chapter  26
10 Pages

In defence of foreignness

ByHa Jin

One unique glory English has is a body of literature created by writers to whom English is not a given but an acquisition. These migrant writers arrived at this language individually, unlike writers in or from formerly colonized countries, such as India and Nigeria, where English is an official language and where national literature is written in English. These non-native writers’ struggles, survivals and achievements in this language are mostly personal affairs – their creative efforts mean little to collectives in the short run. Yet this is not to deny that there are similarities and overlapping interests between writers who acquired English and writers who inherited English. It is safe to say that Joseph Conrad is the founding figure of this literary tradition,

whereas Nabokov embodies its acme. Conrad’s struggle in his adopted language is a commonly known fact; even in his later fiction we still encounter slips occasionally in spite of his linguistic prowess and the stark beauty of his prose. In contrast, Nabokov has been revered as a verbal adventurer and a virtuoso stylist. He is also known to have learned to read English before he could read Russian and to have grown up trilingual. The halo around this master’s head tends to eclipse the fact that, like Conrad, Nabokov also had to strive to acquire English after he stopped writing fiction in Russian. Nabokov himself was quite candid about his struggle, as he states in his famous essay, ‘On a Book Entitled Lolita’: ‘I had to abandon my natural idiom, my untrammeled, rich, and infinitely docile Russian tongue for a second-rate brand of English’ (1977: 288). On another occasion, he confessed that ‘the absence of a natural vocabulary’ was his ‘secret flaw as a writer’ in English (1973: 106). Even so, few of us seem willing to reflect on the harrowing experience that this great magician of words went through. His biographer Brian Boyd (1991), however, recorded his linguistic struggle in his

initial years of writing in this language. Nabokov wrote his best English poem, ‘A Discovery’, two years after arriving in the United States. The poem was inspired by his stumbling on one of his own butterflies, a Grand Canyon, displayed as a standard specimen of the species in New York’s American Museum of Natural History. Despite the confident poetic voice and the speaker’s buoyant spirit, his biographer cannot help but remark: ‘But the fair copy of the poem … showed all too painfully the occasional thinness of his English’ (1991: 53). The ‘thinness’ can be discerned in these lines:

‘I found it and named it, being versed / in taxonomic Latin; thus became / godfather to an insect and its first / describer – and I want no other fame.’ Boyd also mentioned the early exchanges between Nabokov and Edmund Wilson over Nabokov’s English. Wilson chided his friend for his bold way of using his adopted language. The American man of letters had misgivings about the ability of the Russian new arrival who had just begun making his way in English, and Wilson never stopped carping about Nabokov’s puns and mistakes. Their frictions eventually developed into the full-blown argument in 1965, when Wilson published his lengthy article ‘The Strange Case of Pushkin and Nabokov’, pointing out some ‘solecisms’ in Nabokov’s translation of Eugene Onegin; in response, Nabokov wrote his well-known essay ‘Reply to My Critics’. By then, twenty-five years after emigrating to the United States, Nabokov was already a master of this language, completely competent to engage his former friend polemically. He outshone Wilson in the debate. However, in their early private exchanges over Nabokov’s use of English, Wilson

always got the upper hand, especially during Nabokov’s beginning years in America. To Nabokov, the switch from Russian to English was excruciatingly painful; in his own words, it felt ‘like learning anew to handle things after losing seven or eight fingers in an explosion’(1973: 54). He started writing his first English novel, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, when he was still in Paris. Soon after arriving in the United States, he resumed working on it. At the time he was diffident about his English, although the signature of his gorgeous and elaborate style was already manifest in the prose. Wilson read the proofs of the novel, was full of praise, and even provided a positive blurb. Yet, as usual, he did not refrain from quibbling about some verbal slips and quirks in the book. In his letter to Nabokov of 20 October 1941, he wrote: ‘I hope you will get someone at Wellesley to read your proofs – because there are a few, though not many, mistakes in English.’ He went on to point out several. In his reply, Nabokov lamented that he had returned the proofs to the press, unable to make the corrections any more, but he also argued that the narrator is supposed to ‘write English with difficulty’ (Karlinsky 2001: 56-7). In other words, the verbal defects are characterized and can be somewhat justified. In fact the narrator of the novel admits this weakness, too: ‘The dreary tussle with a foreign idiom and a complete lack of literary experience do not predispose one to feeling overconfident’ (Nabokov 1941: 101). Despite the technical justification, Nabokov later did correct those slips Wilson had mentioned. Clearly, Nabokov was apprehensive about his ability in English and still had a long way to go before becoming a master of English prose. In retrospect, it is hard to imagine the amount of labour he undertook to develop from the relatively simple prose in The Real Life of Sebastian Knight to the rich, subtle style of Lolita, and to the confident playfulness based on deliberate distortion and misuse of English in Pnin. In spite of Wilson’s extraordinary generosity to his friend, he was also a pain in

