Academic journal article Style

Bilingual Style in Nabokov's Autobiography

Academic journal article Style

Bilingual Style in Nabokov's Autobiography

Article excerpt

Vladimir Nabokov once remarked that "the best part of a writer's biography is not the record of his adventures but the story of his style" (Strong Opinions 154-55). In Nabokov's own case that story has two versions, Russian and English, and anybody wishing to tell it must therefore be prepared to offer an account of both, describing not only their separate features but, insofar as possible, their underlying relation. Of course, given the variety of Nabokov's bilingual oeuvre -- the numerous works of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, as well as the many translations of himself and others he produced from about 1923 until his death in 1977 -- any investigation of his style will have to deal with linguistic, textual, and aesthetic matters of unusual complexity.(1) A solution, perhaps the only one in a discussion of limited space, is that of summary reduction, here the substitution of a representative cross-lingual text for the oeuvre and then the analysis of a significant component of that text in regard to its different instantiations. The text I have chosen is the autobiographical diptych Speak, Memory/Drugie berega, and the component I shall look at is its acoustic patterning.

The autobiography recommends itself as representative, indeed, as paradigmatic, for several reasons. One is the fact that it is an autobiography, a nonfiction narrative purporting, however intricate the mediation, to be a depiction of the author's own experience and identity. This means that any conclusions about its style will pertain not only to the individuality shaped within the text as aesthetic object but also to the personality located behind it as maker, since the two, object and maker, are in some fundamental way the same. Likewise, the cognitive stance of the narrative, its stated views and opinions, will also be those not merely of a narrator or character but of the author himself, although, to be sure, they will be no less mediated by the imperatives of form than the image of the author is altered by its status as a model or projection.(2) It follows from this that if the analysis of the autobiography's verbal texture is to reflect its generic situation, its continual balancing of the demands of formal integration and referential truth, then that analysis will want to differentiate between those details that serve as rhetorical fulcra, as means of underpinning the organization of the text itself, and those that more directly assist the process of authorial self-expression, that inscribe in the text a characteristic voice that is perceived as responsible for it, even though the distinction between aesthetic calculation and personal revelation, like that between object and maker, may not always be clear-cut in practice.

Another reason for viewing the autobiography as paradigmatic is its compositional history, its cumulative movement back and forth across several linguistic and temporal boundaries in relentless search, so it would seem, of ways to satisfy the competing claims of internal coherence and external veracity. For readers unacquainted with that history, it may be helpful to note that the canonical English edition is actually the culmination of a painstaking thirty-year process of multiple translingual revision. Except for chapter 5 ("Mademoiselle O"(3)), which deals with Nabokov's Swiss governess and the topic of his exposure to French (and which was initially written in French and published in 1936 in the Parisian Journal Mesures and then translated into English and published in 1943 in The Atlantic Monthly), the book's fifteen chapters, or at least what were to become those chapters, were composed in English from 1946 to 1950 and published separately in The New Yorker, Partisan Review, and Harper's Magazine. They were then collected, revised for style and factual accuracy, arranged in order of their biographical chronology, and published in 1951 as Conclusive Evidence, the first redaction of the autobiography proper. …

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