What about Nabokov's German?
© by Dieter
30 May 2016
ONCE IN A
WHILE somebody comes along and says it was all a fib: Nabokov's German was
actually much better than he ever admitted. Usually this happens with a
purpose: somebody has found a word, a phrase, a theme in a German book which
reminded him of something in Nabokov, and promptly he suggests that VN's
German was good enough to borrow it from an unacknowledged German source.
I believe it
was Nabokov's first biographer Andrew Field who started the game. He found
that in one of Nabokov's short stories (The Reunion, 1931) he had
passingly mentioned Leonhard Frank's novel Bruder und Schwester
(Brother and Sister, 1929), arguing that because it was about incest it
might somehow have contributed to Ada. To prove that Nabokov surely
had read Frank, Field produced a whole paragraph in The Defense that,
if you didn't look too closely, concurred with a paragraph in Bruder und
Schwester. In Field's mind, Nabokov's claim that his German was poor and
that Frank's novel just was "philistine tripe" was nothing but a subterfuge
to cover up that he had somehow derived Ada from Frank. So the
assertion that Nabokov's German was much better than he admitted always
tended to carry a vague reproach of dishonesty.
Nabokov himself nor his serious biographers and critics ever maintained that
he wouldn't have been able at least to skim Bruder und Schwester in
German—and to dedicate some "quality reading" to it with the help of a
dictionary. In 1929 and 1930, he might even have had a reason to take a look
at Bruder und Schwester. The German version of his King, Queen,
Knave was out in the bookstores and plodded along poorly. One of the
bestsellers of the season was Bruder und Schwester. It
Nabokov wanted to have a look at his more successful competitors. In 1932,
he called another superseller of those years "ghastly stuff": Vicki Baum's
Menschen im Hotel (People at a Hotel). Brian Boyd doesn't think he
read it in German, if at all: "It was adapted for the Broadway stage in
1930, translated into English in 1931 and of course made into a Hollywood
film in 1932; so by the time he implicitly dismissed her in 1932, he had
ample ways to know about her novel other than in German (he may not have
been able to see the play, but he could have seen reviews)." (Boyd, pers.
comm., 2 June 1916.) Anyway, he must have concluded
that he himself would not want to produce anything like Frank's or Baum's
philistine tripe and ghastly stuff. In later years, he closely followed the
Pasternak's Dr. Zhivago competing with his Lolita on the
American bestseller charts.
paragraph in The Defense which to Field seemed to prove that Nabokov
copied it straight out of Brother and Sister actually may serve to
prove that he did not. At one point both authors described the window of a
Berlin stationary shop (Frank even says where, on Friedrichstrasse, a
central Berlin shopping street), noting an advertising manniquin for Mont
Blanc fountain pens, one side of its vest blotted with ink, the other one
miraculously protected by a Mont Blanc pen. In Frank's description, the
figure has two heads and two faces. In Nabokov's, it has but one head with
two faces. Perhaps both authors had noticed the same figure on
Friedrichstrasse but remembered it differently. Or they had seen different
versions of the manniquin in different shops. If I take the historical Mont
Blanc poster (reproduced in my book Nabokov's Berlin) to be a picture
of the figure in question, Nabokov's description was right and Frank's was
simply wrong. But that much is certain: a one-headed figure cannot be
derived from a two-headed one; nor can a two-headed figure be derived from a
one-headed one. Both descriptions must be independent of each other.
with Nabokov and his wife for more than thirty years about my German
renderings of his books. When I visited him in Montreux for two tv
interviews in the 1960s, he out of politeness spoke a few sentences in
German with me. So I probably happen to be one of the last Germans alive who
have heard him speak German. Maybe this gives me a right to attest that his
German was not better than he himself claimed. I never had any reason to
doubt that he spoke the plain truth when he talked about his "childish
all familiar with his biography should know what his German was like. He had
German in Tenishev high school for about two years until the course was
canceled at the beginning of World War I. It will have been sufficient to
learn the basics of German grammar and to aquire an elementary vocabulary.
