth, loss of consciousness, and even long spells of near-insanity.

The standard medical classification of epileptic seizures is as follows:
The manifestations of epilepsy depend on the area of the brain where the abnormal discharge occurs . . . . An attack of grand mal (tonic-clonic) epilepsy usually begins with bilateral jerks of the extremities or focal seizure activity. There is loss of consciousness and both tonic and clonic type convulsions . . . . Complex partial seizures, as in psychomotor (temporal lobe) epilepsy, usually, but not always, originate in the temporal lobe of the brain, often with a preceding aura . . . . Simple partial seizures, called also focal seizures, result from a localized cortical discharge. The symptoms may be either motor, sensory, autonomic, or any combination of the three.
Dostoevsky had “grand mal” seizures; mine were the simple partial ones. And they may have made me a much more discerning reader of the very same Nabokov who was the subject of the conference where my first seizure took place. I write about Nabokov and teach him every year, which means that I constantly re-read him (“One cannot read a book”, Nabokov famously advised his students; “one can only re-read it”). And certain passages in his autobiographical and fictional writings – amounting overall to a kind of obsession – started to come into sharper focus: he, too, must have suffered from some form of epilepsy.

Nabokov is, in fact, as generous in distributing epilepsy among his characters as was Dostoevsky who, as I will discuss below, may have been the main reason why the author of Lolita was not more open about his affliction. Nabokov’s personal testimonies do, however, at times approach the confessional. Thus in the second chapter of his autobiography, Speak, Memory, he writes:
As far back as I remember myself . . . I have been subject to mild hallucinations. Some are aural, others are optical . . . . Just before falling asleep, I often become aware of a kind of one-sided conversation going on in an adjacent section of my mind, quite independently from the actual trend of my thoughts. It is a neutral, detached, anonymous voice, which I catch saying words of no importance to me whatever – an English or a Russian sentence, not even addressed to me . . . . This silly phenomenon seems to be the auditory counterpart of certain praedormitory visions which I also know well . . . . On top of this I present a fine case of coloured hearing.
Nabokov shared his synaesthesia – “coloured hearing” and seeing letters in colours – with his mother; it occurs, we are told, in at least 4 per cent of temporal lobe epilepsies. He also apparently shared with her, as he reveals in the same chapter, “double sight . . . premonitions, and the feeling of the déjà vu”, all three definitely characteristic of epileptic seizures. Nabokov further elaborated on these strange sensations in “Inspiration”, an essay written late in 1972 for the Saturday Review (January 6, 1973; see Edmund White’s article in this issue). In this piece he even uses the notion of “an epileptic attack” to describe what is taking place: “A prefatory glow, not unlike some benign variety of the aura before an epileptic attack, is something the artist learns to perceive very early in life . . . . [It] has neither source nor object. It expands, glows, and subsides without revealing its secret. In the meantime . . . a window has opened, an auroral wind has blown, every exposed nerve has tingled”.

When Nabokov reveals the effects of epilepsy on his characters who suffer from it, the accuracy is uncanny. In Pale Fire, the poet John Shade, who, if we are to believe his “annotator” Charles Kinbote, has “a mild form of epilepsy”, gives the following account of his childhood fainting fits:

There was a sudden sunburst in my head.
And then black night. That blackness was sublime.
I felt distributed through space and time:
One foot upon a mountaintop, one hand
Under the pebbles of a panting strand . . .
During one winter every afternoon
I’d sink into that momentary swoon.

