Poetry, Exile, and Prophetic Mystification in "Vasiliy Shishkov" (1939)
by Maxim D. Shrayer
page two of nine

The next layer of information concerns Nabokov's place in the Russian émigré literary context of the 1930s. Such an inquiry is necessary to decode the reasons for his decision to mystify critics by adopting a pen-name, "Vasiliy Shishkov," and subsequently to demystify his pen-name through the eponymous short story. By the mid-1930s Nabokov had become the leading émigré prose writer of the younger generation.7 Between 1930 and 1939 six of Nabokov's novels were serialized in Contemporary Annals, the leading émigré review and one of the best ever in Russian cultural history. From 1921 to 1939 his short stories appeared regularly in eight major émigré newspapers and magazines. In the 1930s, due to the decline in Berlin's Russian emigration and also because he was planning to move to Paris, Nabokov began to print his short stories exclusively in Paris, chiefly in the leading newspaper, Poslednie novosti (Latest News), but also in Contemporary Annals and the short-lived albeit excellent Russkie zapiski (Russian Annals). By the mid-1930s only a handful of enemies would dare deny Nabokov his peerless position in Russian prose. His poetry, published almost weekly in The Rudder in Berlin in the 1920s then occasionally in Parisian periodicals in the early 1930s, was never hailed in the same way as his prose fiction.8 In most cases, with the exception of the personally hostile Georgii Adamovich/Georgii Ivanov and Zinaida Gippius/Dmitrii Merezhkovskii circles, the reasons for the lukewarm reception of Nabokov's poetry had to do with its actual quality. Rhythmically old-fashioned, stylistically conservative, and at times marred by formal incongruities, his Russian verse could never claim praise equal to that granted his prose. Nor could it compete with the poetry of the leading émigré poets of the older generations, such as Georgii Adamovich, Ivan Bunin, Zinaida Gippius, Georgii Ivanov, Viacheslav Ivanov, Vladislav Khodasevich, and Marina Tsvetaeva. As for the best Russian émigré poets of the younger generation, Nabokov may arguably be placed in the same category with Igor' Chinnov, Vladimir Korvin-Piotrovskii, Antonin Ladinskii, Irina Odoevtseva, Boris Poplavskii, and Anna Prismanova. (I say this less for the sake of classification and more to signal that the entire "Vasiliy Shishkov" controversy was not simply a vengeful act of desperation on the part of the ostracized Nabokov, but more importantly a matter of healthy poetic competition in which he was hoping to prove his poetic merits even to those who would deny them a priori. The three poems that I identify below as "the Vasiliy Shishkov cycle"--produced in conjunction with the eponymous 1939 short story--may well be among Nabokov's very best.)

The younger generation of émigré poets also included a number of lesser lights like Dovid Knut, Iurii Mandel'shtam, Anatolii Shteiger, Vladimir Smolenskii, Ekaterina Tauber, and Iurii Terapiano. Several of the younger poets belonged to the so-called Parisian Note school of Russian poetry (Parizhskaia nota) with Georgii Adamovich as their aesthetic leader and mentor.9 The followers of Adamovich tended to be negatively disposed towards Nabokov throughout the 1930s and even as late as the 1950s-1970s, when Adamovich himself had tried to make amends with Nabokov.10 The opinions of the Parisian Russian poets as regards Nabokov were also shaped by one of Adamovich's closest literary associates of the time, Georgii Ivanov, and by the Gippius/Merezhkovskii enclave.11 The enmity on the part of Georgii Ivanov is usually explained on purely personal grounds: in 1929 Nabokov published a very negative review of the novel Izol'da (1929) by Ivanov's wife, Irina Odoevtseva.12 In response, Ivanov rejected Nabokov's poetry outright in one short sentence which oozes hostility: "Stikhi prosto poshly" (The verses are simply vulgar--what could have been worse to Nabokov than an accusation of poshlost'/poshlust?).13 This must have angered Nabokov so much that he subsequently refused to give Ivanov any credit whatsoever, even for his outstanding short novel, Raspad atoma (Splitting of the Atom, 1938), which he dismissed as "poshlen'kii, sentimental'nyi, zhemannyi" (tacky, sentimental, affected).14 In the preface to Poems and Problems, he spoke of the "dreary drone of the anemic 'Paris school'" (PP 14).

