Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Nabokov "In My Youth" or "We So Firmly Believed"

While looking Nabokov's Russian poetry and translations on the web, I came across this lovely blogpost, which is certainly worth sharing. Apart from how delightful Nabokov's voice is, this post is wonderful because it provides us with two versions of Nabokov's translation, the first as a very young man and the second as a more mature artist. 

To My Youth
We used to believe so firmly, you and I, in the unity
of existence; but now I glance back–and it is
astounding–how impersonal in color, how unreal in
pattern you have become, my youth.

When one examines the matter, it is like the haze of
a wave between me and you, between the shallows and the
drowning–or else I see a receding highway, and you
from behind as you pedal right into the sunset on your semi-racer.

You are no more myself, you’re a mere outline, the subject
of any first chapter–but how long we believed
in the oneness of the way from the damp gorge
to the mountain heather.

We So Firmly Believed
We so firmly believed in the linkage of life,
but now I’ve looked back–and it is astonishing
to what a degree you, my youth,
seem in tints not mine, in traits not real.

If one probes it, it’s rather like a wave’s haze
between me and you, between shallow and sinking,
or else I see telegraph poles and you from the back
as right into the sunset you ride your half-racer.

You’ve long ceased to be I. You’re an outline–the hero
of any first chapter; yet how long we believed
that there was no break in the way from the damp dell
to the alpine heath.

The first version is a bit clumsy, but the second is delightful. The refinement in style crystalizes the refinement in thought. Although I myself am in no position to look back upon my youth and meditate upon the caprices of time, I can certainly find Nabokov's words an immense encouragement. As we wrestle the angels of our disappointments, we cannot even imagine returning to a cheerier world, where the sun shines upon the heather. And yet, with this poem, Nabokov reminds the young and the heartbroken that such a place exists and that our current experiences are just the starting points of the path to that place.
A friend and teacher of mine commented that by 'alpine heath,' Nabokov means the Olympian Heights and is thus making a claim not dissimilar from Horace in Ode 1.1. And although Nabokov may be hubristic (and talented) enough to make such a claim, I am inclined to believe that he is speaking more as a human being and less as an artist. Nabokov wrote this poem as an exile from Russia. One can only imagine the immense weight of despair he must have felt at the prospect of a life of exile. And yet, in his exile, perhaps even on account of his exile, Nabokov was able to emerge as one of the most gifted writers of the twentieth century. 
My mother has told me now and again of the distance she feels when reflecting upon her youth. How like another life it is to her. How, when she emerged from the courthouse after her divorce, she could not even imagine the family and love she has now. In this poem, Nabokov is not simply boasting of his artistic and literary achievements, he is commenting upon human nature. As Pascal reiterates again and again in his Pensees, our perspective is so limited; we lack the means of fully understanding anything. Whether or not you find this a convincing point of view, you must certainly find it convincing a propos of our future. How unknowable it is! And yet, how much we long to know it! 

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