In the same novel one of the rare astute observations by Kinbote in his commentary to Shade’s poem can be found in the description of “what physicians call the aura, a strange sensation both tense and vaporous, a hot-cold ineffable exasperation pervading the entire nervous system before a seizure”. And then there is the hapless but lovable Timofey Pnin, from the eponymous novel, whose seizure in a park in an unfamiliar town is depicted through the overwrought reaction, immediately recognizable to all epileptics, to this inexplicable occurrence:
that eerie feeling, that tingle of unreality overpowered him completely. . . .Was it a mysterious disease that none of his doctors had yet detected? . . . He felt porous and pregnable. He was sweating. He was terrified. A stone bench among the laurels saved him from collapsing on the sidewalk. Was his seizure a heart attack? I doubt it. For nonce I am his physician, and let me repeat, I doubt it . . . . Pnin felt what he had felt already on August 10, 1942, and February 15 (his birthday), 1937, and May 18, 1929, and July 4, 1920 – that the repulsive automaton he lodged had developed a consciousness of its own and not only was grossly alive but was causing him pain and panic. He pressed his poor bald head against the stone back of the bench and recalled all the past occasions of similar discomfort and despair . . . . The seizure had left him a little frightened and shaky . . .
When the narrator steps in to “doubt” that Pnin’s seizure stemmed from a heart attack, he appears to give us a clear indication not only as to what this “mysterious disease” was not, but also as to what it was. I believe the narrator’s diagnosis here was based on Nabokov’s own medical history.

Since there are no medical records available, the best sources of relevant clues are of course Boyd’s biography and Nabokov’s personal letters. Boyd lists the following known health problems that the writer apparently suffered from: “adenoma . . . concussion . . . heart palpitations . . . influenza/pneumonia . . . intercoastal neuralgia . . . lumbago . . . lung damage . . . nervous strain . . . pleurisy . . . psoriasis . . . shadow behind the heart . . . sunstroke . . . urinary tract infection . . .”.The “nervous strain” is particularly intriguing, since it is so vague. “Volodya has had a kind of nervous breakdown, due to overwork”, Edmund Wilson wrote in 1946 to their mutual friend, Roman Grynberg, the editor of Russian émigré journals. In 1952 Nabokov himself wrote to Grynberg, that his state of health was such that his nervous system only just then “had stopped resembling tangled barbed wire” (“перестала походить на спутанную колючую проволоку”), which is quite reminiscent of Kinbote’s characterization in Pale Fire of Shade’s clusters of epileptic seizures as “a derailment of the nerves at the same spot, on the same curve of the tracks, every day, for several weeks, until nature repaired the damage”.

“I was so joggy and jittery and buzzy with insomnia and so forth”, Nabokov complained to Wilson the following year, “that I decided to lay aside Pushkin for a few months.” “Pushkin” was his translation of Eugene Onegin, and he was already working on Lolita by then as well. There was definitely enough labour and anxiety there – as there had surely been in 1946, and in 1952 – to cause much general stress, but the way he describes it – “joggy and jittery and buzzy” – is also a perfect characterization of epileptic events.

As to Nabokov’s heart problems, he once suggested to Grynberg, who in 1950 was recovering from a mild heart attack, that when “one’s diaphragm presses onto one’s heart” it can by itself cause “seizures and faintings”, therefore revealing that he at that point must still have preferred to attribute those in his own experience to his heart troubles rather than to epilepsy. By the time he came to depict poor Pnin’s seizure in a strange city park, Nabokov seems to have already ruled that possibility out. While Pnin, like his creator, also suffers from “heart palpitations”, the “mysterious disease” here is obviously of an epileptic nature. Nabokov actually liked to apply the attribute “mysterious” to epilepsy. “Dostoevski . . . from his early years . . . had been subject to that mysterious illness, the epilepsy”, he stated in his Lectures on Russian Literature.

Nabokov knowing or suspecting he had epilepsy may also explain why he never drove a car. Back in the 1940s when the Nabokovs bought their first American automobile, people diagnosed with any form of epilepsy, including the mildest, were routinely prevented from having a licence. I should note, however, that it is probably equally likely that – as most Nabokov memoirists and biographers suggest – he simply proved to be a talentless learner and, in general, preferred to be chauffeured by his wife, Véra, just as he and his family had been chauffeured in St Petersburg and Vyra, where they spent the summers.

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