Also, he might have had to remember by heart some of the same German ballads
German Gymnasium students like me had to remember. From those years
he may have retained a memory of two German poems he cited and quoted
several times: Goethe's marvelous Elf-King and Bürger's much more
questionable Lenore (which
Humbert quotes in Lolita). "Und jetzt hopp-hopp-hopp,
Lenore," says Humbert. Nabokov
told Alfred Appel, Jr. of this source, adding that there "you will also find
the irresistible line:
'Und außen, horch! ging’s trapp, trapp, trapp'" (letter dated 2
In those years
he also avidly consulted German butterfly "atlases" like those by Hofmann,
Lampert and Seitz which he later, when his aversion to everything German
mounted, came to dislike. Consulting an entomological handbook does not
require great linguistic skills. The terminology is standard and small
(wingspan, color, size, range, hatching time), you know what information you
are after and will soon pick it up without even noticing what language it
comes in. His high school German along with a small dictionary should have
been sufficient to browse those butterfly guides and also to re-translate a
few short Heine poems from Schumann's song cycle Dichterliebe for the
countess Panin when the Nabokovs stayed as her guests on the Crimea in 1918.
When he moved
to Berlin in 1922 to live among Germans for 15 years, his German will have
been perfectly up to the needs of everyday life: renting a room and paying
his rent, buying stamps or cigarettes, ordering scrambled eggs and ham,
buying a tram ticket or hiring a cab or getting battered by rough German
soccer players. More he did not need. The Russian émigrés in Berlin
(numbering up to 400,000 between 1922 and 1923) formed a segregated
community, with countless clubs and associations, newspapers and journals,
book stores and theaters, restaurants and cabarets, churches and cemeteries
of their own. As a Russian in Berlin, you only needed a few stock phrases of
German to get along. All your intimately private and intellectual
intercourse could be confined to Russian. Nabokov did not join any German or
German-Russian club or literary society, almost never went to German
language theaters (though somehow he seems to have taken note of the leftist
director Erwin Piscator whose productions were playing just around the
corner, on Nollendorfplatz), did not subscribe to any German newspaper or
literary journal. In the letters to his wife he mentions hundreds of
Russian, French and English friends and contacts but no Germans except for
the officials at all kinds of bothersome offices where he had to apply for
residency permits, passports, visas and a marriage license. He did go to
German cinemas but up to 1930 all films were silent. Most of the people he
tutored in English and French and tennis were Russians.
Knowledge of a
language is a relative skill. If an average interlucutor had heard him
uttering a few standard sentences in German, he might have thought: Well,
that's not bad at all. It wasn't bad for many everyday purposes. But as soon
as he had to leave safe terrain, he was lost. His own linguistic demands
were of the highest kind, and he was perfectly aware that his German could
not in the least cope with his Russian, English and French. So he did not
lie when in some application form he included German as one of the languages
he spoke, nor did he lie when he called his German "childish."
Unintentionally, Nabokov himself provided an impartial view of his fluency
in German. In his letters to his wife, there was no need to be diplomatic
either way. She worked in German offices for many years, and her German was
much better than his. That's why it was she who checked my translations most of the
time, only consulting him occasionally. His letters to her were written in
Russian, the majority between 1923 and 1937, that is at a time when they
were living in Germany and German was spoken all around them. As usual in
all of his prose, a great number of words and phrases from languages other
than Russian are interspersed. There are hundreds of chunks of English and
French, all of them meticulously correct. But there are only eight bits of
German, and six of them are faulty in some way: "Gotter-knows-where",
"Sauer-jurken", "Arme Dichter" (plural, for Spitzweg's well-known painting
The Poor Poet), "kommt in Frage", "Teppich, tepst du" (a poor pun
supposed to mean "I walk on a carpet"), "Finanzamt", "Ich hab gedacht dass
ich bekomme ein Brief von Dir heute", "Geh zu deine Kabine: ich bin müde."
