Writer’s Change of Language: Nabokov and Others

In order to see how bilingual and multilingual writers choose language of their primal writing, I concentrate on three prominent Russia-born writers who switched to English late in life. These writers are of dramatically different fate and level of literary prominence in their second language, but all are undeniably of a great standing in the national literature. Vladimir Nabokov is the most well-known in this respect, as well as the example of the most successful linguistic transition (I propose this term to describe the change of language). Other two writers are Joseph Brodsky and Vassily Aksyonov.

My hypothesis is that all these three writers dressed Russian phrases in English attire. The structures of their English sentences are influenced by their primal language, Russian. For instance, you would not meet in Nabokov’s prose a phrase with a dangling participle. The classic in the Russian literature example of such phrase is Chekhov’s “Approaching the station and admiring the scenery, my hat blew off.” Chekhov specifically constructed this phrase in order to mock the absurd of such grammatical construction: the hat is admiring the scenery, the hat is approaching the station. The hat is the subject of the sentence. This is, arguably, an acceptable grammar form in contemporary English, albeit it has been argued that it is an example of bad writing (Pereltsvaig, 2011). In Russian the construction of this type is a rude stylistic mistake, and so there is no way Nabokov would commit it—in Russian, nor even in English. Same holds true in regard to Brodsky and Aksyonov.

I argue that for these writers the change of language was a politically motivated decision. It entailed a considerable change of identity, self-positionality, and cultural self-transmogrification.

In order to see how Nabokov’s English (not to mention his writing practices*) was influenced by T.S. Eliot, I compare the texts written on the pinnacles of the respective writing mastery of these authors, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and “The Waste Land” on one hand, and “Pale Fire,” on the other. I show that Nabokov creatively expropriates turns of phrases “unlocked” by T.S. Eliot, somewhat contradictorily to Nabokov’s professed dislike of T.S. Eliot.

 

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*Nabokov’s “Pale Fire” and “Eugene Onegin,”** both, as is well-known, have (or partially consist of) the ample body of commentaries, incorporated into the novel and the translation, respectively. Commentary as a cultural form, circulating widely in, probably, the majority of known literatures, has a distinct source of inspiration in Nabokov’s case, namely T.S. Eliot’s multilingual commentaries to “The Waste Land.”

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** I would argue that Nabokov’s “Eugene Onegin” should be seen as a single utterance, to use this term here in Bakhtian sense (1986). Nabokov’s “Eugene Onegin” is only ostensibly a translation of the classical Russian literary masterpiece. It encloses “Eugene Onegin” like professor Shade’s poem is enclosed into the body of “Pale Fire.” The genre of Nabokov’s “Eugene Onegin” is hard to define. It is a linguistic treatise, a literary last will, and, ultimately, what he believed is his most strong claim of immortality apart from “Lolita.”

 

 

Reference

Bakhtin, Mikhail. (1986) “The Problem of Speech Genres.” In Speech Genres and Other Late Essays. Austin: University of Texas Press. 60-102.

Chekhov, Anton. “The Complaints Book” in The Comic Stories, translated by Harvey Pitcher.

Pereltsvaig, Asya. Dangling Participle: Grammatical Error Or Bad Writing Style? 12/11/2011, http://www.languagesoftheworld.info/student-papers/dangling-participle-grammatical-error-or-bad-writing-style.html Retrieved 2/1/2016.

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Speech Genres: Individual vs Social

I think Bakhtin [intentionally, for his own purposes] misreads Saussure when he says: “Therefore, the single utterance, with all its individuality and creativity, can in no way be regarded as a completely free combination of forms of language, as is supposed, for example, by Saussure (and by many other linguists after him), who juxtaposed the utterance (la parole), as a purely individual act, to the system of language as a phenomenon that is purely social and mandatory for the individual.” (Bakhtin, 1986, 81; cursive is author’s).

 

References

Bakhtin, Mikhail. (1986) “The Problem of Speech Genres.” In Speech Genres and Other Late Essays. Austin: University of Texas Press. 60-102.