Nabokov’s neck. He would not stop, privately and publicly, admonishing Nabokov to avoid using puns. Fortunately Nabokov ignored his chiding and continued with his word games, which gradually became a hallmark of his genius. Wilson gave a mixed review of Nabokov’s Nikolay Gogol (1944) in The New Yorker, saying, ‘[Nabokov’s] puns are particularly awful’ (Wilson 1950: 78). From the very beginning of their friendship, Wilson compared Nabokov to Conrad, as he wrote in the same letter of 20 October 1941, ‘You and Conrad must be the only examples of foreigners succeeding in English and in this field.’ Nabokov was displeased with such a comparison, though we do not know in what wording and format he objected to it initially. Wilson certainly

knew how to nettle his friend. Years later, when abbreviating the original New Yorker review into the essay ‘Vladimir Nabokov on Gogol’ for his book Classics and Commercials (1950), Wilson added this sentence as the conclusion of the piece: ‘in spite of some errors, Mr Nabokov’s mastery of English almost rivals Joseph Conrad’s’. Affronted, Nabokov wrote back: ‘I protest against the last line. Conrad knew how to handle readymade English better than I; but I know better the other kind. He never sinks to the depths of my solecisms, but neither does he scale my verbal peaks’ (Karlinsky 2001: 282-3). By ‘readymade’ Nabokov meant conventional. In an interview in 1964, he was more explicit about this: ‘I cannot abide Conrad’s souvenir-shop style, bottled ships and shell necklaces of romanticist clichés’ (1973: 42). I have cited Nabokov’s negative view of Conrad’s English only to illustrate the two

masters’ opposite approaches to their adopted language. In Conrad’s fiction, we can sense a linguistic boundary demarcated by the English dictionary – he would not invent words and expressions that might sound alien to the English ear. Except in a handful of sea stories, such as The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’ and Lord Jim, where some seamen’s dialogues are occasionally put in substandard English, Conrad on the whole stayed within the boundary of Standard English. By saying that, I do not mean to depreciate Conrad’s accomplishment. Even within such a boundary, he managed to do monumental work, and besides, he brought a clear foreign sensibility to his sinewy and elegant prose. It was no secret that he viewed himself as a foreigner taking refuge in England. The word ‘refuge’, referring to his own situation, almost became a catchword in his correspondence. He even claimed that English literature was not his tradition when he declined a knighthood from the British government and honorary degrees offered by a number of universities, including Cambridge and Yale. In his later years he always longed to return to Poland, though his sudden death prevented him from fulfilling this wish (Najder 1983: 489). We can surmise that the combination of Conrad’s strict approach to English and his sense of being a foreigner in England, a country he loved, must have been a source of his anguish. Like Conrad, Nabokov also depended heavily on dictionaries. His English got more

artistically bookish and mannered as he grew as a stylist. However, he never confined himself to Standard English, and often pushed the limits of the language. Leland de la Durantaye summarizes the rationale of Nabokov’s approach as follows:

Nabokov prefers the obscure to the invented epithet. To invent words was, for him, only permissible in cases where there really was no word to name the thing – and he went to considerable length to verify this. But this conservatism knew limits. Inasmuch as the vocabulary existed, Nabokov respected it – but as to the company he placed it in and the contortions he put it through, he was far from conservative … Nabokov clearly shared Sebastian’s [distrust of easy expressions] … and, like Sebastian, ‘had no use for ready-made phrases because the things he wanted to say were of an exceptional build and he knew moreover that no real idea can be said to exist without the words made to measure’. Nabokov’s verbal clothes were made from the fabric of the language as he found it – but special tailoring was always required.