Now these were casual private letters. But in his elaborated works,
proof-read professionally many times, many chunks of German are wrong as
well. Which tells us that in the case of German, Nabokov just did not care.
He started to
care only much later, when his own books were being translated into German.
Early in 1948 he was presented with a German translation of his novel
Bend Sinister which the American
army had commissioned for re-education purposes. He was aghast and said that
this absolutely horrible translation may never, never be published. He even
went so far as to suggest they ask Thomas Mann if he could not recommend an
acceptable translator. He detested Mann but obviously was aware that his
German was okay.
I don't see
that he either glorified or diminished his command of German. He just spoke
the truth when he at length summarized his negative attitude in 1971 for a
German TV interviewer, Kurt Hoffman, who had asked him for an explanation:
"['Mary' and] my next seven novels were written in Berlin and all of them
had, entirely or in part, a Berlin background. This is the German
contribution to the atmosphere and production of all my eight Russian novels
written in Berlin. When I moved there from England in 1921, I had only a
smattering of German picked up in Berlin during an earlier stay in the
winter of 1910 when my brother and I went there with a Russian tutor to have
our teeth fixed by an American dentist. In the course of my Cambridge
University years I kept my Russian alive by reading Russian literature, my
main subject, and by composing an appalling quantity of poems in Russian.
Upon moving to Berlin I was beset by a panicky fear of somehow flawing my
precious layer of Russian by learning to speak German fluently. The task of
linguistic occlusion was made easier by the fact that I lived in a closed
émigré circle of Russian friends and read exclusively Russian newspapers,
magazines, and books. My only forays into the local language were the
civilities exchanged with my successive landlords or landladies and the
routine necessities of shopping: Ich möchte etwas Schinken. I now
regret that I did so poorly; I regret it from a cultural point of view. The
little I ever did in that respect was to translate in my youth some Heine
songs for a Russian contralto—who, incidentally, wanted the musically
significant vowels to coincide in fullness of sound, and therefore I turned
Ich grolle nicht into Net, zloby net, instead of the
unsingable old version Ya ne serzhus'. Later I read Goethe and Kafka
en regard as I also did Homer and Horace. And of course since
my early boyhood I have been tackling a multitude of German butterfly books
with the aid of a dictionary."
of what German literature he actually knew is a difficult one. Over the
years, he certainly read some, in German, French, English or Russian or en
face. He certainly read some Goethe, at least
Faust I, including the ballad
Der König von Thule, partly to
grasp Pushkin's high opinion of him. In 1932, he even translated the
Zueignung into Russian.
But if there was
admiration, it must have waned soon, for in his book on Gogol (1944), he
wrote, "It takes a super-Russian to
admit that there is a dreadful streak of poshlust running through Goethe's
Two years later, in a Wellesley interview dated 1946, he topped that by
saying that Goethe had "fundamental flaws in character, flaws which seem
also to be inherent in the type of German in power now."
That is, he thought he had discovered the Nazi in Goethe.
Several times he dismissively mentioned Rilke, but it is unclear
whether he had read anything by him. His bête noire among contemporary German
authors clearly was Thomas Mann. Many times he mentioned him disparagingly.
In a Wellesley interview he said that Mann, Faulkner and Gide were the
writers he most detested.
But what had he read by him? And in which language? In 1950, he delivered a
short lecture on the Railway Accident,
a mere trifle he studied in an English translation. Otherwise, there are
various mentions of Death in Venice
("asinine", "a supreme example of poshlost"). He seems at least to have been
familiar with the subject of the Magic Mountain, just as one would expect from somebody who spent
delightful summer weeks collecting butterflies in Davos. (The quick and
harsh dismissal of many a contemporary writer became one of his hallmarks.
Personally, I feel much more at ease with these pronouncements when there is
evidence that his dislike was based on familiarity.)
