The Curious Case of Professor Barabtarlo

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Michael Idov is a contributing editor at New York Magazine and the author of the novel Ground Up. In his previous posts, Michael wrote about the reception of his work in Russia and the challenge of self-translation. He has been blogging all week for MyJewishLearning and the Jewish Book Council.

michael idovThe plan was for me to write this post about The Original of Laura, Nabokov’s unfinished final work -– on the logic that, as a first-time self-translator from English to Russian, I might have something original to say about it. I don’t. Is it a great novel? No, because it’s not a novel at all. It’s a great diary of writing one. Should it have come out? Sure. It should have been published decades ago, quietly, tucked into the fans-only section of the novelist’s bibliography well behind the letters to Edmund Wilson and somewhere next to the handwritten recipe for “Eggs a la Nabocoque†(“Boil water in a saucepan… Consult your wristwatchâ€). As things stand now, we’ve slathered an adolescent dream of secret treasure – Swiss vault! Tormented son! The big reveal! – all over a text that cried out for dignified academic obscurity. We’ve taken a Nabokov manuscript and written a Dan Brown manuscript about it.

original of lauraBut I’ve long noticed that everything having to do with Nabokov has a tendency to turn uniquely Nabokovian. Real life begins to teem with temporal pretzels, unreliable narrators and phantom doppelgangers. And so the twisty story ofLaura continues in the most amazing case of its Russian translator, Gennady Barabtarlo.

Professor Barabtarlo teaches Russian Lit at the University of Missouri. He only dabbles in professional translation, and when he does, he translates almost exclusively Nabokov. His superb version of Pnin is, without a doubt, the most splendid act of Nabokov repatriation to date. (Western readers don’t give it too much thought, but the main irony of late-career Nabokov is that he is virtually untranslatable into his native tongue; there still isn’t a half-decent Russian Ada). So it was no surprise when Barabtarlo was hand-picked by Dmitry to translate Laura, whose first Russian chapter appeared in Snob magazine in November. This is when Gennady Barabtarlo began to exhibit signs of… well… I don’t even know how to say it without sounding ridiculous. In short, he began turning into Vladimir Nabokov.

Posted on December 18, 2009

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