Novelist Vladimir Nabokov, celebrated for masterpieces in Russian and in English including “Lolita” and “Pale Fire,” was ashamed of his juvenile attempts at poetry. He referred, in his 1970 collection “Poems and Problems”to “the steady mass of verse which I began to exude in my youth … with monstrous regularity.”
Judging by a new book, surveying six decades of Nabokov’s poetic output, he was right to be embarrassed about his early works.
Most teenage versifying is best forgotten, and to open the volume with “Music,” which Nabokov wrote when he was fifteen, gives a ridiculous impression of the writer’s skills, and of his son Dmitri’s powers of translation. The repetition of archaic verbs like “plashing” and clichéd similes “like diamonds” must have made the older Nabokov wince.
Ten years later, he still offers lines like “fleetingly shimmered ineffable echoes/ of a vibrant nightingale,” but the mature novelist’s pitch-perfect ear for tone and metaphor becomes evident in the playful, later poems, especially those written in English; even here he is hamstrung by strict rhyme-schemes and a formal conservatism at odds with the radical originality of his novels.
Dmitri Nabokov’s translations don’t always do justice to the Russian poems. To dispense with rhymes is excusable (even necessary), but to translate into lines that do not scan distorts the aural grace of the original.
Despite all this, the autobiographical intimacies in this book will fascinate Nabokov’s fans. He writes movIn “Poems and Problems” he identified the different stages of his own early poetic career, moving from verses of love and politics through nostalgia to narrative. Examples from each of these phases are represented, together with the “robust style” of his later poems.ingly and perceptively about language, memory, identity and exile.