The only German speaking writer whom Nabokov admired unreservedly and whom
he studied closely was Franz Kafka whose
Metamorphosis he selected for one
of his major Cornell Lectures on European Literature in Translation. He was sometimes
reproached for having imitated Kafka's manner in his 1934 novel
Invitation to a Beheading, but he
countered the charge by affirming that he had become acquainted with Kafka's
writings only in 1936, and that he had first read him in French.
Thus while it is evident that he knew some German literature, it
remains open whether he read it in German or in some translation. And as the
careful preparation of his lecture on
The Metamorphosis shows, he needed a thorough en face study with a large
dictionary at hand to feel safe about a German text.
rumour of Nabokov's excellent German persists, and it still serves the same
purpose. In March 2016, nobody less than the noted German writer Daniel
Kehlmann revived it once more, in an interview with Michael
Maar, the originator of the
meant to lend it support by offering new evidence for Nabokov's command of
German. And what singularly stunning evidence it was! "'Some Nabokov
scholars have been quite steadfast in their claim that the great man didn’t
speak German, and if that’s true, he couldn’t have read Lichberg. But you
just need to ask around a bit and you find out that’s not true.' 'Who did
you ask?'", Maar asked his interviewer. "'Gerhard Bronner, a famous Austrian
comedian and nightclub owner who died in 2007, told me how, years ago, the
Austrian writer Friedrich Torberg brought Nabokov and his cousin Nicolai to
Gerhard’s bar in the center of Vienna. Gerhard remembered Vladimir speaking
very decent German, albeit with a heavy accent." It is interesting to hear
that "just asking around a bit" is the way to produce evidence that cancels
all other evidence.
But it is all
flimsy hear-say. Somebody who has been dead for nine years once told
Kehlmann something he had heard from somebody dead for 37 years ... Now it
is true that in 1953 composer Nicolas (!) Nabokov visited Austrian writer
Friedrich Torberg in Vienna. They had
business together. Nicolas Nabokov was Secretary General of the recently
founded Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF) which was secretly funded by the
CIA (a fact Nabokov did not know at that time). In Vienna, Nabokov installed
Torberg as the editor of the CCF's Austrian cultural magazine Forvm.
It is perfectly possible that some of their meetings were held at Bronner's
Marietta-Bar and that Nicolas Nabokov brought somebody along. But this
person certainly was not Nicolas' cousin Vladimir Nabokov who was not in Europe
between 1940 and 1959. Shortly after the Hungarian uprising in 1956, Nicolas
may have been in Vienna again to help establish a group of exiled Hungarian
musicians (the later Philharmonia Hungarica) somewhere in the West. In 1959, he
asked Vladimir by letter if he had an idea for an opera both could cooperate
Nothing came out of this, but the letter makes it clear that they had not
seen each other for years. All this was before Vladimir Nabokov's return to
Europe on November 5, 1959. Vladimir's biographers have no record of any
trip to Vienna at all.
where reporting on a third ghost who had been somebody else. There couldn't
have been a more fitting substantiation of the Lichberg Myth.
Nabokov, Vladimir: Strong Opinions, London: Weidenfeld and
Nicolson, 1973, p. 188-189.
 Iz Gete. Posvashchenie k Faustu, in Paris: Poslednie novosti, no. 4285, 15 Dec 1932, p. 3.
 Nabokov, Vladimir: Nikolai Gogol, New York: New Directions, 1944, p.64.
Boyd, Brian: Vladimir
Nabokov—The American Years, Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1991,
Boyd, op. cit., p. 122.
Kehlmann, Daniel: Ich fühle mich von diesen Leuten betrogen
[Interview with Michael Maar], Berlin: Cicero, no. 3, March
2016, p. 102-105.
Giroud, Vincent: Nicolas Nabokov—A Life in Freedom and Music,
New York: Oxford UP, 2015, pp. 198ff.
Giroud, op. cit., p. 309f.
Giroud, op. cit., p. 313.