Nabokov is a name so revered in literary circles that to write of him, edit an anthology, translate his works or review any of the above, you had better be a relative. Such is the meteoric stature of the “poet-king,” whose given name in Russian means, aptly, “ruler of the world.” Considering that, editor Thomas Karshan is safe from at least one angle. “Selected Poems” contains twenty-eight never-before-seen translations by the late Dmitri Nabokov, the author’s son and closest literary executor, whom the elder hailed a “marvelously congenial” translator in the preface of “Invitation to a Beheading.” Never one to shy from a tussle, Vladimir found “no devil of creative emendation to fight” in his son’s translations. Both held that, in transposing letters, fidelity to the author came first—no matter how twisted the result. Alas, even Dmitri is not immune to misstep. Depending on one’s opinion of 2009’s posthumously published “The Original of Laura,” Dmitri is either a rebel of supreme literary disobedience, a Max Brod of his time, or a flippant ruffian, tainting his father’s legacy with a deeply unfinished and presumptuous swan song—and few things in between. Nevertheless, it is a new collection, one meticulously selected by Karshan and as with all things unseen, it can only be unseen once.
The mistake made by those familiar with Nabokov through his novels is to forget that he was first and foremost a poet. By his way of thinking, poetry was “the mysteries of the irrational, perceived through rational words.” Karshan stresses this in his preface, allowing it to inform his selections. It would be impossible to separate the writer’s prosody from his prose, but the former deserves a plinth of its own, given its own air to breathe. This release marks the first Nabokov poetry collection in nearly thirty years and if someone was going to do it, Karshan stakes the claim well.
Nabokov was mentored by a Symbolist and in his twenties, his effusive poetic prime, aligned himself with the camp of free-verse rejection. His is the school of Gumilev, Bunin, Khodasevich before him and Pushkin before them. His stanzas employ a traditional abab pattern, often in iambic pattern. Many of the poems in the collection commemorate his heroes, “Shakespeare,” “Tolstoy,” even a reverent apology to Pushkin, “On Translating Eugene Onegin.” Nabokov is a deft stylist, one who saw words of all languages, not by their connotations but by the shapes of their characters—once positing that the Russian and Greek alphabets were modeled on their native landscapes.
Thanks to Dmitri’s translations, we now have record of Vladimir’s earliest poem, “Music,” written at Vyra, his family’s country estate when he was fifteen years old, chronicling a fountain at midnight, “Its wondrous, its silvery voice / plashes, and quivers, convoking.” There is the “University Poem,” a novella in verse on the poet’s years in Cambridge, battling a language barrier, dallying in an affair and reminiscing over exile. There are of course butterflies, motels and even a refrigerator. But what’s most striking about his poetry is its stark simplicity. Nabokov, formal as he may have been, strove for an ardent access, working for the all-coveted tingling sensation in the spine.
There are some omissions and Karshan owns up to them. For one, none of Nabokov’s chess problems (from 1969’s “Poems and Problems”) are included. There are also no poems or excerpts from the poets of his novels—John Shade in “Pale Fire,” Fyodor in “The Gift,” Pnin, or Humbert Humbert in “Lolita.” This was an appropriate choice, if not for the autonomy of the poems themselves, then because in their omission one can perceive whispers of Shade in the ivy-strewn “Exile,” see the fledgling Berlin poet fixated with his childhood in “The Muse,” and in “Lilith,” the seeds of pedophilic obsession, more than twenty years before “Lolita” (though Nabokov denies a parallel: “Intelligent readers will abstain from examining this impersonal fantasy for any links in my later fiction”). The struggle of Fyodor in “The Gift” is the author’s selfsame—a poet who morphs into a novelist. “Whatever their merits, these poems are all meant to characterize their fictional authors,” Karshan says. Poems of his selection are laid out chronologically. If Nabokov lied originally in “Poems and Problems,” Karshan won’t dispel the myth, realizing, even in his tinkering, that it’s best not to touch. “It was felt inappropriate to rearrange a volume Nabokov had personally overseen.” Still, starry-eyed reverence.
“Selected” is a harsh word, proscribing a huge body of work into a rigid, albeit choice, palisade. It doesn’t allude to the prospect that Karshan’s release may just be the definitive collection of Nabokov’s poetry in print. (Taylor Cowan)
By Vladimir Nabokov, with an introduction by Thomas Karshan
Knopf, 240 pages, $30