A revisionist biography of Nabokov is due, says the bilingual author and translator. He picks the best books by – and about – Nabokov.
Interview in Five Books:
You’ve started with Nabokov’s collected short stories.
This is my favourite collection, and a lot of my own work on Nabokov deals with the stories. About 60 of them were written in Russian, ten in English. They cover four decades of Nabokov’s literary life and are representative of his dynamic as a writer both in Russian and in English, and as both a European and an American émigré. If you want to see his various predilections, the aesthetics and politics of Nabokov’s work, then the stories are a great place to go. Nabokov leaves a mark on the genre – some have argued that they are among the very best Russian, European, American short stories ever written. They are a great example of late, blazing modernism.
After Lolita made Nabokov famous, he oversaw the enterprise of Englishing his Russian works, and the stories are done very well. Back in the 1930s – he was already a famous émigré author but unknown in the English-speaking world – several stories had been translated, by Gleb Struve and others. In the 1940s Nabokov had collaborated with a man by the name of Petr Pertzoff, producing exemplary translations of his finest Russian stories. Subsequently, he worked closely with his son Dmitri Nabokov, who is a dedicated son and a gifted translator. Vladimir Nabokov would say that, unless a translator was working directly from the Russian, they should work from an existing English translation – not necessarily a kosher procedure, strictly speaking, but a valid one in Nabokov’s case. If you were to compare some of the Russian originals with the English versions line by line, they would not be identical. But Nabokov got to have a second go at the stories, in a way, and he made changes. I don’t want to say he improved them, but they tell a more complete story – in English – of his literary career.