Saturday, January 05, 2019

'Keeping All His Words in the Same Dim Light'

“. . . a very remarkable essay, and I greatly appreciate being with A.P. in the same boat—on a Russian lake, at sunset, he fishing, I watching the hawkmoths above the water.”

If you didn’t get it at “Russian lake,” the hawkmoths gave it away. I hadn’t read it in years. Included in the festschrift for V.V. (Vladimir Vladimirovich) published in the Winter 1970 issue of Triquarterly was an essay by Simon Karlinsky, “Nabokov and Chekhov: the Lesser Russian Tradition.” I was a high-school senior when it came out and already intoxicated with Nabokov’s little miracles. “ A.P.” is Anton Pavlovich [Chekhov]. I probably had read some of Chekhov’s stories by that time (though not the plays, letters or Sakhalin) but he hadn’t yet attained a prominent place in my personal canon. Nabokov had. Karlinsky discovers convergences in the two writers I wouldn’t have noticed at the time:

“The very precision of observation and restraint in evaluation is what makes Chekhov’s picture of turn-of-the-century Russian village life in ‘The Peasants’ or in ‘In the Ravine’ and Nabokov’s depiction of the American motel civilization in Lolita so overwhelmingly and irresistibly believable.”

Nabokov’s responses to the Triquarterly essays, reminiscences and tributes were printed in a sixteen-page, chapbook-like pamphlet included with the festschrift when it was republished as a book. You can also find them, titled “Anniversary Notes,” in Nabokov’s Strong Opinions (1973). In the passage quoted at the top, Nabokov is responding to Karlinsky’s essay. He continues:

“Mr. Karlinsky has put his finger on a mysterious sensory cell. He is right, I do love Chekhov dearly. I fail, however, to rationalize my feeling for him: I can easily do so in regard to the greater artist, Tolstoy, with the flash of this or that unforgettable passage . . . but when I imagine Chekhov with the same detachment all I can make out is a medley of dreadful prosaisms, ready-made epithets, repetitions, doctors, unconvincing vamps, and so forth; yet it is his works which I would take to another planet.”

Even those of us dependent on the vagaries of translation understand. For many of his readers, Chekhov is companionable in a way Tolstoy, though inarguably a master, could never be. In his Lectures on Russian Literature (1980), Nabokov writes:

“. . . Chekhov managed to convey an impression of artistic beauty far surpassing that of many writers who thought they knew what rich beautiful prose was. He did it by keeping all his words in the same dim light and of the same exact tint of gray, as tint between the color of an old fence and that of a low cloud.”

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