"Speak, Nabokov," Michael Maar
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Just started Maar's new book on Nabokov's life. He settles a lot of questions: yes, Nabokov knew German very well,yes, he new Thomas Mann's work very well, he knew of H C Andersen's sublimation in the little mermaid...Nabokov left a message in a bottle for the future to read, and Maar read it...I miss all the vague associations now that so much is clear...
Michael Maar, author of Solus Rex, isn't a disinterested commentator regarding Nabokov's knowledge of German. He promoted the (now much weakened) idea of Nabokov's use of an obscure German text as inspiration for Lolita. Thus, Nabokov reading German is absolutely essential in upholding his claim.
His years in Berlin were spent amidst a huge colony of Russian exiles where mastery of German was not necessary to survive (just like within the large Turkish community today in Berlin; for Nabokov's Berlin years see Dieter E. Zimmer's Nabokovs Berlin, in German).
Nabokov probably was able to read some German and speak it sufficiently to provide feedback to his students as a tennis instructor. This only requires a limited vocabulary as the countless Eastern European Cold War refugee sport instructors in the West show. The Italian football coach Giovanni Trapattoni's famous admonition in German "Flasche fertig" (bottle empty) was perfectly clear in meaning. Putin's German for comparison, is stilted and he doesn't feel at ease speaking it. His pronunciation is good though, albeit in a rather feminine register.
German is a difficult language to master. The choice of the correct genus and verb forms as well as position make it tricky even for Swiss German speakers like me. One can sense Nabokov's reluctance to speak in less than perfect sentences in Pnin. As he was a stickler for finding "le mot juste" (the perfect expression), the pitfalls sent him into a Wittgensteinian silence.
An indicator of his aversion to German is the choice of his last domicile: He chose French not German speaking Switzerland (Lucerne or Zurich would have also offered a lake panorama of the Alps as did his Montreux). Humbert Humbert is a French speaking Swiss too.
Thanks! This is very helpful! I'll read Zimmer's "Nabokovs Berlin" next. ( I did learn to read German...) - Elena
"Nabokovs Berlin" is unfortunately only a small coffee table book - not much of his stay there and the environment he lived in survived the turbulences Berlin experienced. You can read the gist of Nabokov's Berlin in English on Dieter E. Zimmer's great (if antiquated) website.
Don't miss his sleuthing and travel photos following Lolita across the USA.
More fun, THANKS!!! I'm so glad that LibraryThing has this group , I'm getting lots of good leads. I'm also reading the new "Selected Poems," but the problem is the Russian original is not supplied only Dimitri's translations....also Karshan's intro is stupendously uninspired...how can you write about Nabokov and be boring, takes some effort I would think...
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