Whether it was for personal reasons or reasons of professional loyalty, it is still difficult to explain why such a fine critic as Adamovich, both passionate and rational about poetry, was ill-disposed to Nabokov's verse while he favored some of the lesser poets. Throughout the 1930s Adamovich's responses to Nabokov's fiction were overall becoming more and more enthusiastic although still filled with sour-grape reservations. In 1934 he published a long essay on Nabokov. While claiming to be the first overview of Nabokov's writings (which it was not), the essay said remarkably little about his verse: "...v stikhakh ... on rassudochno-trezv i bezmuzykalen" (...in verses he is cerebral and devoid of music).15 Adamovich is off-target in this short verdict. Nabokov's poetry is much less "cerebral" than his prose. As to the musicality, his poems suffer from an excess of musicality and sonority, from a narcissistic exploitation of the melodiousness of Russian classical prosody. What I think disturbed Adamovich in most of Nabokov's verse was its failure, despite a seeming sincerity and openness, to communicate with the reader, to speak to his reader as a friend, an interlocutor, a confidant.16 Additionally, Adamovich must have found irksome a certain overcrowding of phenomenal details in Nabokov's poems. Adamovich preached to his disciples, the poets of the Parisian Note, to speak of specific direct feelings and immediate reflections with little reference to the phenomenal world.17

All in all, with the exception of Godunov-Cherdyntsev's verse in The Gift, Nabokov seemed to have published no poetry under his name from 1936 until his departure for the United States in 1940. However, he continued to seek recognition for his poetry. Nabokov certainly had axes to grind with Adamovich as the leading tutor of the younger émigré writers, with G. Ivanov as his single most vicious critic, and with Gippius and Merezhkovskii who had been skeptical of his talent from its earliest manifestations. "Vasiliy Shishkov" was not Nabokov's first attempt to settle matters with his literary enemies. The blow would have been successful had the 1931 story "Lips to Lips" indeed been printed by The Latest News as the newspaper originally intended.18 A second coup de plume would have been more triumphant had the poem "Iz Cambrudovoi poèmy 'Nochnoe puteshestvie'" (From Calmbrood's long poem 'Night Journey,' 1931) been published in Paris instead of Berlin's The Rudder.19 (The Rudder ceased publication several months later; by the early 1930s, the days of Russian émigré literature were numbered in Berlin, and Paris became the major literary center of the Russian emigration). Camouflaged as an installment in Nabokov's translation from an invented English poet Vivian Calmbrood (actually Nabokov's anagram), the excerpt abounded with references to the literary climate of the émigré Paris, especially the polemic between Adamovich and Khodasevich.20 Nabokov's pastiche was directed against a critic disguised as the bearer of "adamova golova" (adamic head), a double pun on Adamovich, whose prerevolutionary verse was associated with the Acmeist search for the transparent Adamic language.21 The next brilliant, if covert blow, was dealt Nabokov's literary foes in The Gift, where the Adamovich-"adamic head" association probably gave rise to the name Christopher Mortus.22 In the novel, Mortus is a pen name of an influential émigré critic, whose satirized image is informed by both Adamovich and Gippius. Following The Gift, another opportunity for Nabokov to wage an elegant attack against his opponents did not present itself until the eve of World War II.

[ page one | page two | page three ]
[ page four | page five | page six ]
[ page seven | page eight | page nine ]


7. For details of his critical reception, see Chapter 4 of the book from which this essay is excerpted, The World of Nabokov's Stories (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1999).

8. From 1931 to 1934 at least seven poems by Nabokov were featured in Parisian Russian periodicals, two in Sovremennye zapiski (September 1931) and five in Poslednie novosti (July 31, 1932; September 8, 1932; January 29, 1933; May 3, 1934; June 28, 1934). Between 1934 and 1939 not a single poem by Nabokov seems to have appeared in Paris, while only one was published elsewhere, in no. 8 (1935) of the Estonian-based magazine Nov' (Virgin Soil). Boyd (RY, 509) has speculated that Nabokov ceased publishing his poetry because he was being denied his due by the Parisian critics of the Adamovich circle. However, Nabokov's known poetic output of the 1930s is quite small compared to the hundreds composed in the 1920s: only about a dozen original poems plus those incorporated into The Gift. Most likely, the decline of his poetic output in the 1930s signals an internal dissatisfaction with his own poetic achievement. For Nabokov's own remarks on the distribution of his poetic output, see PP, 13-15; also see Véra Nabokova's introduction in the 1979 Stikhi.

9. See Nabokov's somewhat eccentric and elusive comments on the aesthetics of the Parisian Note in SM, 284-285; an earlier version of the chapter of Nabokov's autobiography where he mentions Adamovich and Merezhkovskii by name was published as "Exile" in The Russian Review in 1951. The earlier passage is also found in CE, 212-3.

10. In Odinochestvo i svoboda (New York: Izdatel'stvo imeni Chekhova, 1955), 222-228, Georgii Adamovich devoted a large and insightful section to Nabokov's poetry. Several other memoirs by the Parisian Russian littérateurs carried hostility to Nabokov into the 1970s; see, for instance, Iurii Terapiano, Literaturnaia zhizn' russkogo Parizha za polveka (Paris/New York: Albatros-C.A.S.E/Third Wave Publishing, 1986), 92, and passim; Aleksandr Bakhrakh, Po pamiati, po zapisiam (Paris: La presse libre, 1980), 99-104, and passim; V. S. Ianovskii, Polia eliseiskie (New York: Serebrianyi vek, 1983) 20, 128, 247-8, 257. Many Parisian poets did have reasons to be irritated by Nabokov's consistent épatage of their poetry; a typical example may be found in Nabokov's very favorable review (and exceptional for that matter) of Antonin Ladinskii's poetry collection, Chernoe i goluboe (Black and Blue); in the review, in passing, Nabokov manages to "kill" Terapiano, Otsup, Iu. Mandel'shtam, Adamovich, and even Poplavskii with a few caustic remarks; see Kniga, 389.

11. G. Ivanov and Adamovich clashed after World War II, which is evident from Ivanov's very interesting and controversial article "Konets Adamovicha" (The End of Adamovich), Vozrozhdenie 11 (September-October 1959): 179-186.

12. See Nabokov, "Irina Odoevsteva. 'Izol'da,'" rev. of Izol'da, by Irina Odoevtseva, Rul' 2715 (October 30, 1929): 5.

13. Georgii Ivanov, rev. of Mashen'ka: Korol', dama, valet..., Chisla 1 (1930): 235.

14. "To Zinaida Shakhovskaia," n.d. (stamped April 1939), letter in ZSh LC.

15. Adamovich, "Sirin," 3. Two overviews of Nabokov's writings, both published in 1930, preceded the article by Adamovich. See Gleb Struve, "Tvorchestvo Sirina," Rossiia i slavianstvo 77 (May 17, 1930): 3; and Nikolai Andreev, "Sirin," Nov' (October 1930): 3.

16. The longest statement on Nabokov's poetry by Adamovich appeared in Odinochestvo i svoboda, 222-228.

17. Igor' Chinnov, personal interview. 15 March 1994. Daytona Beach, Florida.

18. See Sergey Davydov's analysis of the "Lips to Lips" controversy in Chapter 1 of his Teksty Matreski Vladimira Nabokova (Munich: Otto Sagner, 1982); see also Boyd, RY, 373-74.

19. Nabokov, "Iz Kalmbrudovoi poèmy 'Nochnoe puteshestvie'," Rul' 3223 (July 5, 1931): 2. See also Stikhi, 238-242.

20. On the Adamovich-Khodasevich polemic, see Roger Hagglund, "The Russian Emigré Debate if 1928 on Criticism," Slavic Review 32:3 (Sjeptember 1973): 515-526, and "The Adamovic-Xodasevic Polemics," The Slavic and East European Journal 20:3 (1976): 239-252.

21. On Nabokov and Adamovich and some origins of "adamic head," see Field, VN: The Life and Art of Vladimir Nabokov (New York: Crown Publishers, 1986), 132-135; Boyd, RY, 370-371, 569, fn. 22. Nabokov's pastiche was reprinted in the 1979 posthumous edition of his verse; see Nabokov, Stikhi, 238-242.

22. See John Malmstad, [Dzhon Malmsted], "Iz perepiski V. F. Khodasevicha (1925-1938)," Minuvshee 3 (1987): 286; see also Aleksandr Dolinin, "Dve zametki o romane 'Dar,'" Zvezda 11 (1996): 173-176; 179-180.

[ page one | page two | page three ]
[ page four | page five | page six ]
[ page seven | page eight | page nine ]

Zembla depends on frames for navigation. If you have been referred to this page without the surrounding frame, click here.